Sunday, June 13, 2021

A Walker in the Park

Sunday Surprise Day. If you are a Mort Walker fan, you can help. The last few years I have been helping Bill Janocha and the Mort Walker family to do a book about the cartoons of Mort. Before creating Beetle Bailey in 1950 (actually earlier, but it started in that year) he worked as a cartoonist, which had been his life long pursuit. Upon becoming one of the best selling cartoonists, he realized that it would never make him rich, so he took a leap upward. In his cartoon work he had created the figure of Spider, a young man at college - based on his own experiences as a G.I. Bill student at Missouri State University. He sold gags with that character to the Saturday Post and Varsity, but they ended up all over the place. When Spider was not bought as a regular for The Saturday Evening Post, he reworked the idea as a newspaper strip and took it to King Features. They bought it and market it as a gag stip about college life. The main character (whose eyes we never saw, even as Spider) was renamed Beetle Bailey - a Beetle as a variation on Spider and Bailey in reference to the Saturday Evening Post's cartoon editor John Bailey. In 1952 Beetle left college and joined the army.
Mort Walker kept on making cartoons until mid 1952 and they were published into 1954. All the time he was making cartoons, he kept a ledger with a description of every cartoon, with notes about production date, sale date, sometimes sales price and an abbreviation for what magazine it was sold to and when the gag was provided by someone else it was noted as well. No information about the publication date, although he also kept an incomploete clip file that sometimes had a date or at least a month noted. In the attic at Mort Walker's studio there was a trunk full of originals - some unsold, some sold and returned, some unfinished sketches and some of his 'roughs' which he made in publishable quality (as he figured out that it helped sell them better). On the back of the originals notes were made saying to what magazines the cartoons were sent to, or left behind after showing them on the regular day once a week all New York editors invited cartoonists to come around. After Mort stopped producing cartoons, he sold the rights to all them to Ben Roth's cartoon agancy, who sold some of the published and many of the unpublished ones to markets abraod. Again, Mort kept a clip book for those.
Using all of that information I put together as complete a list of all the information. Bill wrote a complete history of Mort's career with the main focus on his cartoons, the markets he sold to and an appreciating from his own experiences as Mort's private assistant in the last few decades. He also selected far to many cartoons to be included, cleaned them, adjusted captions and generally made them look good. He had the advantage that all of Mort's cartoons were very well drawn and funny, even the unsold ones. Some were excluded because the subject was too dated (usually to do with attitudes to women and marriage), but his work seems to have dated less than that of other cartoonists.
Form all that information, I also drew a couple of conclusios of my own, some of which made it into the book. One of the more puzzling questions is, how Mort handled those 'roughs'. I got in touch with the Walker family, when I showed my 21 Mort Walker cartoon 'originals' here (click the link to see those and much more). I had bought them on Ebay (from a seller who still has some more, but sadly won't answer my questions about them anymore). All of them have a color note saying OK JB. We worked out that it must have been a note from John Bailey and since all of them had been published, these originals had come from his desk. Still, why would he keep these and not some of the otehrs, which were in Mort's trunk? I was invited to the studio, where Brain Walker and Mort himself wlecomed me and introduced me to Bill Janoche. They told me abot his book project and the trunk - and showed me they ad some of the same originals I had - but without the OK JB note. We looked really closely and although most of them were the same, line for line, some details differed. We came up with the 'rough' theory, which fitted one of Mort;s favorite anecdotes from Backstage at the Strips: how he learned to make his 'rough' as good as the published version, so he would sell more.
A nice working theory but I have never been able to figure out how that worked. Some of the published cartoons were just a little bit more detailed (mainly in the backgrounds) and some were even changed on John Bailey's request. I will show one of those with a request here (incidentally not one of mine, but one that is still for sale on Ebay). So if John Bailey kept the 'rough's and Mort redrew the cartoon for publication - how did he manage to get such an indetical line? One theory is that there were very precise pencil drawings before all of that - but none have ever turned up. Another theory is that Mort kept a copy to work on, but none of those were found either. And in either case Mort's brush and pen control must have been fenomenal if he was able to repruduce those lines so exactly.
Anyway, that's how the book got together. It ended up at Hermes, who already has a line of similar books, one on Garfield and one still to be published on Johnny Hart's B.C. It is now available from Diamond and all of the major book sites (including Amazon). The size (200 pages), price ($45 or so) and publication date (later this year) are known - but I have a sneaky suspicion that all of those may still change. The book is being designed right now and as far as I can tell Hermes will use the pre-sale interest as an indicator for the books eventual size and prize. It is announced as a 200 page book, but there is enough material for 300 pages or even more. Fortunately, most of the pre-order sites have a price guarantee. So if the book sound like something you like or if you want to support Bill (and by extension me), please pre-order it now. You will ge the best buy and it will certainly help Hermes do the book as good as they can. We don't have to reach the heights of Backstage at the Strips, but the more people see this the better. To help you along, I am showing for the first time some of the cartoons Bill selected and cleaned for publication. For more you can of course click on the link below and see all of the cartoons I ahve shown over the years.

Friday, June 11, 2021

More Mort Morsels

 Saturday Leftover Day.

I have been scanning and cleaning some new samples of series that have been featured here before (heavily). Today's lot of Beetle Bailey Sundays are only a fraction of what I have done in total plus what is still waiting for me to clean. Of course I started with the earliest ones, from my favorite 1956/1963 period. You can click on the link to show more (but be prepared to scrll through lots and lots of pages). Or come back tomorrow for a great announcement plus some rare Mort Walker material.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

Browne To A Tee

Sunday Surprise Day.

I thought I was going to do a short and simple post. But it turned out to be a complete examination of it's subject. I have shown a lot of Dik Browne's advertising work for the Johnstone and Cushing company on this blog. I have pointed out his collaborations with Gill Fox and how they developed a style that seems to have been inspired by the work of Harry Haenigsen, particulary his strip Penny. I also showed some of Browne's earlier work, which shows a different style,  equally inspired by Haenigsen's early work. I shared  the strips that convinced Mart Walker and King Features to hire him as the artist of Mort's new family strip Hi and Lois. In yet another style, that combined the Haenigsen aesthetic with Walker's style. But I never was able to find something that may have resembled Browne's own style.

Except maybe for a couple of full color ads he did for Camels in the early sixties. The ... (But) Only Time Will Tell series was clever cartoon series of ads, which appeared in Sunday papers around the time that the Reynolds company stopped doing their long running series of realistically drawn sports celebrity endorsement strips. The conceit here was, that you could only tell if Camels was smoother and less cough-inducing to your T-zone (your mouth, nose and esophagus, shown by drawing a T-shaped box over that area in a model's face) if you used it for a while. The cartoons by Dik Browne illustrated other occasions where you would have to wait to see the outcome. There were only a few of those made in late 1952 to early 1953, most if which I got from Sunday newspapers and others from the back of college magazines (always heavily sponsored by the cigaret companies). Very nicely drawn and inked, with a little hint of Hank Ketcham's styleadded in the folds and faces. His style was the most modern slick cartoon style at that time and almost everyone followed it. I looked for more, but couldn't find them.


This week I happened on a black and white version of this series. Only it was one I did not know and it appeared in a daily paper. I immediately went looking for more and I ended up with quite a few of them, all of them appearing between fall 1952 and spring 1953. Some were repeated as a Sunday color version, but not all. All show that same Dik Browne style. 

It seems now that the series was started as a daily ad line and adopted to Sundays only later on. I am sure I still haven't got all of them, but with nineteen samples of a presumably two weekly series in nine months I am pretty close. if it is a weekly series, I am still a long way off.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

A Puzzling Period

 Sunday Surprise Day.

Four years ago I shared scans of a rare Harvey Kurtzman book. Kurtzman is best known for being the creator of Mad and doing Little Annie Fanny for PLayboy with Bill Elder. Fans will also know he did a remarkable line of war comics for EC and had a funny filler page in all of the Timely titles in the post war years called Hey Look!. In between Hey Look! and Mad he struggled. He had a partnership with Bill Elder and Carles Stern, did some work for Varsity, but mostly was looking around for new accounts. 

One of those included a company called Kunen, which produced children's puzzle books. Not vooks with puzzles, but books that were puzzled themselves. All of these books had thick double carton pakes and pieces your could take out (and sometimes switch for a nem effect). I don't know who originated this gimicky concept. It sounds like something Kurtzman would think of and he may have. I really should reread that part of Bill Schelly's excellent Kurtzman biography, But as far as I remember even Bill did not find out anything about that period I ddn't already know and Kurtzman himself was always quite tightlipped about it.

All in all Kurtzman did several of these books. Some he did with René Goscinny, a French/Argentinian jewish cartoonist who was staying in New York at that time and even shared or rented a desk at the socalled CharlesWlliamHarvey Agency. That is also where he met another French artist called Morris and started writing his already succesful comic strip Lucky Luke for the French-Belgian magazine Spirou. After a year or so he went back to France, started working with Albert Uderzo and evenually became famous as the writer and co-creator of Asterix and the editor and co-originator of the magazine Pilote.

Another artist who did some books for Kunen was Fred Ottenheimer. Not much is known about thos silly artist, except that he went to the same school als Kurtzman, Bill Elder and later Mad artist Al Jaffee. After doing a couple of books for Kunen, he did filler pages for various Fawcett comics (most of them unsigned and unidentified, although I am keeping a list) and became a publisher when he inherited his family's company. I don't know if he was part of the coterie of Kurtzman in the late forties (Al Jaffee wasn't), but he did become friends with Morris and shared an appartment or a studio with him for a short time (as well as publishing his one and only childrens book).

The one puzzle book I shared here (linked below) was done by Goscinny on his own. In my accompanying text I said I welcomed scans of the others. This week, I saw that a comment was added by Sue (I threw away the mail before noting her last name) offering just that. We exchanged information and she sent me the scans for one of Kurtzman's own books. I kindly let it go out to the world. Two down, four more to go.