Thursday, January 30, 2014

Lost 1930's funny animal adventure strip: Hardluck Harry

In 1936, DC Comics -- or, rather, National Allied Newspaper Syndicate, Inc. -- and the comic book medium itself were in a state of incunabulum. The superhero genre hadn't yet gelled, and issue-length stories were apparently unheard of ... maybe even un-thought of. National Allied's two periodicals to date -- More Fun Comics and New Comics -- were clearly modeled after the Sunday paper comics section, presenting a hodgepodge of serialized action-adventure strips, gag strips, text pieces ranging from short stories to Hollywood gossip columns, and games and puzzles pages. There were dozens of comic features per issue. At the outset, practically across the board, each installment (or one-shot) was at most two pages, whether drama or comedy. It wasn't until New/New Adventure's "teen" issues that, gradually, more and more features branched out into four-or even six-page episodes.

An unrepentant completist, I recently waded my way through the first consecutive 30 issues of New Comics [New Adventure Comics as of #12, and, ultimately, starting with #32, Adventure Comics -- the future home of Superboy). To my surprise and piqued interest, #9 hit me me with something rare: Bill Carney's Hardluck Harry, a bona fide funny animal adventure comic. Doesn't sound like anything that unique? Well, think about it: until "Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold", wasn't Gottfredson an island unto himself? 

And speaking of Gottfredson, Carney's work here, in every last panel, exhibits a clear Gottfredson influence. In less kind terms, it's a pale Gottfredson imitation. 

Here's the entirety of the first installment. We begin with the titular character rushing to catch and stowaway on a moving train. Harry, like Mickey, is scrappy and outgoing, but with his gnarled, gruff appearance, shares none of Mickey's charm and appeal. 

 Looks like the countryside settings of Gottfredson's early years, eh? But cruder.

 Right: innovative angle for this era.

 I can't decide: does that fence look more Gottfredson or Taliaferro?

 [The second page of each two-page feature had its own masthead. Seems awkward to us today, being used to, you know, flow.]

 That silhouette ... I SWEAR she's a Gottfredson transplant! I'm thinking of a lady anthropomorphic cat in a dress...

 Not as many COMPLETELY explicit Gottfredson images here, but certainly all the right trappings...

Oh, yeah, chck out those character designs! Those scruffy chins, those eyes, those snout and head shapes... Realistic dog noses, though, rather than the little "beans"...

And, notice the villain's moniker? "Shanghai" ... "Peg-Leg" ... both pirate references. Get it? ;)

After New Adventure Comics #16's installment, despite leaving with a cliffhanger (as had every prior installment), Hardluck Harry was never seen again. Sadly, it wasn't the only New/New Adventure serial to be abruptly dropped so; over the course of the first 30 issues, the book's components were in a constant state of flux, cancelling and adding features almost as a rule of thumb.

Despite the fact that by today's standards, these narratives are primitive, I really wanted to find out how certain ongoing stories were going to end! Sadly, I think any chance of Sandor and the Lost Civilization or Strange Advenetures of Mr. Weed being resumed by their respective creators has long since past. Maybe just by a year or two.) 

Stay tuned for more of Hardluck Harry, and spotlighting other (very) early DC features.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Marvel and I: The Story of a Long-term Misunderstanding, Part Three

In the summer of 2000, I'd just graduated high school. Director Brian Singer's X-Men was released. A few of my friends wanted to see it. I had no interest, having not been that into comics for a few years, and having never liked Marvel in the first place (as illustrated in the previous two posts in this series). But, I figured, "Eh, what the hell, I'll go along with you guys. I always like going to the movies just for the sake of going to the movies, anyway."

Thoroughly enjoying the film, I didn't regret paying for my picket. Visually, it was conservative and tasteful; none of the (at least as I'd perceived it) rancid, seizing violence that, as a child, had turned me off of Marvel.  It had a strong, engaging narrative, as well as well-developed and performed characters that were easy to identify with and root for. This was especially true of Wolverine, played by Hugh Jackman in the American tradition of the hero as rugged individual. 
Singer's 2003 X-Men 2 retained all of these qualities, but presented on a bigger-scale and with the stakes raised; none of the big set pieces were excessive or indulgent, but in proportion to the story. 

On the other hand, I didn't get what all the rage was with director Sam Raimi's Spider-man, Spider-man 2, and Spider-man 3. They were likable, giving off a warm, friendly vibe; but watching them was no more filling than a pack of Lifesavers. Still, at least I could now see the appeal in Spider-man

The first X-Men movie had inspired in me an interest in going back and reading Chris Claremont's defining 1975-81 run. Nothing came much of that thought, though; throughout college and most of my 20's, reading comics wasn't something that I did much of. 

That changed circa 2009, when I dove headlong back into comics. However, my deep-seeded preference for DC held firm. Obsessed with one day being able to read Crisis on Infinite Earths and recognize everyone in it, I dedicatedly acuqired and read the shit out of every book in the softbound Showcase Presents and hardbound DC Archives collections that I could, determined to attain a mastery of DC history.

Sooner or later, my fixation on the history of superhero comics was bound to bleed over into Marvel ... at least, that seems like the the transition sentence to use at this point, right? Reading Grant Morrison's Supergods -- which starts out as a history of comics but then halfway through suddenly becomes an autobiography -- I became very curious about an early `70's Avengers storyline called "The Kree-Skrull War". What particularly intrigued me was Morrison contextualizing it as the Marvel version of an aspect of my DC obsession that I'm particularly obsessive about: Jack Kirby's Fourth World.

Avengers #89 -- the issue featuring the first chapter of Roy Thomas' "Kree-Skrull War"

Of course, I couldn't just read that serial without being familiar with the Avengers themselves, right? (Seriously, I didn't know until 2012 that Marvel's version of Thor's alter ego was a crippled doctor based in Manhattan.) So, I started reading the original run from the very beginning. But, wait ... first had to go back read each of the Avengers own title or feature from its inception -- meaning, respectively, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, and Ant-Man, each in its own turn! But, oh, wait, here's a crossover with the Fantastic Four! And another with Spider-man! And another with Daredevil! And yet another with the X-Men! And another with Doctor Strange! Better put this off until I've caught up on every issue of their series up until the month this crossover first hit the stands!

I went back and read the Marvel Essentials collections of the Golden Age versions of Captain AmericaHuman Torch, and Sub-Mariner, too, just for good measure.

Consequently, I've now read every Marvel superhero comic from 1961 through late 1964 (with some titles) or early 1965 (with others) -- the first few years of the self-proclaimed "Marvel Age of Comics". And, you know, what? They're GOOD comics! Not the trash I'd once though Marvel to be, across the board. These works of Stan Lee, Jack Kiby, Steve Ditko, and the rest of "the Bullpen" are replete with same "wholesomeness" and type of exciting storytelling that I found in Superman and Batman comics in cartoons -- in my favorite Disney Afternoon series, ranging from Adventures of the Gummi Bears to Gargoyles.


At this point, I'm familiar enough with the Marvel Universe that I probably will concentrate exclusively on X-Men, finishing the `60's run and graduating to Claremont's; and Avengers, working my way along to "Kree-Skrull War". Oh, but first, I want to read Roy Thomas' Captain Marvel run, which Morrison seemed to indicate was somehow linked to "Kree-Skrull"; however, he was vague on that point, and the only link may be Roy Thomas. If that's so, reading Marvel's Captain Marvel (heh) first still seems like a good idea, to follow the evolution of Thomas' writing. In fact, I'm a huge fan of the work he was to do several years later on the revival of All-Star Comics and subsequently on All-Star Squadron, so I have high expectations of his earlier Marvel work. Oh, and, having left off Fantastic Four #40, I'd at least like to finish Lee and Kirby's run, at some point.

As you've seen, all of this backtracking work stemmed from me wanting to read just one story ("Kree-Skrull War"). In a case of outright cosmic irony, if I understand correctly, "Kree-Skrull" will bring my relationship with Marvel full circle. It will be an opportunity for me to atone for long ago slighting someone who didn't deserve it, with whom I'd (thanks to the "Marvel and The Infinity Gauntlet is better than Darkwing Duck, nyahhh" boasts of  a childhood friend) gotten off on the wrong foot: Thanos.

-- Ryan

Monday, January 13, 2014

An observation about Gil Kane's style, and how it notably changed over the course of just a few years...

At the dawn of the Silver Age, Kane's art was relatively formal and stiff, as exemplified here by a page from Showcase #22 (Sept.-Oct. 1959), the issue that introduced Hal Jordan to the world:

However, by comparison, it's not a stoic as the Flash pencils that Carmine Infantino was concurrently doing. Kane played it loose and brisk.

Several years later, Kane's work on the same series was sketchier, stretchier, cartoonier, and bolder. Take this page from Green Lantern #55 (Sept. 1967):

(This period is all-too-overlooked, historically overshadowed by the Green Lantern-Green Arrow "socially relevant" issues that began with #75.) Did Kane have ambitions of being this wacky and dynamic back in `59, but was holding back, giving into the blandness that cropped up in the late `50's in the wake of the establishment of the Comics Code? Or did the daily grind, issue after issue, month after month, and year after year lead to him becoming more versatile?

It wasn't just Green Lantern, either. Take this page of his from an Incredible Hulk story in Tales to Astonish #90 (Apr. 1967), a few months earlier than GL #55:

Same stark, cartoony, thin-lined characteristics. (Note the 2nd panel.) 

When I first read DC's Silver Age Green Lantern collections, upon reaching the late mid-to-late-`60's issue discussed and depicted above, recalling the earliest issues, I couldn't believe the art was Gil Kane. Perhaps a factor is that at that point, he was doing in inks (that's the case with both the GL and Hulk examples used here), whereas early in the run, that task befell Joe Giella? 

(Where'd this post come from? This weekend, I finished Marvel's The Essential Hulk Vol. 1. When I reached Astonish #88, the issue where Kane steps in, following a short run by John Buscema, I immediately recognized what period of Kane's it belonged to. So just thought I'd throw it out there.)

-- Ryan