Creative Freelance Illustartors, Designers, Artists, Writers

by Borin Van Loon

You can trace comics back to the cave dwellers, if you want to try that hard. Bayeux tapestry, ancient woodcuts... Sequential art telling a story, depicting culturally identifiable events. (Oops! An attempted definition.)

Of course, I knew nothing of this when I first saw Frank Hampson's Dan Dare in the fifties. He, the creator of Dare, teamed up with Rev. Marcus Morris to produce a new comic for boys called the 'Eagle'. At a time of post-war austerity Morris persuaded the publisher to lavish good quality coated paper and full colour printing on this large format, morally uplifting publication. Apart from the very worthy 'Boys Own Paper' ('BoP' for short!), there were the pulps like 'Hotspur' which had loads of words, the 'Eagle' gave us Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future (which I pastiched as 'Don't Dare Privatise The Future' in the Thatcher era), beautiful cutaway drawings of locomotives in the centre spread (initially another Hampson creation), Waldorf and Cecil, P.C. Fortynine, Harris Tweed and loads more. The stable of titles expanded to 'Swift', 'Robin' and the girls never got a look in until 'Girl' was published. Oddly enough, when Frank Bellamy took over the Dan Dare strip, he couldn't see the need for all the sculptures, models, reference photographs and studio assistants previously assembled by Hampson, so he sat down and drew the whole thing on his own(1).

The other stream of British comix which still survive to today is the 'Dandy', 'Beano' and 'Beezer' school of cartooning. Formulaic fun which stands the test of time. Not much to say about these apart from mentioning that the 'Beezer' carried a strip called 'The Katzenjammer Kids' when I was young. It's impenetrable mid-European language was by turns baffling and intriguing. I now find (2) that this strip was devised by German immigrant to the USA, Rudolph Dirks in 1897, later continued by Harold Knerr. Not only is it the longest running strip in the history of comics, but Dirks can be attributed with the introduction of text panels and speech balloons to create the comic as we recognise it. One of the luminaries of Beanoland is Leo Baxendale, who virtually created the style of children's comics seen in Minnie the Minx and The Bash Street Kids. He reappeared in 'Thrrrp' published by Knockabout Comics (3) in the eighties in a more unhinged, adult context. Incidentally, you can probably still get hold of 'The Legend of Lord Snooty and his Pals' (from the 'Dandy', of course) at a book remainder shop near you(4).

A whole world of mainstream American comics was developing through the twentieth century Sunday colour supplements. To these we owe the existence of some of the greatest strips in comics.

'Little Nemo in Slumberland' by Winsor McCay, a master of draughtsmanship, pioneer in drawn animation (boy, did he draw!) and creator of surreal dreamworlds from 1905 (i.e. decades before Dali). Interestingly, given his mastery of the sweeping colour panorama and superb character and costume, his lettering and speech balloons are rather poor; he was human after all. Recently the whole cannon has been republished in beautiful quality by Titan Books (5). The video (6) of his early animations including the extraordinary 'Sinking of the Lusitania' is held by Suffolk libraries.

'Krazy Kat' by George Herriman, published 1913 until his death in 1944 (and, uniquely in capitalist American publishing, no attempt was made to continue this winning strip with another artist). The most celebrated strip in history, yet on the surface the most scrappy and gloss-less. Perhaps Herriman did just sit down at his Bristol board and draw it 'alla prima'. The eternal triangle of the 'Kat' whose love for Ignatz Mouse is unrequited; the response from the mouse is invariably a house brick (one of the most important uses of a plot device in history!) thrown at the Kat's head. The impact is always accompanied by bursting hearts around the Kat's seraphic smile, as he has some recognition of his existence in the eyes of the mouse. The jealous love for Krazy by Offissa Pupp - an officious police dog, no less - always leads to him jailing the mouse for his brick-throwing. Doesn't sound all that promising, does it.? And yet Herriman creates changing landscapes and backdrops with each panel (a technique used more recently by Hunt Emerson and well, me), employs that oddly quirky, mid-European accent in the mouths of the animal characters; poetry and incites into human character abound. Disney it surely ain't.(7)

In terms of the physical comic book genre America certainly led the way with Entertaining Comics (ECs), Detective Comics (DCs) and Marvel Comics. The best known characters are undoubtedly Superman and Batman, but my own favourite is Plasticman who can stretch his body to half a mile in length or pour himself through a letter box, all in the interests of fighting crime, of course. Very funny, too. As Plasticman is to Superman, so Wonder Warthog is to The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers (of which more later).

Will Eisner's 'The Spirit' also broke new ground when our masked hero in broad brimmed trilby and double breasted suit underwent all sorts of indignities, often at the hands of Lauren Bacallesque femmes fatales. Indeed the humorous, anti-hero, filmic comic probably starts here. The whole canon was republished in original format with new colour covers in the seventies.

Just time to tell you about the penchant for unbridled comic art in American culture epitomized by the horror comic. When Dr Frederic Wertham became aware of the terrible things which were available to our pop kids, he reported to the US Government and got them to agree to the Comics Code of America. All mainstream publishers had to abide by strict guidelines about sexual and violent content and to this day they display the symbol of the Comics Code on their covers. The extraordinary horror and sick genres of comics went underground and it's still very difficult to get hold of any examples, apart, that is, from those shown in Dr Wertham's' notorious book 'The Seduction' of the Innocent' (8) which you can still request from the County Reserve of Suffolk Libraries. My brother brought home from school a couple of examples of these illicit black and white comics in the early sixties and I have to admit to being impressed and disturbed in equal parts by these powerful, nightmarish works. I still remember every frame. I wish I could get my hands on some examples now; an internet search beckons, I can feel it. The man at the heart of comics censorship in America was later celebrated quite scurrilously in 'Dr Wertham's Comics', a post-hippy underground piece of great vitality.

If you want to deconstruct comics and get to know what really makes them tick, you can do just that with Scott McCloud's 'Understanding Comics' and it's follow up 'Reinventing Comics'. (9)

My own strip, 'A Severed Head' has just started to appear in the quarterly magazine 'The Chap' (10)

We'll pick up the story next time (Go to Part 2).

(1) Crompton, Alistair 'The man who drew tomorrow', Who Dares Publishing 1985
(2) Horn, Maurice '100 years of American newspaper comics', Gramercy Books 1996
(3) Baxendale, Leo 'Thrrp!' Knockabout 1987
(4) 'The legend of Lord Snooty and his pals', D.C. Thompson 1998
(5) 'Little Nemo in Slumberland Vol 1 (1905-1907)' , Titan Books 1989
(6) 'Winsor McCay: animation legend' Academy Video (B.F.I.) 1997(?)
(7) 'Krazy Kat', Madison Square Press / Grosset & Dunlap 1969
(8) Wertham, Dr Frederic 'Seduction of the innocent', Museum Press 1955
(9) McCloud, Scott 'Understanding Comics', Kitchen Sink Press 1993
(10) 'The Chap', (quarterly) P.O. Box 21135, London N16 0WW

At September's meeting Borin Van Loon (below), freelance Illustrator, Writer, Painter, and our Chairman, talked about comics and brought along some of his vast collection.

Borin Van Loon

Useful links:

The Katzenjammer Kids

Winsor McCay

Krazy Kat