Thursday 3 November 2011

How half the day gets lost

Iwas listening to a disc of old Artie Shaw radio transcriptions from 1937, including his band's rendition of Raymond Scott's Twilight in Turkey, a piece of ersatz exotica which incorporates that old tune that says: you are in a jokey version of Egypt. You know the one. Sometime it's called 'the snake charmer song.' I thought to myself, did this thing originate with Scott, well known composer of novelties, or is it older? And once I had the thought, I have to go and find out. I tracked it down to an 1895 song titled The Streets of Cairo (link,including sound), written by James Thornton (When you were Sweet Sixteen, My Sweetheart's the man in the moon). Though even at that there seems to be an earlier claim to the tune by Sol Bloom who purportedly put it on at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. Anyway, forget all that. while I was looking I found this other thing by Raymond Scott, whose work you must know from a squillion Looney Tunes. It's titled Square Dance for Eight Egyptian Mummies.


Wednesday 2 November 2011

It's just comics- part 8

While looking for those colour Frazetta stories in part 5, I found, right next to the first one, this story drawn by Bill Everett. It solved its narrative problem in the exact same way as the story illustrated by Frazetta in the following issue. The protagonist sees an opportunity to humiliate her rival by causing her to nearly drown, and then decides she is not really evil and has to help rescue the girl. It's getting so that as soon as I see the swimsuits I get a bad feeling.

Personal Love #24 Nov 1953 (link)

But what held my attention long enough to get through it was the thought of Bill Everett, not only moonlighting away from Marvel (probably why he didn't sign it), but doing a love story, even if it was in his element- water. It seemed so unlikely, and yet anybody making a living in comics between 1949 and 1954 could hardly avoid it, so popular was the genre. Everett was there almost at the beginning of comic books, with his Sub-Mariner, and I'm sure he'd rather have been doing that character still. But times were changing. Sub-Mariner was cancelled in 1949 and now it was all all HORROR and CRIME short stories, and of course ROMANCE.

I wondered if he had done more, and in these days every artist has his chronicler. Everett has a whole appreciation society. With regard to our present subject there's a blogger named Doc V. In two posts (one, two) he has accounted for 36 romance stories that Everett drew for Marvel (under its Timely imprint first, then Atlas). Both of these posts are exhaustive epics that scroll down for about three weeks each. And each contains all the pages of a half dozen selected stories. it's a real reading feast, and Doc V's analytical notes are good.

The thing about Everett is that he never slacks off. If he is not enjoying the job, there is no way that you could tell. He goes at every job he has ever drawn with an equal intensity. Everything gets his full attention: foreground, background, skin, clothes, bricks, mortar, leaves, grass.

Love Diary #9- Oct 1950

Love Adventures #9 Feb 1952

Once he got his head down he didn't look up till it was finished. I think this tended to make his work look quite old-fashioned by the mid-1960s. Perhaps an artist with his head down is apt to miss the look of a changing world. But that kind of application often produced results which were grotesque, which made the artist especially right for horror stories. He drew many of these for Marvel in the early '50s. There are several complete stories at comic book attic. Some of them have the obsessive detail of a Hieronymus Bosch:

Venus #17- 1951

In these romance stories that quality is useful when a brooding intensity is required, such as in this story in which a woman ensures that her wheelchair-bound sister remains a prisoner of her disability. "The anguish meter is pushed into the red zone!" yells our host, Doc V. Sometimes with these things I imagine I'm reading a parable, a metaphor for general application in psychological matters. Interestingly, this one was scripted by Carl Wessler, whom I praised highly for a crime story in part 2 of this series of posts. Every now and then in one of these things I get a feeling that a measure of real observation and understanding has gone into it, that somebody is telling me something.

Lovers #51- Sept. 1952

Sub-Mariner #35-Aug 1954
Namor, the Sub-Mariner, was revived in his own series in April 1954, and Everett happily returned to drawing his adventures. It only lasted until October 1955.

When I was about 19 I put my favourite photos of my childhood and my family and friends in an album. I put word balloons coming out of people's mouths and captions and stuck in travel tickets and bits of maps and tv personalities and other circumstantial evidence. And for the frontispiece I cut out a panel of Namor plunging down an elevator shaft, opressive with every brick and wooden plank drawn in. In my teen-age nihilism it seemed to me to encapsulate the trajectory of life. That's it at left. On the flipside of the cutting he's back to fighting a green scaly monster, but hey, I can cut a panel out and imagine it went a different way if I like. who's going to stop me?
It's just comics

For me the sea prince never got out the elevator shaft.

I don't think Everett did either.

Last year Fantagraphics published a monograph on the artist, written by Blake Bell. There's an audio file of a presentation that Blake gave about the artist in Toronto. In it he also interviews Everett's daughter, Wendy, who was 20 when Bill died at the age of 52 in 1973.


Tuesday 1 November 2011

It's just comics- part 7

The Negro Romance mystery received its due coverage in the comics blogosphere a few months back, but I'll do a summary here so it can be a part of my informal survey of ROMANCE comics.

Gerald Early, noted scholar in the field of African American studies (I recognise him from his contributions to Ken Burns great documentary series on the history of Jazz) approaches PBS TV program, The History Detectives, with a curious comic book. It is coverless, but titled on the first page indicia, Negro Romance #2, August 1950, published by Fawcett comics. Growing up in the 1950s, he never saw a comic book about black people and wanted to know more about this comic that he has bought in an online auction. How did it come about? Who were the writer and artist? Were they white or black? On the program, historian Gwen Wright proceeds to track down the story of this comic book, finishing by putting names to its writer and artist. You can see the fifteen minute segment online (scan to the bottom for the complete story 'Possessed' from the comic), and if you don't want to spoil a good detective yarn, then watch that before reading on. It's 'good tv' as they say.

There are thousands of comics for which we don't know who wrote or drew them, particularly ROMANCE comics. Nobody has ever cared enough to look into it. You can see for yourself at the Grand Comic Book Database (even a Simon-Kirby title that I was talking about in part 4 has mostly 'skeleton data only'). It just needed somebody to ask about this particular one. Me, I'd have lobbed the question in among those guys who are interminably writing the history of Fawcett comics in the back pages of Alter Ego magazine (FCA- Fawcett Collectors of America they call themselves). Nowadays you can get to the heart of things overnight on the internet.

But the program must make it look like an investigation. That's their schtick. So first our investigator gets Professor Bill Foster to meet with them at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MOCCA) in Manhattan. Bill's area of study is the depiction of the African American in Comics and popular culture. Here he is when I met with him at one of my favourite bars a few years back, during his visit to Australia. He happily spent the day looking in second hand Brisbane bookshops for things with very embarrassing and racially dodgy titles. I love the way that, in the world of comics, we all know each other.

In the video, Bill creates a picture of the black as depicted in comics in the 1940s and 50s and then, since they need another lead to continue with, he suggests they talk to a romance comics expert. So next they fly Jacque Nodell, romance aficionado, to the Geppi museum in Baltimore. Jacque shows us examples of the genre circa 1950, with some observations about Fawcett's particularities. She talks about the experience on her blog, where she says that they wanted the Geppi location because it has a copy of the 1955 Charlton reprint of Negro Romance. However, they decide to omit their footage they of that, perhaps because it will make Early's copy appear less of a precious artifact, a Maltese Falcon.

The final connection takes them to Shaun Clancy, one of those Fawcett Collectors of America. Clancy has interviewed the editor of this and many other Fawcett titles, Roy Ald, still living at age 90, (said interview still to be published, presumably in Alter Ego?). Ald apparently wrote the comic himself, and has credited, as the artist, one Alvin Holligsworth, a young African American aged 22 in 1950. Gerald Early is visibly moved when Gwen tells him of this. He couldn't have had a better result.

Here are a couple of pages. It's good solid craftsmanship:

Negro Romance #2- August 1950

The series only lasted three issues (cover gallery and note that #2 no longer has 'skeleton data only'). Why it did not go further is beyond my ability to speculate. So far as I can see there is nothing out of the ordinary about the stories, except of course that the characters are uncompromized depictions of black people, which is way out of the ordinary for 1950. And the art as such is not of a sort that it would be collected for itself. Except. That the artist went on to do other things of interest.

Harry Mendryk counts four stories that he drew for Simon and Kirby, though none of these were romances. looks at some illustrations he drew for that field. has a big selection of stuff, though it's all very low res. he appears to have drawn some newpaper strips though I have no information apart from the observation that by this time he had developed a considerably more sophisticated style:

He became a fine painter

And he appears to have been very outspoken:
Of one subject he painted, an African Jesus Christ, he told Ebony magazine in 1971, "I have always felt that Christ was a Black man," and said the subject represented a "philosophical symbol of any of the modern prophets who have been trying to show us the right way. To me, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King are such prophets." (wikipedia)
From 1980 until retiring in 1998 Hollingsworth taught art as a professor at Hostos Community College of the City University of New York. He died in 2000.

thanks to michael in comments yesterday for linking me to the video.
more romances still in my drafts folder


Monday 31 October 2011

The interview that Gary Groth was going to do with Robert Crumb at the Graphic festival in Sydney, has been done by phone and put online instead. Groth was a guest of Graphic the previous year.
GARY GROTH: Do you have any regrets about not going to Australia?

R. CRUMB: Well, I didn’t until you told me that the streets were full of Crumb girls. [Laughter.]

Groth: Which they are.

Crumb: That’s when I started regretting it. [Groth laughs.] That’s about it. Otherwise, I didn’t want to go that badly. I wouldn’t have even thought of going at all if Jordan Verzar had just asked me outright, but when he sent me those photos — that was it.
Jordan showed me those photos on his iphone in Tasmania in January when we took the Neil reading down to the Mona Foma festival. I laughed very hard. He had hired a number of models in the shape of the girls that Crumb likes to draw and did a photo-shoot to persuade the artist to come over. It was all very witty and done just right.

Since I wasn't blogging in January, here's a photo from Mona Foma (more here):


How the Joy of Sex was illustrated
By Cordelia Hebblethwaite BBC
"There was some difficulty finding a workable Plan B. As the project approached a dead-end, it was the book's other illustrator, Charles Raymond - responsible for the colour artwork - who came to the rescue. He volunteered to do the modelling himself, with his German wife, Edeltraud.

Chris Foss has not looked at the original black and white illustrations he did for the book for almost 30 years. Snapping open a sturdy little grey suitcase, he starts to root through.
What does he attribute the book's success to?
He stops and lingers on an image of Charles and Edeltraud, stretched out post-coitally on a rug.
"That's very tender isn't it? They are obviously having a relationship. You can just tell by the way her body lies."
He pauses for a moment. "I think the fact that they were in love had something to do with it."


It's just comics- part 6

recap. I'm no expert in the history of ROMANCE comics, a genre that had its apex in the early 1950s, went into a decline after 1956 until it completely disappeared in the 1970s. I'm just looking around to see how we can piece together a picture of the best of it. In part 3 I looked at the romance comics Alex Toth drew for Standard 1952-54; in part 4 I surveyed the Simon-Kirby shop's output in the romance genre for Prize, and it was they who started it in 1947, don't forget; and then in part 5 I expressed a fondness for Frazetta's handful of romance stories for the Famous Funnies publisher 1953-54.

Long gone publisher St John's line of ROMANCE comics has a chronicler in the person of John Benson. He edited the book at left from Fantagraphics in 2003 (amazon). He argues that this line was superior to just about everybody else's line of romance comics and he is good at peopling his argument, particularly in a second book he put together in 2007. It contains interviews with all the players he could still find alive and well, which alas did not include any of the three principals.

Firstly there was Archer St. John himself (a thorough history of his company here). He appears to have had a strong idea about publishing romance comics that would avoid the absurd sentimentality that was the norm, 'pain and suffering in a glamorous setting' as his editor Irwin Stein described it. He found his leading writer in Dana Dutch. Dutch has left nothing with a signature on it, but Benson has made a diligent project of reconstructing the oeuvre of this mysterious character, sketching him from fragmentary remarks: 'he looked Irish', 'he talked like a hoodlum'.

The crux of the matter is that Dutch's heroines were not the teary eyed girl that was the staple of the genre, but a more resilient female type. For a good example of this, a blogger has posted a whole seven page story titled Without a conscience (from Teen-age Temptations #3, 1953), very nicely restored. The heroine makes some outrageous mistakes, including lying about her age in the marriage register, before rejecting both men in the piece, including the one she already married, whose heart seems to be in the right place. Not that that's any reason to marry a guy of course.

The art (sample left) is by Matt Baker, the third of the principals mentioned above. St John built the line around Baker's style and kept the artist very busy during these years. Benson has posted a checklist of all the St John romance comics, about 180 in all, with credits where identifiable or guessable, and it only takes a cursory glance to see that Baker's name is the backbone of it. Dutch and Baker together made up the house style for the St John romance books.

Matt Baker was a handsome African American who died in 1959 of a heart attack at the age of 37. He was entered into the comic book hall of fame in 2009. This is Baker and St. John in a photo taken in Hollywood:

The art in Baker's storytelling is always solid and functional; there is rarely a weakness in the composition:

Wartime Romances #4-Jan 1952

Teen-age Temptations #8- June 1954
(There's another whole story, Was he ashamed of me? at Pencil ink)

But occasionally on a cover Baker would go much further, creating a riveting image of the sort that makes fellow artists envious.

Teen-age Temptations #2 June 1953

Teen age Romances #43- May 1955

Twomorrows are publishing a monograph on the artist:

"Edited by Jim Amash and Eric Nolen-Weathington, Matt Baker: The Art of Glamour presents an impressive career cut tragically short. It features a wealth of essays, interviews with Baker's friends, family, and co-workers, and a treasure trove of his finest artwork, including several complete stories, at last giving the wonderfully talented artist his full due."

(192 pages, due Feb 2012)

more soppy romances to come.

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Sunday 30 October 2011

I don't care for lists. they remind me of the Lord High Executioner. ("They'll none of them be missed, I've got 'em on the list"). But Rachel Cooke has put up her list of '10 best graphic novels' ('graphic novels that transcend the comic book medium') at the Guardian/Observer. Fom Hell is on it. Rachel Cooke is a good commentator on the scene. I linked to her interview with Art Spiegelman last week.
I had a list of my own some time back but I destroyed it. This appeared as the final chapter of How to be an Artist and consited of about three dozen books. Of course it was out of date by the time I corralled Alec: the years have Pants. But Ray Davis says I threw out the baby with the bath water and has posted, with my permission, the three-page framing sequence of that chapter. There's a nice little idea in it that got edited out, about an artist having his own little preservation society, and I took the trouble to set t up early in the book. the setting up is still there, but the resolution isn't. But what can ya do?