Category Archives: History

The Comics Observer takes a glimpse into the past to discover something about how we got to where we are today. From celebrated creators and their work to the mistakes some would prefer to forget, it’s all an open book.

Two classic comic strips, one classic gag

Compare and Contrast exercise:

Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz (first published December 18, 1950):

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Cul de Sac by Richard Thompson (first published December 28, 2007):

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GoComics has been re-running Richard Thompson’s excellent comic strip Cul de Sac since his recent retirement due to Parkinson’s disease. I’ve been reading the reruns, and I also happen to be reading Fantagraphics’ The Complete Peanuts: 1950-1952. Both of the above installments occur early in the respective strips’ syndicated runs, about 2-3 months after their debuts.

Thompson is a beloved, award-winning cartoonist, and for good reason. You could fairly easily draw a straight line from the legendary Peanuts to Calvin & Hobbes to Cul de Sac in regard to popularity, skill and influence. The benefit book Team Cul de Sac is chock full of artists paying tribute to Thompson and his comic strip. It was released last year to help raise funds to battle Parkinson’s.

Is an accusation of plagiarism, committed sub-consciously or not, appropriate? I think we can reasonably dismiss that while at the same time taking a closer look at both strips. Acknowledgments to the Peanuts comic appear to be too overt to be a sub-conscious swipe. Charlie Brown and Nara in the last panels have similar expressions, opened-mouth and stunned, even looking down at similar angles. The zig-zag on Alice’s hat seems to be a clear reference to Charlie Brown’s iconic yellow shirt (not yet created in the 1950 strip above). Thompson would also be foolish to consciously try to rip off Peanuts, which has a world-wide fan-base that would surely catch the offense. Indeed a commenter at GoComics at the 2007 link above pretty quickly makes the connection. The opening line about a “new model” is also a likely reference to a Peanuts strip first published a little over a month later from the original adult conversation comic, on January 29, 1951:

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Thompson concluded his strip by taking the adult conversation joke one step further. Alice’s rhetorical question is probably implied in Schulz’s strip, but it could be Thompson acknowledging the past and picking up the baton. Charlie Brown walks off alone to contemplate his future as a mundane adult. Alice arrives alone but leaves with a friend, perhaps in the next moment promising each other they’ll be different when they grow up.

These are some of the thoughts I had when looking at these two comics. What about you? Whatever the real reasons and intentions behind both comics, they offer a great opportunity to take a closer look at two masters.

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1987 documentary The Masters of Comic Book Art resurfaces on YouTube

The release of the critically acclaimed graphic novels Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman forever shifted the American perception of comic books, revealing a potential for sophistication in visual storytelling and mass appeal previously unrealized or forgotten. It’s taken a couple of decades for the industry to build up from these milestones, but the late 1980s were an exciting time where a lot of the groundwork was laid for establishing a demand for independent (read: not Marvel or DC superhero) comics, future improvements in creator rights, and a healthy graphic novel and manga distribution market in book stores, among other things.

In the midst of this, sci-fi author Harlan Ellison created a straight-to-video documentary spotlighting ten American comic book artists who were on the front lines of innovation and creativity at the time, as well as looking at the history up to that point. Released in 1987, it has remained out-of-print since the demise of the VHS era. Now the entire hour is viewable again thanks to YouTube user StandUpComicBooks.

UPDATE: Unfortunately the video was removed at the request of the copyright owner. Hopefully this means that an official release digitally or otherwise is planned, as it’s a shame for this snapshot of comics history to be unavailable to the general public.

From the Wild West to the White House

Who says drawing comics won’t take you anywhere?

Everett Raymond Kinstler is one of America’s most respected artists. He has painted the portraits of seven United States presidents, and his portraits of Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan were used as the official White House portraits for their respective terms in office.

Image courtesy EverettRaymondKinstler.com

But he didn’t start out painting Presidents in the White House.

When he was just 16 years old, Kinstler started out drawing western, horror and superhero comics in the 1940s and ’50s. Here’s a great cover from issue #22 of Avon Publications’ Jesse James, released in 1955.

Cover courtesy of the Grand Comics Database

Unfortunately, the damaged comics market of the mid ’50s eliminated a lot of work (Avon Publications gave up publishing comics about a year later and lots of others went out of business), but Kinstler always had his eye on other work. Having developed his skills in comics, he used that experience to move into book illustrations and finally portraits. He’s painted the portraits of John Wayne, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, along with Supreme Court Justices, senators, governors, and more. He’s won the prestigious Copley Award from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and received honorary doctorates.

After all of the celebrities and acclaim, he’s still proud of his comics and pulp magazine roots. Opening March 10, an exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum will feature his early comics work as part of a thorough examination of his entire career, right up to work done as recently as December 2011.

How Much Would You Pay for Superman?

Check to buy Superman (March 1, 1938)

How does $130 sound?

That’s what publisher Jack Liebowitz paid to own all of the rights to the character in 1938. Pretty good deal.

Above is the actual check received by Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to buy their new Superman character outright. The check is dated March 1, 1938, and also includes payment for work by the creative partners appearing in comics cover-dated June 1938: $210 for stories appearing in Detective Comics #16 (21 pages in the publisher’s flagship book at the time), and $36 each for work in More Fun Comics and New Adventure Comics (probably issues #32 and #27, respectively). The total comes to $412. Noticeably absent is payment for their work in Action Comics #1, also cover-dated June 1938, although it’s possible that the $130 payment includes both the rights to Superman and compensation for their writing and illustrating the story.

The check is going to auction next year at ComicConnect. On Monday, it was posted to Twitter by Gerry Duggan (writer of The Infinite Horizon and fellow Emerson grad), where it immediately spread like wildfire among the comics community.

Andy Khouri of Comics Alliance has a great write-up that covers the historical significance of this check resurfacing after being assumed lost for decades. It is the beginning of a long and depressing narrative of the fight for creator rights and fair compensation in comics, and the complex series of ugly legal battles between DC Comics and the families of Siegel and Shuster that continues to this day. In 2008, the Siegel Estate was awarded half of the copyright to Superman as he appeared in his earliest comics and newspaper strips, but that ruling is currently being appealed. The Shuster Estate may be able regain its portion of the copyright in 2013. (In what maybe should have been a red flag of the troubles ahead, both Siegel and Shuster’s names on the check were misspelled by Liebowitz.)

The check was also used as evidence in the first comic book copyright lawsuit, Detective Comics, Inc. v. Bruns Publications, Inc. In 1939, Detective Comics sued Bruns regarding the latter’s Wonder Man character, which DC claimed infringed on Superman due to the likeness of their powers. That case was found in DC’s favor, establishing a precedent that led to the more popular Captain Marvel getting similarly squashed 11 years later. These cases allowed Marvel Comics to use both of these names in the 1960s and ’70s without any opposition. It also resulted in the British license of the original Captain Marvel to be reinvented as Marvelman by Mick Anglo in 1952, which is the beginning of a whole other epic battle of legal entanglements that only recently got cleared up (allegedly).

(Hat tip to Scott Shaw!)

Dark Horse Comics – 1987

Dark Horse Comics entered its second year more than quadrupling its output.

Dark Horse Comics’ flagship title Dark Horse Presents, nominated for a 1987 Kirby Award, continued to draw in more established creators like Paul Gulacy, who had been doing work for Marvel and DC for years, and had success with his own Six From Sirius mini-series. He was the first guest artist to provide covers, but no interior work. The anthology was also becoming a good venue for creators to stretch their wings when elsewhere they were typically pigeon-holed into one job. John Workman, who was working regularly as a letterer and occasionally as a colorist for DC and Marvel, and had already done some lettering work for Dark Horse’s first issues, wrote and illustrated Roma. Steve Mattson had done some work for Eclipse Comics before coloring Dark Horse’s earliest releases. He got to write and illustrate his own features, first Doc Abstruse and then the Vitruvian Man. Mark Badger of American Flagg fame returned after his collaboration with J.M. DeMatteis in Dark Horse Presents #2 from the previous year. In DHP #10, he contributed the first appearance of The Masque. Co-created with Mike Richardson and Randy Stradley, the character would be altered two years later by John Arcudi and Doug Mahnke into The Mask, and would later be adapted into a successful 1994 film starring Jim Carrey.

Dark Horse’s second comic (and first monthly series) Boris the Bear continued to satirize comics and pop culture with riffs on Batman, ElfQuest, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (again), G.I. Joe, Rambo, and T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. Jim Bradrick’s Wacky Squirrel became a semi-regular back-up feature in the comic. But by early summer, new issues stopped coming out. Colorized versions of the first three issues were released, perhaps as a stop-gap. Several months passed before the twelfth issue was finally released, and then the series, which had been largely written or co-written with Mike Richardson, left Dark Horse and struck out on its own. A month later, Boris the Bear #13 was released by Nicotat Comics with Steve Mattson assisting Smith on script. The series continued under Nicotat until 1991 and then vanished into obscurity.

Despite the loss of Boris the Bear, a new comic’s arrival earlier in the year would eclipse Boris in both popularity and acclaim. Paul Chadwick’s Concrete, starring the character of the same name who had debuted in the very first issue of Dark Horse Presents, broke out in his own series while still showing up in DCP. The title was Dark Horse’s first milestone title and went on to win critical acclaim and numerous industry award nominations. The property continues to garner respectable sales in collected editions and new mini-series.

Ron Randall’s Trekker also graduated from the pages of Dark Horse Presents for a 6-issue limited series. A one-shot would follow in 1989 and then become all-but forgotten. This however was only the beginning of Randall’s collaboration with Dark Horse.

The American was a brand-new property from the mind of Mark Verheiden. Virtually unknown at the time, Verheiden would go on to be a successful Hollywood screenwriter and producer for the hit TV series “Smallville” and (the new) “Battlestar Galactica”. He would also write comics for DC Comics and return to Dark Horse on several occasions. While the 8-issue series did spawn a one-shot follow-up and a sequel mini-series in the 1990s, it has mostly faded away.

Mecha was one of Dark Horse’s earliest full-color comics. Visually reminiscent of cartoons such as “Robotech,” “Voltron” and “Battle of the Planets,” the comic could arguably claim the distinction of being Dark Horse’s first manga-esque comic. Dark Horse would eventually have great success in translating Japanese manga for North American audiences, essentially predicting the great manga influx of material beginning circa 2002.

The Book of Night was a 3-issue mini-series primarily consisting of reprinted short stories from Epic Illustrated by the fantasy and comic book illustrator Charles Vess. Each cover warned “Suggested for Mature Readers,” a first for the young publisher.

It was clear that Dark Horse was beginning to diversify their line-up. Another strong sign of the things to come for the publisher was the acquisition of the Godzilla license, which no doubt helped them land future high-profile and profitable licenses like Star Wars, Aliens, Predator, Terminator, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and more. A special one-shot was released with some of the most high-profile and acclaimed names in comics at the time, like Steve Bissette, Alan Moore, Keith Giffen, Rick Geary, Charles Vess and others.

Another expansion was a reprint one-shot of old sci-fi comics from the late 1940s and early 1950s. Basil Wolverton’s Planet of Terror contained stories by the influential illustrator from comics originally published by Marvel Comics and Key Publications. The comic included a cover by Alan Moore. Wolverton was a highly regarded artist whose work was later collected and celebrated by notable publishers such as Fantagraphics Books, but Dark Horse Comics was one of the first. Wolverton, who died in 1978, was inducted into the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame in 1991 and the Will Eisner Hall of Fame in 2000. Dark Horse followed up this reprint with several others reprint projects in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as well as a series of prestige busts modeled after Wolverton’s unique illustrations.

Dark Horse Comics appeared to be doing well enough, but a break-out hit was needed.

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Dark Horse Comics – 1986

Dark Horse‘s first year. Twenty years ago, Dark Horse Comics was just starting out, with only two titles – an anthology and a satire starring a teddy bear. How things would change!

Oregon-based retailer Mike Richardson assembled a bi-monthly anthology series called Dark Horse Presents using local creators who had recently gotten some professional credits under their belts from Marvel Comics, as well as some brand-new talent. Paul Chadwick, who had penciled some issues of Dazzler, Marvel’s disco queen super-hero, broke out from the beginning with the story of Concrete, a man whose mind is trapped in a large rock-like body. (The character would eventually spin off into his own series and go on to win multiple prestigious industry awards.) The second issue of DCP included a story by J.M. DeMatteis. Having written for both DC Comics and Marvel Comics, and with a creator-owned series called Moonshadow turning heads, DeMatteis was easily the most established creator the young publisher could claim at the time. Dark Horse Presents proved successful enough to switch to a monthly schedule in the following year, as it attracted more and more creators with higher profiles. It continued until 2000, making it Dark Horse’s longest-running title and America’s longest-running anthology comic to date.

Meanwhile, newcomer James Dean Smith’s Boris the Bear was a violently satirical book that took aim at unfunny funny animals (like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), the giant robot craze, and ownership and creator rights issues in comics. His rival Wacky Squirrel, introduced in Boris the Bear #4, would get his own series the following year. While somewhat forgotten today, the book turned out to be something of a hit and continued running at Dark Horse until Smith began publishing it under his own Nicotat Comics in 1987.

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Today in Comics History: “Somebody’s Stenog”

Today in 1918, A.E. Hayward’s comic strip “Somebody’s Stenog” debuted in United States newspapers through the Ledger Syndicate. It was probably the first comic strip about women in the office. The concept had actually debuted for six weeks in November and December 1916 in Hayward’s single-panel strip “Padded Cell” as a series called “Somebody’s Stenographer”.

Today in Comics History: Katzenjammer Kids

Today in 1897, Rudolph Dirks’ Sunday comic strip “Katzenjammer Kids” debuted in the American Humorist Sunday supplement of William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. Inspired by Wilhelm Busch’s German children’s story “Max und Moritz” from 1865 (licensed by The Hearst Corp. for the strip’s creation), “Katzenjammer Kids” starred twin kid brothers Hans and Fritz who rebelled against authority. It was the first genuine comic strip, telling a story in a series of panels using speech balloons. A legal battle in 1912 led to Dirks leaving the strip to create the duplicate “The Captain and the Kids” for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Harold H. Knerr took over “Katzenjammer Kids” until his death in 1949, succeeded by Charles H. “Doc” Winner, Joe Musial, Mike Senisch and Angelo DeCesare. The strip still runs to this day, written and illustrated by Hy Eisman (who also draws the Sunday “Popeye” strip) since 1986, making it the oldest comic strip still in syndication. (Sources: Katzenjammer Kids, Toonopedia and Wikipedia; image courtesy ComicStyle.net)

Today in Comics History: Cliff Sterrett

Today in 1883, Cliff Sterrett was born in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Sometimes referred to as the Picasso of comic strips, he would grow up to create the strip “Positive Polly,” the first with a female lead. As it evolved into “Polly & Her Pals,” it eventually began exploring elements of surrealism, expressionism, cubism and even dadims. Pantomime was also explored. The strip ran for 46 years, ending with Sterrett’s retirement in 1958.

(Sources: ASIFA-Hollywood, Toonopedia, Lambiek and SteveStiles.com; postcard photo courtesy Steve Krupp’s Curio Shoppe)

Today in Comics History: E.C. Segar

Today in 1894, Elzie Crisler Segar was born in Chester, Illinois. As E.C. Segar, he would grow up to create the comic strip “Thimble Theatre,” which would eventually star the character Popeye the Sailor. In 1971, the National Cartoonist Society created the Elzie Segar Award in his honor to recognize people who make a unique and outstanding contribution to the profession of cartooning. Last month, Fantagraphics Books released their first volume of a reprint series of “Thimble Theatre” starting with Popeye’s introduction in 1928. (Sources: E.C. Segar Sees Green, Popeye’s Poopdeck, Lambiek, Wikipedia