Friday, June 25, 2010

Happy Warren Kremer Day!

A lot of great cartoonists out there have influenced me, but one of the most important was the late great, Warren Kremer. Today, June, 26th is the anniversary of  his birth. For those of you out of the loop, Warren was THE artist at Harvey Comics. He set the standard there, and what a standard it was! He was a master of character design, layout and storytelling. He was also incredibly prolific. While it's  true that artists like Jack Kirby, Dan DeCarlo and Carl Barks are revered for the thousands of comic pages they produced over the course of their careers, Warren's output surely equally matched or surpassed theirs. My good pal, Sid Jacobson, who was Warren's friend  and editor for many years, told me that at his peak Warren could pencil  an astounding eight pages a day! As fast as he was, his quality never suffered. I've never seen a page drawn by him where he ever gave less than 100%. There aren't many artists you can say that about, myself included.

I was exposed to Warren's work at a very early age, and its impact on my own work was substantial (not that I will ever hold a candle to him!). Even though it was years until I learned his name (Harvey artists never signed their work, perhaps one reason Warren's name is still unknown to most), I always knew his work, and would page through issues of the comics on the stands until I found copies of the books with the "good" artist in them (Actually, Ernie Colon's work was great too, but more on him another day. Ernie won't mind, he is one of Warren's biggest admirers.).

Warren concentrated most of his career on the Harvey children's line, but he was equally adept at drawing "realistic" stories, as you can see here.

It's a shame that he never received the recognition he so richly deserved. Indeed, even a lot of die-hard comic fans don't know his name. His work is rarely collected, and when it is, he is lumped in collections anonymously with the rest of the Harvey cartoonists (not that any of them were slouches!). He still has never gotten a posthumous Eisner or Kirby award, even though many lesser lights in the comic industry have gotten them. Perhaps it's because Harvey Comics are dismissed by most fans as "kiddie" comics. A ridiculous attitude for people to have that consider superhero comics "serious literature" and bemoan how the general public dismisses them as "just for kids". How is Superman less absurd than Casper the Friendly Ghost?!

A stroke in 1989 cut Warren's career short and he never drew a comic book story again. He died in 2003.

Sadly, I never got a chance to meet Mr. Kremer in person, but I did get a chance to speak to him on the phone a couple of times before his death. He seemed surprised that anyone was interested in his work, but he was very gracious in answering all my geeky questions. One of the treasures in my "collection" of comic-related stuff is a Stumbo the Giant page Warren drew, that my pal Gary surprised me with a few years back. It is gorgeous! I really wanted to post it here for you all to see, but the massive page wouldn't fit on my dinky scanner. Sorry. If you're ever in the neighborhood, drop by and I'll show it to you. I hope Warren's bio from the NCS  directory and my silly pic will do.

Someday, perhaps, some enlightened soul with deep pockets and deeper resources will publish a collection of Warren's work. Until then, I'll have to make do with my dog-eared collection of old Harveys. I can live with that.

Happy Birthday Warren, wherever you are. Say "hello" to Casper for me!

UPDATE: Warren's friend and former editor, Sid Jacobson, read today's post and had this  to say: "For so many reasons the Harveys were selfish, but for not allowing anyone but their chosen friends to include their names on their work was a travesty. And for Warren, the worst. What you said is so true.  The people at Marvel recognized his enormous talent immediately, and worshipped him and popularized him from the beginning. I can't tell you how many times I pleaded with Alfred (Harvey) to let people sign their names, it would  make them a more popular and profitable commodity.

No, we were like Disney, he told me.

The signed pages were, if memory serves me right, only Lee Elias, Simon & Kirby, Bob Powell, Al Avison and Howie Post, ONCE!

Happy Warren Kremer Day to you!"

Thanks to Sid, for writing that and letting me post it. Hearing that the Harveys kept their artists anonymous deliberately,  and not out of ignorance, rankles me. It must have been really frustrating for Warren and all the other artists in Harvey's stable.

"Like Disney", indeed!

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The Muppets Take Massachusetts

If you love the Muppets, like I do, and you live in Massachusetts, you're in for a treat. If you hurry.

"Jim Henson's Fantastic World", an exhibition of the Muppet creator's artwork, is currently on display at The National Heritage Museum in Lexington, MA. Unfortunately, I am only telling you about it now; the exhibit closes on Sunday, June 27th. If you are a fan of the Muppets, though, the show is well worth the hustle.

Perfect Wife and I, along with two dear pals and fellow Muppet-lovers, visited the exhibit yesterday. The exhibit is small, just a few rooms filled with Henson's drawings and a dozen Muppets or so, but what's there is cherce

Henson's designs and drawings are interesting to see. A lot of his concepts and storyboards are just scribbly little doodles that he handed off to others, notably Muppet Builder Don Sahlin, to realize in 3-D. One of the interesting things for me was learning about Sahlin, who I was only vaguely aware of before. His contribution to the look of the Muppets was pretty important, as I learned when I got home and Googled his name. I've saved you the trouble of doing that, and you can learn a bit about his fascinating work here.

The big appeal of this exhibit for me was the actual Muppets they had on display. They had some of the major players, like Kermit and Rowlf, as well as Ernie and Bert, along with some of the more obscure characters from early commercial work. If you've never seen an actual Muppet in person before, you may be surprised at their size. I know I was, they're HUGE! Ernie's head was almost as big as mine (and that's saying something)! Seeing these characters up close and  personal was a  big thrill, and I was itching to grab them and play with them. Alas, they are protected from geeks like me by glass cases, which is a good thing, I guess.

One potential disappointment for some of you out there is that, since the Henson family sold the Muppet trademark to Disney, most of the items on display are from Henson's early work and his Sesame Street stuff, as well as Fraggle Rock and the Dark Crystal. If you were hoping to see Miss Piggy or Fozzie, or any of the gang from The Muppet Show, you're out of luck. For a true fan of Henson, though, there is enough to satisfy you, although, as I said, the exhibit is a bit small. I would have liked to see more. Especially more actual Muppets. Still, we here in the Bay State don't get to see a lot of Pop Culture exhibits like this, so I'm grateful for what we got.

As I said earlier, the exhibit closes in Massachusetts this Sunday. Later in the year, it will be in Chicago. After that, who knows? Given the show's size, I wouldn't travel too far to see it, but if it's in your area, it's worth a look.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Just What the Doctor Ordered

Posting on this Blog is finally paying off. I am finally getting the international recognition I so richly deserve!

This morning I got an email from a professor at a university in Manchester, UK. They are doing research into a medical disorder known as Congenital Hyperinsulinism, or CHI, for short. This insidious little condition is at the opposite end of the spectrum to diabetes, which is my own little roe to hoe. Kids with CHI produce too much insulin. This is genetic, you are born with this disease, which is very difficult to manage. Many children have their pancreas removed within months of birth.

The university was looking for some illustrations to use in their literature, and somehow they came upon this drawing from a post where I whined about my "condition" They thought the cartoon "perfectly captured" the disease, and asked if they could use it. Of course I said yes.

This got me to thinking: Maybe there is an untapped market for cartoons that depict various ailments with a humorous slant! There could be gold in them thar hills! This could become a speciality of mine. I could become, "The Disease Cartoonist"! I would become world famous for  my depictions of sickness. "Oh, did you see Bill White's cartoon on Anal Fissures? What a riot!", people would say. 

To get started, here is my first cartoon in this series, "A Heart Attack". This drawing shows a heart punching, that is, attacking its host. That is not actually what happens in a real heart attack of course, that's what makes it funny! Get it? Man, this depicting-diseases-and-illness-in-a-humorous-way is a piece of cake! This could be my big break!

On second thought, maybe not. Maybe I'll  stick to selling painted turtles on the Boardwalk.

Still, it was nice to get some positive feedback. From England (my favorite non-US country!) to boot.

By the way, this CHI is a very serious condition, I hope I don't appear  to be making light of other peoples' suffering. Far from it. God Bless the people doing research to combat these nasty things, and are spending their time doing something more important than drawing silly little cartoons.

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Friday, June 11, 2010


Thomas  Wolfe once said, "You can't go home again." If he had had a television, he might also have said, "You can't re-watch TV shows you loved as a kid, because you will discover how much they sucked."

A lot of my favorite programs from my youth, like, "F-Troop", "McHale's Navy" and "Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp", to name a few, are pretty hard to watch nowadays.  They seemed so great back in their day, but now they seem really lame. The passing of time gave them a gloss in my memory that they did not really possess. Of course, there were shows like "Lost in Space",  that even back then I knew were pretty wretched. I loved it anyway, though, so I still enjoy it now. There are other shows, like the original "Mickey Mouse Club" or "Astroboy", that, while I see how awful they are, I can still appreciate for the warm fuzzy feelings I had when I originally watched them.

Sadly, the one show that I loved  above all others, the highlight of my Saturday mornings if not my entire childhood, is one of those shows that I can not even  enjoy for its nostalgia factor anymore. 

That show is "H.R. Pufnstuf".

When it originally aired, this show had everything I loved: puppets, people in giant puppet costumes, a kid with  an English accent and catchy musical numbers. It also had an irresistible premise, at least to me. One day an ordinary boy Jimmy (played by English kid Jack Wild) and his talking golden flute, Freddy are kidnapped by a wicked witch named Witchypoo, and transported to Living Island. The island is so named because everything, trees,  houses, even the elements, everything, is alive. The Island is run/ruled over by a friendly dragon, H.R. Pufnstuf, who is also Mayor. Over the course of the series, the friendly citizens of Living Island spend the majority of their time protecting Jimmy and Freddy from Witchypoo, and trying to find a way to get them "home". At least once an episode, they also break into a totally unnecessary, but toe-tappin', musical number. 

I realize the above description doesn't exactly sound like must-see-TV. An actual  viewing of the series is even worse.  As I youngster, I guess I overlooked things like the shoddy production values, hackneyed scripts, Jack Wild''s awful singing voice, and performers whose body language suggests that, rather than happy creatures on a magical adventure, they are hot, sweaty people in uncomfortable puppet suits suffering from heatstroke.  I really loved this show.

I wasn't the only one. Despite there being only 17 episodes produced, the series ran for years, and there was even a theatrical feature made of it (with Mama Cass and Martha Raye in the cast, no less!). To this day, one of my sisters can still sing "I'm a Mechanical Boy", one of the songs from the show, and, if pressed, my other sister will admit to at one time declaring her ambition to become "Mrs. Jack Wild". The show's influence wasn't just confined to our house, either. if you troll  the Interweb, you can find the site of a person  who has dreams of reviving the show as an animated series. There has also been talk for years about a big screen adaptation.  That is a truly chilling thought for those of  us still nursing our wounds from the "Underdog" film a few years ago.

Ah, who am I kidding? I still love ol' Pufnstuf! I even have an action figure of him sitting on my desk as I type this. For that love to continue though, I'll only watch the re-runs in my mind. They're much better that way.

Oh, and for those of you wondering, no, my sister never did become Mrs. Jack Wild. 

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Friday, June 4, 2010

Happy Donut Day!

Today we honor the brave men and women in our nation who make our country great. They are the few, the proud, the Donut Makers.

In case you missed it, today, June Fourth, is National Donut Day. It is the day we take a moment and reflect on our love for these spherical bits of goodness and the minimum-wage earning souls whose sacrifices bring them to us.

I know that all good citizens will be honoring the day by stopping and partaking in at least one sweet, round bit of heaven. I know I will. The question is: What donut to get? I myself favor the classic Krispy Kreme™, but since there isn't a franchise anywhere near me, I may have to settle for the more pedestrian Dunkin' Donuts™. Despite their name, DD seems to be more about coffee than donuts. Their chocolate donut is pretty decent though, so I may celebrate with that.

Remember though, today is all about the donuts, so don't dishonor the day by ordering a Bear Claw or a Bismark. Even if you are one of those twisted souls that eats a Boston Creme, stick to the donuts.

Only in the good ol' U.S. of A. could we have a National Donut Day. It almost makes me proud to live in this great nation!

Of course, I would be prouder if I lived near a Krispy Kreme™... 

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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Caricature Capers Part 3: How People Really Do Not Want to Be Drawn

Drawing caricatures at a live event can be, as I have mentioned before, a terrifying experience. Many of your "subjects" should not be sitting for a caricature at at all: They have no sense of humor and are extremely insecure about any of the "flaws" or distinctions that make them a unique individual. Why they are getting a caricature drawn of themselves is a question we will never know the answer to. To avoid hurting the feelings of these folks, or worse inciting a nasty confrontation, I usually take the "safe" route, and draw a tame, polite, "funny" likeness of the subject. I am usually not thrilled with the results, but the subjects are, and I avoid any physical injury to my person.

Cartoonist Joe Bluhm, on the other hand, has no qualms at all about drawing folks the way they are, warts (and worse!) and all, with  great style and humor to boot. I have never met the man, but I admire him greatly and wish I had a fraction of his talent, and a smidge of his guts when it comes to live caricatures.  

Recently, I was flipping through Bluhm's excellent book, Rejects: The Extreme Art of Retail Caricature. The book is a collection of caricatures returned to the artist by disappointed/outraged clients at live events. The drawings are hilarious, and just go to show how ignorant the general public is about this sort of thing. 

Inspired by Bluhm's work, I dashed off a quick doodle of Perfect Wife in his style. (For you "methods and materials" nuts out there, I did it with a conte crayon on newsprint, and it took under 2 minutes to draw.) I think it came out really well. PW is a gorgeous woman, but she is unique, and the drawing captures that in a humorous way, in my humble opinion. Even PW liked it, or at least pretended to*.

Perhaps someday, I'll have the guts to draw like this at a live gig. For now, I'll leave it to braver souls than I. Like Joe Bluhm.

*UPDATE: It turns out, PW really didn't like this rendering of her.  At a recent family get together, I found out her family didn't like it either. That does it. I'm never going to family get togethers again!

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