DRAWN & QUARTERED
COURTESY CHECKER BOOKS
The "Flash Gordon" comic series is being reprinted by Checker Books.
Classy comeback for comics
Checker Books, bless 'em, are keeping classic comic strips in circulation with their aggressive reprintings of newspaper standards that are now long gone. Some are well-known -- such as the "Flash Gordon" series -- and others, like "Little Nemo," are known mostly among comic-history buffs. Both, however, have their pleasures.
Flash Gordon's reprintings are of a standardized size and format, gathering together Alex Raymond's first decade or so at the drawing board. As Raymond said at the time, "a comic artist begins with a white sheet of paper and dreams up his own business -- he is playwright, director, editor and artist at once."
The strip was designed to compete with the popular Buck Rogers strip, a sci-fi boys adventure with deep -- and uncredited -- roots in Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Mars" series of novels. The strip debuted in January, 1934, and was an immediate sensation, with novels, radio serializations and movies following. The movie serials starred Hawaii's Buster Crabbe, and in the 1950s, a TV series, and, today, a new series on the SciFi channel.
Clearly, Flash Gordon touches some sort of national wishing stone. He's an athlete -- a polo player! -- spirited away to another planet, aided by beautiful Dale Arden and scientist-nerd Dr. Zarkoff in adventures featuring the evil Ming the Merciless. The strip is still in syndication today.
Raymond -- the great-uncle of actor Matt Dillon -- was a do-anything kind of strip artist. He started out with "Tilliw the Toiler" and graduated to the big time with "Flash," but his later work, including "Rip Kirby," "Secret Agent X-9," "Jungle Jim" and "Tim Tyler's Luck" were also well-thought-of successes in their genres. Raymond's inking was soft and feathery, almost sketchy, as opposed to his blunt, businesslike storytelling arcs, and most of the action takes place in the middle distance, a common feature in 1930s strips.
Raymond's workman-like style is well-reproduced in the Checker reprints, which are full-color reprints of his Sunday splash pages. Luckily, "Flash Gordon" is so popular that originals and good-quality copies of the original strips still remain, and the books have exceptional print quality.
COURTESY CHECKER BOOKS
The "Little Nemo" comic series is also being reprinted by Checker Books.
"Little Nemo," on the other hand, was created by early strip genius Winsor McCay, and in a variety of formats. Since the bulk of McCay's strips appeared in the decade between 1905 and 1915, finding reproducible copies is like archaeology. Checkers' reprints, on occasion, are clearly from archived newspapers rather than originals, and it doesn't help that McCay's style is feather-light and somewhat eccentric.
Accordingly, the reproductions of McCay's stuff are handled by volumes in different formats and printing styles. For the completist, for example, there's an "Early Works" series that includes his political cartoons and frames of animated sketches.
McCay was a pioneer in breaking the boundaries of the strip format, and his style was rather dreamy and disconnected, defying storytelling logic. His two primary projects were built completely around the shifting landscape, and topographical physics of dreams -- "Little Nemo in Slumberland," about a child's nightly excursions into his own psyche, and "Dream of the Rarebit Fiend," a kind of progenitor of "Nemo," but a bit more adult.
"Rarebit Fiend" was a weekly morality play about the dangers of overindulgence, a theme that featured a different cast each issue. "Rarebit," by the way, is a sauce of beers, melted cheese and butter, poured over toast. It tastes so goof you may eat too much of it, leading to bizarre dreams.
McCay's "Rarebit Fiend" appeared three times a week in the New York Evening Telegram, and since the Telegram didn't appear on Sunday, more space was allotted the Saturday strip. Checkers' well-printed collection gathers all the Saturday strips under one cover, and even Checker was surprised by the response -- the first print run sold out while the book was still on the press. Here is the second print run, and very nice it is too.
McCay's lasting fame, however, belongs to "Nemo," which ran from 1905 to 1913 in the New York Herald. McCay's draughting skills are on extraordinary display, and the guy must have been chained to his drawing table day and night to make stories of such sheer drawing complexity and narrative wonder.
McCay stopped making Nemo simply because his editor didn't care for it. McCay soon found another outlet for his storytelling passion, animated cartoons. His "Gertie the Dinosaur" is widely considered to be the first successful animated cartoon, and many more were to follow, including an educational propaganda film -- all in cartoons! -- of the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine. Among those paying attention was a young cartoonist named Walt Disney.
That's another story, however. In the meantime, we have a deluxe edition of gathered Nemos by Checker, well-printed and encyclopedic. At $49.95 the price may seem a bit steep, but there's a whole dreamland of content in there.