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PG Tips No. 23:

The Best Of 2008 Part 2 - Books About Comics

In Part 1 of my selection of The Best Of 2008 I picked out my Top Ten favourite graphic novels and comics in book form. In Part 2 below, I’ve selected ten (actually eleven!) best English-language books about comics which I enjoyed during 2008.


Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist
by Nancy Goldstein
The University of Michigan Press
While researching the Patty-Jo black dolly, specialist Nancy Goldstein became fascinated by the woman behind the single-panel cartoon series from which the spin-off toy derived. She learnt that Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger ran from 1945 to 1956 every week in the African American newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier and became even more intrigued when she found that this was only one of four cartoon and comic strip series created between 1937 and 1956 by African American pioneer Jackie Ormes (1911-1985). I was unfamiliar with this topical, often political, gag feature, although I had come across some information and samples elsewhere of her romantic adventure serial Torchy Brown in Heartbeats. Ormes drew this colour half-page for four years from 1950 but sadly, of those 200 or so strips, around forty have vanished when libraries threw out their unwanted, unimportant comics sections. There’s always the hope that someone out there lovingly clipped and saved them all so the entire run can be reprinted. Also missing are any original artworks, or even printed newspaper pages, of the first version of her heroine Torchy Brown in "Dixie in Harlem" which she created in the Chicago Courier from May 1 1937. So to fill in these gaps, Goldstein has done the invaluable job of investigating and recording Ormes’ colourful life as a member of Chicago’s postwar Black elite, her leftwing politics which stirred the FBI into investigating her (excerpts from the FBI’s file are on her are included), and her cartooning career, giving us the most thorough portrait to date. Goldstein narrates this compellingly and intersperses her text with rare photos of the fashionable and strikingly photogenic Ormes partying with Duke Ellington or Eartha Kitt. She has also rescued some wonderful examples of her work, even though one would wish for more: the very first 1937 Torchy five-panel strip; four of her short-lived Candy pin-up cartoons; no less than 88 Patty-Jo panels, helpfully annotated to bring out their timely edge; 18 colour, half-page Torchy episodes, 3 whole-page examples, and, with her doll interests, 9 of the Torchy Togs featurettes allowing readers to cut out a drawing of Torchy and dress her in various outfits.

Excellent though the other books on this shortlist are, this stands out for me as a vitally necessary re-writing of comics history which not only confirms Ormes’ role as a true trailblazer but underlines the significance of cartoon content to be rediscovered in the major black papers of the past, and indeed in all of the underexplored, non-mainstream, non-white press in America and elsewhere. This is a classy 240-page hardback, let down only by its sometimes austere and underillustrated graphic design. Goldstein points out that no one immediately followed in Ormes’ footsteps and, to this day, the number of African American women creating comics is miniscule, Barbara Brandon-Croft being the notable exception with her Where I’m Coming From strip. Let’s hope this book and both of their examples can encourage more diversity of voices and viewpoints in the future of this medium.


The 10-Cent Plague
by David Hajdu
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Creative non-fiction account of America’s Cold War anti-comics hysteria and its lasting effects on so many lives, including former comic artists who forever regretted being forced to abandon making art, and young school kids who never forgot being pressured into throwing the comic books they loved onto school playground pyres. Debates erupted over Hajdu’s negative portrayal of psychiatrist-critic-campaigner Fredric Wertham, whom Bart Beaty rightly asserts was not the irredeemable villain that fans demonise him to be. Still, this does not lessen this book’s significance. And you heard it hear first: George Clooney will direct a docudrama movie recreating this whole media panic under the title of Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent (sorry, I made that last bit up, but wouldn’t it be a fascinating subject for a period-history film?). Hajdu’s opening scene, talking to a former comic artist in her painting-filled Florida home, and his appendix listing nearly 900 writers, artists and editors who never worked in comic books again after the Comics Code Authority’s crackdown, show its dreadful hemorrhaging effect on the medium’s progress.


Strange & Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko
by Blake Bell
Fantagraphics Books
The Avenging Mind
by Steve Ditko
published by Steve Ditko & Robin Snyder
Whether you’re a Ditko-maniac or someone who only learnt about him from Jonathan Ross’s BBC TV documentary, it’s been quite a year for Ditko, what with Bell’s gorgeous, generously illustrated, informative biography-cum-artbook, as well as a much more modest comic book pamphlet compiling more of Ditko’s own firm, resolute statements of fact, as seen first in Robin Snyder’s exemplary periodical of first-person contributions about comics history, The Comics! Both publications demonstrate how shabbily Ditko has been treated by Marvel, and continues to be. As errors and lies persist, he rightly exercises his "Avenging Mind" to repeat the facts, at length and with great emphasis. For example, in "Lifting and The Lifter" Ditko targets an interview in which Stan Lee claims credit for the unforgettable four-page Spider-Man sequence in issue #33 where our hero struggles under the crushing weight of machinery and somehow, inspired by his Aunt May, finds the strength to lift this off his shoulders and survive to fight again. It’s probably the most powerful sequence in the entire Lee/Ditko run. Lee says, "I just mentioned the idea but Steve drew it incredibly." But Ditko points out that "Stan Lee chose not to communicate with me on anything since before issue #25 of The Amazing Spider-Man (June 1965)." The sequence is entirely his conception, so how can Lee’s assertions continue to go unchallenged? To obtain The Avenging Mind, email RobinBrigit [at] comcast [dot] net. Through Snyder, Ditko has also released Ditko, etc…, 36 pages of all-new comics on "The Hero", and its sequel, Ditko Continued just came out this year. And he turned 81 last November.


Reading Bande Dessinée
by Ann Miller
Intellect Books
Piles of books reiterating and vaunting American comics history never stop being published but there’s a gaping chasm when it comes to awareness, let alone knowledge, about French and Belgian comics creation, past and present, beyond Tintin and Asterix anyway. This is an accessible, intelligent guide to many of the leading players whose diverse oeuvres ought to be far better known in English than they generally are.


Alex Raymond: His Art & Life
by Tom Roberts
Adventure House
Lavishly illustrated biography of the maestro of glamourous heroes and heroines. Raymond was the newspaper strip illustrator behind Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, Secret Agent X-9 and his understated post-War triumph Rip Kirby (can someone do a complete reprint of this please?), his life cut short by a tragic driving accident. There are some great rare drawings, originals, photos and artefacts on show here.


History & Politics In French Language Comics & Graphic Novels
edited by Mark McKinney
University Press of Mississippi
Only just received this one at the very end of this year but it’s a wonderful set of essays by Bart Beaty, Hugo Frey, Ann Miller, Pascal Lefèvre and others on bande dessinée. I turned right away to the especially riveting first-person perspective by the great French BD auteur Baru, son of Italian immigrants, on "The Working Class and Comics". I was also absorbed by Frey’s probing re-reading of Hergé‘s Flight 714 from 1968 which calls into serious question the idea that Tintin’s creator eschewed anti-Semitic stereotyping in his later, more enlightened productions.


Art Spiegelman: Conversations
edited by Joseph Witek
University Press of Mississippi
Words of wit and wisdom are guaranteed from the thoughtful creator of Maus. Included here is a particularly good 1980s interview by Roger Sabin, published here for the first time.


Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels
by David Berona
Abrams
For a brief period around the 1930s, a special kind of book telling stories solely in bold illustrations without a word of text, often woodcuts and only one to a page or spread, came into vogue in America and Europe, and then, strangely, went out again. They may seem a world away from today’s graphic novels but Berona argues that they were the origins, the first stage towards the current creative scene. That is debateable, as there are plenty of earlier precursors and prototypes going back at least to Rodolphe Töpffer. Or could this passing fashion have been some false dawn? To reconsider their place, this book brings together masters of silent, purely visual narrative, from Belgium’s  Frans Masereel to the American Lynd Ward, a seminal influence on Will Eisner, from the silent-movie zaniness of Milt Gross to New Zealand’s Laurence Hyde, whose Southern Cross: A Novel from 1951 was reprinted by Drawn & Quarterly last year. One downside is that this survey can show no more than snippets from these sometimes lengthy works, but encouragingly a fair few of them are coming back into print. This year Berona himself is involved with reissues of An Abraham Lincoln Tribute, featuring woodcuts by Charles Turzak, and Phobia by John Vassos, "an Art Deco Graphic Masterpiece" from 1931, both from Dover Publications. This reappraisal is also powerfully relevant because today there’s a profusion of sometimes astonishing wordless graphic novels being created, for example Shaun Tan’s award-winning The Arrival. Now no temporary fad, it seems their time has come.


Where The Demented Wented:  The Art & Comics Of Rory Hayes
edited by Dan Nadel   
Fantagraphics
The majority of Rory Hayes’ exceptional comix outpourings with insightful essays by Edwin Pouncey and by his brother Geoffrey - some honest, moving fraternal recollections. Rory Hayes was an outsider underground visionary and I’d have preferred a truly complete compilation of his strips - why leave any of them out when you get the chance to do a monograph on him? - and a chance to see more of his unpublished paintings, but this will do more than nicely in the meantime.


Kirby: King Of Comics
by Mark Evanier
Abrams
Not the in-depth biography many are salivating for, but still a solid, mass-market artbook and readable life-story that reached out to lots of non-fan "civilians" and reminded them why they loved Kirby’s dynamic comic book artistry. Some lovely sharp repros and touching photographs. Evanier’s eventual comprehensive tome will be an essential reference but meantime Greg Theakston’s Jack Magic, delayed from last year and forthcoming, should add further to our understanding and appreciation of ‘The King’.

Posted: January 4, 2009

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Featured Books


Jackie Ormes:
The First African American
Woman Cartoonist

by Nancy Goldstein


The 10-Cent Plague
by David Hajdu


Strange & Stranger:
The World of Steve Ditko

by Blake Bell


The Avenging Mind
by Steve Ditko


Reading Bande Dessinée
by Ann Miller


Alex Raymond:
His Art & Life

by Tom Roberts


History & Politics
In French
Language Comics
& Graphic Novels

edited by Mark McKinney


Art Spiegelman: Conversations
edited by Joseph Witek


Wordless Books:
The Original Graphic Novels

by David Berona


Where The
Demented Wented:
The Art & Comics Of
Rory Hayes

edited by Dan Nadel


Kirby: King Of Comics
by Mark Evanier