Monday, August 4, 2008

Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics

I'm pretty sure that just about every cartoonist working in comics today owes a debt to Michael Barrier and Martin Williams for editing this book back in 1981. But I owe a lifetime of gratitude to my grandmother, Dottie, for giving me a copy for x-mas that year. I was only six, and had barely seen any comic books before.

Until that time, there were only two comic books in my house: an issue of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids and a Little Monsters comic book. I don't know where they came from, but they were always there. I remember being more interested in the ads in the back. I dreamt of one day having a hover-craft that I could ride around my neighborhood (I still wish I'd signed up to sell those greeting cards), or commanding my own 200 piece Roman Soldier army set (but I couldn't figure out how to order them without cutting the ad out of the book- which would have ruined the comics on the other side of the page). I looked at these comics all the time, but I can't remember ever reading them. They just didn't have anything that really grabbed me.

But then this book came along and started my life-long obsession with comic books.

I was aware of Batman and Superman from t.v. and movies. I liked them, but never really associated them with comic books. When I saw these, I remember thinking that the Batman and Superman comics looked weird. I thought the artists must not have figured out how to draw people correctly back then. Dottie had also given me some anatomy books to study, and I just thought those super-heros weren't drawn very well. They seemed very stiff and crude and as a result, I didn't really have much interest in super hero comics until later in life.

Having grown up with the Superfriends on t.v. and the awesome Superman movies, this version of Superman seemed really mean and I didn't really like that.

Plastic Man kinda disturbed me. I was also familiar with this hero from the t.v. cartoon that was very different from this comic. I remember being scared of this panel where he woke up with his new powers and stretched his face out. I tried stretching my face like that in the mirror, but it hurt.

My interest leaned towards the cartoony stuff. I loved the Little Lulus and the Powerhouse Pepper- they seemed like really good cartoons but in book form. Captain Marvel had a certain appeal as it blended the super-hero stuff with a more cartoonish sensibility- plus what kid wouldn't love a story about a young boy who can turn into a super hero!?!

The Red Tornado seemed like a more "realistic" super hero to me (being a kid who frequently made suits of armor out of pots and pans). And Jingle Jangle Tales appealed to the young surrealist in me.

I loved the Disney Duck comics, too (my grandmother also gave me a subscription to the Gladstone Disney comics including Floyd Gottfredson's Mickey Mouse and Carl Barks Duck comics- but I'll save that for a future post).

My absolute favorite were the Pogo comics. I laughed so hard when the racoon said Albert's tail "sounds like" a bologna! What does bologna sound like anyway? The Pogo stories in that book always had me laughing out loud. I must've read them 100 times. Walt Kelly is still one of my favorite cartoonists.

This book started my career. I had always had an interest in drawing from a very early age and my family encouraged that in whatever way they could. I'm not sure why my grandmother chose to give me this book. She had lots of art books in her house that I loved to look through, but I don't remember her ever reading any comic books. Whatever her reasons, she couldn't have known that by giving me those books she set me on the path to become a cartoonist.

Somehow, even at that early age, a big hardback book about comic books seemed to be important. I didn't know why, but I wanted to study this book. A part of me saw this book as an example of something I could do with my life. I read and re-read this book over the years. At some point it sunk in that the book was about the talented artists who created these comics. The little biographical intros made me realize that I could also become a cartoonist. It helped me realize what I wanted to do with my life (previous aspirations included a career as a truck driver- possibly influenced by my love of the Smokey and the Bandit movies). I had always loved drawing as long as i could hold a crayon, but now I knew what I wanted to draw- COMIC BOOKS!

For 27 years, this book has always been by my side and over the years I've grown to appreciate every artist in it. Thank you Dottie, I wish you were still around to see that I grew up to become a cartoonist.

-Tom Neely
check out my comics and art at


Ed Piskor said...

Great post, Tom. I was very excited by this book as a youth too. I remember picking it up at a flea market on the cheap and read it a million times.

I really liked the Superman and Batman strips because it made me feel like I was good enough to do comics at 10-11 years old. At the time I put Kurtzmans strip in that same category though now I recognize it as being more accomplished.

A few other highlights were 2 good Eisner Spirit strips, Master Race, and 2 strips from the Mad comic (superdooperman and Howdydooit)

This book will instantly turn any small child into a lifelong fan of comics.

Great choice for your first entry.

tom Neely said...

Yeah- I agree the Mad, Spirits and Master Race are all great, too. I wanted to concentrate on my earliest impressions of that book, which leaned towards the cartoony stuff. Later in life, the whole book became very influential to me.