LOAC’s longtime friend, Bill Chadbourne, has provided us with a wide range of material from his personal collection, and we’ve been sharing samples throughout this series. Last time we explored some of the comics-related books Bill provided to us. Now we’ll continue that exploration, including one extra-special book you may have never seen before.
Chad provided us with his first edition, Simon & Shuster copy of Stephen Becker’s 1959 Comic Art in America. Unlike Martin Sheridan’s light-hearted Comics and Their Creators – which we previously sampled in this space – Becker seeks to put a more serious, more comprehensive view of cartooning between two hardcovers. (Click images throughout for isolated views.)
The first image in Chapter One is taken from the Bayeux Tapestry, “one of the first European examples of a long story told graphically,” as Becker chooses to describe it. He traces 19th Century cartoons from magazines such as Punch and Harper’s and major New York newspapers (the World, the Journal) before moving from coverage of The Yellow Kid and the Katzenjammer Kids to that familiar range of early 1900s comics: Happy Hooligan, Little Nemo in Slumberland, Mutt and Jeff, Abie the Agent, Polly and Her Pals, Hairbreath Harry, Bringing Up Father. He devotes page-space to some of his favorites as he progresses through the evolution of the medium and is not shy about offering his perspective on select strips and creators. In his section on kid-strips, Becker notes, “Skippy was probably king of them all,” then goes on to say this about Percy Crosby:
By the mid-1930s [Crosby] had been exhibited in Paris, Rome, and London, and had achieved a place in permanent collections at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris and in the British Museum … If he had concentrated on his serious work, he might be in college textbooks today. If he had concentrated on Skippy, he might have lived to a richer and more comfortable old age. If he had concentrated on his writing, he might have ended his days as a dignified and recognized author … He now lives quietly, in poor health, writing occasional poetry, as obvious an example of burning one’s self out as we have in the whole of cartooning … if he had been less intense, less fiery, he might still be working actively.
Aside from looking at the evolution of the comic strip – and Comic Art in America follows the course of history through all the major strips you’d expect, while also touching on such rare treats as Pete the Tramp and Coulton Waugh’s Hank – Becker roams far afield of the comics page. Chapters are devoted to the art of magazine and sports cartooning, plus animation – you’ll find Terry and Abner and Prince Valiant in these pages, as well as Mister Magoo, Tom Terrific and Mighty Manfred, and Farmer Al Falfa.
Considerably narrower in focus, yet broader in visual content, 1968’s A History of the Comic Strip is cover-credited to Pierre Couperie and Maurice Horn. It’s a commemorative volume “created in conjunction with the exhibition of comic-strip art at Musée des Artes Decoratifs/Palais du Lourve” – yes, that Louvre!
As you might imagine, a 1967 major museum exhibit featuring comics art applies a heavy academic focus to the artform; this book reflects that more serious (sometimes more ponderous) approach. There is a chapter, comprised of five pages of text and several examples from a number of strips, on “narrative technique,” which culminates in this statement:
Our conclusion, then, is an affirmation of the indisputable narrative value of the comic strip, in the service of which complex techniques should be utilized so that it may become in truth what it is: a total and authentic art form.
Unpack that sentence to find its back-handed compliment!
A History of the Comic Strip devotes chapters to “esthetics and signification,” “the comic strip audience,” “narrative figuration,” “production and distribution,” and “the world of the comic strip” in addition to a lengthy tracing of the historical evolution of the medium (eschewing capital letters in the chapter titles is the publisher’s stylistic choice, and we’ve duplicating it here — who are we to argue with the designer’s choice?).
What makes this book of particular interest is its European sensibility. We find it always interesting to see how American pop culture looks when viewed through a Continental lens. The examination of Flash Gordon contained herein is an example of what we’re talking about:
[Flash] seems to float in unreality, but … on the contrary possesses an astonishing wealth of themes and traditions … at the beginning [it] was greatly inspired by the science-fantasy novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who had placed an earthly adventurer in a similar situation on Mars … Other episodes, however, are more reminiscent of the poetry of Abraham Merritt (particularly in “The Moon Pool”). Above and beyond these ties to contemporary science-fiction, Flash Gordon is the direct descendent of a certain type of Anglo-Saxon hero, for example, Peter Wilkins, hero of a novel of 1750 and, more remote in time but a very definite influence, Robin Hood, in his struggle against authority …
Another way the European sensibility is reflected in this book is via the examples contained in its pages. As hinted at by the examples directly above, in addition to all the American talents and comic strips one would expect to find, these pages also hold extracts of work from Arturo del Castillo, Maurice Tilleux, Crepax, Hugo Pratt, and of course, Herge, as well as European comics both well-known (Modesty Blaise, Jeff Hawke) and less-well-known (Les Schtroumpfs, among several others). In some cases the Continental samples make one want to go back and re-read some old favorites; in other cases it makes one want to investigate further and see more examples of some of these new-to-us comics.
And now, for something completely different – as you can see from the cover above, a book co-created by the redoubtable Mr. Chadbourne himself!
Today, “alternate history” fiction is a whole sub-category of its own, but when this Pocket Book-sized paperback was published in 1966, it was far from common coin in the popular culture. The publisher’s introduction invites us to, “Join the authors as they portray how it might have been if the Japanese Army had occupied New York City after winning the war in the Pacific … All the situations presented are based on real life. The only difference is the shoe, or in this case the geta, is on the other foot.” The Intro concludes, “It is not satire for satire’s sake … Laughs are the goal, and both sides of the street share the spotlight.”
Chad told us, “We had a lot of fun thinking up the cliches. [We showed] a GI wearing a happi coat, the equivalent of the ubiquitous American silk warm-up jacket with the dragon on the back, which so many American G.I.s brought back home. The coat Jiro-san wore is a tradition in Japan — firemen have their own design on the back of the coat, as do many other groups, including masons and sake and soy sauce makers. Usually the symbol is a giant piece of calligraphy, denoting their trade. Even the bicycle delivery boy in one cartoon, balancing many tiered boxes of soba with one hand and steering with the other, was wearing his restaurant happi coat and head-band as he dodged traffic. “
May these Chad-drawn examples of this unique alternate history give you the same smiles they gave us …