Tuesday, Jun 26th, 2012
Extending Our Knowledge
posted by Bruce Canwell
When we made the decision to reprint Polly and Her Pals to kick-off our oversized Champagne Edition format, some persons of our acquaintance wondered what we could possibly learn about Polly's creator, Cliff Sterrett. I've adored Polly ever since I first saw a sample of it in the first issue of Nemo magazine, from the 1980s, I had read the biographical information contained there and in a handful of other reprintings, but I knew there had to be more. Jeet Heer and Lorraine Turner were of a similar mind. We each began calling upon our resources and started digging. The result was Jeet's exceptional essay in our Eisner-nominated Polly Volume 1, easily the most detailed and comprehensive look at Sterrett's life and career yet to see print.
When we decided to reprint Polly's 1933 dailies as the second in our Library of American Comics Essentials series, I was eager to get the assignment to write text for that release, and I did. That led to an important question: What could I possibly do for an encore?
The answer? I hit the road…
As Jeet discussed in his essay (see page sixteen of our first Polly and Her Pals book), Sterrett had become part of an artists colony located in the seaside town of Ogunquit, Maine. A bit of on-line looking put me in contact with Jane Edgecomb, the administrator of the Historical Society of Wells and Ogunquit. Jane informed me her Society did indeed have information about the artists colony, so we made the appropriate arrangements and on a bright and summery day, a'researchin' I did go.
The Historical Society of Wells & Ogunquit (Wells being Ogunquit's geographical neighbor) is located on Maine's busy Route 1, in a quaint old white church.
A modern-looking CVS pharmacy is located next door to the Society; a shopping center featuring a cinema and supermarket is located across the road. Still, the message board next to the Society's driveway serves as a reminder of small-town, unfranchised America.
The walkway in front of the Society also caught my attention: the bricks had been inscribed. The Boston Red Sox and Kansas City Royals have created similar exhibits in Fenway Park and Kauffman Stadium, and as I do when I see those baseball-related bricks, I paused to wonder about the story contained in each brick, each inscription in front of this fine structure.
One enters the Historical Society not from the doorway you've just seen, but from the rear entrance. The library is located on the second floor —long tables for researchers to spread out their books and notes, large bookcases, filing cabinets, framed maps mounted on walls, plus attractive displays that harken back to Maine's maritime past.
Jane Edgecomb was on hand to welcome me and set me up with materials related to the artists colony and to Sterrett. For the next three hours I was buried in Ogunquit life during the 1930s through the '50s. Polly fans are well aware that the strip follows the misadventures of the Perkins Clan, but how many are aware, in an amazing bit of serendipity, that the artists colony grew up around Ogunquit's Perkins Cove? Or that, in addition to attracting artists, Ogunquit had a lively theater program that brought many "name recognition" actors and actresses to The Pine Street State? In a book on the venerable Ogunquit Playhouse I found an unlikely connection between Polly and Little Orphan Annie in the person of Mitzi Greene. As a youngster, Mitzi was the first to portray Annie on the silver screen; as a young woman, she performed on stage in Ogunquit.
After I finished my work, I chatted for over a half-hour with Jane, who was a delightful conversationalist as well as a gracious host. We broke off our discussion when opportunity came knocking for the Society: a young college student majoring in history approached Jane to inquire about summer volunteer opportunities.
The Society was not about to pass up willing help!
Before leaving, I went downstairs and took a tour of the Historical Society exhibits opened to the general public. As Jane had mentioned to me, the front part of the building was still used as a function area; a wedding had recently been performed there.
Between the function area and the rear entrance, historical artifacts of all sorts were on display: some in cases, some on the walls, some large enough to rest on the floor.
I drove away from Route 1, bound for the turnpike and the two-hour drive home having enjoyed a pleasant day of research, conversation, and Vacationland courtesy. I knew the fine material I had gathered for this on-line travelogue was only the preamble for the fascinating new information and imagery I had collected for use in our upcoming Essential volume.
If, when you read my text feature that will accompany Cliff Sterrett's fantastic 1933 Polly and Her Pals daily strips, you're enthusiastic about the new information we'll be presenting, please remember to extend a mental vote of thanks to Jane Edgecomb and our new friends at the historical Society of Wells and Ogunquit.
Monday, Jun 18th, 2012
posted by Bruce Canwell
I have a very small immediate family—my father has been gone almost fourteen years now, but my mother is still active and strong. My brother and his family remain in the New England state where we were all born and reared. My younger sister and her family are located about forty minutes from me; we live at different edges of greater-metro Boston. Long ago the older of my two sisters decided she had had enough of northeastern winters. She packed up, moved to Florida, and has been there for more than two decades. During that time she married, she and her husband moved to the Orlando area, and they had a daughter who's now high school age. Until recently I would see my Florida-based family members once or twice a year. They would come north for a summer vacation or I'd go south in the spring, during baseball's spring training season, when winter is often reluctant to relinquish its grip on New England.
Nothing stays constant, however, and since 2010 the Floridians have been unable to come north, while circumstances have prevented me from going south. When I realized it had been almost two years since I had seen my sister and her family, I knew I had to take a trip to The Sunshine State. With her birthday coming up in late May, that seemed a good time to schedule a junket.
Because they live in the Orlando area, my sister's family enjoys the many theme parks in the area and are intimately familiar with all of them. We spent my Saturday with them on the grounds at Disneyworld. Sunday we were off to the land of Harry Potter - Universal's theme park (with my niece's boyfriend, Ben, along for the trip).
If you remember the pictures of me from previous entries, you'll remember I wear glasses and am very near-sighted. That's just one of the reasons the "interactive" rides and roller coasters don't hold much appeal for me—if I go without my glasses I'm as good as blind for the duration of the ride; if I go with them, the odds seem good they'll go sailing off some time during the course of the ride, in which case I'll be blind for the rest of my visit (which is potentially disastrous when one has to drive or eventually navigate through the airport). So my brother-in-law and I camped out at various locales—the Hogshead Tavern, the Fantastic Four Café—while my sister and the kids rode the Potter ride, the Spider-Man and Hulk attractions, or "the Rock-it," a roller coaster that turned me green just watching others ride it.
As we roamed the park we came upon a section of Universal that will be of interest to LOACers everywhere. As we walked from the Jurassic Park area to the Marvel section, the last thing I expected to see was an image of Walt Wallet on a gigantic sign:
We walked down a thoroughfare of shops and eateries, the exteriors of which were devoted to classic King Features comic strips, some we are in the process of reprinting…
…Some being reprinted by our distinguished-and-friendly competitors.
What a pleasure to see the King strips we all know and love being exposed to the theme-park-going population! I was especially taken with the Flash Gordon display, and it made me recall recalled that our second Champagne Edition of Flash/Jungle Jim comics had just been delivered to the printers before I flew southward.
As eye-catching as that is, check out the giant rocket ship that is also prominently featured!
If you look at the background of this photo, you'll see Pogo and old favorite Shoe also on display.
I realize families aren't going to carry five-pound hardcover books with them across the width and breadth of Universal in the Florida heat, but it's a shame there isn't a way to get samples of the comics into the hands of those folks, or at least to let them know the strips are still available in collections from LOAC and Fantagraphics and Classic Comics Library and others. It may be impossible—or at least highly improbable—to do that, but y'can't blame a guy for dreaming…
The main reason for my Florida trip was to see my sister and her family after far too long apart—the comic strip sighting at Universal were a cherry on that sundae. Still, it was a mighty pleasant surprise, as well as another sign of how deeply the comic strip is embedded in American popular culture.
Tuesday, Jun 5th, 2012
posted by Bruce Canwell
LOAC's intrepid Art Director, Lorraine Turner, says we should occasionally use this space to talk about what we do and how we do it. My knee-jerk reaction is to agree with her…to a point. If we do research in some far-flung clime or attend a convention, I fully believe those "behind the scenes" activities are of interest to our readers. But do you really care about the mechanics of how text features get written? To me it's a fun process, but heck, I grew up loving the written word (as a boy I read Harlan Ellison saying, "Writing is the holiest of chores," and I nodded my head in agreement…); in these days of text messaging and "LOL"s and video gamers I'm part of an increasingly-shrinking minority. That leaves me wondering if Lorraine is barking up the wrong tree.
Still 'n' all, I've been wrong before. Given the chance Lorraine is right and that you're out there eager for my two cents on creating LOAC text, I offer these few observations…
• • • • •
When Dean and I began planning the launch of LOAC with Terry and the Pirates Volume One, we talked about what we wanted in our text material. We were in total agreement that our goal was to echo the William Shawn-era New Yorker essays we both admired so much, works that smoothly flowed from topic to topic, stitching together a web of ideas that allowed a fully-rounded picture of the subject to emerge. The classic New Yorker work entertained while informing (becoming smarter doesn't have to be dull, after all). They made you look forward to finding out more on that particular subject, or reading more from that particular author. Compare our efforts to some of those great, thickly-packed issues of Shawn's magazine and perhaps you'll decide we fall short of the mark—I readily admit I'll never be the writer, say, Roger Angell is—but I hope you can see us striving for such heights even if we have a ways to go in order to attain the summit.
The kind of research that goes
into our essays. A young Jack (King Aroo) Kent holding
August 8, 1936 Krazy Kat Sunday page sent to him by George Herriman!
• • • • •
The need to entertain is always in the forefront of my mind while I'm writing or editing text for LOAC volumes. No matter how informative a feature may be, if it feels like you're wading through the prose to extract information, we're not doing our job—I don't want to read the equivalent of a dull-as-dishwater high school term paper and I don't believe you want to, either.
Doing research and conducting interviews is fun, building upon and adding to What Was Known Before is greatly rewarding, but I am not an academician, I am a working writer. My job is to diligently amass data and artifacts, then just as diligently meld the accumulated details into a historical-biographical story that makes my readers eager to turn the pages and allows them to better appreciate the comics themselves. I strive to produce text that is lively and vibrant enough to do justice to the lively, vibrant comic strips we all immensely enjoy.
• • • • •
The matter of tone is also important to me. Dean can tell you one thing I try to avoid is personalized constructions, what I refer to as "I/me/you/we-isms". The "relaxed" tone of the Web is being adopted by increasing numbers of writers and in its proper place (such as an informal "discussion" like this), there's nothing wrong with it ... but I believe it needs to be used sparingly in the essays we produce for our books. Shawn's New Yorker knew when "I/me/you/we"s were effective—typically in autobiographies or travelogues—but otherwise it ignored them. A wise approach.
An example of when "I/me/you/we" is appropriate!
• • • • •
The use of "I" and "me" is often an act of hubris—it pulls the reader's attention toward the writer and away from the information being imparted. In the material I write for LOAC books I am not the star of the show, Milt Caniff and Al Capp and Alex Raymond and George McManus and Cliff Sterrett are. It wouldn't be right for me to try to shift the spotlight away from them.
Sentences that rely on "we"—"When we compare the two comics, we can understand…"—sound stuffy and lecturing. They also tiptoe across the tightrope over Triteness, sometimes toppling over into that baleful abyss. How many stories set in academia feature a self-important, pontificating professor saying things like, "When we apply simply logic, we can see that…"? Our text shouldn't sound like those pompous windbags, because again, that detracts from the information we're presenting.
"You" constructions are typically even worse than the "we"s: "Read this story and you will be struck by…"; "You will find a variety of themes repeated throughout these pages…" This is the language of advertising, where pitches such as "You'll love our fresh-baked scrod!" or "You'll want to come back again and again" create a sense of immediate personalization and familiarity that is handy for selling soap, but are out of place in a serious essay.
The good news? Sentences containing "I/me/you/we-isms" are easy to recast, and in eliminating the undesirable elements it's amazing how often the sentence improves as a result. While these constructions do have an occasionally valid place in our books—Max Allan Collins is often writing out of personal experience in his Dick Tracy text features, for example—as a rule I find they're best avoided.
• • • • •
Another precept I keep in mind during the writing process is: "No one likes a know-it-all, because no one knows it all." I try to insure readers are aware of where I am sure of my facts and where I am speculating based on best-available knowledge—"None of us were there, none of us can really know" is a phrase I developed that is as accurate as it is handy. In cases where differing schools of thought exists (most recently, the subject of Don Moore's contributions that we featured in Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim Volume One) my goal is to present the differing viewpoints without favoring one over the other, although I do reserve the right to point out what I perceive as the strengths and weaknesses of each.
We also try to do our homework and we stand behind our research. A few years ago a writer challenged a topic within one of my essays because that writer had never found those facts (therefore, apparently, they must surely be false); we sent him scans of the newspaper articles that provided the information I had used in my piece. That was the end of that. We make the occasional slip-up—Roy Thomas pointed out a goof I made in King Aroo Volume 1 that still makes me hang my head in embarrassment—but we ain't makin' this stuff up, y'know.
• • • • •
Finally, Dean and I recognize that we now know more about these comic strips and their creators than ever before because we stand on the shoulders of giants, the men and women who first cared enough to learn about the strips and their writers and artists. Those persons—Bill Blackbeard foremost among them—preserved their knowledge and it became the worthy starting point for us and those like us.
We harbor no illusions that we will have the last word on these subjects, we just hope the enthusiasts and scholars who follow will look at our body of work as a solid foundation upon which they can continue to build. And if our efforts teach them to avoid "I/me/you/we-isms" in their formal writing, so much the better!