7 Best Vintage Comics Revelations: A Designer’s Report

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You’d never know it from media reports on San Diego’s annual Comic-Con International, but it’s your richest opportunity to discover and explore the creative and artistic heritage of cartoons and vintage comics.


For starters, there’s Will Eisner. Last month’s convention had no less than four different panels devoted to the graphic arts innovator and educator whose 1940s Spirit was just the beginning of significant transformations both within and beyond the comics medium. And SDCC’s annual Eisner Awards gave four wins to books about Winsor McCay’s groundbreaking Little Nemo newspaper strip from way back in the early 1900s. And, it voted into its Hall of Fame Little Lulu’s creator Marjorie Henderson Buell and Bill Woggon, whose Katy Keene were important influences on artists from comix’s Trina Robbins to fashion’s Betsey Johnson.

And while we’re speaking of awards, here’s my “Best of…” sampling of what was new at Comic-Con about the good old days of cartoon art. As with my earlier column, which you can read here, it’s based on my own personal design preferences, random encounters during my four-day visit, and a good dollop of whimsy.

One qualifier: the list includes examples of the worst racial stereotyping that was prevalent in vintage comics from the 1930s through the 1950s. Apart from that, you’ll also find an incredible shrinking superhero, a “women’s headlights” artist, mad monastery monks, shady business practices… and a discussion that turned out to be both informationally and physically revealing.

photos below by M. Dooley.


• • • • •

Best 1940s-women-in-combat panel discussion with book-announcement tie-in:

Hermes Press: A Celebration of Women Artists in Comics During WWII”


Babes in Arms: Women in Comics During World War Two

When a panel opens with Hermes’ video of 1940s-era art by a quartet of gifted comic book illustrators — backed by Benny Goodman’s In the Mood, no less — it was already a winner. And it just got better from there, with artist Ramona Fradon, historian Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, and artist-historian Trina Robbins providing their various perspectives on the careers and legacies of female comics pioneers during and after the war.

Trina also previewed her 300-page Babes in Arms, which describes how circumstances at the time led not only to unprecedented numbers of female cartoonists, but to a rise in plots involving heroic, independent women as well. Due out later this year, it will also include complete action-packed adventures, from Barbara Hall’s and Jill Elgin’s Girl Commandos to Lily Renee’s and Fran Hopper’s Jane Martin and beyond. The stories are also studies in jingoistic graphic propaganda, as attractive, virtuous protagonists battle against grotesquely ugly Axis villains.

Here are some preview images:


Best new book of old, oddball, mostly forgotten, exceptionally-abled humans:

The League of Regrettable Superheroes: Half-Baked Heroes from Comic Book History

Beginning in the 1940s, every comics publisher wanted to hop aboard the caped crusader super-train. Never mind today’s Ant-Man, the “world’s mightiest mite” is Eisner and Lou Fine’s Doll Man, whom “no man can hold,” thanks to his power of, yes: super-shrinkage. Siegel and Shuster’s short-lived Funnyman would fight his battles using seltzer bottles, exploding cigars, and the American banana cream pie. Fantomah, a jungle-dwelling blue-eyed blonde with a head that turns into a skull whenever she’s pissed, starred in a comic that’s so freakishly rendered it makes underground cartoonist Rory Hayes look like Norman Rockwell. And then there’s the Black Dwarf, Captain Tootsie, and Doctor Hormone. Oh, and the Red Bee [see top of page], who keeps a backup of helper bees in his utility belt and has been known to utter, “You’ve not met my little friend Michael before!”

Forgotten but not gone, cartoonist and graphic designer Jon Morris has lovingly resurrected, wittily chronicled, and copiously illustrated these idiosyncratic super-D-list-ers — more than a hundred — for
our enlightenment and — mostly — amusement.

Quirk publisher Jason Rekulak with Jon Morris's quirky book.

Quirk publisher Jason Rekulak with Jon Morris’s quirky book.

• • • • •

Best semi-new (2012) magazine spotlighting a mid-century “headlights” artist:

Matt Baker: the Art of Glamour

Baker achieved a modicum of fame when fact-fabricating moral crusader Fredric Wertham obsessed over the “headlights” on his females. But there was much more to commend him beyond helping to ease young boys into puberty back in the buttoned-down 1950s. The Art of Glamour pays tribute to his talents and versatility with samples of his comic book pages, covers, panels, sketches, and illustrations, along with an assortment of essays and interviews.

Although proficient in a variety of genres, Baker best utilized his superb draftsmanship and gracefully flowing ink lines when rendering his “good girl” art. And, having begun his career in the 1930s, he was also one of the very first of very few black men to rise to industry success and acclaim in its fledgling days.

Here are a few pages from Matt Baker: The Art of Glamour and other samples.

Matt Baker: The Art of Glamour
Matt Baker: The Art of Glamour
Matt Baker: The Art of Glamour
Spotted at the TwoMorrows Publishing table.

Scored at Comic-Con’s TwoMorrows Publishing table.

• • • • •

Best nostalgia panel discussion with back tattoo exposure:

“Remembering Golden Age Great Irwin Hasen

For multitudes of youngsters in the mid-1950s such as myself, Sunday mornings were a religious ritual of newspaper comics stories. My devotions usually began with the graphic intensity of Chester Gould’s hard-line, sharp nosed Dick Tracy investigations and Harold Gray’s darkly-staged, starkly bleak Orphan Annie adventures, and conclude with Hasen’s more genteel Dondi, which went on for a three-decade run. For a personal reminiscence about the artist, who also drew Golden Age comics such as the Green Hornet, Wonder Woman, and his own Wildcat, I recommend Steven Brower’s recent Print remembrance, here.

In light of Hasen’s passing this March, friends and acquaintances gathered on the dais to pay tribute and to share a video of Jules Feiffer’s personal reminiscences. At one point artist Chelle Mayer casually mentioned that she had a tattoo of her granddad Sheldon Mayer, Hasen’s editor and Sugar and Spike‘s creator-artist. So after the panel I asked to see the tattoo – if it wouldn’t be too revealing – and she instantly pulled down the back of her blouse to reveal his very impressive portrait. And almost as suddenly, we were surrounded by art fan paparazzi.

Chelle Mayer, David Armstrong, Danny Fingeroth, Jim Salicrup, Michael Uslan, Arie Kaplan.

Chelle Mayer, David Armstrong, Danny Fingeroth, Jim Salicrup, Michael Uslan, Arie Kaplan.

Sheldon Mayer has Chelle's back. Right: Sheldon's RedTornado.

Sheldon Mayer has Chelle’s back. Right: Sheldon’s Red Tornado.

• • • • •

Best newly-reprinted classic comic books freely distributed after a Spotlight panel:

Weird Love; Haunted Horror; Popeye

You never know what you’re going to get when you show up for a Craig Yoe presentation. Once he conducted a fire-and-brimstone church revival from the stage. This go-around he orchestrated a madcap “This is Your Life” tribute in which he was verbally blasted by friends from the past. And afterward, he shared with his audience boxes and boxes of 1950s-era comics, recently revived by Yoe Books: more than a dozen different titles, enough that no one left empty-handed.

For the young and impressionable, there were issues of Bob Sagendorf’s slicker-than-Segar Popeye. For the old and in the way, there was the often crudely-drawn, occasionally off-register, but always morally corrupting pre-Comics Code dementia. But as a huge giveaway, the price couldn’t be beat.

It's long been rumored that Comic-Con's Inkpot Award trophy was modeled after Craig's trademark wisp of in-his-face hair.

It’s been rumored that Comic-Con’s Inkpot Award was modeled after Craig’s trademark wisp of in-his-face hair.

• • • • •

Best three-Wheeler panel discussion about the birth of a medium:

“Twisted Roots of the Comics Industry”

First, a few introductions. Writer and entrepreneur Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was a writer and entrepreneur with a pulp magazine background; he established the company that would become DC Comics and was the first to publish a comic book of all-new material, New Fun, in 1934. Too Much Coffee Man‘s Shannon Wheeler — relationship currently unknown — who drew a three-page bio of the Major that was among The New Yorker’s latest “Cartoons of the Year,” was in attendance, as usual. And comics historian Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson – who’s currently collaborating on a, um, Major biography of grandfather Malcolm with Men of Tomorrow’s Gerard Jones — was the ringleader of the Twisted Roots mob.

Nicky, Gerard, Batman movie producer Michael Uslan, and others delivered — as promised in the program book — “stories of gangsters, bootleggers, and eccentric geniuses who founded the comic book business.” For anyone interested in the birth and growth of a publishing industry, the panel traced a fascinating narrative of crime — Superman and Batman were swipes from Doc Savage and Shadow pulps — corruption — name-checked: publisher Harry Donenfeld and racketeer Frank Costello — and caricatured villainous foreigners — see the first issue of Detective Comics.

Left: 1934 ad for Clark "Doc" Savage, the Man of Bronze who had a Fortress of Solitude, which ran four years before Clark "Superman" Kent, the Man of Steel, who had a...

Left: 1934 ad for Clark “Doc” Savage, the Man of Bronze who maintained a Fortress of Solitude, which ran four years before Clark “Superman” Kent, the Man of Steel who maintained…

Left: Shannon Wheeler.

Left: Shannon Wheeler. Right: an issue of the first comic book with all-original art.

Danny Fingeroth, Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, Gerard Jones, Michael Uslan, Brad Ricca.

Danny Fingeroth, Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, Gerard Jones, Michael Uslan, Brad Ricca. Right: New Comics became New Adventure Comics which became today’s DC Adventure Comics.

• • • • •

Best faux-vintage, 19th-Century-pamphlet-meets-Golden Age-comics 16-page ‘zine:

Rotland Dreadfuls: Sadistic Comics

The Marquis de Sade. Wonder Woman. R. Sikoryak. Enough said.

Spotted at the Stuart Ng Books booth.

Left: scored for four bucks at Comic-Con’s Stuart Ng Books booth. Right: the Marquis himself.

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About Michael Dooley

Michael Dooley is the creative director of Michael Dooley Design and teaches History of Design, Comics, and Animation at Art Center College of Design and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He is also a Print contributing editor and author.View all posts by Michael Dooley →