Wednesday, November 13, 2019

THE LITTLE BIG HORN Rides Again (1949)

Sure to fire the ire of those two crusty Owlhoots Calamitous Cap'n Bob and Buffalo Goble, here's another pop culture rendition of what went down on the Greasy Grass back in 1876. Blame this one Western Fighters #6, from Feb-Mar 1949, and "movielover," who scanned it for comicbookplus.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

ELMO: An American Experiment by Cecil Jensen (and Frank M. Young)

Ready to get your CRAZY on? Welcome to the wacky world of Elmo.

Comic strip historian Frank M. Young has painstakingly restored this short-lived and long-forgotten strip, sharing the madness with current and future generations of screwballs. Yeah, that’s a mouthful, but there’s so much going in on this strip, it’s hard to describe in short sentences.

Cecil Jensen’s Elmo, which debuted in the funny papers in November 1946, appears to have been directly inspired by Al Capp’s Little Abner. Like Abner, Elmo is a cheerful idiot, but unlike Abner—he has no excuse. Elmo is no hillbilly, he’s just naturally stupid. And while Abner does occasionally experience sadness, worry, anger and regret, Elmo remains relentlessly upbeat—even as he falls victim to some of the most venal behavior in the history of comic strips. He thinks the best of everyone, and his sole desire is to make them happy.

Just about everyone in Elmo’s world—with the exception of his wannabe girlfriend Emmaline (and later Little Debbie, of whom I will speak anon)—is  unabashedly out for themselves, usually at Elmo’s expense.

Through the first months of his adventures, he’s disrespected, insulted, swindled, tricked, robbed, exploited, kidnapped, framed, imprisoned, swatted with a blackjack and chased by a polar bear. The only time he’s seriously concerned is when a starving man seriously considers eating him.

Through it all, Elmo’s stupidity knows no bounds. When a stranger tells him he has to commit suicide, he jumps off a bridge. In one sequence, he’s hypnotized into believing he’s a skunk, and moves in with real skunks at the zoo. At another point he believes he’s been beheaded.

For a humor strip, there’s an amazing amount of violence. Elmo’s boss hands him a pistol and tells him to shoot himself in the head. Another guy tries to squirt acid in his face, and suffers that fate himself. And it’s all for laughs.

To keep things even more interesting, Jensen populates the strip with a string of sultry females (yeah, one of them is even named "Sultry"), some of whom might have stepped from the panels of Little Abner. All of them are enamored of Elmo, while he remains blissfully immune to their charms.

Six months into the strip, another female is introduced as an incidental character—and finally proves Elmo’s undoing. Over the next year Little Debbie, a precocious little girl whom readers found all-too adorable, becomes a fixture in the strip, and eventually shoves Elmo out. A second volume is promised, focusing on Elmo’s limited appearances in the long-running “Little Debbie” strip.

Frank Young’s Introduction provides an in-depth study of creator Cecil Jensen’s life and career, zeroing in on the history of Elmo and Little Debbie. As Mr. Young points out, Jensen made no serious attempt at social or political satire. The Elmo strip is simply people behaving badly, and bouncing it off Elmo’s indestructible optimism. Reading the strip, I was reminded of the screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s—and of the characters bedeviling Popeye in E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theater. So I was not surprised to see Mr. Young draw parallels to both.

Why such a wild, crazy—and often dark—strip as Elmo was ever welcomed into the newspapers remains a mystery.  But I’m glad it was. As Young says, “The early months of Elmo feel like the first recordings of Elvis Presley: raw, awkward but possessed of an undeniable magic.” But, he adds, “Unlike Elvis, Elmo heralded nothing.” Comic strip humor in general moved into a kinder, gentler phase, and there’s been nothing quite like it since. But—thanks to Frank Young—we have a chance to experience it now.

Elmo, An American Experiment is available HERE

Friday, November 8, 2019

Forgotten Books: THE DEAD-LINE by W.C. Tuttle (1927)

If anybody knows exactly how many Hashknife Hartley and Sleepy Stevens books there are - and what they are - I'd sure like to know. 

The best source I've seen, Robert Sampson's fifth volume of Yesterday's Faces (called Dangerous Horizons), lists twenty-seven books, some with more than one title, but I've found at least a couple of those to be non-Hashknife novels, and Sampson himself admitted the list is incomplete. 

I'd also like to know where the various pieces of those novels made their first appearance in pulps, and whether they had all appeared in pulps, or if some - or pieces of some - first appeared in books. I'd be glad to compile all that myself, if I had a complete set of Tuttle's books, complete runs of Adventure and Short Stories pulps, and a few particular issues of Argosy. But I won't be holding my breath for that to happen. 

The Dead-Line, published in England in 1927 and the U.S. in 1941 (if not sooner), is likely one of the earliest Hashknife and Sleepy adventures published in book form. A novella by that title (yet to be examined by me) appeared in the Oct 20, 1924 issue of Adventure.

Unlike most of its breed, this digest appears to be unabridged.

Hashknife and Sleepy made their debut in that magazine in July 1920, and their first few appearances were standalone short stories. Over the next fifteen years, they appeared in close to forty issues, taking a few side-trails into Argosy. In 1939, they moved to Short Stories, where they had more thirty more adventures. 

Book publication of the series followed no rhyme or reason, with many appearing only in England, and some as late as 1967, in paperback only. Yep, it's a mare's nest.

While not the best of the bunch, The Dead-Line is still a fun read. Tuttle's work is full to the brim with eccentric characters and humorous dialogue, but what makes the series great are the personalities - and the relationship - of Hashknife and Sleepy.

Most Tuttle books are mystery stories set in the Old West, and this is no exception. In many stories, the two are undercover range detectives, hired by a cattleman's association to bust up trouble. But in other cases, as in The Dead-Line, they stumble upon the trouble themselves, and can't resist joining in. 

The "dead-line" of the title is an invisible line-in-the-sand drawn by cattle ranchers in an attempt to prevent a sheepherding magnate invading their territory. To spice things up, there's a sort of Romeo and Juliet marriage between a cattleboy and a sheepgal, whose ranch is smack dab in the middle of the action. And just as the fuse is about to be lit, fate tosses Hashknife and Sleepy into the mix. They are introduced thisaway:

In their years of ambling around the West, the boys have made a lot of friends and enemies, and seem to meet some of each wherever they go. It's always fun to see the the bad 'uns squirm and bolt for cover as they anticipate tangling with them again.

As the passage above foretells, our heroes find a way to heal old wounds and bring peace to the valley. But the fun is in how they do it, and who they do it to. So like all of their adventures, this one is highly recommended.