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Maggie's World 010: Under the Influence

Maggie Thompson
“It is all mulch.”

What better way is there to describe everything that has ever had an influence on us: our family, our friends, our society, our education, our employment, our entertainments? All our influences have helped us to grow into what we are. And among the many most fondly regarded influences are our entertainments.

In addition to creating some of the most memorable tales to enchant us (and in addition to bringing magic to, oh, so many years of Comic-Con), Ray Bradbury was happy to take us behind the scenes. In his introduction to the 1980 collection The Stories of Ray Bradbury, he wrote, “I learned that I was right and everyone else wrong when I was nine. Buck Rogers arrived on scene that year, and it was instant love. I collected the daily strips, and was madness maddened by them. Friends criticized. Friends made fun. I tore up the Buck Rogers strips. For a month I walked through my fourth-grade classes, stunned and empty. One day I burst into tears, wondering what devastation had happened to me. The answer was: Buck Rogers. He was gone, and life simply wasn’t worth living. The next thought was: Those are not my friends, the ones who got me to tear the strips apart and so tear my own life down the middle; those are my enemies.

Ray Bradbury

Photo by Jackie Estrada

“I went back to collecting Buck Rogers. My life has been happy ever since. For that was the beginning of my writing science fiction. Since then, I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space-travel, sideshows or gorillas. When such occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.

“For, you see, it is all mulch. If I hadn’t stuffed my eyes and stuffed my head with all of the above for a lifetime, when it came round to word-associating myself into story ideas, I would have brought up a ton of ciphers and a half-ton of zeros.”

That mulch, then, provided comics buffs with the inspiration to love the art form.

The drawings.

Did you ever try to copy—maybe even trace—art that appealed to you when you were a kid?

Chester Gould is said to have had a goal of designing villains for his Dick Tracy comic strip that would be memorable enough and distinctive enough that kids would be able to draw them on their notebooks. And kids, indeed, did.

How do I know that I read the short-lived adventures of E.C. comics’ Moon Girl? It’s not because I remember a single thing about the stories that were drawn by Sheldon Moldoff and that were appearing on newsstands when I was 5. But I know I read them, because I used to draw the character, complete with her choker necklace and curly-toed footwear that laced up the leg.

Sam and the Superdroop

When I worked at the Cleveland Public Library, I attended a book talk by writer-artist Munro Leaf. His books in the library ranged from Ferdinand (illustrated by Robert Lawson, later adapted as a Disney cartoon), to his “… Can Be Fun” books [History Can Be Fun, etc.], and even to a fantasy for older readers, Sam and the Superdroop. His Superdroop novel attacked comic books, and we still had it in the children’s department at the branch where I worked. A Superdroop is “a peculiar and rare form of Comicbookitis,” and it takes the little boy to a number of comic-book worlds. Leaf was amusing and amiable when I asked him about Superdroop, telling me that his kids had been thrilled to read the stacks of comics he’d brought home as research.

But that day at the book talk he was there to advise the youngsters in the audience that their possible lack of confidence in their own skills should not keep them from writing or drawing. Even though his own art was far from polished, he’d made a good living from writing and drawing. Did he inspire some of the kids in that audience to try their hand at storytelling? I hope so.

Which brings me to …

The stories.

If you read Will Eisner’s Spirit sections in the newspapers (or their reprints in Golden Age comics or, decades later, in collections), did it occur to you to consider the way he’d put together a story—beginning to middle to end—in seven pages of art and text?

If you grew up on the Carl Barks Donald Duck 10-page classics that originally opened almost every issue of Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories in the 1950s, did you eventually figure out the ways in which he had mastered the technique of the situation comedy? And did you admire his mastery of longer-form comics in the Dell Four-Color Duck adventures?

When Barnes and Noble asked best-selling mystery writer Janet Evanovich what the book was that had most influenced her life or career, she replied, “When I was a kid I read comics. My favorites were Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge.” And she cited Don Rosa’s Uncle Scrooge stories as among her all-time favorite books.

When the E.C. line was building its reputation, its creators sometimes resorted to outright swipes. Ray Bradbury famously challenged an instance of that technique by asking for (and receiving) payment for “Home to Stay” in Weird Fantasy #13 (1952) in which E.C. had smushed together “The Rocket Man” and “Kaleidoscope,” both of which had appeared in the 1951 Bradbury anthology The Illustrated Man.

Comics influence storytellers—and storytellers influence comics.

Influences on—and from—comics.

Comic books were initially created as a venue to reprint comic strips. Later, they added radio, movies, and TV as source material—even as their creators initiated their own illustrated stories to racks packed with comic books telling the widest variety of pop-culture stories. And the cross-pollination continued.

Piracy never acknowledged Howard Pyle’s work as the source for Reed Crandall’s covers for #2 and #3, and many artists of comic books and strips maintained elaborate “swipe files.” In the 1960s, Don and I visited one comics artist who sympathized with the pain we expressed when we saw that his swipe file included actual chunks of art cut from original strips by other artists.

Comic-strip artists’ influences weren’t limited to comic books. Little Nemo writer-artist Winsor McCay performed a pioneering vaudeville routine in 1914 featuring the animated Gertie the Dinosaur; to produce the routine, he even invented some of the early devices that became standard in cartoon animation.

Fans need only look at the lists of past films—and those scheduled for a century after Gertie—to see the films and TV shows that began as comics. Did you know that Joseph Yule Jr. starred as “Mickey ‘Himself’ McGuire” in dozens of the short films based on the world of Fontaine Fox’s Toonerville Folks strips and panel cartoons (1908-1955)—and then kept the “Mickey” portion of that role’s name, when he changed his to Mickey Rooney?

Back and forth, to and from comics, the stories and characters travel, with Superman and Captain Marvel and Flash Gordon hardly among the first—and The Walking Dead and Men in Black and S.H.I.E.L.D. sure to be far from the last.

The Brownies

Which is, of course, far from the only influence comics have had. A display in Geppi’s Entertainment Museum in Baltimore pays tribute to what may be the earliest example of shared commercial popular culture. The Brownies by Palmer Cox (1840-1924) kicked off years of national popularity with their appearances in St. Nicholas Magazine in 1883—popularity that inspired dolls and games and dish designs and even a brand of Kodak camera. And kids today? They may be building their very own LEGO Marvel and DC super heroes right this minute.

Hey, what about hoarding?

Did the temporary nature of comic-book availability when you were young make you a hoarder? It used to be the case that, if you were away from town when an issue came out, you couldn’t find it on sale a month later. It was gone. Gone. Sometimes, it was even more challenging: Extra #1 never went on sale in the newsstand my family visited every week; I was looking for it. My comics collecting had begun long before that—created by exactly that situation.

People don’t know they influence other people—and even parents don’t always realize how they influence their kids. (Mikey Halperin made a video as one of six finalists in the TEDxKids @SMU event. The topic that the son of Heritage Auctions head Jim Halperin chose was “The Joys of Hoarding.” The contest was for kids 10-18 to submit a brief video, and in his entry he paid tribute to “responsible hoarding.” “Is this stuff worth money? Yes! I was shocked. I could buy something awesome and then sell it for more money later and buy more awesome things!” He didn’t win—but his delight at one aspect of the economics of our hobby was almost palpable.)

And in the future?

Hey, influences from and on comics are just going to continue. Have you considered which of today’s writers and artists will influence tomorrow’s creators? “Captain Underpants” (the creation of Dav Pilkey) tells graphic stories “himself.” Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid combines notebook jottings with graphic storytelling. How many of their young readers have already begun to try their hands at writing and drawing their own stories?

For our 1993 project Comic-Book Superstars, Don and I asked comics writers and artists to name those who had been their greatest influences. The top two cited turned out to be Jack Kirby (with 107 references) and Will Eisner (with 69). Jack didn’t respond to our survey, but Will answered for himself: “Segar, Herriman, Caniff, and Leyendecker.” Commercial artist J.C. Leyendecker was born in 1874 and is especially remembered for his advertising paintings of “The Arrow Collar Man” and his covers for The Saturday Evening Post. But the other three were each masters of comic art: Elzie Segar was born in 1894 and created, wrote, and drew Thimble Theatre, which introduced Popeye in 1929. George Herriman was born in 1880 and created, wrote, and drew Krazy Kat. Milton Caniff was born in 1907 and created, wrote, and drew Terry and the Pirates, Miss Lace, and Steve Canyon.

It’s a safe bet that today’s writers and artists have no idea how many young members of their audience are tracing their art or telling their own story with characters created by today’s “hot” creators. Who were, in turn, influenced by the “hot” creators of a generation earlier. Nor is it limited to creators. How about you, fellow hoarders: Will you begin to amass your comics stories in electronic form? How will the collections you yearn for now make you adapt your own collections in the future?

Those who influenced us helped us to create our own gardens of entertainment. We owe it to the next crop of pros and fans to return the favor by providing the very best mulch we can.

Maggie’s World by Maggie Thompson appears the first Tuesday of every month on Toucan!