R.C. Harvey is here with another foray into buried comic-strip history, this time with a profile of Napoleon creator Clifford McBride. Reading Harvey is always an education, and a pleasant one. Here’s a sample:
Back in those dear, dead days of yesteryear, cartoonists drew comic strips; they didn’t rule them with a straight-edge. And one of the best examples of the truth of this freshly brewed axiom is Clifford McBride’s dog strip, Napoleon. McBride drew with great verve and an exuberant pen, producing such a ferociously kinetic line that even when depicted in repose, his subjects seemed vitally energetic. And the style suited the subject (in fact, given the low-key humor of the strip, the style may have been the subject).
The strip focused on a stout bachelor and his giant pet—Uncle Elby and Napoleon—achieving, as art critic Dennis Wepman once wrote in Ron Goulart’s Encyclopedia of American Comics,, a “beautifully balanced team—the fat man, all stasis and order, and the lean dog, all motion and chaos.” It is Elby’s fate (and the flywheel of the strip’s punchline, daily and Sunday) to be forever dogged (pun intended) by misfortune of a minor dimension: if his own bumbling doesn’t frustrate his plans that day, then the clumsy albeit good-hearted meddling of his affectionate, over-sized hound does.
And then we also have Thad Komorowski’s review of the new, much anticipated book from Michael Barrier, Funnybooks, his examination of Dell Comics:
Funnybooks meets Michael Barrier’s exacting critical standards through a compelling narrative on what made Dell Comics tick. A wealth of unknown information is made entirely readable as we learn about important figures as flesh-and-blood active characters. Jeet Heer left a comment on his own review of The Secret History of Wonder Women that I thought was spot on: “Countless comics studies are paper thin in terms of historical research.” With the well of firsthand interviews, personal correspondence and surviving documentation Michael Barrier draws from, no one will ever make that charge against Funnybooks.
In some respects, the book is heartbreaking, as the end notes make it clear there was a profound lack of existing hard data from Western itself. This isn’t Barrier’s fault. Western’s careless disposal of its archives and the fact that no one thought it was important enough to write these things down when the records were still available have created an obstacle for every comics historian.
Yet Barrier was still able to overcome that obstacle with more than enough fresh material, a testament to his skill as a historian. The most illuminating parts of the book deal with the corporate history: how Western negotiated its various licenses with Walt Disney, Looney Tunes producer Leon Schlesinger and Marge Buell; the marketing and printing costs; the life of Oskar Lebeck, the smartest Dell editor who hired the best people and shaped the best books; how the Comic Code that Western never adopted impacted its books regardless. Over a half-century later, none of this has been written about at any serious length or depth until now, and that alone makes Barrier’s book indispensable.