by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, by Michael Barrier. Illustrated.
Oakland, CA, University of California Press, November 2014, hardcover $60.00 (xxi + 407 pages), trade paperback $34.95, Kindle $19.49.
“Way back when the idea of a ‘comics scholar’ sounded like the punch line to a bad joke, Michael Barrier was a serious historian, a discriminating aesthetician, a trustworthy guide, and a impassioned lover of… funnybooks,” says Art Spiegelman in his endorsement. With this book, Barrier has started filling in one of the last important gaps in comic-book scholarship. There have been recent de luxe collections of the classic works of the best funny-animal artist-writers, and studies of their individual works. There have been serious histories of the superhero comics, the romance comics, the Westerns, the horror and crime comics, and others, and of their creators like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. But there have not been any serious studies of the children’s fantasy/funny-animal comics as a genre. Funnybooks is the first of these.
There is much still to be done. Barrier recognizes this in his Preface. “My initial plan was to cast my net wider, but eventually Funnybooks became a history of the Dell comic books, concentrating on the years before comics of all kinds fell under the censor’s axe and with only a nod to great cartoonists like Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner whose work was for other publishers.” (p. xiv) My own favorite hero of funnybooks in my childhood, I learned later, was Sheldon Mayer (1917-1991), the writer-artist of Dizzy Dog, Doodles Duck, McSnertle the Turtle, Ferenc the Fencing Ferret, the Three Mousketeers, and his most acclaimed series even if it did feature human babies, Sugar and Spike. My earliest comic-book character who I wanted to grow up to be just like, when I was about five years old, was Mayer’s Amster the Hamster. He could fast-talk his way out of any situation; a talent that at five years old, surrounded by bossy adults, seemed very desirable to me. But Mayer spent his lifelong career writing and drawing for DC Comics, one of Dell’s main rivals; so he is not mentioned here. I could name other favorite funny-animal characters and their writer-artists, such as Superkatt by Dan Gordon, who was earlier a great writer-animator at the Fleischer Brothers studio and later was one of the first great writer-animators for Hanna-Barbera; or the alley cat Robespierre by Ken Hultgren, an ex-Disney animator. (Gordon and Hultgren are briefly mention in a chapter on Dell’s rivals.) But the point is that there is still much to do.