Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Voyage Back Into the Murky Days of Comics Archaeology, Featuring Kreigh Collins

This post is not about comic BOOKS, for a change. It's a means to revisit the way I conducted much of my first serious forays into comics history--via the microfilmed records of old newspapers. There is not much nostalgia in this account, because the microfilms themselves are terrible. They were a flawed way to preserve newspapers, and (though no one knew this in the 1960s and '70s), a slowly deteriorating time-bomb.

As a teenager in Tallahassee, Florida, I haunted Florida State University's Strozier Library, a godsend for its titanic air-conditioned chill and its city of books. Among its endless shelves were what passed for a good comics and cartooning section, circa 1978, forbidding rows of bound volumes of magazines, and, in its basement, fat stacks of cardboard-boxed microfilms.

Strozier Library, Florida State University, 1970s
Huddled in the dark, squeaking the turn handle on outdated, cantankerous viewers, I explored hundreds of old newspapers, in search of comic strips I'd heard of, but never seen, and, on occasion, discovering a completely unknown cartoonist and their work.

Amidst collegiates who muddled through statistics papers and other chores of higher education, I wandered through the seven decades of newspaper comics available to me. Most of the newspapers on file were Florida-based, but the stacks also included The Chicago Tribune, several California dailies, Southeast, Midwest and Southwest papers, Afro-American papers, and territorial, pre-statehood Alaska editions.

Microfilm reel, c. 1978
(pencil sold separately)
Certain cartoonists jumped out at me, their names never mentioned in the few histories of comics I had encountered. "Elmo" by Cecil Jensen, "The Squirrel Cage" by Gene Ahern and Billy Debeck's "Bunky" became immediate favorites. (I still hold out hope for book presentations of these three great comic strips.)

I couldn't obtain these strips; I could only view them in the dark, squeak-squeak-squeaking the stubborn turnstile on the side of the viewer. The microfilm department had a printer, but the results were dreadful, given that the source material was sub-par and the clay-like, smelly mimeograph paper a poorer host.

That the comics survived, even in this debased, often distorted form, was a small miracle. The contempt shown for comics by libraries was made clear in these spools of muddy microfilm. If the Sunday edition of a paper was included, chances were everything BUT the comics section would be there. Stubborn, biased microfilmers included ad circulars, TV sections, women's magazines--none of which could have any research value, unless a person needed to know the price of hair spray in 1948, or get an ancient recipe. It felt like a spiteful act to those of us whose only reason for bothering with this ritual WAS the comics.

This experience can be had, in the comfort of your home, via the Google News Archive. Google has suspended this effort, and many of its selections are pre-comics papers, or desolate rural weeklies barren of any comics content. The excision of Sunday comics in those papers that DID run them is maddening, just as it was in the mid-to-late 1970s.

I recently revisited this ur-world to answer a minor question about a comic strip that abruptly changed course twice in a run of almost 30 years.

Its artist has remained a favorite of mine, for his nimble, vigorous style--a look and feel that suggests a marriage of Will Eisner and Bernard Krigstein, garnished with a touch of old-school book illustration. Kreigh Collins never worked in comic books, to my knowledge. He was a book illustrator and a painter, earlier in life, until an injury forced him to abandon canvas for several years.

Here's an excerpt from a biographical sketch I found online:

Kreigh T. (Taylor) Collins majored in art at Cincinnati (Ohio) High School. He also studied art in Cleveland (1924-1925), and in 1925 opened his own studio. He met Theresa VanderLaan, whom he married in 1929 after a year spent studying in Paris (with visits to North Africa). She became the model for characters in “Up Anchor” and “Kevin the Bold,” as well as model for many of his sketches and paintings. They moved to Chicago in 1929, where he made illustrations for an advertising agency. In the fall of 1930 the Collins family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he again took up advertising illustration. In 1931, he and Theresa returned to Paris where he studied and first began to concentrate on landscape painting.
Kreigh Collins, self portrait, c. 1928

They returned to the United States in the midst of the Depression, but Collins did well by selling landscapes he painted while living in the small village of Leland, Michigan. He also contracted with a newspaper syndicate to illustrate the “Do You Know” series by Willis Atwell for the Michigan Centennial. He painted portraits in Ohio, eight murals in Dallas, Texas, and landscapes in Taos, New Mexico. All this work caught up with him and by 1937 he could no longer use his right arm to paint. He discovered that he could make line drawings by resting his elbow on the arm rest of a chair with his forearm on a drawing board. The Methodist Publishing House, which had until then bought only a few of his travel sketches, started sending him large quantities of work. He also illustrated the Informative Classroom “Teaching Pictures.” In 1941 he found he could do a small amount of painting again without pain and it was then that he must have worked on book illustrations for the John C. Winston Company of Philadelphia.

Alas, the Michigan Centennial is not on Google News, but this was likely a fact-based panel, not a comic strip proper. It was collected in book form, and surviving copies can be found in all the usual online outlets for used/rare books.

Collins illustrated several other books in the earlier 1940s, and continued this during his comic strip career. Many of these books are high-priced collector's items, and can be glimpsed on amazon, if you're so inclined. I recall seeing some of these books during my lone visit to Bill Blackbeard's staggering comics archives in 1992. My notice of, and interest in, those Collins-illustrated books assured Blackbeard that I had some grounding in comics history; the tone of our visit brightened notably after that moment.
Book jacket illustrated by Collins
How Collins got involved with Mitzi McCoy is yet unclear. He doesn't appear to have done any proper comics (i.e., sequential narratives in boxes with speech balloons) prior to this time. The Sunday-only strip began in the fall of 1948, and was syndicated by the Newspaper Enterprise Association. NEA had the market cornered on rural dailies and urban evening papers. Their fleet of strips, including "Alley Oop," "Wash Tubbs," "Out Our Way," "Our Boarding House" and "Vic Flint," seldom appeared in upscale papers, but were everywhere in the backwaters of the Great 48.

"Mitzi" seemed designed to appeal to a bigger market. Among its debut papers was the Pittsburgh Press, which accorded it much ballyhoo:

Of course, whomever microfilmed the Press disposed of its Sunday comics sections. What does exist, via other papers, suggests a potential not reached, and a genuinely appealing post-war comic strip idea. Mitzi was an attempt at a sort of Frank Capra movie in comics form.

Another Pennsylvania paper, the Reading Eagle, ran the strip, and its sequels, into the 1960s. This is the first episode I could find in Google News, dated 11/7/1948. It feels like a first episode, but the Pittsburgh Press' squibs date from one month earlier. Anyhow, here it is:

This strip seemingly introduces the "picturesque little town of Freedom," and its three main characters--Stub Goodman, gently cantankerous liberal small-town newspaper editor, Tim Graham, his Jimmy Stewart-esque reporter/sidekick, and Ms. McCoy, a vivacious, outspoken child of moolah (and blond bombshell). These major characters, plus a plethora of townsfolk, including cranks, crackpots and "just folks" were a potentially compelling and adaptable cast of characters. Collins' gentle, often moody artwork seems a fine visual vessel for this material. It could have been a counterpart to the quiet mood of Frank King's Gasoline Alley, as well.

The strip also has tacit corollaries to Eisner's Sunday-only Spirit. From its Abe Kanegson-ish lettering (done by cartoonist Art Sansom) to its simulacra of the Commissioner Dolan/Ellen Dolan/Denny Colt relationship, minus masks, gloves or fisticuffs, these similarities must have been sheer coincidence. There are a few action sequences in Mitzi, but its events are mostly hands-in-pockets, leaning-on-the-fence chit-chat between friends and neighbors.

Mitzi McCoy never really got a chance to develop. Its Sunday-only half-page continuity results in elided, rather rushed storytelling, in which possibly good ideas are telegraphed, never thought out, and dependent on the artwork to carry them across the finish line. It wasn't the first newspaper comic strip to waste a potentially solid concept--nor was it the last.
Despite the distaste of the Press' microfilmers, the paper obviously thought well of the strip. The Reading Eagle, which had one of the best Sunday comics sections of its time, is incomplete on Google News. The first several months of McCoy are spotty. To make the hunt more fun, the microfilm photographers opted to bunch several days' editions together. Thus, the Sunday paper has no comics; those are in the middle of a file that might contain Thursday through Saturday. The Eagle's Sunday comics section is there, if you're willing to kill some time digging.

Weeks and months are missing, here and there, so reading a complete run of this strip (or many others) via Google News is impossible.

Though the microfilms have deteriorated (a plight eloquently described by Nicholson Baker in his controversial book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper), reducing fine linework to inchoate blobs, I was able to capture and touch up the strip's final sequence, which is notable for its out-of-left-field turn.

I've never seen an episode of Mitzi in newsprint form. Clippings almost never turn up for sale, and it's unlikely (but possible) that a complete run exists in printed form. Here's the opening panel of the 8/26/49 strip, from a long-ago eBay sale:

The following sequence offers a blurry but readable taster of Mitzi McCoy. I've done my best to balance and enhance these decayed images.
I don't believe Kreigh Collins wrote "Mitzi." The author may have been Russ Winterbotham, a SF writer who handled many NEA continuities in the later 1940s and 1950s. The anonymous trudge of the dialogue, which often seems at disconnect with Collins' charming, caricatural illustrations, sucks the life out of the events in this sequence.

Collins works to consciously imbue these talking heads with presence and life. His atmospheric efforts of the last two strips, above, though marred by time and poor reproduction, show an ambition to go beyond the typical look-and-feel of the post-war continuity strip.

None of Mitzi's readership could have anticipated that its next episode was its last:
There was a precedent for this tale-telling scenario. A two-part series detailing the history of the Irish wolfhound apparently made a hit with readers and editors in July, 1949. Here's part one:
Stub Goodman spun a birth-of-Christ yarn in the strip's December, 1949 sequences. Here are the first and last installments of this detour. Note Collins' self-reference in the first strip, plus Stub Goodman's preaching the gospel of comics in the next-to-last panel:
The sequence showed Collins' affinity for historical drama--an outlet not otherwise found in a contemporary strip about small-town America. In a reverse of V. T. Hamlin's career, in which his stone-age Alley Oop became a history-spanning time traveler, Collins and his writer(s) took the strip back 400 years, without so much as a fare thee well to the readers of modern-day Mitzi,

Mark II of the strip was called Kevin the Bold, and it was picked up by the Chicago Tribune from its debut episode, seen here in Murk-vision, but with a "Mitzi McCoy" logo:
As Kevin the Bold, the strip enjoyed a precipitous jump in circulation. NEA, like King Features and other earlier syndicates, offered a pre-print Sunday comics section for small-town papers too low-budget (or lazy) to bother with such things as editorial selection and four-color printing. Kevin was often the lead feature of the NEA ready-made. An earthy alternative to the restrained Prince Valiant, it was often picked up by choosier papers who couldn't afford Hal Foster's strip, or published in an area where Val was already claimed.

The NEA pre-made sections were shoddily printed--slightly better than the average comic book of the 1950s. The Chicago Tribune's version was lovingly handled by the paper's journeymen engravers, with often-stunning results. Here's a Tribune-ized version of the 7/8/1951 episode, from my collection of about 100 clippings:
Collins took over authorship of Kevin in the mid-1950s. It continued into late 1968. The Chicago Tribune ran it until at least 1958. Thanks to NEA's captive audience market, it appeared to the end of its existence in many newspapers. After other NEA adventure strips (Chris Welkin Planeteer, drawn in sub-Caniff style by Art Sansom, and private-eye Vic Flint) bit the dust, Kevin soldiered on.

Almost 20 years after its first morphing, Kevin underwent another literal sea-change. Here is the final episode of the strip, plus the first two of its new identity as Up Anchor!
Up Anchor! ran until 1973, when Collins retired from cartooning. The strip was semi-autobiographical. Collins and his family were avid sailors, and their adventures (and misadventures) on the water offered local color in newspapers desperate for such things.
Miami News, 6/12/1954
St. Petersburg Independent, 11/9/1959
Park City Daily News, 8/11/1960

The byline on this last article is of another longstanding NEA writer, Jay Heavilin, who gets credit on the later 1950s run of Vic Flint. Unlike the first two pieces, this is syndicate boiler-plate, but it offers a rare glimpse into the private life of a reasonably successful newspaper cartoonist, at a time when such things were isolated incidents in the press.

Kevin the Bold is an entertaining comic strip, its rough-hewn look loaded with eye appeal. Like most Sunday-only continuities, it has inherent flaws (conspicuous plot telegraphing, reiteration of events that, read in large doses, becomes tiresome), but its scruffy virtues make it among my favorites of the period.

I almost called it an obscure comic strip, but it really wasn't. In its three identities, it ran from 1948 to 1973, appeared in hundreds of newspapers, and maintained a certain vigor as most continuity strips suffered rigor mortis.

Here is a brief obituary for Kreigh Collins, from the Rome, NY Daily Sentinel of 1/10/1974:

Collins' papers (including some of his artwork) were donated to the Grand Rapids Public Library. They've been partially cataloged, but if you're in that area, and wish to explore this material, it's just sitting there, probably un-noticed and untouched by staff or patrons. It makes one wonder how many cartoonists' life effects are bundled in storage in libraries, museums and other public trusts, awaiting a person or persons who can do something with them.

Thus concludes my little traipse down memory lane. Though I fondly look back at the wonder of discovery, and of the opportunity to read and study the comic strips, big and small, of 20th century American newspapers, I have no nostalgia for the presentation. As Google News has reminded me, the microfilm versions of newspaper comics still suck, and are a rotten substitute for even the worst printed examples.

In some instances, they're still all we've got. No one really thought this stuff would matter to anyone. Comics were just a means to sell papers and give employment to cartoonists who would, otherwise, have to work in nursing homes, or deliver bread. Today, comics matter to many more people, but many of their makers have to resort to menial jobs in order to survive. There's irony buried in there somewhere.

--Frank M. Young

Friday, March 28, 2014

Self-Reflective Screwballs: Basil Wolverton and Harvey Kurtzman Rarities from Timely's Krazy Komics

The junkyard of mainstream comics yields a few welcome surprises, strewn amidst the toxic waste of 60+ years of lost opportunities, failed experiments and money-making assembly-line product.

Those few worthy items--a dust mote per each acre of bodily waste--keep some of us still obsessively digging, straining, and running to wash our hands as something of genuine merit is unearthed, hosed off, and examined.

The decade of shared digital comics scans on the Internet has liberated older comics from their former near-invisibility. Until, say, 2008, it was impossible for most people--save a few hard-core hoarders who had a head-start on the rest of us--to really grok how faceless and dull most American comic books really have been, since their inception.

A potential wealth of material awaits on such sites as The Digital Comic Museum and Comic Book Plus. Their scans are thoughtfully indexed by publisher, and in chronological publication order. Each day, new scans, some of them beautifully faithful to the printed source material, appear, gratis.

It's easy to take this ongoing phenom for granted. Most of this material is considered in the public domain--a stricture that removes almost all the efforts of major publishers of the 1930s through the present.

Thanks to the genuinely heroic efforts of the essential site More Than Heroes: Timely-Atlas Comics, we have immediate access to a conduit of hundreds of unauthorized scans of comics from the company that would eventually be known as Marvel. Its curator offers a weekly random bouquet of western, crime, teen, romance, humor, horror, SF and super-hero material, again organized by publication title and issue.

Paul Tumey and I have discussed the fascinating ups and downs of the Timely-Atlas-Marvel product here before. The company's output is the great middle-ground of American comic book history. Never a trailblazer, T-A-M was a shameless cash-in company. A trend might occur at D.C., E.C., Quality or other publishers. Before the ink was wet on the first issues of those companies' innovations, T-A-M would have a simulacra on the newsstands to sop up any leftover gravy.

Once said trend peaked, those cast-offs would be killed, and another topical title put in its place. This strategy helped the company tread water during the doldrums of the late 1950s, and allowed them to emerge as a major imprint in the '60s.
Among the least rewarding T-A-M titles are their humor comics. Off-kilter, butt-ugly (un)funny animals, anemic teens and irksome, violence-prone tots were their stock in trade. The company just never got the hang of humorous comics.

Certain artist-writers, looking for a place to blow off some steam, found an unlikely ally in the T-A-M (un)funny comics. Two of comics' best and most idiosyncratic creators--Basil Wolverton and Harvey Kurtzman--did stints with the company in the 1940s and '50s. Wolverton worked at T-A-M from the early 1940s 'til the mid-'50s; Kurtzman's work appears for about three years.

The cream of Kurtzman's work for T-A-M are his one-page "Hey Look!" strips. This series shows Kurtzman's development from promising tyro to master of absurd, graphically devastating metacomedy. Someday, someone will do a full-color reprint of the series, to replace the still-useful black and white (and way out-of-print) collection issued by Kitchen Sink Press in 1992.

Here's a particularly nice example of "Hey Look!" The page bristles with visual and comedic innovation, and shows the influence of "cartoon modern" sensibilities rampant in post-war animation, advertising and graphic design:

Kurtzman did a significant amount of other humor features for T-A-M--from ripoffs of "Blondie" to lively, adroit funny-animal material.

His learning curve is impressive, despite the quality of the stories themselves. When left to his own devices as a writer-artist--as in "Hey Look!"-- the results are often brilliant.

As a work-for-hire cartoonist, Kurtzman was professional and, like Dick Briefer, able to leave the imprint of his personality on the dullest of mundane work. But, as with Briefer, it's clear to see when Kurtzman's heart was not in his work.

Somewhere in-between "Rusty" and "Hey Look!" falls the lone episode of "Muscles Malone," from the first issue of the second version of Krazy Komics, published in 1948.(cover, seen at left, is decidedly not by HK)

No one would call "Muscles Malone" a narrative masterpiece. Kurtzman's cartooning, however, is eye-candy of the nth order. The vigor, aggression and expression of his posing, linework and layout--which eerily predicts the work of Ren and Stimpy auteur John Kricfalusi--is highly rewarding. It's much more than the slight story deserves, and it's possible Kurtzman wasn't too proud of it. He signed it with a humble HK, hidden in a blue star (part of a visual effect) on the splash page.

"Eustace Hayseed," one of several strips by Joseph Sulman that imitates Al Capp's work to a depressing degree, follows "Malone." The heart of a first-time browser immediately sinks, after the visual highs of Kurtzman's fluid foolery. Sulman, who also drew "Zatara the Magician" for D.C.'s Action Comics in the 1940s, was a leading agent in comics-shitmaking of the so-called Golden Age.

The sheer number of unskilled copyists of Capp, Crane, Raymond, Foster and Caniff in 1930s and '40s comics are among the medium's lowlights. Their work is a reminder that most mainstream comic book artists, past, present and future, are essentially cheerful plagiarists, brimming with enthusiasm, but with nothing personal or different to bring to the page. Their work is filler of the saddest stripe, and proof of the inherent cynicism of most comic book publishers.

"Eustace" is enough to make all but the bravest abandon hope. After a few stale pages of this bald-faced Capp-crap, it's a bracing pleasure to encounter the work of a true eccentric.

Basil Wolverton would have been familiar to T-A-M's more faithful readers, due to his long-running "Powerhouse Pepper" series, which appeared in various company humor anthologies, and in its own book--a sign of its apparent appeal and success.

Wolverton's "Pepper," a cross of Voltaire's Candide and E. C. Segar's Popeye (and seen here from the pages of 1945's Joker Comics #19), is shot through with a trademark linguistic quirk. Manic alliteration and internal rhymes, usually fused to a name, gives Wolverton's work a rhythm unique to the comics, period.

Self-reflective humor was another strong element of "Powerhouse," and its off-putting, utterly charming effect was seldom put to better use than in Wolverton's two efforts for the 1948 Krazy Komics.

As with "Hey Look!," this work shows one of the best aspects of Golden Age publisher cynicism: cartoonists with something unusual to say could express themselves loud, proud and clear--as long as their work was filler.

"Piston Pete - The Hotel Clerk" is one of Wolverton's most amusing screwball souffles. Loaded with puns, alliterations, wordplay and--most importantly--with the characters' cheerful self-awareness--this is low comedy meta-lunacy at its best. Read, McSneed...

Wolverton's mountain of chaotic-yet-droll komics seldom yielded a story as focused--and outright fun--as "Piston Pete." From the start, the reader never knows exactly where each succeeding panel will lead them.

Page nine is a hailstorm of offhanded inspiration. The first tier delivers a sub-par vaudeville joke, then assumes its reader will need a moment to laugh. If anything, the portrait of Blaine Payne, intended as a respite from the melee, proves far funnier--and more out of cloud-cuckoo-land--than anything else in the story. Capped by the author's admission that the first joke wasn't really funny, the tier is screwball gold.

Were the rest of the page filler, Wolverton could be easily forgiven. He's just warmed up. Hatch H. Hutch (of Hotch) proves his innocence to a determined cop by producing a copy of the very comic book we're reading.

Hutch points out some damning evidence of the villain's malfeasance, convinces the law, and then stops for a sidebar of gorgeous existential ponder:

This sort of self-reflective humor was nothing new. Animated cartoon directors of the 1930s and '40s had gone through these motions many times before. Wolverton makes something new of  a potential trope with this beautiful moment of introspection.

Kurtzman is nowhere in sight in the next (and last) issue of Krazy Komics, but Wolverton wanders by with another jolt of jazzy jibberish in "Flap Flipflop - The Flying Flash."

This is more familiar Wolverton turf--the rough-house outdoor world of "Powerhouse Pepper," in which the environment becomes as much a character as the interchangeable sentient beings. It's no surprise that Pepper does a walk-on, on page seven, to help extricate Ice-Pick McNick from a bear-trap.

The droll parade of gags, rattling with wordplay, includes another bit of self-reference, in which Flap plugs the sub-par Timely feature "Tessie the Typist," in an apparent attempt to charm the editors.

Alas, it was a pass--Krazy Komics was killed without much ado. As an outlet for Wolverton's growing sense of the absurd, KK might have paved the way for an upswing in off-the-wall, unpredictable comic-book chaos.

Kurtzman and Wolverton were to meet again, with spectacular results, in the pages of Mad (in its comic-book and magazine incarnations), including the cover to its 11th issue, which remains one of the primal images of mid-century American pop culture. Could Krazy Komics have planted the seed of this image? If so, it probably didn't kare.

© 2014 Frank M. Young