Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books

Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books

Michael Barrier has stood at the forefront of animation and comic-book historians for over four decades. His 1970s magazine Funnyworld paved the way for serious discussion about these art forms and the people who defined them. At last, animation and comics craftsmen received the intelligent attention they deserved! In particular, Barrier was among the earliest and most fervent advocates for Carl Barks a master cartoonist. That coalesced into a whole book about the Duck Man in 1982 (Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book).

Some three decades later, Barrier’s torch for the Dell Comics in which he first read Barks is as strong as ever, and Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books is the triumphant result.

In mid-20th century America, the comics published by Western Printing & Lithographing Company under the Dell label were inescapable. It had the market cornered on non-superhero licensing: comics with characters from the Disney, Warner Bros., MGM and Walter Lantz animation studios; Marge Buell’s Little Lulu; Johnny Gruelle’s Raggedy Ann; Tarzan; the Lone Ranger. Popular characters were the pull, but master cartoonists and storytellers like Barks, Walt Kelly and John Stanley were the reason people kept staying and kept certain titles’ circulation up to a million copies.

John Stanley’s “The Gourmet,” from Little Lulu, no. 5 (1948), one of many rightly singled out for praise in Funnybooks.

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.

Like his earlier books Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age and The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, Funnybooks is part pop culture history and part pop culture criticism. This is generally where Barrier gets the most flak with fans: they say he’s harsh and his standards are too high. He’ll probably get that flak again when people read his analysis of accepted Carl Barks classics. Of Scrooge McDuck’s famous half-page brawl in “Back to the Klondike” (which was removed from its original 1953 publication), he writes:

… one of Barks’s very rare miscalculations at this stage of his career. There is a great deal going on in that panel, many simultaneous actions ignited by Scrooge, but no suggestion that the panel is a composite stretching over a brief period of time (as might have been the case if Scrooge himself were depicted more than once, battling the mob at different spots in the bar). The brawl might be more convincing, and seem less contrived, if Barks had presented it in a few more panels, as he did the battle of the steam shovels in “Letter to Santa.” Hyperbole was an important element in Barks’s stories, but usually with a more solid grounding than in this case.

There are numerous passages along those lines, but for my part, I enjoyed the commentary even when I didn’t agree with it. Barrier takes on everything in these stories from plotting, pacing, structure and drawing, and it’s clear he feels the stars were aligned for these cartoonists only briefly. But when Barks, or anyone, was firing on all cylinders, Barrier let’s the reader know, as he does in his discussion of “Luck of the North” (1949):

Barks almost seemed to move backwards, by isolating moments of time in a sequence of panels as Donald gradually, painfully realizes that a satisfying practical joke may have deadly consequences for his obnoxious cousin Gladstone Gander. Barks was, however, not reverting to the storyboard-like drawings of his early stories but was instead dissecting Donald’s psychological state with a subtlety that was unique in comic books. There were echoes of Barks’s animation work in such panels, but echoes completely different from those in the early stories, as Barks explained in 1971: “Back in the days when I was working there at the studio, the thing was to hold a character for as long as you could. Let the public see him think. And his actions were studied, so that whenever he did pull a fast gag, it was a contrast to the slow action up to that time.”  Because Barks shows so clearly the workings of Donald’s mind, what follows in “Luck of the North”—Donald’s frantic effort to catch up with Gladstone and save him from perishing in the Arctic—is entirely believable.

Barks, Kelly and Stanley made up the golden trio of Dell Comics and are covered in the most depth by Barrier. That coverage takes up most of the book: Barrier’s writing on Barks accounts for at least 40 percent of the page count, and another 25 percent is on Kelly. I’ve been recommending Barrier’s book to people who don’t know much about these legendary cartoonists because Funnybooks is a fine primer as well as advanced reading.

The “Hypno Gun” story, from Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories, no. 145 (1952); the apex of Carl Barks’s career, in Michael Barrier’s view, and it’s hard to argue.
The “Hypno Gun” story, from Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories, no. 145 (1952); the apex of Carl Barks’s career, in Michael Barrier’s view, and it’s hard to argue.

For the most part, Barrier connects everything to the history of Western in a refreshing way, peppered with anecdotes from eyewitnesses to give the narrative further credence. Barks was privileged in a way his colleagues in California weren’t because he was rarely in the office and didn’t have to have his pencils or scripts approved. Walt Kelly’s Pogo originated in the Dell line, but he grew weary with how indistinguishable Western was marketing it, forcing him to take the character exclusively to the newspapers. Barrier’s view of the ethical dilemma inherent in licensed comics—cartoonists like Barks and Stanley reaped no financial benefits for the life they gave others’ characters—is simple, direct and apt:

But as with Carl Barks, it is hard to argue that John Stanley was being exploited. Marge’s Lulu, like Disney’s Donald Duck, gave a gifted artist the head start he needed to do work that was far more extraordinary than anything he did, or may have been capable of doing, completely on his own.

There is a lot of fascinating discussion of Carl Barks, Walt Kelly and John Stanley for certain. But at a certain point, even if you’re enjoying the narrative, you’ve got to ask, “Didn’t other guys work here?”

There’s no disputing these were the best three creators to work for Dell Comics, but it’s an attitude that boxes a writer in so tightly as a critic that at times it impairs the history. On his website, Barrier justified emphasizing “the very good ones” and leaving out the majority of Dell’s cartoonists in his book, citing an E.L. Doctorow piece along the way: “I decided to leave many others in darkness, and not simply out of concern for the book's length. The work of any number of artists and writers didn’t seem to invite the serious examination that was so rewarding where, say, Carl Barks was concerned.” Compared to the discussion in Funnybooks where Barks is concerned, that’s not nearly as compelling a case. (And as a historian, I wouldn’t go to Doctorow to make the case either.)

The majority of the Dell comic books weren’t written or drawn by Barks, Kelly or Stanley. I’m not privy to an actual page count, but I’d guess cartoonists like Harvey Eisenberg or Paul Murry drew at least as much as any of them. So therefore, a book on the “Dell experience” would encompass all of the cartoonists and licensed properties rather than zero in on a select few, regardless of quality.

And of course, that book would have to acknowledge the obvious: the majority of them aren’t very good. I have a sizable collection of Dell comics with the Warner Bros. and MGM cartoon characters, and they emphatically don’t invite serious examination. Slick cartooning, but largely mundane writing. There’s no disputing that the comic books were inferior to the comedic cinema that was those studios’ animated cartoons.

A sizable sampling of the Dell Comics featuring the Looney Tunes characters, put together by Michael Barrier himself for his aborted Warner Bros. art book.
A sizable sampling of the Dell Comics featuring the Looney Tunes characters, put together by Michael Barrier himself for his aborted Warner Bros. art book.

Rather than operate around the limitations inherent to the comic book world as Barks and Stanley did, cartoonists like Gil Turner, who wrote and drew hundreds of stories with the Disney, Warner and MGM characters, embraced them and created within those confines. Barrier has said elsewhere that Turner was one of the better cartoonists to work for Dell, but Turner only shows up in Funnybooks via a single quotation from Jack Bradbury, a regular fixture of the Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse books who Barrier doesn’t talk much about either. Paul Murry (Mickey) gets a single dismissive mention, and Harvey Eisenberg (Tom and Jerry) isn’t mentioned at all.

From the “Li’l Bad Wolf” story in Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories, no. 104 (1949), written and drawn by Gil Turner; an ingeniously convoluted story with the Big Bad Wolf disguising as himself in a school play.
From the “Li’l Bad Wolf” story in Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories, no. 104 (1949), written and drawn by Gil Turner; an ingeniously convoluted story with the Big Bad Wolf disguising as himself in a school play.

While working full-time as an animator for Walter Lantz in 1952, Turner wrote the wife of a friend, animator Preston Blair, when she was looking to write for the Dell line:

Don’t attempt a story until you have made a thorough study of Dell magazines. It’s the only way you will really learn the requirements. A story that in itself may be funny and have merit may not be worth a nickel as a vehicle for Bugs, Porky, Mickey, or any of the others.

That certainly epitomizes the general tone of Dell Comics in the ‘50s, and is precisely why we revere Barks, Kelly and Stanley most of all: while meeting the standards of the Dell line, their stories were still emphatically of their own authorship. As entertaining as Turner’s “Li’l Bad Wolf” feature for Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories could be, Turner too often crossed the line into the formulaic territory that made so many stories by him and his colleagues indistinguishable.

Yet a thorough examination of the lesser books that made up most of Western Printing’s output, and why they came out the way they did, could still be utterly fascinating. Barrier dabbles quite a bit in this realm in the first half of the book when he’s dissecting Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies Comics and New Funnies, and I wish he kept it up. If anything, it’d help make his case for the best cartoonists stronger.

Because Funnybooks is so strong, it’s only natural I long for more on the guys who don’t meet the criteria of “the very good ones.” Whatever qualms there are, they’re quickly eradicated by the breadth of Michael Barrier’s research and by his intelligent criticism.