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Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books

Michael Barrier
Copyright Date: 2015
Edition: 1
Pages: 432
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Funnybooksis the story of the most popular American comic books of the 1940s and 1950s, those published under the Dell label. For a time, "Dell Comics Are Good Comics" was more than a slogan-it was a simple statement of fact. Many of the stories written and drawn by people like Carl Barks(Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge),John Stanley(Little Lulu),and Walt Kelly(Pogo)repay reading and rereading by educated adults even today, decades after they were published as disposable entertainment for children. Such triumphs were improbable, to say the least, because midcentury comics were so widely dismissed as trash by angry parents, indignant librarians, and even many of the people who published them. It was all but miraculous that a few great cartoonists were able to look past that nearly universal scorn and grasp the artistic potential of their medium. With clarity and enthusiasm, Barrier explains what made the best stories in the Dell comic books so special. He deftly turns a complex and detailed history into an expressive narrative sure to appeal to an audience beyond scholars and historians.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-96002-2
    Subjects: Performing Arts

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    Michael Barrier
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xxii)
  6. INTRODUCTION: “The Very Good Ones”
    (pp. 1-14)

    In 1949, a writer for the Catholic magazineCommonwealinterviewed a man named Harry Wildenberg, who was then a “scholarly cigar merchant” in Key West, Florida, but years before had been the sales manager for Eastern Color Printing Company in New York City. The article’s author, John R. Vosburgh, wrote of Wildenberg that he “invented the comic book back in 1932,” when his job was “to concoct ideas that would sell color printing for Eastern, which … printed the comic sections for a score of newspapers along the Atlantic Seaboard.”

    Wildenberg hit upon the idea for the comic book, Vosburgh...

  7. 1 Mickey in a Magazine
    (pp. 15-24)

    The story of Western Printing’s comic books, and thus of the unlikely triumphs of Carl Barks, Walt Kelly, John Stanley, and a few other cartoonists, began with a man of a very different sort: Hal Horne, a peripatetic publicist who from offices on Fifth Avenue in New York City published the first nine issues ofMickey Mouse Magazine.

    That particularMickey Mouse Magazinewas actually the third publication to bear the title. The first two, in 1933 and then in 1933–35, were monthly promotional pamphlets, sixteen pages in digest size, about half the size of a standard comic book....

  8. 2 Oskar Lebeck Meets Walt Kelly
    (pp. 25-42)

    Between 1935 and 1939, a German immigrant named Oskar Lebeck illustrated at least three coloring books for Western Printing & Lithographing’s consumer arm, Whitman Publishing. He also illustrated a Whitman softcover potpourri of fiction and fact for children calledChatterbox, drawing for all of those books in a spare, cleanly inked style. In addition, he wrote and illustrated three hardcover books and illustrated one more, an adaptation of L. Frank Baum’sThe Wizard of Oz, for Grosset & Dunlap, which was, like Whitman, a producer of mass-market children’s books, most notably the series with the juvenile heroes Tom Swift and Nancy Drew....

  9. 3 Whitman, K.K., and Dell
    (pp. 43-52)

    In September 1929, Whitman publishedA Story of Our Gang, a children’s book based on the Hal Roach movie shorts.¹ It was the first Whitman book written by Eleanor Lewis Packer, who had arrived in Los Angeles in July 1928, six months before her thirtieth birthday. Eleanor and her husband were both from Columbus, Ohio, but by early in 1928 they were living in Chicago, where George L. Packer was a sales manager for a stove company. He died in Chicago in April of that year, at the age of thirty-two, of what his death certificate called heart disease.


  10. 4 Learning on the Job in L.A.
    (pp. 53-57)

    Roger Armstrong’s first story forLooney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, the “monster” he remembered with a shudder, “was a thing about Porky and a character called Dirty Dog, who I think was a Chase Craig invention. I’d never done anything like that before; I’d never worked with animated-type characters.” When Eleanor Packer patched together a Los Angeles–based staff, it was obvious from the first few issues ofLooney Tunesthat no one involved with it had any comic-book experience, or, for that matter, much experience with comics of any kind, or with the animated characters on which the comic...

  11. 5 A Feel for Walt Kelly’s Stuff
    (pp. 58-67)

    One of Walt Kelly’s first stories in a Dell or K.K. comic book appeared in the first issue, dated February 1942, of the very unusualCamp Comics. The “camp” in the title referred to the military facilities where thousands of new draftees were learning to be soldiers. Every page of the comic book was pitched directly to draft-age men, from the photo of a pretty girl on the front cover to the cigarette ad on the back. Western’s collaboration with Dell was still taking shape in in early 1942, andCamp Comicswas published not by Dell but by Western...

  12. 6 Animal Magnetism
    (pp. 68-78)

    In September 1942, Lebeck originated another comic book bearing his own copyright,Animal Comics—a title that, likeFairy Tale Parade, spoke of a desire to reach a young audience familiar with traditional storybooks. It was the third Dell comic book launched that year for which Walt Kelly drew the lead story. Like the first issues ofFairy Tale ParadeandOur Gang Comics, the first issue ofAnimal Comicswas a trial issue, dated only with the year of its publication; but also like those other two comic books, it very quickly began appearing on a bimonthly schedule.


  13. 7 Cartoon Conundrums
    (pp. 79-90)

    After a year, everyone involved with theLooney Tunescomic book was struggling to write and draw stories that did not invite invidious comparisons with the cartoons. The task at hand, which it is unlikely anyone articulated at the time, was to find some way to bring animated-cartoon characters to life on the printed page without the support they enjoyed on the screen: music and movement and idiosyncratic voices. On paper, the characters were more nearly naked, existing mainly as distinct designs. Almost all of them were, moreover, talking animals, and it was in comic books that talking animals seemed...

  14. 8 Carl Barks Makes His Break
    (pp. 91-103)

    As Sangor and other publishers fed the appetites stimulated first by the animated cartoons and then by the earliest comic books based on them—the Disney titles,Looney Tunes, andNew Funnies—Dell and Western were slower than their competitors to take advantage of the demand that they had themselves done so much to create.

    The first new comic-book stories with Disney characters did not appear until mid-1941, inWalt Disney’s Reluctant Dragon, a one-shot Dell comic book that took its title from a Disney feature. The feature was assembled from animated shorts and a live-action tour of the studio,...

  15. 9 Barks Becomes the Duck Man
    (pp. 104-114)

    From the beginning of Carl Barks’s comic-book career he was attentive to the form’s demands, as many of his peers were not. Jack Hannah, for one, drew a few undistinguished comic-book stories after his work with Barks on “Pirate Gold,” but, he told Jim Korkis, “I remember very little about the work, I’m afraid, because it just didn’t seem significant to me…. I can’t remember doing the stories but it’s obvious I did them. I really had no contact with the people at Whitman…. I was probably just given some typewritten scripts and drew them up.”¹

    There was, however, not...

  16. 10 The Workman: Gaylord DuBois
    (pp. 115-126)

    Oskar Lebeck’s most important writer in the mid-1940s, as for the preceding few years, was Gaylord DuBois. He was also one of the most important figures in the early comic book. That was not because his work was of high quality in a literary or artistic sense, although admirers believe that some of it deserves such praise. Rather, it was because he worked so well in tandem with Lebeck, contributing materially to the creation of an environment in which gifted artists and writers could thrive as it was not possible to thrive then at any other publisher. Walt Kelly and...

  17. 11 The Observer: John Stanley
    (pp. 127-141)

    Gaylord DuBois had abandoned the unworkable movie-star conceit for Andy Panda when he wrote the stories for the mid-1943 issues ofNew Funnies, but the new installments presented Andy as an adorable wanderer and were hopelessly sticky. Finally, inNew Funniesno. 79, September 1943, Andy became a middle-class homeowner generally similar to the animated-cartoon version, and he acquired a foil in the form of a belligerent chick, named Charlie, who in the next issue became a full-grown rooster. Oswald the Rabbit had already acquired a companion of his own, a bear—originally a talking stuffed toy—named Toby.


  18. 12 “I Am a Backwoods Bumpkin”
    (pp. 142-149)

    “I seldom reminisce,” Carl Barks wrote in 1975 to an admirer of his stories with the Disney ducks. “Ninety percent of my life has been spent in such drudgery that I studiously avoid recalling anything earlier than ten minutes ago.”¹ That was comic hyperbole, and Barks could at times slip into extended riffs in the same vein—self-deprecation with overtones of resentment and just a little self-pity, as in this 1968 letter to the magazine writer Dick Blackburn:

    Frankly, I was incapable of writing much in the way of hidden “messages” into my stories. In personal background I am a...

  19. 13 “Pure Corn” at Disney’s
    (pp. 150-160)

    TheCalgary Eye-Openertook its name from a satirical Canadian newspaper published early in the twentieth century by a footloose Scottish immigrant named Bob Edwards. He died in Calgary, Alberta, in 1922, and the paper evidently expired the next year. By 1925 the Bob Edwards Publishing Company and theEye-Opener—its name, at least—had been bought by Harvey Fawcett, one of three brothers who had built a publishing empire in Minneapolis. The Fawcett flagship wasCaptain Billy’s Whiz Bang, described accurately byTimeas a “magazine of washroom humor.”¹ It took its name from Wilford “Captain Billy” Fawcett, who...

  20. 14 Special Talents
    (pp. 161-178)

    Roger Armstrong returned to Western after he was discharged from the army late in 1945. He remembered drawing a premium comic book of Disney’s Seven Dwarfs, one-quarter the size of a regular comic, some months later. It was copyrighted on January 29, 1947, so an incident he recalled must have taken place in 1946, probably in the fall:

    As I recall, I banged that thing out in ten days and delivered it to Carl Buettner at his home. The only time I ever paid a “social call” in all the years he and I were associated. Marcie, his wife, put...

  21. 15 Barks Masters His Medium
    (pp. 179-192)

    As highly regarded as Carl Barks’s stories were in the 1940s, they did not invariably pass through his editors’ hands unscathed. Western, probably in the person of Eleanor Packer, rejected completely the “Donald Duck” story Barks submitted forWalt Disney’s Comics & Storiesno. 64, January 1946. That story had Donald’s neighbors responding furiously to his Christmas caroling, and it was apparently the juxtaposition of the holiday with exceptionally violent slapstick that prompted the rejection.¹ Christmas was a touchy subject: another holiday-themed story, “The Golden Christmas Tree,” forDonald DuckFour Color no. 203, in 1948, underwent surgery to tame it...

  22. 16 An Arena for All the Passions
    (pp. 193-206)

    When colleagues described John Stanley,handsomewas the first word they used. He was “strikingly handsome,” Dan Noonan said. A “handsome son of a gun,” Moe Gollub said. In the first of Walt Kelly’s twoAlbert the Alligator and Pogo Possumone-shots, from 1946, Albert has Pogo in a barber chair when he shows him a wanted poster for “Perty Boy John,” a Stanley caricature. “Look!” Albert says. “You kin be as dee-lishus as dish yere feller fo’ twenny cents.” Pogo responds: “Man—he perty!” Stanley was blue-eyed and prematurely gray, tall and slender—six feet two inches and 170...

  23. 17 Animal Kingdoms
    (pp. 207-220)

    As John Stanley took up work onLittle Luluin the mid-1940s, what was emerging in Walt Kelly’s “Albert and Pogo” stories around the same time was constantly percolating ensemble comedy. Built less on real stories than on how eccentric characters bumped up against one another, this was a kind of comedy that was common in radio, on shows like those of Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and Fibber McGee and Molly—not to mentionAmos ’n’ Andy—but had no parallels in comic books and relatively few in newspaper comic strips, with prominent exceptions like George Herriman’sKrazy Katand...

  24. 18 Walt Kelly Branches Out
    (pp. 221-233)

    Dan Noonan said of working for Western in the last half of the 1940s: “It was really the heyday of the business. You were very well paid for the work, in those days; Western’s page rate was good, and of course it was comparably higher in the forties than it is now [because of intervening inflation]. Most of us would receive Christmas bonuses, too; and there were the Christmas parties up in the Penthouse Club.” Western’s office building, the Toy Center, “was located in a very pleasant part of the city, and the city was very pleasant in those days,...

  25. 19 Strong-Handed Friends
    (pp. 234-249)

    Over the course of Walt Kelly’s seven-year run on the “Our Gang” stories, there was an increasingly strong sense of caricature. Many of the characters that slipped in and out of the stories were strikingly lifelike, as if to confirm what Hank Ketcham said about Kelly: “He was a great observer of people and various funny types that you’d see all over the city, and he could put that down in a drawing very nicely.”¹ Like just a few other cartoonists, notably Will Eisner (“The Spirit”) and Roy Crane (theWash TubbsandCaptain Easycomic strips), Kelly at his...

  26. 20 Carl Barks: The Virtuoso
    (pp. 250-264)

    Carl Barks drew hundreds of cartoon humans for theCalgary Eye-Opener, but he had no occasion to draw human characters, except for his own pleasure, once he joined the Disney staff in 1935. From then on, he was drawing only ducks and other animals. The urge to draw human characters was too powerful to resist, though, and Barks made many such drawings in the late 1940s, “just trying to keep from getting in a rut so that I couldn’t draw anything else but ducks.”¹ Then such human characters began turning up in Barks’s comic-book stories.

    The Australian aborigines who slipped...

  27. 21 Walt Kelly Escapes
    (pp. 265-277)

    By the time theNew York Starfolded in January 1949, Walt Kelly was working with an assistant, George Ward, who had joined theStar’s art department the previous August.¹ Kelly had surrendered a little to the demands of his workload and delegated the lettering ofPogo’s dialogue to Ward after the comic strip began itsStarrun in October 1948. “Walt was on such a tight schedule that we always sweated out his showing up with the dailyPogoand also drawing his editorial cartoon,” Ward said, adding that Kelly “never missed a deadline.” After theStar’s demise they...

  28. 22 Oskar Lebeck in Exile
    (pp. 278-289)

    By the time Walt Kelly’s relationship with Western ended, Oskar Lebeck had been gone from Western for several years. He did not leave under the happiest circumstances.

    Moe Gollub thought that Lebeck shared some of his own pugnacity: “He insisted on being his own man. And he was right, as far as I’m concerned, most of the time. He had a crazy kind of integrity, and I liked him for it. I was so spoiled by him that any subsequent employer I could have had would never have seemed as good. I can’t regret having worked for Lebeck, even though...

  29. 23 Manifest Destiny
    (pp. 290-300)

    It was somewhere around the time his second marriage fell apart, early in the 1950s, that Carl Barks briefly thought about leaving Western.

    One of Western’s artists contacted me outside the building one day, and said, “Say, why don’t you do some comic books for this outfit”—I think they were publishing comic books with Heckle and Jeckle, or some of those fellows [St. John Publishing, which had licensed Terrytoons characters like Mighty Mouse and the magpies Heckle and Jeckle]. He said I’d make more money, and so on. I thought, well, I’ll wait a while before I make any...

  30. 24 Uncle Scrooge: Play Money
    (pp. 301-310)

    Of the many cartoon characters given their own Dell comic books in the early 1950s, Uncle Scrooge McDuck was the most unusual. He was not the star of a backup feature; he appeared in support of Donald Duck, in stories bearing that character’s name, and for all practical purposes only in stories by Carl Barks. Other writers and cartoonists had begun incorporating Scrooge in their stories as early as the December 1950 issue ofWalt Disney’s Comics & Stories, when he appeared in a “Grandma Duck” installment, but it was only in Barks’s stories that he was a character of any...

  31. 25 Carl Barks in Purgatory
    (pp. 311-326)

    For comic-book publishers, the mid-1950s were dark and frustrating years, marked by increasingly widespread condemnation not just of the titles specializing in horror and crime but of all comic books. Sales fell as the criticism increased. Dell weathered the storm better than most, since almost all of its comic books enjoyed the protection that came with characters that had already won wide acceptance in other media: not just animated cartoons, as with the Disney characters, but also radio, television, newspaper comic strips, live-action movies, books, and even, in the case of Bozo the Clown, phonograph records. But there was no...

  32. 26 The Slow Fade
    (pp. 327-333)

    As advertising took up more space in the Dell comic books, and as shorter, simpler stories became the rule in most titles, there were still a few comics—feature-film adaptations—that necessarily offered full-length stories. A few of these, as it happened, were among the most attractive and interesting Dell comics of the mid- to late 1950s, particularly when Alex Toth was the illustrator.

    Before he worked for Western from 1956 to 1960, Toth illustrated stories for Harvey Kurtzman’s war comics at EC, and Kurtzman could not suppress his skepticism: “[H]e had this technique of lots of black. Which is...

  33. 27 Disasters
    (pp. 334-345)

    It was the decline in comic-book sales that undermined and eventually ended the long-standing Dell–Western partnership.

    The partnership was very sociable as well as very profitable. Every fall, the annual “Western–Dell Day” brought members of Dell’s New York City staff, including George Delacorte, north to Poughkeepsie for golf, tennis, meals, and tours of Western’s plant.¹ In 1957, according to a Western Printing prospectus from that year, the Dell comic books and paperback books that Western produced were being distributed by Dell to “more than 100,000 newsstand and supermarket outlets.” That arrangement was, however, severable at will by either...

  34. EPILOGUE: Can These Bones Live?
    (pp. 346-354)

    When Western began publishing under the Gold Key label (derived from the names of two of its subsidiaries, Golden Press and K.K. Publications), the emphasis shifted slightly toward titles likeMagnus, Robot FighterandDoctor Solar, Man of the Atom, which Western itself owned. Such characters were, if not exactly superheroes, more directly competitive with the resurgent DC and Marvel characters, and, perhaps just as important in Western’s reduced circumstances, using them did not require paying royalties to a licensor.Magnuswas science fiction of a sort Western had rarely attempted. It was an exceptionally handsome comic book, illustrated by...

  35. Abbreviations
    (pp. 355-356)
  36. Notes
    (pp. 357-396)
  37. Index
    (pp. 397-408)