A look at
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Those Wonderful "Comics"

by Albin Johnson

Around 5 AM every Sunday morning the LA Times makes a plop as it is deposited on our driveway, my most favorite edition! By 6-6:30 I separate out all the good stuff, Comics and Rotogravure sections first with Travel and Real Estate last. The rest is relegated to the recycle bin. I realize that all the Ads I throw away make the interesting parts possible! I read the Daily's for the news. My wife gets these crossword puzzles while I get the Sunday ones which I carefully remove and store inside some "Coffee Table Book" and then work them later in the week.

I have about ˝ hour before breakfast and then 9:30 is off to church. This ritual is part of my life and somewhat has its roots back in Minonk where I grew up. My prime interest then was the Chicago Tribune "Funnies". Remember Harold Teen, Lil Lulu, Tarzan, Terry and the Pirates, Little Orphan Annie, Gasoline Alley, Dick Tracy? Milton Caniff illustrated "Terry and the Pirate" as well as "Steve Canyon". Chester Gould did "Dick Tracy"; V.T. Hamlin drew "Alley Oop", and Al Capp rendered "Lil Abner". These were my heroes of the Funny Paper Age. I tried to copy some drawings and like all other budding "artists" and sent in my rendition of a Black-bearded Pirate for evaluation only to be told my talent needed further study and could be improved for a nominal fee.

I have always been interested in illustration and read about and followed some artists throughout their careers in the "Funnies", Big Little Books, Comic Books, Disney Movies and recently the PIXAR computerizations.

The "Comics" probably got their start as far back as the Revolutionary War. Old Ben Franklin enjoyed "doodling" along with his wry wit. It wasn't until the late 1800's that US Newspapers started carrying a cartoon strip with "balloons" which attached the message to the speaker. William R. Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer (publishers) were responsible for popularizing comics into the American Culture. They did it to attract new customers! Cartoonist R. Outcault first used color in the printed version of his creation "Yellow Kidd" to accentuate the yellow coat. The cartoonist Rudolph Dirk is credited with drawing the first "multiple panel" cartoon strip complete with balloon messages. The strip was called, "The Katzenjammer Kids". This strip was quickly followed by other papers publishing "Happy Hooligan", "Buster Brown", "The Newly Weds", "Little Jimmy"," Mutt and Jeff", "Krazy Kat", "Jiggs and Maggie, in "Bringing Up Father" which was drawn by Geo McManus in 1935.

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The first early comics that I remember were "Moon Mullins, "Toonerville Trolley", "The Gumps", "Barney Google" "Felix the Cat", "Little Orphan Annie", "Dick Tracy", "Little Lulu", and "Brenda Starr", My favorites were: "Dick Tracy", "Tarzan", Steve Canyon", and the "Lone Ranger". I was really mesmerized by Milton Caniffs' "Terry and the Pirates" because of his realistic illustrations. I could only dream of ever becoming an illustrator with his talent!

It wasn't long before I was introduced to the "COMIC BOOKS"!!! Can I ever forget? I was not privy to nor given enough allowance necessary to purchase this latest fad. The Golden Age of Comic Books was from 1938 until 1945. (My formidable years!!) "Superman" made his debut in 1933. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, as teenagers began developing this character. They sold their first 13-page story for a dollar a page. Superman's powers have changed from the first edition. Early on, he could only "leap tall buildings with a single bound", not fly. He could outrun a train but wasn't a blur in doing it, his uniform could stop bullets, but he had no x-ray vision. No matter, his popularity skyrocketed and the comics overall soon drew the attention of Educators, Politicians, Doctors. Psychologists, and not to forget, my Mom and Dad.

They now told me not to purchase any of these and other super hero comics. I didn't, but other friends did! Do any of you readers remember "SHAZAM"? That's what Billy spoke when he transformed into "Captain Marvel". I found that the word was formulated from the S in Solomon's wisdom, H in Hercules' strength, the A from Atlas' stamina, the Z from Zeus's power, the A from Achilles' courage and the M from Mercury's speed. "Batman" by Bob Kane was conceived in 1934 while being inspired by Da Vinci's drawings of his flying machine. How could any red-blooded kid not find these fantasies irresistible? Child psychologists certainly didn't'!!

The '40's had experts like Freud, Adler, Benet, Thorndike and their protégé doing lots of studies on "child behavior". One rather famous Doctor named Frederic Wertham spoke to several Senators and Politicians about "comic books" and soon was granted a "hearing" to study the books effect on kid's minds. He set about to show that these creations were badly drawn, written, and printed which caused the possibility of eye strain and nervous disorders in young people. He espoused, and rightly so, that these comics were now containing scenes of sex, murder, cruelty and mayhem which could make the next generation of readers more ferocious than the current one. He published his findings in a report entitled, "Education of the Innocent".

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My parents were successful in saving my psyche, as Comic Book's Super Heroes were never much a factor in my life. It was the artists and illustrators styles that got my attention, not the dialogue. I must make a slight explanation here about "dialogue" that was enclosed in the "balloons" which was attributed to the cartoon speaker. The story goes like this: There was a rotund, jolly New York City Mayor who had a special affinity for his constituents. During a New York City taxi strike in 1945, Mayor LaGuardia chose to read the undelivered comics to the public over the radio. It was an enormous hit. In his own style, he was able to verbalize the comic strip's captions in words that made kids cheer and parents smile. I suspect "The Little Flower" understood The Comics better than most other politicians.

Since the 1880's, hundreds of comic strips and cartoons have come and gone while some lasted while others faded away. I personally don't believe we should take them too seriously, they may have originally been written with an issue or personal message, but now they should be used for a good-natured laugh and not dissected too much. Artist's agendas are usually simple and on occasion do have an understanding attached. Bill Mauldin's WW2 "Willie and Joe" is a point well taken by those who served.

Visual challenges can be interesting in the appropriate form. How about Rube Goldberg's makeshift inventions? Or Hanford Martin's "Where's Waldo?" Although, I have rued the day that the LA Times dropped Waterson's "Calvin and Hobbes" from the Sunday edition. I really enjoyed his subtle interplay between the principle characters. The story goes that he named and patterned the characters after Calvin the reformer and Hobbs the philosopher. Today I read about 20 different "Toons" in my Sunday Paper. My favorites are: Trudeaus' "Doonesbury", "Crankshaft", Lazarus' "Mama", Millers' "Non Sequitur", Adams, "Dilbert", Conleys' "Get Fuzzy"; "Cathy", "Boondocks","Ballard Street", "Family Circus", Ungers' "Herman", and Johnstons' Canadian import "For Better or Worse"

As I look back on the interesting evolution of "The Comics" I am amazed at its humble beginnings and what impact it may have had on me. I can only wonder what impact the latest media craze called "Interactive TV" or SEGA type "Virtual reality Games " will have on our youth. I wonder if my Mom and Dad are smiling?