All Over Time

Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969

This is a big $40 collection of old comics, a new 318-page hardcover anthology from Harry N. Abrams, Inc. "Those selected for inclusion in this anthology all possess distinct, fully formed visual and/or literary sensibilities and, in writing or drawing, their work moves beyond what 99 percent of comics allows" according to author Dan Nadel. There’s not a lot of text, but the text that’s there is good, even vital. But mostly, it’s a presentation of 29 artists and their works, largely taken from newspaper strips and humor comic pamphlets from the first half of the 20th century, though there’s some later samples, plus short stopovers in the world of Golden Age superheroes, pre-Code horror, and ‘underground’ material.

Ok, let me get the personal bias out of the way first. Any anthology of vintage comics that contains the apparent surviving entirety of Charles Forbell’s 1913 Naughty Pete (yep, all 11 strips) is probably going to get a recommendation from me, barring some calamitous presentational shortcoming. There are a few presentational shortcomings here - at 11.1 x 8.4 inches, it's not a small book, but not quite big enough to allow a few of the works presented within to be read without squinting - though none of them are major. Actually, maybe my promise of recommendation is not even true anymore, since Nadel’s now gone and put together the complete Naughty Pete - I guess there’s always a chance for the discovery of those lost strips in future works, though.

Going through various works, various collections, various features, can be a tricky thing. For example, this book presents a nice selection of Garrett Price's wonderfully evocative, sensitive western adventure strip White Boy, as does issue #266 of The Comics Journal (and Kevin Huizenga, on his own site). All of Nadel's samples are presented in half page format, the Journal's in the alternately available tabloid format. One strip is replicated between the two sources, through it's given a different date in each, about two months apart. Is someone wrong? Or did White Boy just repeat an episode in close proximity to its original viewing? I surely don't know.

So do note that the Lambiek page linked above says that Naughty Pete ran in the humor magazine Judge for a few decades, a claim also made in that watershed 1978 volume The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics; Nadel appears to dispute this, and certainly all of the examples of Naughty Pete I’ve seen are derived from newspaper pages, which seems to bolster the most current opinion. Perhaps there is a determinative piece of Naughty Pete research out there that I’m missing (the Smithsonian book is quite old, remember); I like to imagine that all the answers in the world can be found in sources I’ve never gotten my hands on, like Fantagraphics’ 1983-92 vintage comics magazine NEMO: The Classic Comics Library, which pops up in this new tome’s bibliography several times, though never in a Naughty Pete capacity. I notice Nadel did apparently interview one Margaret Forbell in 2005, which I presume provided a fair amount of extra information.

But each new addition to the education offers another shot at greater accuracy, greater understanding. That sort of verve extends to this work as a whole, offering more in the way of interesting talents, because more is forever necessary for talents like this. Like Forbell.

Excuse my distraction, but I really can’t rave about Naughty Pete enough; I first encountered it in that Smithsonian book, and it really opened my eyes to how sophisticated the graphic language of the early newspaper strips could be. Forbell designed each strip as a single design unit, each panel carefully balanced so that everything would compliment something else on the page as well as serve the story perfectly. If Pete (an archetypical disobedient child) was climbing a staircase, as you can see in the above link, the panels would stack up diagonally. If Pete was on stilts, the panels would be tall and vertically oriented. If Pete was on a boat, the panels would proceed in typical format, with shallow depth, until Pete would (inevitably!) plunge into the drink, panels suddenly growing deep to accentuate the vastness of the new environment.

All dialogue in Naughty Pete is written out floating above characters’ heads; unconstrained by balloons, the words often follow characters around, arranging themselves to fit right in with various background elements. Pete’s own dialogue is written in a special cursive font, for both faster surface identification by the reader and the purposes of a subconscious pull - it’s more personal for the title character, you see, and his signature final panel exclamation of “I guess Pop was right” is often written out big and bold, like an artist’s signature. It’s a funny, gorgeous strip, the use of color often outstanding (just look at how the whiteness of the statue and Pete offsets the red of the parents and their home in the above link), and it completely holds up today.

Not all of the strips in this new collection ‘hold up’ in such a way, which is perfectly fine. Tom Spurgeon notes in his review of this book that “those who go to comics for that specific literary thrill, that shock of the new, really have no business looking for that here” and he’s quite correct, though I’ll posit (again, as Tom suggests) that a different ‘shock of the new’ is at work here: the thrill of pouring through old things and stumbling onto works you’ve never heard of, or coming to appreciate semi-familiar works in new ways. Nadel notes in his introduction that “[a]ll of the artists in this book, regardless of their popularity in life, have been consistently and undeservedly under-recognized in death,” which is different from saying that they’re necessarily unrecognized. I fully expect students of vintage comics to have heard of at least a few of the works presented here, but not by very much; the beauty of Nadel’s work is that he demands that comics that might have warranted a footnote or a single page example in other anthologies be given specific focus, so as to tease out the unique beauty he sees in them. And I’ll wager there’s still a few pieces in here you’ve not heard of at all, and Nadel’s tastes are idiosyncratic enough that you’ll recognize what he sees in them, though I doubt anyone will agree with everything Nadel says, so unique is his vision.

Thus, we have five sections dividing up the talents, who otherwise appear in no particular order save for aesthetic balance: Exercises in Exploration (focusing on visual world building), Slapstick (focusing on all-out comedy), Acts of Drawing (focusing on pure lines-on-paper appeal), Words in Pictures (focusing on writerly aptitude), and Form and Style (focusing on use of the page and/or its elements). To be honest, these categories aren’t hard-and-fast; Gene Deitch, for instance, could have easily gone in Acts of Drawing instead of Form and Style as far as I can see, just as most of the Slapstick artists might have fit in elsewhere. Some sense is made of it all in Nadel’s short (one-page) introductions to each section, as well as his 16-page Biographies section, which offers both concise histories of each of the profiled artists (sometimes to the extent that anything can be discovered at all about them), plus analysis of their included works and wide-view chat on their place in this book.

At times it’s as if Nadel anticipated certain questions being asked, such as why underground artist Rory Hayes is even in here. An answer is provided - even as a certain content-based liberalism and a viable distribution model grew to support the visions of idiosyncratic talents, some still broke farther than ever from the mold, yet reached a certain audience, and created work of value. A few weeks ago Heidi MacDonald chided the book for its total absence of female artists, noting that “it does leave the general impression is that there was not one single woman visionary in the first 6000 years of comics history” in an otherwise laudatory notice, and I wonder if her words were prompted by Nadel’s own preemptory note in the introduction “[t]hat this book is entirely male is a fairly accurate reflection of the makeup of the medium itself at that time.” At one point, Nadel seems to be defending his own mission in advance; he admits in his George Carlson biography that the artist’s recurring work in the pamphlet Jingle Jangle Comics has already been showcased in A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics (it was also feted by Harlan Ellison in a 1970 essay in the book All in Color for a Dime, and given a 32-page showcase in issue #263 of the Journal) but maintains that “Carlson has remained unstudied and underappreciated.”

And that’s true, as it is for all of these artists.

As it often seems to be for most older comics artists, save for a highly select canonized few. I don’t really mind how many times Harry J. Tuthill’s The Bungle Family pops up in assorted places - it was reasonably popular in its day by most accounts, and has shown up in all three of the other big hardcover vintage strip books I have, and has had additional works devoted to it according to Nadel's bibliography - another 14 pages is still valuable, because every focus on the work helps, every showcase is worth it, not only because the author doing the showcasing probably has something to add (and Nadel does), but because it's a new chance for the reader to bring something of their own to the proceedings, as such shots are still few and far between.

As far as my reading experience goes, I found myself amazed all over again at works like Naughty Pete, or the superhero comics of Fletcher Hanks, which never fail to tickle my fancy. Hanks was not a young man when he created the adventures of his characters (Stardust the Super Wizard is featured here, from 1940's Fantastic Comics #10) - actually, he was over 60. But when I close my eyes, and I think of 'Golden Age superheroes,' and I try to conjure some primal vision of what such a comic should look like, stripped of all franchise and history, the pictures in my head resemble those of Fletcher Hanks.

His characters are simple, iconic, smooth, primitive, positioned flawlessly between an evident lack of polish and a confident grasp of how the action-charged page should work. His stories boil the classic idea of the superhero down to the very basics: Stardust sees some villain named the Super Fiend of the Lost Planet (who looks like he just stepped out of a medieval etching of Hell) declaring that "Civilization must be destroyed!" The beast plants a 'thermal ray spore' on Mars, and sets the whole planet ablaze, annihilating its entire civilization. He then uses an 'anti-solar beam' to fling the planet into Earth, but Stardust stops it by using his amazing powers. Then he picks up the killer by his neck ("Come on, you fiend, and pay the penalty!"), and drags him by his ankle through outer space until they land on the now bone-heaped Mars, where Stardust beats the shit out of him and leaves him there among the remains of his victims, presumably to starve. It's violent, direct, even cruel, but utterly compelling in its lack of care for the alleged sensitivity of its child reading audience.

And then - the works I'd never heard of! Like the wholly inexplicable The Wiggle Much by Herbert Crowley, a newspaper strip that ran for a grand total of 13 installments in 1910, created by a man who came out of nowhere, did his work, then vanished into the mist. "The Wiggle Much is really just barely a comic" Nadel notes, and he's right - from what I can gather, it's trying to emulate the feel of a child playing with toys and figurines, from the immobile, statue-like characters sitting around with dialogue (sometimes in verse, sometimes not) printed below the panels, to the weird nonsense continuity the strip maintains. In one strip, the lead character Wiggles literally floats into a zoo unconscious, so the people there try to wake him up by splashing him with rose water. But then it's not enough to just wake him up, they have to teach him the ways of human experience again, so they make him laugh, then they make him cry, and then the strip ends with no resolution. It's not even a pleasant comic to read, so labored is its construction, but it's just the damnedest thing.

And that's just another part of the appeal of this volume. There's so much more, like Stan Mac Govern's hysterically written, off-the-cuff Silly Milly, and Jefferson Machamer's corny jokes and slicing, nearly fetishistic lines in the aptly titled Gags and Gals, and Norman E. Jennett's dazzling Monkey Shines of Marseleen, a 1905-10 wonder that mixed the exactitude of Winsor McCay with a creepy gag format and tiny stylistic flourishes all the creator's own, like words of dialogue trailing across panels like wind tails, in long sentences. It's kind of like what you've seen before, but not really, upon second glance. This book indulges you that second glance, as books like it truly must, and that is why it is needed, and why you should seek it out.