Sunday, February 28, 2010

Who Is William Ekgren?

(What follows is an article I wrote a few years back about the artist William Ekgren. While this has been published several times--most recently in ALTER EGO #77--this is the first time I have put it online. But there is more to the story of William Ekgren! Since finishing this article, I have come across some very startling information. That will be in an upcoming sequel that I will be posting soon.)

There are mysteries, big and small, haunting comic book history.
Who inked Jack Kirby’s pencils on Fantastic Four #1? That qualifies as a big one.*

Somewhat smaller: Who is William Ekgren?

William Ekgren? His career, if it can even be called a career, in comic books was apparently comprised of only three covers rendered for St. John Publishing in a span of several months in 1952-53.The content, the media and the thought process involved in these covers defy easy explanation.

STRANGE TERRORS #4 (Nov. 1952) is a fever dream of disparate images. A headless, limbless torso; several candles and an abstract Mona Lisa head atop a suggestively phallic neck. All are delineated by swirling, obsessively drawn, maze-like lines. The effect is dizzying. The color scheme is unlike any other contemporary comic book cover with varying hues of red and pale yellow. As a comic book cover its value is questionable. As a work of art it is unforgettable.

STRANGE TERRORS #4 (Nov. 1952)

WEIRD HORRORS #6 (Feb. 1953)

WEIRD HORRORS #s 6 and 7 (February and April 1953 respectively) made up the last two parts of the Ekgren trinity. Thematically, the cover for issue #6 seems to relate somewhat remotely to the blurb, “Monsters from Outer Space”, since the creature pictured definitely looks alien. An Aztec sacrifice of a chicken appears to be the subject of #7, but only in the most abstract way. Each cover looking as if drawn with multicolored spaghetti. Each similarly, well, weird.

WEIRD HORRORS #7 (April 1953)

Who was this guy? Finding the answer to that question became something of an obsession for me. There is no revealing interview with the rediscovered artist; no fan who had made his acquaintance at some long ago convention; no website featuring his biography.

One comic historian I contacted called Ekgren, “The most obscure of obscure artists,“ and could offer nothing more. Joe Kubert was both an editor at St. John and a frequent artist on STRANGE TERRORS and WEIRD HORRORS, surely he would know something about Ekgren, so I sent him an inquisitive letter.

“Sorry, Ken,”
his written reply began, “but I never met Mr. Ekgren, nor do I know anything about his work or methods. I remember the covers, of course, but that‘s about it.” And that was about it, until I discovered the archives of the NEW YORK TIMES.

My searches led to a solitary result in a dusty corner of the September 16,1947 edition. Deep within resided Edward Alden Jewell‘s short review of an inconsequential art exhibition opening, “ the public today at the Riverside Museum,“ which featured work, “by members of the Norwegian Art and Craft Club (and) brings into prominence...canvases, largely expressionist in handling by...William Ekgren (who has evolved a plangently dizzy technique)…“

William Ekgren

He existed, this phantom, this cipher, this man nobody knew!

(I looked up plangently so you don’t have to: it usually refers to a sound and it either means loud and reverberating or plaintive and sad. Take your pick; I guess either applies to Ekgren’s work.)

Reassembling comic book history is very much like archeology. Digging through dirt and finding shards that you hope fit together to form something. Then the tiniest shard can be the key to everything. This barest mention of the elusive Mr. Ekgren, a crumb of information, became my Rosetta Stone.

Logic dictated that if he was exhibiting at the Norwegian Art and Craft Club, he was most likely…Norwegian. For the next year and a half, I checked with any art source I thought may have a lead on this (apparently) Norwegian abstract artist. One dead end after another as too many of my Googled searches led to indecipherable Scandinavian sites with nary a William Ekgren.

Eventually, however, perseverance paid off.

On July 6, 1918, William Ekgren was born in Oslo, Norway. Although his mother was Norwegian, his father was Swedish and they moved to Sweden when William was two years old. He attended school there until he was 15, at which time he became an itinerant artist, studying and exhibiting in South America as well as Europe. Eventually, Ekgren made his way to the U. S., where he became an art instructor.

Two sources provided the majority of the biographical details. First, the Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, which not only supplied much of the background information, but also houses 11 pieces of Ekgren artwork in their collection. The head archivist was kind enough to provide me with copies of the 11 works from their catalog. Even though the small size of the photographs makes it difficult to see details within the artwork, the frenzied style of his work comes through.


A painting thought to be a depiction of the Titanic sinking (1949), is described in the catalog’s notes as, “…reds, oranges and yellows, descending into blue and grey water…(the) entire piece is of deep watercolor patches delineated by black painted outlines.” This description could be applied almost verbatim to the cover of STRANGE TERRORS #4.

"The Grotto at Rainbow’s End"

Of another oil entitled "The Grotto at Rainbow’s End" (1958), it’s noted that the, “entire canvas is overlaid with close, black concentric circles…,” yet another form of patterning that recalls his comic covers.

Ekgren work has a somber quality, with isolated figures and dreamlike landscapes. It’s not a huge stretch to assume that Ekgren was influenced by the work of his legendary countryman, Edvard Munch, painter of the iconic, "The Scream". Munch passed away in 1944 and was a pioneer in the Expressionistic style that Ekgren obviously embraced.

My second source was the Norwegian American Historical Association (NAHA), which filled provided even more detail about Ekgren’s career. Within their archives were Art Journal entries for the years 1950-52, which revealed that Ekgren worked at the Norheim Studio at 6007 18th Avenue in Brooklyn, New York. A brief summary of his career notes the various galleries at which he had presented work and that he was, “a constant exhibitor at the Greenwich Village Outdoor Art Exhibition.

Nestled next to his write-up was a photograph of the artist, with a jaunty bowtie and pencil thin mustache, looking vaguely like Vincent Price. Included in the NAHA archives were several postcards in Ekgren’s handwriting to friends in the United States. In one, dated December 6, 1983, he thanks a friend for forwarding him a copy of the Vesterheim catalog containing his paintings. An intriguing postscript informs his friend that a book of his poetry was being published by Vantage Press, “…around New Year.” Indeed, it was.

In 1984, Vantage Press released a book of Ekgren’s, “…whirling, almost psychedelic poetry…” No surprise, I suppose, given his artwork. The press release for the book, OUT OF SIX ATTITUDES, goes on to breathlessly credit him with, “Virtually reinventing language.” Without comment, here is an excerpt from one of his poems:

As long as a clear ex-gladness
of precise anti-self-madness
derived from the lineage twin-string,
is powerfully directing
our course with obstructing sadness,
and subsight range, with worse badness,
moral-viewed, nothing
seems worth issuing.

Esoteric poetry aside, one interesting piece of information also appearing in this press release is that Ekgren returned to Sweden in 1959, where he married and fathered two boys. Nothing though about his comic book work. How did this Scandinavian Expressionist painter come to draw comic books covers?

Serendipity is finding something unexpected. Sometimes, though, something unexpected finds you. Over the years, I’ve littered several online discussion groups with email posts casting about for any William Ekgren information. One day an email appeared in my In Box with the promising subject line, “Ekgren original”.

It came from an Eric Larsen and his words floored me, “I have an original William Ekgren color drawing that he did in 1953 as a design for a comic book cover. I also know some biographical information about him. He was a friend of the family's.” I quickly emailed him back and Eric informed me that Ekgren had been a close friend of his late grandfather. He personally had little information about the artist, but his father, who also had known Ekgren, would be able to provide more.

Elated, I emailed Eric’s father, Karl R. Larsen, and his response was a gold mine.

“I knew Bill through my parents when we lived in Brooklyn NY in the 1950's,” he began, “He met my parents through an Art Club called the Norwegian Art & Craft Club that my father (Karl L. Larsen) started in Brooklyn in the 1940s. My dad was an artist who attended art school in Oslo, Norway. Ekgren was an active member of the club and was considered a very good artist. He also had a difficult time holding jobs and got into comic book covers to earn money.” That made sense, an art instructor at a small studio couldn’t have been very profitable employment. Karl also noted though, “… he did not like this type of work (comic book covers), considered it beneath him, and only did it to put food on the table.”

Karl continued, “Ekgren did not have a positive outlook on the institution (of marriage) and I believe was divorced and had a son in Sweden. (note: he eventually remarried upon his return to Sweden) He did like the company of women and I remember pictures of him with some very good-looking ladies…He also gave art lessons (to which I was sent) to earn money. Ekgren was (is) a vegetarian, an intellectual, preferred a "bohemian lifestyle"(smoked pot before it was fashionable), and lived in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan.”

“I also remember a Sunday morning finding him asleep in our bathtub. There had been a costume party at the "club" with an after party in our apartment for some close friends of my parents. He was dressed as a pirate or Sinbad the Sailor (I think) and scared the hell out of me when I saw him there.”

The image of Ekgren as a prototypical avant-garde artist fixed in my mind, I wasn’t surprised to find out he was apparently an stubborn iconoclast.

“My remembrance of him (I was 10 when I took the art lessons) is that he was somewhat strange, very liberal in his thinking…and very headstrong. I heard a story from my parents and others that he took a strong dislike to an elderly man whom commissioned him to do a portrait. He delivered the finished work of the gentleman lying in his coffin. Ekgren, of course, did not receive payment and did not care.”

There was a greater depth to Ekgren’s ideals that Karl revealed in a follow-up email.

“…I remembered a conversation with Bill about his participation on the side of Finland in the "Winter War" (1939-1940) against Russia. I don't remember much else except that he said he fought on skis and it was very cold. He was a volunteer and that in his opinion, Finland won.”

Karl was referring to the invasion of Finland soon after the outbreak of World War II. The vastly outnumbered Finns fought the Soviets, then one of the Axis powers, to a standstill over the course of a brutal winter. The resulting armistice gave the Stalinist empire a portion of Finland, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. The Finns had exacted a terrible toll, killing 5 Soviets for every man they lost. While acknowledging Ekgren’s obvious bravery, it’s also a reasonable assumption that he was the only combatant on either side of this terrible conflict to end up working in American comic books.

The Larsens have several Ekgren originals scattered among various family members. Most intriguing from my point of view, was the one Eric mentioned when he first contacted me: the unpublished comic book cover.

“Its quite creepy, and done in Ekgren's trippy, swirlly style,” Eric wrote,“It used to hang in my Grandfather's basement where, for some strange reason, his only bathroom was located. I remember being freaked out by it whenever I had to descend the stairs late at night to use the john. After seeing Ekgren's published covers, I am surprised that this drawing was never used since it is quite a bit darker and more sinister than the ones that actually appeared in public“.


Eric’s evaluation of the painting is dead on. The unrelated images of a candle, bloody knife and a monstrous face, are disturbingly creepy. Why this never became a comic cover is unknown and unfortunate. Dated 1953 and very Munch-like in execution, this watercolor painting, without the obsessive linework of his previous covers, suggests that this may be a preliminary cover proposal. Did Ekgren submit this to an editor only to have it rejected? Or had he had enough of the comic book industry and never submitted it at all? The reasons, I suppose, are lost to posterity.

The only persons who might know were Karl L. Larsen and Ekgren himself. The elder Larsen, sadly, passed away in November 2004, just short of his 97th birthday. Meanwhile, I could find no mention of William Ekgren since 1985, soon after the release of his book. If he is alive, he would be in his late eighties now.**

That’s the way this should end. I like to think that William Ekgren is still alive, still feisty, still painting and still writing incomprehensible poetry. His life intersected with comic books long ago and his flirtation was brief. If only he had drawn more covers, maybe a few interiors, he may have inspired some disciples and taken comics in a different direction…then again, maybe not. I am satisfied, though. My curiosity is finally sated. William Ekgren is still mysterious, but he is no longer a mystery.
* While it can't be certain, many now agree that George Klein was Kirby's inker on FANTASTIC FOUR #1.
** This is several years old and Ekgren would consequently be older if still alive.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Those Cosmic Rays

This just in!

Sharp-eyed and sharper-minded comic sleuth Art Lortie tipped me to this page from the Oct. 1930 issue of POPULAR MECHANICS. It seems that in the science of the era, cosmic rays were considered to have life-evolving properties.

POPULAR MECHANICS vol. 2 #2 (Oct. 1930)

This info has been added to the previous post.

A tip of the Comics Detective's deerstalker cap to Art Lortie!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Origin of the Origin of the Fantastic Four?

How do you determine the germ of an idea?

There has been much gnashing of teeth, vituperative prose and verbal bloodshed over who should get credit for the creation of the Fantastic Four.

Jack Kirby fans are steadfast in their belief that their man brought the concept to Stan. Kirby had, after all, just finished a run on the CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN for DC. In their eyes, Ace, Prof, Rocky and Red had just been reimagined as Ben, Reed, Johnny and Sue.

Stan Lee, however, saw it differently. The story goes that publisher Martin Goodman had noticed that National's (DC) JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA comic was selling particularly well. He then ordered Stan to create a super team to headline a new comic for their company.

"I would create a team of superheroes if that was what the marketplace required," Lee wrote in ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS,"But it would be a team such as comicdom had never known. For just this once, I would do the type of story I myself would enjoy reading if I were a comic-book reader."*

Lee's words are red meat to Kirby fans. Personal biases aside, perhaps there is some truth to both versions.

And perhaps there is a third person deserving of credit as well.

John L. Chapman.

"If momentary exposure to the cosmic rays beyond the Heaviside Layer made a super-man of an ordinary mortal--what fabulous titan of strength and intelligence might the human become who'd spend hours under such forces!"

So reads the blurb accompanying the short story, "Cycle", by the above mentioned Mr. Chapman in MARVEL STORIES vol. 2 #2 dated Nov. 1940.

MARVEL STORIES vol. 2 #2 (Nov. 1940)

Chapman was an early science fiction fan from Minneapolis who had made it into the professional ranks by the Forties. His rather unremarkable career as a writer likely wouldn't even be under consideration if it were not for this barely six-page effort that bears some interesting similarities to the origin of an iconic comic book team some 20 years hence.

"Cycle" was the story of a man named Drake, who had been sent in a rocket on a trip to the moon, the "first man to leave the earth's atmosphere." Suddenly,the "jets" on his ship misfired, "in the vicinity of the Heaviside Layer," and he began plummeting back toward the ground. (note: the Heaviside Layer is one of several layers making up the ionosphere.)

Apparently, upon reaching this point, Drake was exposed to cosmic radiation.

"At first he thought it was the weightlessness of deceleration. But as the minutes fled by, and the ship's velocity decreased steadily, the certainty of a change became more prominent in Drake's mind."

Drake survives the crash and is subsequently brought to the World Tower (!) and into the presence of the Western Hemisphere's dictator (!!), Michael Gurth.

"The body and build was (sic) perfect. A wide chest tapered from broad shoulders. The hands were huge and strong. The legs were long and muscular. The hair looked as though it might have been dark at one time. Now it possessed a golden luster, matching the slitted gray eyes whose piercing gaze sent a chill down Tinsley's spine. Never before had the little scientist seen such masculine beauty."

Overlooking the homoerotic and Master Race implications (and poor writing), what Chapman was describing was Drake's transformation into a super human.

"Cycle" illustration
by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby

"Drake was the first man to pass the Heaviside Layer, the first human being to meet with the utter unknown. He was exposed to the natural cosmic ray forces,the same forces that the Heaviside Layer prevents from reaching the earth. You recall, Dr. Tinsley, an age-old theory of evolution concerning cosmic rays? The life forces they were called, the origin of the animate impulses. Yes--you begin to comprehend, don't you? You understand now what has happened to Drake.He was been exposed to naked cosmic rays, and as a result he was super-evolved."

This long-winded and scientifically goofy explanation** sets the stage for the dictator's own trip into space to be exposed to the cosmic radiation himself in order to, " gifted with unlimited power and military prowess that would enable me to dwarf the Eastern Hemisphere in a matter of weeks!"

I won't spoil the ending in case you wish to seek out this story, but needless to say, it doesn't work out as the dictator Gurth imagines.

So how does this all tie into the Fantastic Four's origin?

If somehow you don't know the story, Dr. Reed Richards is planning a rocket trip into space, but his pal, pilot Ben Grimm, angrily confronts Reed with his concerns about space travel:

FANTASTIC FOUR #1 (Nov. 1961), pg. 9
(as reprinted in ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS)

Nothing like the girl you have a crush on shaming you into doing something you know is dangerous!

FANTASTIC FOUR #1 (Nov. 1961), pg. 10
(as reprinted in ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS)

Coincidence? Maybe, but consider this: Both creators of the Fantastic Four were around and likely aware of Chapman's "Cycle" story.

Stanley Lieber (Lee) was on the premises at Timely in 1940, "assisting". It is a fair assumption that he read that issue of MARVEL STORIES when it came out and perhaps it was a latent memory of it that he grafted onto Kirby's Challengers concept. It's even possible that Lee pulled copies of the Goodman pulps upon occasion for "inspiration".

And Kirby? Just look to the bottom of the MARVEL STORIES contents page: "INSIDE STORY Joe Simon and Jack Kirby"

Although the illustration looks more Simon than Kirby, he probably had a hand in it. And though the "cosmic radiation" twist was probably Lee's contribution (consider the role of radiation in other Marvel heroes origins--be it cosmic, gamma or spider-borne), Kirby may have read "Cycle", too.

All that I've proposed is conjecture, obviously. What Kirby and Lee were creating in 1961 was "just" a comic book--not a cultural icon. They were looking at producing a saleable comic and the hook they came up with--cosmic radiation created superheroes--may have just been plucked from out of thin air.

Then again, they had the means, motive and opportunity, and that usually is enough to convict.


Among comic book fans, this issue of MARVEL STORIES is known (if they know it at all) for having an early house ad for MARVEL (MYSTERY) COMICS featuring the Human Torch. Though it's been reprinted elsewhere, here it is for your viewing:

Human Torch house ad


**Perhaps not so goofy according to the science of the era! In an article entitled, "Secret of Life Sought" that appeared in the Oct. 1930 issue of POPULAR MECHANICS, " the evidence piles up, the daring theory is being advanced that X-rays, radium rays and cosmic rays are among the primary causes of evolution--if they do not happen to be the sole cause."

Monday, February 22, 2010

More Bill Harr

No sooner had I posted my piece on Bill Harr when I received several emails from the fabulous Frank Motler with further information. Frank, a leading British comic book historian and detective, had found a reference with Harr's birth and death information, including the fact that his full name was Wilbard William Harr. Armed with that additional info, Frank went on to locate a couple of songs copyrighted by Harr. Frank's information has been added to the Harr bio.

Here's a Harr-dy "Thank you!" to Frank Motler, a comic Sherlock of the first order!

The Fujitani Twin Mystery

Even the greatest detectives get stumped.

In comic history circles, no two men are more respected than Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. and Hames Ware. Hames, a talented artist himself, pioneered the identification of comic art identification and was co-founder, with Jerry Bails, of the WHO'S WHO OF AMERICAN COMIC BOOKS project. Jim V. was also a major contributor to the WHO'S WHO, author of many articles and books, and publisher of IMAGES MAGAZINE, a beautiful publication devoted to classic illustration art. Jim also has one of the keenest eyes of all comic art identifiers.

But these two Art Identification Gods have a problem.

For years they have debating the uncanny similarity between the artwork of the great Bob Fujitani and that of the lesser known George Gregg.

(I could devote the rest of this post just listing Fujitani's comic book credits, but that's not the topic at hand. At some point we will discuss Fuje in greater detail, I promise.)

What Hames and Jim saw was an artist (Gregg) who was either a close associate of Fujitani or a devotee of his work. The closeness of the styles was so similar, Jim wrote, that he found, "...signed George Gregg stories that I would swear were Fujitani's."

Case in point. While I have been a recent participant in their search, I found two panels in issues of CATMAN for comparison:

Fujitani                                        Gregg

The left panel is from a signed Fujitani Catman story in #29 (Aug. 1945). The right panel is from a signed Gregg story in #31 (June 1946) of that title. Obviously, Gregg copied Fuje's art. This is far more than a coincidence.

So who was this George Gregg? Fujitani had to know.

Recently Michael T. Gilbert, artist and comic historian, had told me, "I also asked him if he worked on a couple of strips signed by George Gregg, or if that was one of his pseudonyms. Bob said he didn't know Gregg and it wasn't him under an assumed name."

Hames and Jim speculated that Gregg may also be a pseudonym of an artist--perhaps the first and middle names. I pursued that hunch and found on the online WHO'S WHO, a reference that Gregg's real name was "George Machubi". A subsequent conversation with Jim Amash, ALTER EGO associate editor and interviewer extraordinaire, revealed that it was in his interview with Bill Fraccio (in AE #29) that this information appeared. Furthermore, George/Machubi, attended the American School of Design with Fraccio and like Fuje, was also Japanese-American, even having been born in that country.

With that in hand and at the urging of Hames, I wrote Mr. Fujitani. His reply to me was that same as his to Michael T.: "I'm sorry but I have no recollection of George Gregg or Machubi."


When I relayed this disappointing response to Hames, Jim V. and Jim A., Amash emailed me back that the spelling of the last name should have been "Mabutchi", not "Machubi". In any case, Fujitani seems unaware of his existence.

Now I come to you, dear readers. Is there anyone out there who can help with this mystery? Does anyone have any information about the mysterious Mr. George Mabutchi and/or what was his fascination with the artwork of Bob Fujitani?

Inquiring minds want to know.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Bill Harr: Ev'ry Little Bug & Flexo

Any Eisner-ophile worth their salt knows about Ev'ry Little Bug. This was the recurring ditty that seemed to be everywhere in The Spirit strip throughout 1946-47 (and a few times after).

"Poole's Toadstool Facial Cream"
THE SPIRIT (June 9, 1946)
as reprinted in THE SPIRIT #7 (Oct. 1984)

What started out as an in-joke, eventually reached the level that it was actually set to music. Eisner, always the savvy businessman and likely looking to make a few extra bucks, supplied the lyrics with music by Bill Harr. The sheet music, issued by Robbins Music Corporation, featured a nifty cover by Eisner and is a highly sought after bit of Eisnerana.

Ev'ry Little Bug sheet music (1947)

That much everyone knows. But who was Bill Harr?

Sgt. Bill Harr

The usual story is that Eisner met Harr while both were working on the U.S. Army Ordnance Department magazine, FIREPOWER, during WWII. While both did contribute to FIREPOWER (Eisner illustrating, Harr as a columnist), it's likely their paths crossed sometime before. Why? Because Harr was a comic book writer.

Let's back up just for a second. Before comic books entered his life, the Brooklyn born Harr was a vaudeville comedian and a composer with several copyrighted songs to his name. Furthermore, he was a comedy writer. His best known (and perhaps only) screen credit was as the writer of The Three Stooges 1937 film, "Playing the Ponies".

"Playing the Ponies" (1937)
The Three Stooges

(It should be noted that Harr, like Eisner, used the nickname "Will" professionally, while being known personally as "Bill".)

At about the same time, though, he started writing for comics through the Harry 'A' Chesler shop. Standard fare, Western tales and adventure stories.

"The Big Race"
FUNNY PICTURE STORIES vol. 2 #11 (Nov. 1938)

His work eventually began appearing in the newly formed MLJ comics, where he worked on many of the main features such as Rang-A-Tang (the Wonder Dog!) and The Wizard.

"On the Trail of the Bank Robbers"

"The Pearl Harbor Peril"
TOP NOTCH COMICS #1 (Dec. 1939)

His work can also be found in such early Timely comics as DARING MYSTERY and MYSTIC.

"Flexo the Rubber Man"
MYSTIC COMICS #1 (March 1940)

During WWII, Harr made a name for himself as a combat correspondent. Assigned to covering the exploits of the 45th Division (the Thunderbirds), Harr's dispatches were printed not only in FIREPOWER, but also STARS AND STRIPES and the Aberdeen Proving Ground camp paper, THE FLAMING BOMB. Coincidentally, this paper also published Eisner's first military work.


After the War, Harr became an editor for Chesler on such comics as DYNAMIC and PUNCH COMICS.

DYNAMIC COMICS #16 (Oct. 1945)

While his name continued to appear in Chesler comic owner's statements for some time, it's not clear how long he continued as editor. In 1949, Harr moved to Safety Harbor, Florida, where he proved to be a man of many talents. He became a radio repairman, a part-time musician and in 1952, author of a book of war remembrances entitled, COMBAT BOOTS.

Bill Harr (1952)

Harr spent the final years of his life as a photographer, writer and proofreader for the ST. PETERSBURG TIMES. Wilbard William Harr born on May 20, 1908, died in St. Petersburg, Florida on July 4, 1987.

So, in honor of the eclectic, unsung Bill Harr, let's all sing "Ev'ry Little Bug"!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Oh, Canada

Most of us know about the public outrage directed at comic books in the Forties and Fifties. You may have read David Hajdu's THE TEN-CENT PLAGUE, any number of newspaper and magazine articles of the era or even Fredric Werthams's SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT.

But have you ever heard a contemporary debate about the effect that comics had on children?

The Canadian Broadcasting System has a radio broadcast in their archives of a public debate about comics that was held in Nova Scotia on January 21, 1949. The sound clip only runs about seven minutes and can be acquired here:
Comic Books: Seduction Of The Innocent?

While you are on the CBC Digital Archives site, you may want to also check out this short video clip from a 1971 television show about the history of Canadian Whites:
Superheroes To Call Our Own

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

re: Alfonso Greene

(One of my ongoing areas of comic book study involves the history of African-American Golden Age artists. While my research is still unfinished, I felt that in honor of Black History Month, I'd present a brief biographical sketch of one of the most compelling stories I've come across. Be forewarned, this information is several years old and regretfully incomplete. If you have anything to add, including image scans, please feel free to contact me. Without further ado, here is the story of Alfonso Greene.)

None other than the great Alex Toth is the source for most of what is known about Alfonso Greene. Toth, in one of his famously rambling stream-of-consciousness writings*, recounts the story of Greene, his classmate at the High School of Industrial Arts.

"Al was roughedged well built, strong, and black--quiet and spare with words,"
wrote Toth, "a wannabe cartoonist/comic book artist--had the Caniff-doodle/ style in his mind's eye and hand...".

“Alfonso Greene made his connection with Shelly Mayer,” Toth recalled, “…and Shelly hired him to take over the backup feature, ‘The Black Pirate…”

(Mayer had a falling out with the previous Black Pirate artist Sheldon Moldoff, who abruptly got a raise that resulted in his making more than his editor. According to Moldoff in an interview with Roy Thomas in ALTER EGO #4, "And that was the end of our friendship! I went into the service two or three months after that, and when I got out, he wouldn't give me back "Hawkman" or "The Black Pirate.")

Toth continued, “Al drew three-or four…in his simple clean-lined Canifflike style…,”** but, “Trouble--Al's personal woes--Harlem street gang woes/wars…tough, quiet Al turned out was a gang member…”.

"Shelly Mayer, his booster, mentor, editor, friend, must've done his best to pull Al back, away, from that gang life he lived smack in the midst of..."

According to Toth’s recollection, Greene was involved in a gang fight, was either wounded or wounded someone else and subsequently ended up in prison.

(a side note: Around this time, in early 1946, the Lafargue Psychiatric Clinic opened in Harlem, primarily to offer treatment to young blacks involved with these street gangs. It is quite possible that Greene was treated at this clinic, and if so, he may well have been treated by its director, Dr. Fredric Wertham!)

Evidently he was soon out, however, and resumed working for Mayer.

Greene’s work on “The Black Pirate” , as well as the Alice Marble scripted WONDER WOMAN backup feature, “Wonder Women of History,” saw publication from late 1944 to early 1946. At this point it stops suddenly. There then is a period of several years until any more art bearing his name (in HEROIC COMICS) is published.

"Sojourner Truth" from Wonder Women of History
WONDER WOMAN #13 (Summer 1945)

According to Toth, another gang war had ensued and, “Al shot and, I think, shot to death,” someone from a rival gang.

Toth’s memory was fuzzy on the details, but he seems to remember that Eleanor Roosevelt testified on Greene’s behalf, “…citing his talent, proven and prior attempts to cut loose of his gang life…”

Despite the time that had elapsed, Toth’s fractured memory is generally supported by fact.

The New York Times reported fights between rival black gangs in The Bronx and Harlem on the nights of August 20, 21 and September 1, 1945. Several gang members were shot and at least one, died.

Toth’s claim that Eleanor Roosevelt provided character testimony on Greene’s behalf is still unproven. Such a magnanimous act by the most famous woman in America at that time would seem to be worthy of mention in newspapers of the day, but as of this point, I have been unable to find any corroboration.

"Enough Is Not Too Much"
NEW HEROIC COMICS #63 (Nov. 1950)

A gap of some seven years lapses between Greene’s work for Eastern Color and his reappearance over at Timely (commonly, and erroneously called Atlas) circa 1957.

For whatever reason, Timely employed many of the Black freelance artists working in comics during the Fifties. Cal Massey was the most consistently used, with job assignments spread fairly evenly throughout the decade. The majority of Warren Broderick’s identifiable work was for Stan Lee in a brief tenure. And most notably, the great Matt Baker, seeking work in the wake of St. John’s demise, finished out his comic book career at Timely as a penciler for Vince Colletta.

Greene must have pleased the editor because in a short period he turned in at least 16 jobs to Lee. Whatever dubious past he had, Greene now was gainfully employed and since he was still young, probably looking at a long career in the comic book industry.

Then came The Atlas Implosion.

As has been well documented, by the mid-Fifties comic books were undergoing a major upheaval. Governmental scrutiny, the popularity of television and various economic factors placed terrific pressure on the industry and resulted in the collapse of many publishers. The final straw came with failure of the distribution system of the American News Company (ANC) in April 1957. One of the companies most affected was Martin Goodman’s Timely (in actuality, multi-named, but now commonly referred to as Atlas). Within weeks of ANCs demise, Timely/Atlas stopped assigning work to artists and writers and for a period of several months, published from existing inventory.

During this period, there was even a brief hiatus when this publisher issued no comics. When Stan Lee once again began handing out work assignments, the greatly reduced line of comics required much less new material. Of all the African-American artists who had worked in comic books prior to The Atlas Implosion, until late in the 1960s, only Matt Baker ever worked in them again.

Evidently, Green was working at Timely/Atlas right on up to the brink of The Implosion. The company used a system that combined letters and digits to designate the story work assignments. These job numbers ended abruptly with O-403 pre-Implosion. Greene’s last assignment was O-370. Although his art appeared in STRANGE TALES #66 (Dec. 1958), apparently his last work for the company was completed in early 1957.

"The Tin Star"
WAYTT EARP #18 (Aug. 1958)
(image courtesy of Atlas Tales website)

Except for one story published in CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED “World Around Us” #2 [INDIANS] (October 1958), Greene’s promising art career was yet again thwarted, ironically this time not by his actions, but by the wane of the industry.

Where he went, what he did thereafter, has yet to be determined.

A possible postscript to Greene’s story may be found in the pages of the January 31, 1964, New York Times. It’s a short piece, only 3 paragraphs long, and tellingly, it’s not about the gallery showing of a rising young artist. The details of the article simply recount the release from police custody of four men being held on weapons charges. The men had been detained when they were found lingering suspiciously outside the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan with guns and a bottle of ether. A judge determined that there was insufficient evidence linking the men to a crime and the four, including Alfonso Greene, were released.

A man named Alfonso Greene, born in The Bronx in 1927, died in Harlem in October, 1977.

"But I'll never forget Alfonso Greene--and what might have been, for him, as a pro--a rough, tough, but good guy--amen!" -- Alex Toth

* From Toth's "Before I Forget" series that ran in ALTER EGO.

** Actually, Greene drew at least seven Black Pirate stories: SENSATION COMICS #41, 42, 49-51 and ALL-AMERICAN COMICS #72 & 73.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Speaking of Bernard Baily...

Right off the bat, I'm going to ask for your help.

I'm still accumulating images for my Bernard Baily epic and there are some that have escaped me so far. If you are the kind and generous sort and are willing to supply page scans (300 dpi or higher, please!) from any of these, you will be my friend forever and will garner a mention in the acknowledgments when the article is published.

ACTION #27 (Aug. 1940)
ADVENTURE #52 (July 1940)
BLACK MAGIC vol. 4, #6 [30] (May-June 1954)
BLACK MAGIC vol.5, #3 [33] (Nov.-Dec. 1954)
MORE FUN #33 (July 1938)
MORE FUN #58 (Aug. 1940)
WOW, WHAT A MAGAZINE! #1 (July 1936)

I know, I know--some of those are ridiculously expensive. But if you have a scannable copy and are willing to share, please email me at:


Who Am I? Why Am I Here?

There's a very good chance you won't know me. Although I've been involved with comic books as a reader and fan for 50 years (it hurts to even write that), until the invention of the Internet I was just a face in a convention crowd.

I've always been fascinated by the history of this medium, going back to the Sixties and the typewritten, hand-stapled copies of The Panelologist I ordered from Jerry Bails. In many ways, Jerry is responsible for this blog. I grew up in the Detroit area and attended some of the earliest comic shows, The Detroit Triple Fan-Fairs, organized in part by Dr. Bails. I bought some of my first Golden Age comics from him as a shy kid at these conventions. I eagerly read and re-read his scholarly take on what most adults disregarded as childish trash. Years later, Jerry helped me on many occasions when I had run into a wall in my own comic history research or just needed to run some of my theories by him. He's gone now and I miss him. But I want to thank him just the same.

The Panelologist vol. 1 #1

This next part is uncomfortable for me as I hate to talk about myself, but probably should at this point.

I've been referred to as a comic historian, but that sounds like a frightening combination of Jerry Lewis and Stephen Ambrose, so I prefer comics detective. Maybe you've read some of my writings on my Comicartville website. Or maybe you've seen some of the articles I've had published in ALTER EGO, THE COMICS JOURNAL and Craig Yoe's ARF FORUM. Greg Theakston used an abridged version of one article for the text of his book, WILL EISNER: EDGE OF GENIUS. I've been an unnamed contributor to numerous publications over the years, a named contributor to OVERSTREET'S PRICE GUIDE, cited by Bob Andelman in his Eisner bio, A SPIRITED LIFE and in the credits of the Eisner documentary film, “Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist”. And yeah, that's a copy of my Merry Marvel Marching Society membership card and kit in THE MARVEL VAULT book from a few years back.

I'll probably refer back to some of these from time-to-time as my research doesn't end when an article does. I'm currently finishing up a long piece on the life and career of Bernard Baily, a much shorter piece on Matt Baker and a half-dozen other writings in various stages of completion. I plan on featuring previews of articles as they develop and will often seek advice and information from YOU, the reader. I'm fortunate to have friendly relations with some of the most thoughtful and generous people involved in the study of this medium, and hope to feature their words and insights upon occasion.

As for comments--I welcome them all! But please follow these rules of the road:

1) Always be respectful. No insults, no name-calling, no airing of grudges.

2) No adults-only language. In other words: don't curse or use language you wouldn't use in front of children. I want this blog to be viewable by as many curious comic book fans as possible and that includes the young.

3) No political, religious or other divisive posting. There are plenty of sites and discussion lists devoted to those pursuits. This isn't one of them.

I have the ability to moderate comments here on my end, so any comment that violates the above will be summarily deleted.

Please follow these easily followable rules and we can all have a good time and perhaps learn something.

Sapere Aude

I'm curious.

Despite the cat-killing properties of that compulsion, it is what drives me. Linear thought bores me; paved paths are too crowded. Even the outsider preoccupation of comic book history is shoulder-to-shoulder with most students of it heading in the same direction. I've never been comfortable with that. There is far more comic history to know about than I could ever hope to learn in a lifetime. But I'm not afraid to ask questions, or to break some icons, or to head down roads that may end in a cul-de-sac.

"Sapere aude" -- Dare to know.

And that is what this is all about.