Saturday, October 19, 2013

Show Card Writers

Missing Occupations
Technology has a way of making once-important occupations fade away. Buggy-whip maker and paste-up artist come to mind. Here's a glimpse of a remarkable lost occupation: movie theater sign artist.

These pages come from a trade-published book for showcard writers, Martin's Complete Ideas, by a display-sign artist named H. C. Martin. It's a fascinating collection of practical advice and sample sign layouts which Martin urged card writers to add to their morgues for inspiration. Martin had apparently written a successful how-to book called 1000 Practical Layouts. He followed it up periodically by releasing these "Ideas" books, of which mine is the fourth volume. There's no copyright, but internal evidence suggests it came out around 1936-1937. The publisher was Dick Blick, Inc.--yes, the big art supply retailer, which back then was a specialty supply house for sign artists.

Along with two pages of superb lobby cards by Arthur DuVall and Herb Simpson (of Evanston, Illinois), Martin describes in detail the sort of work theatrical sign men were expected to handle. It's a huge list, running from coming-attraction banners and marquee signs to silk-screened cards for trolley cars and "you scratch my back" signs for local merchants to tie their products in with the movie.

Having seen so many printed posters and lobby cards for films of the period, I found myself wondering if the do-it-all sign artist Martin describes was dying out by the time his book saw print. Nevertheless, the latest movie on DuVall's cards came out in 1935. Martin's audience was assumed to be card writers in small- and medium-sized markets; perhaps the practice lingered on in the hinterlands. Note that the artist is also expected to make signs introducing vaudeville acts if the theater is "a combined house."

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Gene Colan in Two Fisted Tales

Unseen Gene

I've looked around but no one seems to have mentioned this interesting anomaly from EC's Two Fisted Tales #39, dated October 1954. This was the fourth issue of "The New" TFT, edited by John Severin and written by his friend Colin Dawkins.

Severin drew a couple of early issues all by himself, though he soon took on other artists to spread the work load. Issue #39 was one of the all-Severin issues...or at least, Severin signed all the stories. But check out this Cold War wish-fulfillment story, "The Secret"--signed by Severin, but clearly pencilled by Gene Colan!

Colan had drawn a couple of war stories for Harvey Kurtzman, and I recall reading somewhere that Kurtzman didn't particularly like them. We can see from this story that Colan already had his drawing down solid. I think it took him a few more years to work out his inking style. Though Severin laid his personal style on heavily, he kept much of Colan's spirit.

For the evidence-hungry: Look at the character design of "Nick" and his posing and expressions on page 1. Panels 4 and 6 of page 2 are pure Colan, as is the group on page 3 panel 4. The real clincher is panel 4 of page 4. Colan is noted for re-using photo reference, and a decade and a half later he used this shot several times in comics like Iron Man. And on page 6, Genial Gene shines through again in the shots of Nick in panels 3, 4, and 7.

I wonder how this team-up came to be.

(I apologize sincerely for the messy edges. I scanned these from Russ Cochran's hardbound collection, and this is the best I could get without breaking the binding.)

Monday, September 16, 2013

Comic Media Romances

Repulsive Romance
I've been on a romance comic spree, prowling those wonderful archive sites, Digital Comics Museum and Comic Book Plus, for pre-Code heart throbs. Most 50s romance comics were pretty dreary, enlivened occasionally by a nice art job (Matt Baker hit his stride here). But I certainly found a couple of surprises.

Simon and Kirby are credited with creating the romance comic, inspired by the "confession" magazines which had been around since the twenties. I've no expertise in confession mags, but I've seen enough of them to know that they lured their audience with promises of **SEX**, which the stories delivered in roundabout ways constrained by anti-smut laws. The S and K romance stories weren't that bad. They tended to be more complex and character-driven than later more formulaic tales. Though melodramatic, they were seldom lurid. It was left to copy-cat publishers to go for the gonads with covers promising sex-charged stories. Saint John was great at this; Matt Baker's beautiful covers overflowed with suggestions of cheap pickups, premarital sex, and wild, wild women.

With a few notable exceptions the stories inside seldom delivered the goods. St. John almost always cheated its way out of provocative situations. The girl tells her boyfriend the guy living in her apartment is a jobless acquaintance crashing on the couch--and he really is a jobless acquaintance crashing on her couch (though he turns out to be a worthless freeloader). Recently I ran across a comic that broke the rules. Comic Media's Dear Lonely Hearts offered relatively tame covers, but the stories inside were something else again.

Comic Media was a small publisher remembered today for particularly grisly horror stories and for Pete Morisi's Johnny Dynamite. In the early 1950s they published in a variety of genres, including romance. Comic Media's 1951 title, Dear Lonely Heart (singular) lasted 8 issues and was standard fare. Dear Lonely Hearts (plural) appeared in 1953 and also ran 8 issues. But it was an altogether different kettle of fish. In the four issues currently available you'll find a few "typical" romance stories. The rest combine those staples of 1950s culture, sex and violence against women, to deliver some downright repellent "romances." These stories, narrated by a photostat of the head of a woman whose eyes don't line up, purport to represent a marriage counsellor's typical cases.

Take for example issue 6.

"Pin-Up Girl": Terry is trying to break into modelling, though her fiance doesn't like "everybody staring at you in that bikini thing." She receives a message from the head of a big agency asking to meet at her apartment to discuss business. The agent is rude and aggressive. He insists she change into a bathing suit he's  brought along. Then he asks for more.

When he doesn't get it the agent goes ballistic. It looks like attempted rape. Actually it's attempted murder. As the agent strangles Terry he fantasizes about launching his own career as a serial killer.

Luckily Terry's suspicious fiance shows up with the cops and the real head of the modelling agency. The would-be lady killer was a loony office boy. As the cops drag the fake agent away the real one offers Terry a shot at her modelling career. I don't know if right after the girl was nearly murdered is the best time to talk business, but anyway...strangely for a romance comic, the agent suggests to her fiance that Terry could have both her career and her marriage. This doesn't prevent husband-to-be from rolling out the me-Tarzan line in the final panel.

In "Nightmare Lover": Vicki and Bob are engaged but Bob is getting over a long illness.He's sent to live alone in a remote cabin while he recuperates. (This sounds to me like odd medical practice, but what the heck, this isn't a doctor comic.) Bob writes her every day. Finally Vicki receives a letter asking her to come meet him. Overjoyed, she goes to the cabin. But something's wrong. Bob doesn't give off the old vibe. What's more, he's horny and wants it now. When he insists a bit too hard Vicki figures it out.

That's right: another sex-mad murderer! He's really Dexter Denning, "the finest though unrecognized actor in the world," and he's chucked the real Bob over a cliff. Unlike the fake agent, Denning wants his sex before he gets on with the murdering.

Luckily for Vicki, Bob is alive. He only fell "part way down" the cliff. Vicki's struggling gives Bob time to climb back up and foil Denning's plans. Denning grabs an axe, intending to kill Bob for real. Just then the cops burst in. Denning makes a wild throw with the axe and an odd thing happens:

Gotta watch out for those sharp-bladed rubber axes. The cops haul Denning back to the asylum from which he escaped (beats going to the morgue), remarking that "He ain't a fit sight for a young lady." I guess older ladies are more accustomed to killers with cloven heads. Bob and Vicki end up in a grateful clinch.

Another story in the same vein is "Tea With Terror" from issue 5. Terry (is this the future model from #6?)  takes in a handsome homeless guy and falls for him. Unfortunately he turns out to be a serial rapist/murderer whom the police have been chasing. Luckily the kind cop who took a fancy to her enters just as the killer is about to add Terry to his list.

That issue also offered "Mountain Love," in which a stylish young woman moves to the country to teach school. Her manner of dress scandalizes the gossips and arouses her rural beau. A local Good Guy doctor saves her honor by besting the boyfriend in a fistfight.

By the seventh issue the raping and murdering had waned and the stories were tamer. There were still a few notable oddities, as we'll see in the next post. To close the present tour I offer a condensation of the single weirdest romance story I've ever read: "Price of Passion" from Dear Lonely Hearts #2.

Orphaned at 14, Tess lived on the streets and ended up in the Home for Wayward Girls. She's released into the custody of a rural family consisting of Ma and her two grown sons. Ma, an abusive slave driver, wastes no time in telling Tess where she stands.

Son Luke is a Good Guy who falls in love with Tess. His brother Cole is a glowering brute who's always eyeing the girl from afar. Though she doesn't particularly love Luke, Tess marries him. He promises to raise the town's opinion of her. This makes Cole even more sullen and he stalks Tess constantly. One day in the barn Cole forces himself on her--and Tess loves it.

Only the fact they're both fully dressed suggests they didn't Do It in the hay, but it doesn't matter to Luke, who discovers them and flies into a rage. Whereupon...

Now dig this ending and tell me this isn't one weird romance.

To be honest, to me these things are like a train wreck. The stories are repugnant yet they fascinate me. Who was their intended audience? Can you really see lovesick girls reading this stuff? Did the editor imagine these stories taught some bizarre "moral" message? I realize the cliche of the hero saving the maiden from "the fate worse than death" has been around for ages, but in a romance comic? Strange are the ways of cheap literature.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Alan Mistero in "Tragic Mistake!"

Alan Mistero in Action!
In my last post I introduced you to Alan Mistero, bare-chested hero of a mid-1960s Italian comic series. Today you'll experience first-hand one of Alan's adventures. [Applause]

What we have here is Alan Mistero #5, dated 21 March 1965. The episode is entitled "Tragico Equivoco," that is, "Tragic Mistake." I really don't think it merits full-length reproduction, so I'll just hit the high points.

[Digression: This story's title brings up the side issue of the difference between American and Italian approaches to naming stories. In America we favored melodramatic titles like "Hanging Day for Meatball!" or "Meatball Must Die!" Italian comics preferred titles that were prosaic to say the least. The issue following "Tragic Mistake" is titled "Trap in the Mine." Now where were we?]

The story opens with Meatball, Alan's Comical Fat Guy sidekick, drunk as a skunk. Taunted by a townie, Meatball proves he can too handle his liquor by walking along the top of a wall. While he's up there he hears a disturbance.

In the Wild West you have to be pretty damn drunk not to know what masked riders firing guns means. But that's Meatball for you. He loses his balance, falls onto one of the riders, is kicked off, and lands in the street. For no discernible reason (other than to advance the story) Meatball wishes for a hundred dollars. He gets his wish, because the bandits have dropped some of their swag. That's how Meatball's troubles begin.

Those New Yorkers who form anti-Spiderman mobs in response to JJJ's editorials are models of wisdom and restraint compared to the citizens of Wilcoxtown. The townspeople all seem to know Meatball. They seem aware of his connection to heroic Alan Mistero. Yet when they find him crawling around picking up banknotes they promptly conclude this horseless, maskless, drunk buffoon is the guy who just robbed the bank and murdered a teller. Soon they're escorting Meatball to the Hanging Tree.

Fortunately Alan's other sidekick, the Comical Foreign Intellectual known as the Count, has witnessed all this. He rushes to Alan Mistero's forest hideaway. There we get our first look at the hero and his Mohawk chorus.

Alan arrives in town just in time to stop the lynching. The Count delivers a brief lecture.

One of the mob threatens Alan but our hero calls his bluff. It's not smart to challenge Alan Mistero.

The crowd disperses after the sheriff promises a speedy trial. Meatball thanks Alan profusely for his deliverance. This prompts the Count, who has a talent for saying weird things, to rhapsodize thusly:

Alan is confident Meatball will be found innocent, but fate throws him a curve ball.

The Count offers himself as attorney for the defense, citing his oratory which is "more eloquent than Cicero's." But it looks like there won't be much oratory in Judge Fox's courtroom.

The judge is less interested interested in oratory than in visiting the saloon.

Alan advises the Count that Meatball needs more than a strong defense.

Alan slips away as the Count begins a long harangue. Finally the judge's craving gets the best of him.

When Judge Fox returns he drops a bombshell on the court.

The grumbling townspeople clear the courtroom. Judge Fox unexpectedly asks to speak to the Count in his chambers. There the astonished Count describes exactly what we see in the panel, just in case we're too dense (or too drunk) to understand it by ourselves.

"Tonerre!" the Count gushes, "Your ability to transform yourself never ceases to amaze me!" Alan instructs the Count to keep the judge on ice while he himself goes in search of the real bank robbers. The count fulfills his mandate with gusto.

In the next town Alan stops by the saloon for a belt. He learns that a local guy is whooping it up in every saloon in town, paying with hundred dollar bills. The man claims his money came from an inheritance. Alan confronts the carouser, an unshaven mugg named Harris (probably one of those distant ancestors my mother refused to discuss).

Harris is a strict believer in payment for services rendered.

His pals accept the social contract.

The fight which ensues is too painfully one-sided to reproduce. Let this suffice:

Profiting by the mayhem, Harris grabs his gun and flees through a window. Alan follows him, making a solemn vow.

The battered paisanos suddenly see the error of their ways.

Meanwhile Alan has a running gun battle with Harris. As often happens on the last page of serialized stories, misfortune strikes our hero.

The grinning miscreant gets the last word and it's--continued next week!

As I was reading Alan Mistero I started to think, rather self-righteously, how backward the strip was compared to American comics of the period. Then I remembered that in 1965 we had lots of similar fare. Mort Weisinger's comics surpassed even Alan Mistero's in strange ideas, ridiculous denouments, and huge leaps of faith. But stylistically speaking Alan's true American cousins were Richard Hughes' ACG comics. Their low-key, off-beat yarns were reminiscent of Alan's not-quite-serious approach to stories. And EsseGesse's cartoony art style had much in common with Pete Costanza's and Ogden Whitney's work at ACG.

Wikipedia says that Alan Mistero was originally published by EsseGesse themselves. It didn't sell well and the trio turned it over to another publisher, who didn't have much better luck. Perhaps, like the ACG comics, comics like Alan Mistero were a getting bit old-fashioned. The truth will always be a Mistero. Tonerre!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Guilty Pleasures: Alan Mistero

He's StilI a Mistero to Me
I  don't know what attracts me to clunky Golden and Silver Age Italian comics. Maybe it's their novelty. Maybe it's the glimpses I get into another culture. Probably it's because I have no taste. Understand, there were great Italian comics during this period. But if I were writing about them I wouldn't be calling them "guilty pleasures," would I? From time to time I run across a series that is so completely loopy I can't resist it. This time it's Alan Mistero.

I recently acquired several copies of this mid-1960s western adventure. It was a weekly about the size of an American comic. Each issue ran 20 pages including the covers, which were printed on the same mediocre stock as the interior pages. A cover banner boasted the book was "in color," but initially only the cover and eight inside pages were in color. The rest  were in black and white. Later the cover alone was in full color; the 16 interior pages were black-plus-red. The banner still said "in color" though.

The stories were written and drawn by "EsseGesse," which was the pseudonym for a three-man studio. Dario Guzzon, Pietro Sartoris and Giovanni Sinchetto were important figures in postwar Italian comics. Beginning in 1951 they produced a ton of popular work which was solidly mainstream in both style and content. Historians recognize EsseGesse's contributions to comics history, but no one has ever praised their intellectual depth. 

Alan Mistero is set in that generic Wild West which was home to so many Italian heroes. The title character is a brawny redhead who wears the classic cowboy boots, pants, and hat; but he doesn't wear a shirt. Instead he wears an open fringed vest. Alan wasn't the only Italian western hero to dress this way. Bonelli had a long-running frontiersman with the euphonious name Blek (another EsseGesse creation) who also favored  a vest over a bare torso. However instead of a Stetson Blek wore a coonskin cap. I'm sorry, I  think both versions of the style look silly.

Alan Mistero is a man of many talents which are often described in declamatory speeches from characters in the stories.

Of course he can outride, outfight, and outshoot anybody. He is also a master of disguise, a skill few cowboys can claim. Alan is followed around by two comical sidekicks. Polpetta (Meatball) and the Count come right out of the Registry of Standard Sidekicks.  Meatball is the Comical Fat Guy Who Always Gets in Trouble. Meatball has your typical Andy Devine build and isn't well-supplied with wits.

The Count is the Comical Foreign Intellectual. He's a boastful Frenchman who punctuates every other speech with "Tonerre!" or "Parbleu!" The Count, who is almost always smiling, has pronounced circles under his eyes. This plus his frequently manic behavior makes me wonder if he has a secret drug problem.

Alan lives outside Wilcoxtown in a camp at the end of an "impassible mountain trail." The camp is also home to "his Mohawk Indians." About a dozen Indians live in Alan's compound. I'm not sure why. In the issues I have all they do is say "Ugh!" and re-explain other characters' dialogue.

Everyone in Wilcoxtown is familiar with Alan, though he doesn't seem to have friends there. In the wider world few people recognize him, but everyone knows his reputation.

The overall cartoony approach of Alan Mistero's artwork carries over to the stories. Gunplay and fistfights are of the rollicking Captain Easy variety. There is no blood and little onscreen death. Lots of guns are shot from hands and though many a blow to the head is delivered, nary a concussion results. This fairy-tale setting makes it a little easier to accept sometimes far-fetched stories with plot holes big enough to drive a Conestoga through.

A unique feature is the prevalence of alcohol. An  early story begins with Meatball, stinking drunk, falling off  a wall; and a surprising amount of beer is consumed in 16 pages. One remembers how seldom 1960s American comics named the liquids imbibed in their saloons. It appears liquor may have been played down in later issues of Alan Mistero, but I don't have enough samples to tell for sure.

Since I don't know when to leave well enough alone, I'll step you through an Alan Mistero story in the next post. After all, each of you is a prospective fan!