Category : Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf

Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: The Most Important Cartoons Ever Published

Doomed by Cartoon

by John Adler with Draper Hill

Softcover, 310 pages, $19.95
Morgan James Publishing, 2008
ISBN 978-1-60037-443-2

I’ve read several biographies of the great editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast, and I’ve read a history of Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall ring, but what I’ve long pined for, and considered the most perfectly natural idea for a book, is a history of the Tweed ring as told through Nast’s cartoons.

Finally such a book was written, and unfortunately has managed to fly under my radar for over five years. Well, better late than never, I did finally stumble upon it recently, and I’m delighted to say that the book is pretty much everything I could have hoped for.

John Adler navigated through a minefield of potential pitfalls to produce this book, which I consider just about as close to a perfect treatment of the subject as possible. He could easily have gotten bogged down trying to provide a thorough biography of Thomas Nast or Boss Tweed, or offered an exhaustive history of the deeds of Tammany. He resists those temptations, though, and confines himself to guiding us through the entire amazing episode via Nast’s incredibly powerful cartoons. He explains all the nuances of what is depicted, and gives us enough of the history and biography of the personages involved to understand the enormity of the events and the genius of Nast’s response.

It’s a masterful piece of work, and Adler,  with the expertise of cartooning scholar Draper Hill guiding him, deserve a much wider readership than, as best I can tell, they have gotten. These are the most important cartoons ever drawn; I can’t even imagine that blunt statement garnering even a whisper of debate. So if you are seriously interested in cartooning, this book is not really optional in your library. It is basically a Cartooning Scripture, explaining how it was In The Beginning. For without Nast, and without Tweed, and the explosive confluence of those two mighty forces, cartoons may never have become synonymous with American journalism, and everything that followed may have changed course in unknowable ways. 

I bring up a few minor negative points only because I’d love to see an even better second edition someday. The layout and design of the book was obviously handled by loving but not always highly accomplished hands. Among other layout problems, the cramped margins and large blocks of whitespace are a trivial annoyance, but they are an annoyance.

The other problem is not so easily corrected. It’s a complication that has confounded every book designer when confronted with Nast’s cartoons. His large double-truck cartoons, often full of important small details, are all but impossible to appreciate at the size they are reproduced. This book does an admirable job of mitigating the problem in some cases, by blowing up important vignettes for closer inspection. However, it would be ideal if the large cartoons were reproduced at close to original printed size. This would either take a skillful book designer, who could reproduce the double-trucks in their original form (though they would still have to be reduced a bit), or an extravagant budget would have to be allowed for fold-out cartoons. It’s probably a pipe dream, but if Nast doesn’t deserve the royal treatment, who does? Are there any publishers listening?

3 comments on “Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: The Most Important Cartoons Ever Published

  1. Agreed, they should be reprinted in a larger format, perhaps like the Little Nemo "So Many Splendid Sundays."

  2. This is a book that demands to exist, so I immediately ordered a copy. just arrived. Damn, all it wants is an ounce of design savvy. It looks like it's printed direct from a word document. It didn't need to be flash, just orderly

    still, thanks for the recommendation. the information in it is invaluable

    Eddie Campbell

  3. Now that I'm sitting down with it, my summary would be that it comes across like a thorough and exhaustive guide for somebody who has access to the real thing rather than the fair facsimile of the real thing hat it could easily have been. All the pictures are here. A few minutes in photoshop could have made each one look clean and sharp.

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Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: The Modest Renaissance Man

Backing into Forward

by Jules Feiffer
Doubleday 2010, 445 pages, $30
ISBN 978-0-385-53158-0

I have to admit that Feiffer’s memoir sat on my ‘to be read’ shelf for a long while. Two reasons — first, the book is rather lengthy, and second, I didn’t know that Feiffer’s story would hold my interest.

Because Feiffer’s cartoons primarily appeared in the Village Voice, my only encounters with him came through reprint books. Although very much impressed with his poignant strips that dredge all the dark places of the human psyche, I found reading the books to make his cartoons seem quite repetitive (“oh great, another dancer…”). I know had I seen the cartoons at the real-time schedule of once per week I would have been a huge fan. But I didn’t have access in that mode, and I’ve never been one to strictly mete out the reading of a book. 

So though in theory I know Feiffer is one hell of a cartoonist (and many other things — screenwriter, novelist, playwright, etc.) I felt a bit standoffish towards reading his biography.

Once I finally jumped in, it seemed almost as if Feiffer knew that I would be his audience. The early chapters, covering his childhood, are uproariously funny and heart-rendingly touching, where most memoirs have us wondering when the author will jump ahead to the meat. Feiffer makes his readers fall in love with him right from the start, no matter what baggage you carried into the book. From there we go onto his teenage years, and becoming a cartoonist. Here he is self-effacing, droll, instructive, and, of course, talks about my favorite subject. The love deepens.

From there we go on to his rich middle and later years, in which he was politically active and started branching off into his other careers. Now that he had me in the palm of his hand, he feeds me the stuff I thought I didn’t care about. What’s it like to rewrite a play over and over in Boston? I didn’t think I cared. But Feiffer had me. Heck, he even had me talking about his kids and Martha’s Vineyard and all sorts of other stuff that should have had me start riffling pages.

Buy it. Even if you’re not a huge Feiffer fan, you might well be by the time you finish the book.

Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: A Jim Lange Scrapbook

John Q: The Life and Times of Jim Lange

by Robert Lange
Self-published, softcover, 100 pages, $15.95
ISBN 9780615856902

How do you in good conscience write a negative review of a book written by a son about his dad? I know I sure don’t want to be that jerk. But I think it only fair that prospective buyers be forewarned about what they are purchasing .

Based on the title of John Q: The Life and Times of Jim Lange, I assumed that I was purchasing a biography of the Daily Oklahoman editorial cartoonist. In fairness, when I ordered the book on Amazon, there was a ‘Look Inside’ feature that I didn’t bother with. Who needs to see what the inside of a biography looks like?

Well, if I had taken the time, I would have seen that the book consists of short paragraphs on each alternating page, and a photo or cartoon on each facing page. Some of these short paragraphs (some are just a single sentence) comment in some way on the photo or the cartoon, or tell some tidbit about Lange. There is no biography here, just reminiscences plus some accolades written by Oklahoma notables.

If the book had been called an admiring son’s memorial or a scrapbook, that would be much closer to the mark. To say the book tells the “life and times” of Lange is nonsense.

I also think the price is on the high side. A bunch of blurry black and white photos and a very small selection of cartoons (I count about twenty-five), and so little text that I could literally read the whole book while standing in a supermarket checkout line — $16 seems out of line.

I commend Robert for wanting to memorialize his dad, but I think this book is the sort of thing to be shared with relatives and personal friends. It is not really a commercial product that would appeal to cartoon fans or those who fondly remember his work in the Oklahoman.

Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: Russ Manning, Lord of the Jungle

Edgar Ric Burroughs’ Tarzan: The Complete Russ Manning Newspaper Strips Volume One: 1967-1969

IDW Publishing 2013
ISBN 978-1613776940
Hardcover, 285 pages, $49.99

Those of you who visit this site regularly know that I have very high (some would say nearly impossibly high) standards for adventure strips. I find 90% of them practically unreadable, usually because of simplistic storylines, less than stellar art, or bad pacing.

I must confess that for me much of Tarzan’s seven plus decades in the newspaper falls into the unreadable category. When the art is good, and it often was, the storylines seldom hold my interest. That can be ascribed partially to Mr. Burroughs’ creation itself, as opposed to shortcomings in the handling of the comic strip. The assumption that this white man, given the benefit of growing up in the jungle, naturally becomes the lord of the beasts and the native tribes (if they know what’s good for them) is far more apt to make me giggle uncontrollably than to be swept away in the adventure. I have no desire to watch the insanity of manifest destiny and the white man’s burden played out in the jungle or anywhere else. It certainly doesn’t entertain me.

Now before Tarzan fans start screaming for my head, I do understand that there was plenty of lip service to the contrary. You can point out, and rightfully so, that many of the villains in the Tarzan strip are actually white guys, especially as we come into the more enlightened years of race relations. But sorry, to me the ugly writing is always on the wall.

And that’s why I can say that I was thrilled to hear that IDW was going to reprint the Russ Manning years of Tarzan, as opposed to the earlier stuff. The Manning years come at a time when the jingoistic and paternalistic ideology of Burroughs was reaching a new low ebb. Manning, who also wrote the strip, goes out of his way to tell Tarzan stories that minimize the unsavory aspects of the Tarzan legend, and he even occasionally goes out of his way to point out that Tarzan is more like a governor of the jungle than a lord (both being ridiculous, of course, but hey, its an improvement).

I first encountered Manning’s Tarzan work in those great 100-Page Super-Spectacular comic books DC comics issued in the early 1970s. I loved all the oddball (to my young eyes) material in those magazines, and absolutely fell in love with the Manning strips in the Tarzan issues. The art and stories blew me away then, and I’m happy to say that age has not dimmed my enjoyment of these stories, or lessened my admiratiion for Manning’s incredible clean line artwork.

The only slight caveat, and its a point of interest only, is that I was surprised how obvious it is when Manning occasionally hits a deadline crunch. It is incredible how little it takes for Manning’s work to become obviously and painfully inferior in those cases. A few lines in not quite the right place and you have laughably misshapen characters in anatomically impossible poses. But that just goes to show what a tightrope act Manning was attempting with his highly polished art, and how much care he usually devoted to this labor of love. What an artist!

In addition to three Sunday color stories and two long daily continuities, we get a delightful and informative foreword and introduction about Manning, telling the story behind the story. As for the reproduction, I don’t even really need to mention that anymore, do I? If it is an IDW/Dean Mullaney production you can be assured of unsurpassed quality restoration and reproduction.  

Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: A Curious Man — The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert Ripley

by Neal Thompson
Crown Archetype, 2013
ISBN 978-0-7704-3620-9

Hardcover, 422 pages, indexed, $26

Cartoonist Robert Ripley had an interesting life that is well worth your reading time in this enjoyable biography by Neal Thompson. Thompson kept me entertained while telling the story of this fellow, one of the most widely recognized cartoonist names in the world. Of course, I imagine the general public today doesn’t even realize he was a cartoonist before he became a radio host and iconic ringmaster to all the world’s oddities.

In fact Thompson’s skillful writing was so effective that I didn’t realize until well after I’d finished this satisfying book that I’d been subject to a bit a of a whitewash, likely at the behest of the the Ripley Entertainment corporation. I did notice right off that nowhere in the book is it frankly admitted that Ripley used ghost artists. The closest we come is a remark that King Features was always freaking out over his lateness and on occasion a syndicate bullpenner had to dash off some cartoons at the last minute.

At first I ascribed that omission to simple lack of interest. This is a biography for a general audience, after all, not for cartooning historians, so perhaps the detail was not deemed important. But then I realized that Thompson also never seriously entertained the idea that Ripley was a bit of a creep for making a good part of his fortune off of freak shows. That seems an issue worthy of exploration.

Thompson acknowledges his huge debt to the archives of Ripley Entertainment, and I am left with the impression that Ripley Entertainment did not share all that raw material without exacting their pound of flesh from the author. That’s a shame, but considering the wealth of source material that Thompson was able to bring to bear in this biography, I suppose it is an equitable sacrifice. Or perhaps, on the other hand, Thompson simply accepts Ripley at face value, and doesn’t see any point in discussing Ripley’s possible moral failing of making a very good living off of the deformities, eccentricities and misfortunes of others. I suppose there really isn’t anything wrong with leaving it up to the reader to form their own opinion of Ripley’s character.

Ethical qualms aside, Ripley’s life is fascinating and Thompson tells his story very well. The facts of his cartooning career, and the background to newspaper cartooning in the early part of the century, are accurately reflected. Since I fact-checked an early draft of the book, hopefully I was able to help with that aspect. Thankfully Thompson doesn’t gloss over his early cartooning years, as other biographers might, and his cartooning certainly doesn’t get short shrift over his later more well-known exploits in radio and television.

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