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We’re Outrageous

Today on the site, R.C. Harvey is here with another installment of Hare Tonic, in which he looks back at the life and work of Smokey Stover creator Bill Holman.

In late 1934, Holman heard that Joseph Patterson, publisher of the New York Daily News, was looking for a Sunday comic strip that would display the paper’s civic-minded support of such public servants as policemen and teachers and, in this case, firemen.

“I had sold a lot of firemen cartoons to magazines,” Holman said, “and the idea of firemen running around all over in red trucks seemed like a good gimmick to hang things on.”

Over Christmas while visiting his grandmother in Crawfordsville, Holman drew up a sample Sunday strip and when he returned to New York, he offered it to Patterson, who bought it.

“He wondered if I could keep it up,” Holman said, “and I told him confidently that I could.”

The madcap Smokey Stover debuted March 10, 1935 and continued with the Tribune-News Syndicate until Holman retired in 1973.

The title character is a fireman, and while the strip also features his boss, the fire chief Cash U. Nutt, the activities just as often involve Smokey’s wife Cookie or his son Earl or their cat with a perpetually bandaged tail, Spooky, who, for a time, starred in a companion strip of his own before joining the firehouse gang.

Holman, said comics historian Stephen Becker, “threw himself into his work with unmitigated glee,” creating such “memorable departures from rationality, verbal juxtapositions and misunderstandings, and irrepressible manglings of the English language” that he is forever revealed as “a man to whom reality is subordinate to art” (209).

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

—Interviews & Profiles. Emily Wilson at The Daily Beast profiles Trina Robbins.

On the day we spoke, Robbins sat in a café across the street from her house in San Francisco, having a bagel and coffee. She had just gotten back from a Comic Convention in Argentina, where, she said, she had a wonderful time.

“I got so much love,” the 79-year-old artist said. “I never hugged more people.”

Debkumar Mitra remembers Bengali cartoonist Chandi Lahiri.

“Chandi-da was a lifelong learner,” says Debasish Deb, a famous illustrator and Lahiri’s former colleague at Ananda Bazaar Patrika. “He used to say, ‘you have to read a lot to draw political cartoons. You may know all the techniques in the world to draw cartoons, but you might still never know what political cartooning is all about.’” Deb finds that reflected throughout Lahiri’s work, often seen in the form of a severe denouncement of the political class, sometimes embracing controversy, but never compromising. From elements of the Mahabharata to the Ramayana to modern political thought, everything found a place in his huge body of work. Despite the breadth of his knowledge, Lahiri remained anchored to his roots: Bengal. There is an acute sense of “Bengaliness” in his cartoons that, perhaps as a result, did not transcend the borders of West Bengal.

Scott McCloud appeared on the popular podcast 99% Invisible.

—Reviews & Commentary.
At Artforum, Sarah Nicole Prickett writes an excellent, provocative essay on the cultural and political meanings of Wonder Woman.

Because he was unlikely for his time, it is easy to see [Wonder Woman creator William Moulton] Marston as the hero, the lightning-struck creator of a comic so rich in expression, so queer in theory that it’s as peerless today as it was unprecedented then. He was as Northern as [Margaret] Mitchell was Southern. Born and educated in Boston, he became an experimental psychologist who claimed to have invented the lie-detector test. Before the Depression, he worked as a “consulting shrink” for Universal Studios in Hollywood; after being fired, he decided that comic books, not movies, were the ultimate form of propaganda. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind landed in theaters during what Neville Chamberlain called a “lull in the operations of war.” Wonder Woman made her solo debut two years later, as the first US Army planes flew over Europe, in issue number one of Sensation Comics: “At last, in a world torn by the hatred and wars of men, appears a woman,” as if female leads in action comics had been doing anything besides, as John Berger would say, appearing.

But a superlative heroine was destined to appear sooner rather than later. Marston’s idea was one of many seeds racing toward the egg of necessity, sucked in by timing, chance, fate. The environment was fertile. Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president of the United States, believed in suffrage, free love, shorter skirts, vegetarianism, and eugenics. Margaret Sanger believed in a woman’s right to make informed choices, and also in eugenics. Marston idolized Sanger. He believed, or at least once said, that the next hundred years would see the dawn of American matriarchy, and that women would use love to conquer men in a “serious sex battle” in the twenty-fifth century, a point in time conveniently far from his own. Believing religiously in suffrage, he excelled as a progenitor of so-called male feminism, the supererogatory mode of allyship practiced by men for whom “equality” means easier access, and putting a woman on a pedestal meant looking up her skirt. On hearing, from his publisher, that every comic-book heroine so far had been commercially a failure, he replied, “But they weren’t superwomen. They weren’t superior to men.” His visions of female supremacy took to the limit a bad idea, that a woman can only be a person if she’s not only human.


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