Sean Howe’s recent history of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story was only the latest chronicle of one theme that runs through every honest assessment of the lives of comic book artists: That they have been since the dawn of the industry underpaid, overworked, and exploited. Add to this the art-world prejudice that these men (and they were mostly men, at least in the 1950s/60s world of superhero, horror, and romance comics) are lesser talents than fine artists, and you can see why the gorgeous, poignant new book Comics About Cartoonists: Stories About the World’s Oddest Profession, edited and designed by Craig Yoe (IDW/Yoe Books) exerts a potent fascination.
The book’s cover – a reproduction of a 1944 cover of Punch Comics #9, by artist Gus Ricca – sums up the overall tone of Comics About Cartoonists, depicting an artist slumped over his drawing board, dead by a variety of methods: stabbed in the back by a knife-wielding competitor; shot in the back by a scornful woman; and hung by a rope around his neck that’s being pulled by the villain in the “Spy Ring” comic the artists was laboring over – a meanie that’s probably a stand-in for the driven-to-death artist’s editor. (This book avoids the darkest, bleakest aspects of its theme – the conditions that led great cartoonists such as Jack Cole and Wally Wood to commit suicide.)
Yoe’s beautifully designed book leads off with an exceptional story from the team of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, who’d created Captain America in the 1940s. The tale here, “Search for Inspiration,” is from a 1955 issue of In Love, a comic book in the romance genre that Kirby also helped bring into being. (It’s one measure of Kirby’s genius that the man who became most famous for his depictions of enormous masculine power and behemoth musculature should have had the visual and storytelling sense that would also attract a mostly female audience to romance comics.)
In “Search for Inspiration,” an artist, “Inky” Wells, works as an assistant to a more well-established artist. (This was a common practice in the industry: Al Capp, who’d go on to create “Li’l Abner,” for example, started out as an assistant to Ham Fischer on the latter’s hugely popular “Joe Palooka” comic strip.) Inky wants to launch his own comic strip, but his ambition is sidetracked when he falls in love with the beautiful, blonde Donna Dreame. They begin as collaborators as well as lovers – she writes scripts (Inky’s weak spot as a cartoonist) – and she ends up accused of stealing money and credit from him. Caught and brought low, Donna leaves “the business,” but not before acknowledging that Inky taught her not just the comics biz, but valuable lessons in “how to love somebody without any selfish motive… just to love for love alone.” Inky, despite her betrayal, can’t help himself: the final panel reads, “He needed her! He loved her!” Just what Kirby’s audience wanted to see and hear: That true love trumped everything.
Comics About Cartoonists contains a wide variety of artists and stories. There’s Sheldon Mayer’s “Scribbly,” an upbeat strip about a boy cartoonist. There’s Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko’s sci-fi comic “The Blue Men of Bantro,’ about a cartoonist stuck for story ideas, who’s given the plot of his latest alien-invasion story by a writer who turns out to be an alien himself. And Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster are represented by a story from “Funnyman” issue #5 that 1948 that echoed the anti-violent-comics crusade of Dr. Frederic Wertham and others, as Siegel and Schuster’s comic-book artist character Karl Borisloff (a painful twist on actor Boris Karloff’s name) is ordered to stop drawing his hit strip “Louie the Lout” because, his editor informs him, the public no longer wants comics about “the mean and seamy aspects of life… murders, tortures, knifings, double-crosses… pictured in almost clinical detail. The artist must “improve the feature’s moral tone.”
Yoe’s cute subtitle wants you to make the connection between the job of comic-book artist (“the world’s oddest profession”) with the world’s oldest profession – that is, to equate cartooning with prostitution, something many artists in this book and outside of it have no trouble doing, often with masochistic chagrin, and occasional delight.
Comics About Cartoonists is a striking collection of what amounts to a modernist take on what was until fairly recently a benighted industry. Its stories suggest great self-awareness – a self-awareness that was allowed to be published and sent out for the pleasure of an audience, the majority of which was doubtless too young to read these stories for what they were: the cartoonists’ revenge, or their cries for help, or (in the most optimistic stories here) tales of just how exhilarating the comic-book medium could be, no matter how much low-paying grunt-work it required.