‘Comics About Cartoonists’ is a book where 42 artists let their hair down and let their art talent do the talking about themselves as cartoonists or about their profession’s quirkiness displayed in their stories. As such, you end up with horror, comedy or both. This isn’t modern day and a lot of the time you probably know many by the characters they created than themselves. I mean people today might know who Dick Tracy is but only us old-timers know he was created by Chester Gould. Of course, if you a comicbook geek, this book will look like home territory. This doesn’t mean Gould did ‘Dick Tracy’ here. In fact, the artists didn’t use their trademark characters, other than Will Eisner with ‘The Spirit’.
‘Comics About Cartoonists’ edited by Craig Yoe, becomes a tour de force of scariness and comedy. The cartoonists belay the fact that their job is often a solitary pursuit, seeking inspiration when none is forthcoming to having a sly dig at their editor employers. If anything, it’s remarkable that some of them ever saw print, although the hilarity factor and I suspect deadlines ensured many were. Seeing them all collected together in one volume makes for an interesting set of work. In case you thought they died out at the end of this book, although not printed here, Marvel did two of their own, Kirby and Heck, back in the late 60s and you can see that this early material must have influenced their results.
There are some stories here where the artists put themselves into the story or at least use or exaggerate their life-style for the material. This is then given over comedy elements to horror. The devil doesn’t just create good music but also gets artists to draw what he wants as well.
Picking out favourites is tough. Much of the time, the best ones in this book are the surprise ones. Amongst these is Elzie Segar’s 1928 ‘Thimble Theatre’ strip. Segar went on to create ‘Popeye’. Here, he shows the problems of a newspaper publisher thinking he has to get a cartoonist and doesn’t understand the creative process, just seeing he has to throw money at it. What’s more amazing is it still works today.
The more comic antics of ‘Spueedlegump’ by Ken Hutgren looks like an odd Woody Woodpecker with a dash of Bugs Bunny but equally hilarious.
Picking out favourites is really tough. Do I pick out fan recognised names like Winsor McCay, Wally Wood, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko or the more obscure ones like Basil Wolverton and Sheldon Mayer? There really is something for everyone here from comicbook to newspaper strips and it’s interesting to see how each handles the subject.
Reading these stories from that time period, it almost seems obligationary for comicbook writers and artists, especially those who combined the two, to do such writers, often showing they have writer’s block or enforcing the idea that the characters were real and only relating their tales. Again, Will Eisner’s 1942 ‘The Spirit’ story is a classic for this.
Although I’m not sure whether today’s generation will go for this book, certainly the oldsters amongst us will. As indeed, I suspect that many comicbook professionals will as well. For the most part, none of them break the fifth wall and talk directly to the reader. They don’t need to. Reading them alone is clearly enough and you might never look at a comicbook creator in quite the same way again.