Sunday, February 28, 2010

Milton Caniff - Adventure Comics Strip Shakespeare and Picasso rolled into one!

Born this day in 1907, Milton Caniff would be 103 years old today!

With the amount of work he left behind for us to read, re-read, enjoy, re-enjoy, learn from and learn from again, you'd almost think he was still around, cranking out genius on a daily basis.

Caniff began his career in 1932, doing generic assignments on different strips for the syndicate, then in 1933 the adventure began!

Caniff began a strip called "Dickie Dare", a fantasy-adventure strip about a young boy who loved to read adventure stories. He'd read about Robin Hood and the like and then drift off into a fantasy in which he was swashbuckling right alongside his literary heroes. The strip lasted just over a year, and before the run was over, fantasizing about adventure wasn't enough. Dickie found himself traveling 'round the world with dashing soldier-of-fortune/adventurer/family friend, "Dynamite Dan" Flynn.

America's youth was just not experiencing fantasy alongside the fantasy of their fantasy hero...they were experiencing real life adventure alongside their fantasy friend. Caniff cut away two layers in one fell swoop. Genius!

In 1934, Caniff was hired away to do a new strip for the Chicago Tribune. He kept the adventure, he kept the young hero the readers could identify with, he kept the dashing adventurer whom he fought alongside...he changed were the it was young Terry Lee adventuring alongside dashing Pat Ryan and their adventures were set in the exotic orient.

"Terry and the Pirates" may be the most elaborate, well executed, best drawn, most layered in character or story, adventure strip ever done. Caniff had listened to his muse and followed suit.

It's topics like this I hope you take what's inside my head for what it's worth.

Milton Caniff was not only one of the most prolific and longest producing writer/artist in the adventure comic strip field, he was also one of the most celebrated in his own time.

What I can tell you about this amazing persons storytelling and art pales in comparison with what else is out there.

Caniff went on to do a strip for "Stars and Stripes" magazine during WWII. A humor strip with a gorgeous pin-up idol name Miss Lace who kept the troops morale up, if by only reminding them what they were fighting for.

In 1947 Caniff began probably his most famous strip, "Steve Canyon". "Canyon" was another adventure strip, but this time in a post-war world. "Canyon" went from military action to civilian action to cold-war espionage action, with a soap opera type way of keeping all the characters intertwined as the story developed. Caniff had grown into an even denser storyteller and "Steve Canyon" ran from 1947 until Caniff's death in 1988. It remains a rich tapestry of character and art that's still being unravelled, marveled at and studied to this day, over 20 years later.

Please take my advice. Do some googling around for Milton Caniff and read the volumes written by scholars for decades about his man. Read as many strips as you can and wrap yourselves in the complexity of story...complexity that belies this strips limited space to tell that story.

And just lose yourselves in the art of one of this mediums true masters. My God, you could drown in the blacks that his brush laid out.

Thanks Milton! For never underestimating your readers want for more. We should all learn from that alone...then we'll get to your other scores of talents!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

AIN'T NO GRAVE (Can Hold My Body Down) Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash's birthday was yesterday. He left us about 4 years ago, but I still hear him singing.

Between the time of the death of his wife and his own just a couple of months later, Johnny recorded one more album to say goodbye to us.

This is it. He's still releasing albums of new material. There was a lot of music in this man.

iTunes is waiting. So are your ears. Go get it.

His closing track of "Aloha Oe" is worth the price.

We miss you Johnny.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Man in Black - Happy Birthday Johnny Cash

Born in 1933, Johnny Cash would be 77 years old today.

You know who he is. Enjoy the music!

Thanks Johnny! You always saw through the bullshit and saw the music and the people that matters instead! God, we miss you!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Rudolph Dirks - He Put The Words Right in Their Mouths

Tomorrow, February 26th, will be the 133rd anniversary of the birth of Rudolph Dirks, born in 1877!

Rudolph Dirks was responsible for the longest running newspaper comic strip in history, The Katzenjammer Kids. The strip made it's debut on December 12, 1897 and is still run in some newspapers to this very day, over 112 years!

The strip is influenced by some 19th century German woodcarvings featuring a couple of devilish young boys named Max and Moritz and the idea was presented to Dirks to do an updated version for newspapers. Dirks renamed the boys Hans and Fritz, gave them parents and a grandfather and they were dubbed the Katzenjammers. The word Katzenjammer in German translates to "the yowling of cats", and it was a slang term meaning "hangover".

As the strip grew, the father and grandfather were eventually dropped and a salty sea captain (The Captain) moved in as a border in the home and a little later a truant officer (The Inspector) came along for the boys, but after a time moved in as well.

What is truly groundbreaking about Dirks' work on the strip though, is he brought 2 conventions to the medium. Both conventions were used experimentally by other cartoonists, but Dirks made them a mainstay of his strip and for 99.9999999% of every strip to come since. The Katzenjammer Kids was the first strip to have running regular characters in it week to week, and he was the first to regularly use word balloons to have the characters speak and move the narrative along.

If that ain't enough to plant him firmly in comic strip history, I don't know what is.

Here's an early strip:

After 15 years on the strip, Rudolph Dirks wanted to take a much deserved break. The syndicate of William Randolph Hearst wouldn't allow it's cash-cow to go stale and forbade his leave, and Rudolph left anyway.

Hearst continued the strip by bringing in another artist named Harold Knerr. This cause a legal battle between Dirks and the syndicate over ownership and creator rights. The judge deemed that Dirks owned the rights to the strip and the characters therein, but that Hearst owned the name. Dirks went down the street and went to work for Joseph Pulitzer and started doing his strip there and the Katzenjammers' continued in the Hearst papers with Knerr at the helm.

At first the strip Dirks was doing didn't have a title, it just appeared under a heading saying "from the creator of the ORIGINAL Katzenjammers" and then as "Hans and Fritz".

Eventually it was named "The Captain and the Kids":

For years the two strips existed side by side in separate newspapers..."The Katzenjammer Kids" by Knerr and "The Captain and the Kids" by Dirks.

Ironically, because Dirks often got bored with the grind of a daily and weekly strip, his work over the course of the next few decades is a little spotty and uneven. Knerr's passion for the work never seemed to waver and in truth, he was a much better draftsman than Dirks. So in retrospect, Knerr's inherited strip far surpassed Dirk's original.

A sample of Dirks' work:

A Knerr strip

Rudolph Dirk's contribution to the way comics tell stories is never in doubt though and for that he will long be remembered as one of the original fathers of the art form.

Thanks Rudolph! For showing us how to tell a story! Happy birthday!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tex Avery - The King of Cartoons!!

This Friday, February 26th, will be the 102nd anniversary of the birth of Fred "Tex" Avery! Maybe the single most "cartoony" cartoon director of all time!

Tex came into animation in the early 1930's right as everyone was trying to figure it all out. Over at Disney they were looking for more and more realistic ways of animating figures. Everywhere else they seemed to either be imitating Disney or just going through the motions animating figures to musical tracks to exploit the new sound medium. Tex stepped in to seemingly remind everyone that they were cartoonist first and foremost.

Why would you spend all your energy emulating realistic movement? Cartoon movements are better!

Tex stretched the boundaries of what cartoons would be and most of the exaggerated movements are humor we associate with cartoons, all came from the direction of Avery.

That's him on your left below:

After showing the boys at Termite Terrace over at Warner's how to do it, Tex accepted a job offer at MGM to come make cartoons for them starting in the early 1940's.

During his tenure at Warners he truly defined Bugs Bunny's character as well as developing Porky Pig and Daffy Duck. At MGM he created George & Junior, Screwy Squirrel, Droopy and did a whole slew of non-regular character cartoons.

Tex at his drawing board at MGM with producer Fred Quimby over his shoulder trying to look like he understands or gives 2 shits:

I could go on forever describing and naming the great cartoons that came from this man's mind over the 30 years he worked in theatrical animation...the best way to celebrate him on his birthday though, is to sit back and watch a few of his cartoons...

The first cartoon he did for MGM...his take on Hitler from 1942..."Blitz Wolf":

The sexiest cartoon character ever, I might call a toss up between her and Betty Boop:

A trilogy of life in tomorrow from the man...

"The House of Tomorrow":

"The Farm of Tomorrow":

"The Car of Tomorrow":

For those of you who want to get even more in-depth with this modern day's a great documentary about the man. This is the link to part one, follow the links at the end of the video to see the whole thing. It will be time WELL invested!

Thanks Tex! For letting cartoons be cartoons. Nobody did it better!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

George McManus - Poet of the Successful Irish-American Immigrant

Born this day in 1884, George McManus would have been 126 years old today.

McManus is one of the premiere first string of great American Cartoonists who worked in the newspaper comic strip fact his strip "Bringing Up Father" is credited as being the prototype for all family strips to come. Every comic strip from "Hi and Lois" to "For Better or For Worse" to "Blondie" came from the mold cast by McManus, and likewise I think you can find the roots of every television sitcom that's been based around family life to the work he did.

His wasn't just run of the mill humdrum family stuff we might think of though. His work was long before America and the world became homogenized in the 1950's. His tale of an Irish immigrant and his family that finally make good and move up in society, only to find that they are what they are, was a really artful commentary on what was happening dynamically in the real world to hundreds of thousands. Not just Irish-American immigrants, but plenty of other European settlers that came through Ellis Island in it's heyday.

Here's a very early sample of McManus' work on his first strip, "The Newlyweds":

And a couple of examples of his beautiful draftsmanship in his heralded "Bringing Up Father":

Jiggs (the father in question and husband in the strip) was the one really having trouble moving up to high society from his working class roots. His wife Maggie was constantly trying to get Jiggs to become more gentile and accept his new position in the world, but as much as Maggie cared about social climbing, Jiggs cared for sneaking out to "Dinty Moore's Saloon" (that's right, this is where the famous brand of canned beef stew gets it's name) for some corned beef and cabbage and to jaw with the boys from the construction site.

It's a great time to discover McManus' work on Maggie and Jiggs, as evidenced here in this post by Allen Holz on his great blog "The Strippers Guide". Check it out and see where to catch some pristine reprints of McManus' work!

Here's a cool little item I found this morning worth your time seeing as well. It's a little piece explaining the process of engraving and printing, and today's birthday boy takes center stage as the masterpiece being printed!

George McManus' clean pen lines and spot-on depiction of the Irish-American sense of humor were a feast for the eyes and minds. They probably did a lot to welcome his fellow Irishers to this country, as well as preserve an adjustment a lot of them had to face for all history.

And more importantly, he made us laugh.

Thanks George! For making us laugh...especially at ourselves!

Monday, February 22, 2010

George Washington's Birthday

Born today in 1732, George Washington would be 273 years old today.

The Father of our Country, The First President of the Untied States and proof that we once had presidents named "George" who did not have their heads embedded deeply in their own asses.

Washington has reached a true iconic status. Being the first something or other often gets the man lost in it all. Being that he was President over 200 years ago, before audio recording or film, makes him seem even more distant and unknowable.

But I have faith he must have been an alright guy.

A well-to-do land owner, Washington had more to lose fighting the British if he lost than he could gain if he won. Something besides monetary gain or comfort obviously made him devote so much to us...and we weren't even a country yet.

A sure measure of the man was, after winning the Revolutionary War with England, King George III was heard to wonder what Washington would do. Rumor had hit that Washington was going to return to his farm. The King stated that, "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world!".

Admiration like that from your enemy speaks volumes, I think.

Here's some ways we've paid tribute to the man. He's on our money.

Washington Monument:

Masonic Memorial to Washington:

That's right, he was a Freemason...he laid the cornerstone to the White House.

He was even honored by the dissenting Confederate States. That's him on their official seal.

He's the only American to have a whole damn state named after him.

...and one of only 2 US Presidents to have a nations capital named after him. (For all you trivia nuts, Monrovia, Liberia is the other.)

Happy Birthday George.

It's also on this day in 1846, the Liberty Bell got it's famous crack that renders in unusable.

It rang for several hours on George Washington's birthday. When it was was over.

P.S. This is also the 250th post for this blog. Thanks for reading. I hope you'll be back, my head's not empty yet.

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