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Shaky Kane/Image Comics

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Shaky Kane/Image Comics

Every Wednesday, I write about the most interesting new comics hitting comic shops, bookstores, digital, Kickstarter, and the web. Feel free to comment below if there's a comic you've read recently that you want to talk about or an upcoming comic that you'd like me to consider highlighting.

1. Pearls Before Swine

By Stephan Pastis with Bill Watterson(!!)
GoComics

Yes, that really was Bill Watterson drawing last week’s Pearls Before Swine.

By now, even if you don’t follow comics news, you’ve probably heard about Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson’s surprise return to the page. You probably also know that the extremely private Watterson has been pretty much a recluse since retiring his famous newspaper strip in 1995. He famously opened up by giving an interview to us here at mental_floss this past October. But now, this surprise appearance in three of last week’s strips in Stephan Pastis' Pearls Before Swine was something many people at first just couldn’t believe.

Pastis humorously lays out exactly how this all happened over on his blog, which includes the sequence of strips that he and Watterson collaborated on as well as the strips that set it all up. He had given everyone fair warning early last week, announcing on Twitter that he had a ‘mind-blowing’ surprise in store for readers of his syndicated newspaper strip. But when the strips appeared, online discussion was divided about whether or not this could truly be Watterson. Some people compared and contrasted the mystery artist’s drawing style to Watterson’s in hopes of coming to a definitive conclusion. Once the three strips were completed, Watterson gave Pastis the go-ahead to reveal the truth.

The original art from these strips will be displayed at HeroesCon in Charlotte next week and will eventually be auctioned off to benefit the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

What's next for Watterson? He’ll be drawing the poster for the 2015 Angoulême comics festival.

Read the now-famous Pearls Before Swine strips and Pastis' explanation of how this came about.

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2. Walt Before Skeezix

By Frank King
Drawn & Quarterly

The very first Gasoline Alley strips and their depiction of the dawn of an automobile-loving American culture

We’re used to comic strip characters like Charlie Brown and Peter Parker remaining roughly the same age for decades. It’s rare to see characters age in real time, such as the Patterson family in For Better or For Worse or Judge Dredd in his own comics. The first comic strip to ever do this was Frank King’s Gasoline Alley, which began in 1918 and still runs in syndication today. The comic first began showing the progression of time when confirmed bachelor Walter Wallet found a baby on his doorstep that he adopted and named Skeezix. In recent Gasoline Alley strips, Skeezix is now a grandfather, and old Walt is still kicking around at a hearty 114.

Drawn & Quarterly have published five hefty hardcover volumes designed and edited by Chris Ware called Walt and Skeezix. Now, Ware (with comics historian Jeet Heer) has gone back to the very beginning to release a “prelude” volume (what we in the comics world might call a “zero issue”). Walt Before Skeezix collects the first two years of the strip where King is just finding his footing. He started out with wordy, single panel strips focused almost entirely on automobiles—still a novelty at the time—and slowly began to establish a lively cast of characters such as Walt, Doc, and Avery. By the end of this volume, his cartooning has become more confident and the stage is set for the greatness that would soon come.

In the accompanying text pieces, Heer delves into King’s personal life and the people around him that he leaned on for inspiration. He also provides historical context for these strips and the burgeoning, post-industrial revolution consumer culture that was rising up around the automobile at the time. In a way, a comic in 1918 that tailors every gag around automobiles is much like today’s webcomics that obsess about video games.

Read a PDF preview here at Drawn & Quarterly’s website.

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3. That’s Because You’re A Robot

Written by David Quantick; art by Shaky Kane
Image Comics

Two cops. One’s a robot. One isn’t. Neither of them knows which is which.

The British artist known as Shaky Kane (real name: Michael Coulthard) got his start in the British science fiction anthology 2000 A.D. His artwork takes the psychedelic, pop-art stylings of the 1960s and adds a layer of satire and gruesome strangeness.

Kane’s latest comic is this one-shot collaboration with television writer David Quantick (most recently of HBO’s Veep). That’s Because You’re A Robot is about two cops who have just found out that one of them is a robot. However, no one knows which one, including the cops themselves. The entirety of the comic is pretty much the two officers questioning the validity of each other's humanity while patrolling the city and warding off Frankensteins, Leprechauns and other odd creatures. Think Car 54 Where Are You? but written by Phillip K. Dick.

Here’s a hilarious preview.

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4. The Empty Man

Written by Cullen Bunn; art by Vanesa R. Del Rey
Boom! Studios

Two federal agents investigate a viral outbreak that causes hallucinations, catatonia and homicidal rage.

Cullen Bunn is a busy man these days. It seems that every week he is writing new comics for different publishers (Magneto for Marvel, The Remains for Monkeybrain, The Sixth Gun for Oni Press, Sinestro for DC). His newest is an ongoing horror comic (one of his specialities) for Boom! Studios called The Empty Man. Set in the near future, years after a virus called The Empty Man has been ravaging the nation, two agents from a joint FBI/CDC task force investigate issues surrounding a new mutation of the disease as well as a number of dangerous religious cults that have formed because of the pandemic. 

Bunn is collaborating with artist Vanesa R. Del Rey on the series. Del Rey made an impressive comics debut last year with the crime noir Hit, also for Boom! Studios. Her style is like a cross between Tim Sale and Paul Pope and I think she will be a huge star in the coming year.

Here is a somewhat disturbing preview

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5. Showa 1939-1944: A History of Japan

By Shigeru Mizuki
Drawn & Quarterly

A pioneer of manga chronicles Japan's history during WWII and his own personally harrowing experiences at the time

Shigeru Mizuki fought for the Japanese Imperial Army in World War II and lost his drawing arm in an explosion. When he returned home he taught himself to draw with his other hand and eventually became one of the pioneers of Japanese manga and a master of yōkai horror, not to mention the creator of the popular GeGeGe no Kitarō series of manga and anime. 

I wrote about Mizuki’s Showa books when Drawn & Quarterly released the first volume last year. The multi-volume series details the history of Japan’s Showa era (from 1926-1989 while Hirohito was Emperor) using rich, photo-realistic and intricate black and white drawings to illustrate the historical prose. Simultaneously, Mizuki relates his own life experiences during those years in an exaggerated, cartoony style so that the book cuts back and forth between being a textbook and a memoir. The second translated volume of the series comes out this week and explores the run up to World War II including the second Sino-Japanese War and the attack on Pearl Harbor. It also shows Mizuki coming of age, starting out the volume as an uninterested bystander to historical events and soon becoming an eyewitness to horrific and devastating events.

The book is so stunningly beautiful, and to think what the man who drew it went through, including having to relearn how to draw, is just astounding. Drawn & Quarterly has a PDF preview here.


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Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images
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How Superman Helped Foil the KKK
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Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images

The Klansmen were furious.

Dozens of them had congregated in a nondescript room in Atlanta, shaking cloaked heads at the worrisome news that their sect leader had just shared: An act of gross subterfuge had transpired over the airwaves. Millions of Americans had now become privy to their policies, their rankings, their closely guarded methods of organized hatred.

All of it fodder for some comic book radio show. Their mission had been compromised, sacrificed at the altar of popular culture. Kids, one Klansman sighed. His kids were in the streets playing Superman vs. the Klan. Some of them tied red towels around their necks; others pranced around in white sheets. Their struggle for racial purity had been reduced to a recess role play.

Stetson Kennedy listened, doing his best to give off irate body language. He scowled. He nodded. He railed.

The covert activist waited patiently for the Klan to settle down. When they did, he would call radio journalists Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson, offering the results of his infiltration into the group for public consumption.

He’d also contact Robert Maxwell, producer of the Superman radio serial. Maxwell, eager to aid the humanitarian mission of the Anti-Defamation League, would promptly insert the leaked information into his show’s scripts. In between fisticuffs, his cast would mock the KKK’s infrastructure, and the group’s loathsome attitudes would be rendered impotent by the juvenilia.

The Klan roared, demanding revenge on their traitor. “Show me the rat,” their leader said, “and I’ll show you some action.”

Kennedy cheered, just as they all did.

And when he returned home, his Klan robe would be traded for a cape.

The cover to the first issue of Superman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Kennedy, born in 1916, was an unlikely undercover operative. After a back injury kept him out of World War II, the Jacksonville, Florida native decided he wanted to combat anti-American forces on the home front. With Klan members alleged to have assaulted his family’s black maid when he was a child, the Klan—once again gathering steam in an era of segregation and racial divisiveness—was a favored target.

Having convinced a “Klavern” in Atlanta, Georgia that he shared their bigoted views, Kennedy donned the ominous attire of a Klansman, attended cross burnings, and covertly collected information about the group that he would then share with law enforcement and media. Radio journalist Drew Pearson would read the names and minutes of their meetings on air, exposing their guarded dialogues.

Revealing their closed-door sessions was a blow—one that Kennedy didn’t necessarily have to confine to nonfiction. In 1946, Maxwell, who produced the Superman radio serial broadcast around the country, embraced Kennedy’s idea to contribute to a narrative that had Superman scolding the racial divisiveness of the Klan and airing their dirty laundry to an enraptured audience.

“The law offices, state, county, FBI, House Un-American Activities Committee, they were all sympathetic with the Klan,” Kennedy said later. “The lawmen were, ideologically at least, close with the Klansmen. The court of public opinion was all that was left.”

Ostensibly aimed at children, Superman’s daily radio dramas were often broadcast to assembled nuclear families; one phone poll showed that 35 percent of its audience was composed of adults.

But regardless of whether parents listened, the activist believed the younger demographic was worth attending to. “Even back in the ’40s, they had kids in the Klan, little girls dressed up in Klan robes at the cross burnings," Kennedy said. "I have photos of an infant in a cradle with a complete Klan robe on. It seemed like a good place to do some educating.” 

In “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” a 16-part serial airing in June and July of 1946, Superman opposes an organized group of hatemongers who target one of Jimmy Olsen’s friends. Exploring their network, Clark Kent uncovers their secret meetings and policies before his alter ego socks the “Grand Scorpion” in the jaw. The idea, Kennedy wrote in his account of his work, The Klan Unmasked, was to made a mockery of their overblown vernacular.

When traveling, for example, Klansmen might identify one another by asking if they “knew Mr. Ayak,” an acronym for “Are You a Klansman?” Although Kennedy may not have actually shared their code words on air—a longstanding myth that was debunked in Rick Bowers’s 2012 book, Superman vs. the KKK—their histrionics were perfect for dramatization in the breathless structure of a radio drama. Given shape by actors and sound effects, all the clubhouse tropes of the Klan seemed exceedingly silly.

The cover to the first issue of Superman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Kennedy continued to serve up Klan secrets to Superman, he watched as Klan morale dipped and membership enrollment ebbed. Desperate, the Klan tried calling for a boycott of Kellogg’s, a new sponsor of the show, but racial intolerance was no match for the appetites of post-World War II homes. Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes remained breakfast table staples, and Superman’s battles with the close-minded continued. Emboldened by his success against the Klan, Superman took aim at Communism, a favorite target of the show’s anti-Red star, Bud Collyer.

Kennedy would go on to burden the Klan using proof of uncollected tax liens, and eventually convinced the state of Georgia to revoke their national corporate charter.

Kennedy died in 2011 at the age of 94. While some of his accounts of subterfuge in the Klan later came under fire for being embellished, his bravery in swimming with the sharks of the organization is undeniable. So, too, was his wisdom in utilizing American iconography to suffocate prejudice. Fictional or not, Superman may have done more to stifle the Klan’s postwar momentum than many real people who merely stood by and watched.

Portions of this article were excerpted from Superman vs. Hollywood: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon by Jake Rossen with permission from Chicago Review Press. Copyright (c) 2008. All Rights Reserved.

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Courtesy of Highlights for Children
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7 Engaging Facts About Goofus and Gallant
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Courtesy of Highlights for Children

For well over 60 years, the preadolescent readers of Highlights for Children magazine have gotten regular lessons in morality from Goofus and Gallant, a pair of kids of indeterminate age and relation who offer sharp contrasts in behavior. Gallant is prone to exhibiting perfect manners; Goofus is selfish, thoughtless, and has even been seen torturing small animals. (Honest: He has stoned birds and once subjected a frog to some disturbing cruelty.)

The two-panel strip has become so ubiquitous that warring ideologies are often described as “Goofus and Gallant” types. If you’ve ever wondered whether there’s more to Gallant than being a goody two-shoes or whether Goofus is flirting with juvenile delinquency, check out our round-up of the pair’s storied history.

1. THEY USED TO BE ELVES.

Goofus and Gallant

Goofus and Gallant were the creation of Garry Cleveland Myers, a child psychologist and popular syndicated parental advice columnist. Myers debuted the strip, then known as the The G-Twins, in Children’s Activities magazine in 1938. While the twosome were already displaying their radically different approaches to life, Myers depicted them as fanciful creatures with pointed ears and curly-toed shoes. No one is quite sure why Myers opted for the fairy tale aesthetic, although one theory is that he wanted to depict bad behavior rather than bad children.

After Myers and wife Caroline started Highlights for six- to 12-year-old readers in 1946, they were eventually able to acquire the rights to the strip. Goofus and Gallant debuted in their magazine in 1948; by 1952, they had morphed into two regular kids. Their parents lost the elf ears, too.

2. THEY MAY HAVE BEEN BASED ON REAL KIDS.

Highlights turned into a family enterprise, with the Myers’s children and grandchildren having a hand in its publication. In 1995, Kent Brown Jr., the Myers’s grandson, told the Los Angeles Times that he was the inspiration for Goofus and that his cousin, Garry Myers III, was the model for Gallant. Myers III denied the accusation. “Kent gets great glee out of claiming to be Goofus," he said. Brown later stated that all of Myers's 13 grandchildren helped inform the characters.

3. ONE ARTIST DREW THE STRIP FOR 32 YEARS.

Goofus and Gallant

Once Myers secured the rights to the two characters for Highlights, he enlisted illustrator Marion Hull Hammel to draw their adventures (and misadventures), taking them from the elfin creatures of the early days to the human boys of the 1950s and beyond. Hammel wound up drawing it for 32 years; Sidney Quinn took over when she retired and worked on it through 1995. Current artist Leslie Harrington has been on the strip since 2006. 

4. GALLANT GETS HATE MAIL.

While the recurring theme of Goofus and Gallant is to exercise the Golden Rule, not all juvenile readers are on board with Gallant’s impeccable manners. "I got a letter from an attorney who'd grown up with the feature," Rich Wallace, the magazine's then-coordinating editor, told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “He had something he wanted to get off his chest: 'Gallant was a wussy.'" Other readers have expressed similar disdain for Gallant, observing that they identify more with Goofus.

5. GOOFUS IS NOT A SOCIOPATH.

Goofus and Gallant

In the absence of any in-panel clinical diagnosis of Goofus’s reckless behavior—including but not limited to playing with fire, being unkind to peers, and vandalizing school books—we’re left with the editorial directives of Highlights. In a 1993 interview with the Chicago Tribune, magazine publicist Tom White admitted that Goofus is a “surly, uncooperative, ill-mannered child” but that "he is not a sociopath.” Good to know!

6. THEY’VE BEEN FEATURED IN ROUGHLY A BILLION ISSUES.

Discounting the two years they were absent from Highlights from 1946 to 1948, the antics of Goofus and Gallant have appeared without fail in every subsequent issue. In 2006, the magazine celebrated its 60th anniversary by shipping its one billionth copy. The magazine went from selling 20,000 copies of its first issue to averaging 2.6 million readers a month in the 1990s.

7. ONE EDITOR’S THEORY WILL BLOW YOUR MIND.

Goofus and Gallant

When Goofus and Gallant began their broadly-drawn moral plays in the 1950s, they were depicted as identical twins. Later on, editors for Highlights indicated the two were brothers, but not twins. By 1995, they were simply two unrelated boys. But according to former coordinating editor Rich Wallace, the two might actually be part of a Fight Club-style twist. “I’ve theorized they’re two sides of the same kid,” he said.

We were so awed by this possibility that we asked Highlights editor Judy Burke if it held any water. "We show the boys with different parents in the panels and they look slightly different from each other," she says. More recently, the two have seemed to become aware of the other's existence. "In April 2016, we had them breaking through their respective art panels and pranking each other for April Fools’ Day, which they couldn’t have done if they were the same child."

That doesn't mean that readers can't have an existential crisis of their own. "Each time we run Goofus and Gallant, we include the line, 'There’s some of Goofus and Gallant in us all,'" Burke says. "When the Gallant shines through, we show our best self.  We also include a few 'Goofus and Gallant Moments' from kids, where they tell us about times when they felt like either Goofus or Gallant. These two aspects of the feature support the theory that both characters reside within the same individual, and it’s up to that person to choose how to behave."

All images courtesy of Highlights for Children and used with permission.

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