THE BEST ART often is what transports you.
But what if the best art about creating comics transports you to places you don’t necessarily want to go — reminding you with vivid clarity of some of the pain and strain and mental struggle that can go into creating comics?
That art, I reckon, you’d have to call a resounding success. Especially because the cartoonists are tapping their own professional and psychologically challenges — and leaving it all on the page.
That is what makes the stories and images all the more meta-riveting in ”Comics About Cartoonists: Stories About the World’s Oddest Profession” (IDW), Craig Yoe’s recent anthology. Some of my interviews lately with fellow drafting-board dwellers have gravitated toward the plight of staring at the blank page, trying all one’s usual tricks to summon inspiration.
To those creators, I recommend tripping with these works by such legends as Jack Kirby and Jack Cole and Al Capp — as they explored the cartooning life through their own cartoons.
Comic Riffs recently caught up with Yoe to discuss his motivation — and perspiration — behind curating this book:
MICHAEL CAVNA: Okay, Craig, first off, I’m curious to know one thing: Was there one comic, or creator, who really sparked this book idea within you? Kirby and [his charater] Inky Wells, or Al Capp, or Kliban? Or was this more a matter of simply recognizing a collective potential?
CRAIG YOE: Actually, I think it was probably R. Crumb’s comics along those lines that inspired me to think about the fascinating aspects of autobiographical comics and, of course, Art Spiegelman’s “Maus. ” And their great comics also were the catalyst for so many contemporary autobiographical comics. I deeply love Golden Age comics and even comics that appeared before that time. So the book concentrates on the Old Skool, many quite rare examples. Some of those comics are “autobiographical” like the comic by Ernie Bushmiller. Some are just fanciful like the Kirby Inky Wells or the hilarious Thimble Theater comic about a cartoonist by Popeye’s pappy, E.C. Segar.
At Yoe Books, we celebrate cartoonists as much as characters, so a tome of comics about cartoonists was a natural for us. And, incidentally, we sweated for a couple of years over the title. We even enlisted the aid of a professional naming company to help. But at the end, being clever or cute was out, the perfunctory title “Comics About Cartoonists” seemed the way to go. I do like the subtitle “Stories About the World’s Oddest Profession” a lot. One reviewer, though, picked up on that, said I was trying to make the point that the life of cartooning is not unlike prostitution. I thought that interoperation was fascinating, but I really wasn’t going there at all, just trying to inject some fun into the title.
And drawing glorified doodles for a living is pretty odd when you think about it.
MC: As you researched this book, had you seen all these works before, or did you come upon any surprise discoveries in your research? And did you have any pre-set parameters for what would make the cut?
CY: I have been collecting this type of material for years, but when I enlisted the aid of a few friends, some nice surprises did come up. Bud Plant knew of that terrific Basil Wolverton story. I’m a huge Wolverton fan, have been for many decades, but I was totally unaware of that. Maybe because it was a feature in a very pricey superhero comic it had alluded me. I have to thank Bud for drawing it to my attention. I found the Vince Napoli horror comic about a cartoonist in Jim Vadeboncoeur’s collection. That was [a] surprise discovery, for sure.
As someone who has packaged a number of books of horror comics, I had never seen anything like that. Not only was Napoli unfamiliar to me, [but] I am to this moment surprised how it is truly horrific. I can’t think of a horror comic that I find more scary and disturbing — geez, it gives me the willies!
The fact that there were in comic books recurring cartoonist characters like Inky, Scribbly and Pen Miller is pretty cool. And they were drawn by Golden Age masters Jack Cole, Sheldon Mayer and Klaus Nordling — I was so stoked to find those fictional cartoonists by real-life greats.
MC: After curating and re-reading all these veiled and not-so-veiled first-person opinions of their profession, did your prism alter at all on cartooning? Meaning: Did you think it was even “odder” than you thought, given these many takes? Or should we just chalk up the book’s comics to high flights of creator imagination and exaggeration — and little more?
CY: Spending time with all these meta-comics affirmed in my mind how many of the cartoonists were committed to comics — or should be committed! Four of the cartoonists represented committed suicide: Jack Cole, Ham Fisher, Milt Stein, Wally Wood — and Bud Fisher shows himself doing just that in the last panel of his strip, though he died of natural causes.
The moods and personalities of the cartoonists real and fictional represented in the book are in line with the many cartoonists I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. Cartoonists run the gamut from positive, quite happy people to severely depressed sad sacks. Not so much different than civilians.
On the unfortunate side, though, cartoonists do seem to have a high suicide rate due to things I talk about in the book: being involved in a lonely solitary pursuit, plus deadline pressure and “cartoonist’s block” sometimes dealt with by substance abuse. Cartooning can be not only an odd profession but a depressing one as well.
MC: Those moods really resonate in these comics. One common element in the works you curated seems to be that the creators — no matter how successful when they wrote and illustrated these comics — are drawing upon deep senses of professional despair or seething anger or massive exasperation, if not outright fear and loathing at the artboard. Do you think that’s part of why you think these examples hold up so well? And where there consistent qualities about these comics that especially appealed to you?
CY: “Conflict” is always the primary part of a good story. And inner conflict is not a surprising theme when it comes down to comics basically about a guy or gal basically sitting at the drawing board. But, yes, now that you mention it, I just went back and looked ... from the cover on, the majority of the stories are “dark.” This is curious to me, as I think of myself as a “the glass is half-full” kind of guy. I guess this turmoil is a big part of why these comics are timeless.
When you think about it, cartoonists today have this pain without the financial rewards some of the old-school had. Among the guys in the book, [George] Herriman, [Walt] Disney, [Charles] Schulz, [Chester] Gould, Segar, [Milton] Caniff, Fisher, [Milt] Gross, Capp, [Stan] Goldberg, [Frank] Frazetta, [Winsor] McCay, [Will] Eisner, [Thomas] Nast, Bushmiller and, yes, [Joe] Shuster, were wealthy men. Shuster famously lost his fortune, of course, but Superman made him quite wealthy for a period. Fisher dined with royalty and owned the largest stable of thoroughbred horses in America, and Schulz consistently was on the top of Forbes “richest entertainers list,” up there with Elvis.
Stellar salaries for cartoonists are getting very rare. It’s, in fact, a concern that most cartoonists can even get much higher than the poverty level working at their craft. Why does the new generation continue? I guess telling stories by integrating words and pictures has a big, irresistible appeal — it’s like a moth to a light bulb!
Having said all that, I love cartoonists and stories that are about their profession I love, too. The book is a big hit with those in the field and their fans. This will always be my favorite book of the many I have done and will do. That’s because it’s comics about my favorite subject...cartoonists!
MC: Which of these works do you think or know is the most rare, or least previously seen?
CY: So much of it is rare or was previously unknown by collectors. That Jack Kirby story is a very hard book to find even for hard-core Kirby collectors. Who knew about the Charles Schulz piece? Segar’s Popeye work is thankfully easily accessible, but this pre-Popeye strip about a cartoonist has been buried. I had never seen any knowledge of the comic about Walt Disney.
The Kar Toon and his Copy Cat about an animator was in a 1940 comic book that was apparently only printed as a sample and never distributed. Only a couple of publisher’s file copies are known to exist. It’s priceless. Incidentally, it’s by Martin Filchock, who died at 100 years old, just as the book was coming out. The Scribbly comics were in some of the very first modern comic books only in the hands of the richest collectors. There’s the original art by Winsor McCay, Art Young, Sheldon Mayer, H. T. Webster, George Herriman and Milt Gross. The vast majority of the comics in the book are very rare. The few familiar things like Wally’s World I just felt had to be included. And the fans have, thankfully backed me up on this. This material is ultra-rare. Only a few hard-core comic book collectors like myself had it — it hasn’t been seen by human eyes. ...
“Comics About Cartoonists” is my favorite book I’ve done, or will ever do, because of the subject matter. Walt Disney ... once said he loved Mickey Mouse more than any woman he ever met. I can say the same — I have a thing for Mickey — but I love cartoonists even more. It must be said, I’m not either mouseogamous or monogamous — i love all cartoonists. And this book celebrates that!