Monday, June 9, 2014

My 50th Posting! Grand Day! Meet My New Colleague, Culley Harbin! All This, And "Vapo Man" Too!

This is my fiftieth (50th) posting on this fine forum. It has not proven an "easy" post to complete.

Friends, I am still in a "funk" over the passing of my dear friend ahd colleague "Sparks" Spinkle. Truth told, I battled with the idea of ceasing this "bolg" and perhaps taking a rest from my efforts to preserve panelological history.

Business has stablized at the new, mobile version of Dorrie's Diner, where we seem to be a lunchtime hit with the locals, and with students from a nearby community college. Apparently there are many courses in welding. A common sight in our lunch line are grease-smeared, apron-clad welders-in-training. They have hearty appetites, and, due to their aporns, may eat recklessly, with no fear of "shirt issues."
'Twas Dorrie herself who nudged me one night last week. "Mace," she said, looking over her reading glasses (a crossword in mid-completion), "it's been ages since you went to your little place." (NOTE: "Little place" is Dorrie's "euphonium" for the NEW PANTHEON, my top-secret, climate-controlled vault of panelological treasure and the home of my as-yet-incomplete magnum opus, THE GOLDEN ERA OF THE ART PANELOLOGIC: 1937-1942.)

Friends, as you may have noted, certain low cowards have issued several death threats to me, via their vile, insidious comments in my past postings on this blog, because of my work on this massive tome. This I say to them, in all sincerity:
Fiends! I dare you to shed your cowardly raiments and face me in person! What right have you to threaten me and my loved ones? HA! You can do nothing--NOTHING! Lest I further lose my gentlemanly bearings, I must bite my tongue... except to challenge you cringing ywllow curs to speak to me face-to-face!

There--the gantlet has been thrown. And now back to more pleasant topics. On Dorrie's suggestion, I ventured out in the pleasant late-spring evening, warmed up the Prios, and drove the leaf-dappled streets of my town to the storage facility that houses the NEW PANTHEON.

And on that evening, life changed for the better, friends. 'Twas there I met a kindred soul.

I left the freight elevator, headed for the NEW PANTHRON, when my highly sensitive "beezer" detected the tang, the nutty, rich fragrance that can only be that of the pre-1950 American comics magazine. My heart leaped! Had the NEW PANTHEON been breached? Nae, I said, as I espied the padlock that held yonder door tight.

Before I could re-calibrate, I heard a mild epithet, sounds of struggle, and then a series of gentle, riffling plop-plop-plops. More mild epithets ("Fish sticks!" was one of them), I heard grunting and yet more plop-plop-plops.

Curiosity could not be suppressed! I approached the one open door on the floor and saw a sight that made my heart further race! It was a pile of vintage comic magazines--mostly late Chesler titles such as RED SEAL COMICS, PUNCH and SCOOP. An embarrassed young man, clearly startled by my presence, startled with fright as he turned to face me.

His pale, under-nourished face was flushed, and his glasses sat crooked on the bridge of his nose, below a mop of brown hair. "It's okay," he said, as he wiped his hands on his sweater vest.

"Vintage comic magazines. From the imprint of Harry 'A' Chesler. Some fascinating titles there."

Again he startled. "You know what these are?"

I smiled wryly. "Yes, son, I believe I do." I stepped back to survey the scene within his storage unit. He had several long boxes of what I assumed to contain other vintage comic magazines. In the back of the unit sat a desk, lit by a lone lamp, and flanked by an office chair and a lap-top computer.

"My name is Mason Moray. Have you a moment, sir?" I extended my hand. The youth looked upset, but reluctantly shook my "paw."

"Just trying to index a few things here," he said, as if out of breath.

"A fellow panelologist! In this, of all places!" I exclaimed.

"Pana-what?" He corrected the askew tilt of his glasses.

"Follow me," I advised. Fishing for my keys,  I approached the NEW OPANTHEON, unhasped the lock, and opened the door. I flipped on the lights and the full splendor of the room alit.

"Holy fudge!" the youth gasped. His eyes took in the place--its dynamic murals, its stacks of data, its mighty racks of indexed comic magazines--and, friends, I felt he might keel over on the spot.

He regained his composure, and, goggle eyed, offered his hand. "Culley Harbin. That's my name."

As you know, 'tis impossible for students of the art panelologic to chat idly. We engaged in a four-hour discussion, illustrated with frequent forays to both our archives, aided with some Internet searches (at which young Harbin is a "whiz").

We differed in opinion many times--as do many people, Harbin clings to the insistence that the supposedly "major" creators are the best, and he often seemed quite baffled as to my own likes and dislikes--but, friends, a bond was forged on that cool psring night.

In the course of our long conversation, we revealed information about our lives. I told him about my residency at Dorrie's Diner. He, in turn, disclosed his current position as "information indexer" at the Walter Duff Public Library (which, by the way, did replace those confusing "M"s with new "L"s, albeit with new white plastic letters, noticeably smaller and shinier than their forebearers).

We agreed to meet again one night the next week. Soon thereafter, Culley made a meek appearance at the Diner, where he enjoyed a Bacon-Blast Burger-Dog. That weekend, I visited the Duff Library to catch Culley on his home-turf.

At the checkout desk, I inquired about their "information indexer." The librarian, a polite Asian woman, looked askance at me from behind her over-sized glasses. I mentioned Mister Harbin's name and she laughed. "He's just a book shelver. You'll find him out in the stacks."

I scanned the aisles of shelved tomes. In the non-fiction area, at the mid-700s, I found him, browsing a book that I soon recognized as one by Joseph Kubert. Culley riffled through the pages, shook his head, and said, to himself, "Too heroic. Too durned heroic." He sighed at shoved the book into its rightful place on the shelf.

I faintly cleared my throat. "Mister Harbin, I presume," I said. Culley started, dislodging some books from the shelved cart-on-wheels that was his mobile work-station. "Mr. Morry," he said, placing wrong emphasis on the last syllable of my surname.

"Mor-RAY," I corrected, "like the sea creature. How are you, friend?"

"Indexing information," he said with an embarrassed shrug. He seemed ashamed of his position as a book shelver. We chatted, and I did my best to interject a couple of compliments--such as his peerless adherence to the Dewey Decimal system, which requires an exacting eye and great focus to utilize properly.

Amidst all this, I made Culley an offer. "I conduct a blog about my findings and studies in the realm of the panelological art. Perhaps you have seen it."

Culley thought long and hard, and then confessed: "No. I haven't."

I invited him to peruse the "blog" and, as well, to contribute to it as a fellow peer in the history and cataloging of panelologica Americana, if he so wished. He said he'd have a look at the "blog" and "get back to me."

After that, I didn't see, or hear from, Culley for awhile. On the few occasions I had to visit the NEW PANTHEON, I found his storage space locked and dark. I wondered: had I done or said something to offend this well-meaning youth?

Heaven knows, I am out of touch with the younger generation. They inhabit a realm that would have seemed pure "sci-fic" to my generation, in the prime of its youth. To us, the portable, monophonic cassette recorder, and the Polariod camera, were "high teck." Only the rich owned television remote controls. And long-distance phone calls were both unwieldy and expensive.

The only "web sites" found, in my days of youth, were those in the darkest recesses of one's basement. Those were "accessed" with one quick swing of a well-aimed broom.

Much to my surprise, a large manila envelope leaned against the door of the NEW PANTHRON, with a type-written note attached:

To Mister Moray,

I am sorry I haven't visited recently. Inside this envelope you will see why. I hope this essay meets with your approval. Please return the original comic magazine after you have scanned pages 28-34.

Please let me know what you think.


Here, without alteration, is the debut essay of my protege, Culley Habrin. While I am astonished, and challenged, by some of the assertions of his text, I see in him great potential, and I hope you will agree that his "two pence" are a valuable "asset" to Panelological Pantheon:


An Analysis and Appreciation by Culley Harbin

Herbert William Holmdale was a big man. Big in size, big in stature and big in legend. Good natured, brash and inclined towards practical jokes, Holmdale was known as "Red." The appellation did not stem from the hue of his hair, as some contrarians might believe. Rather, it stemmed from his tendency to have a tomato-bright handkerchief in his pocket at all times.

"You'd always know when 'Red' was in town," fellow free-lancer Fred Guardineer once said. "You'd hear him laughing and humming, chewing gum, and blowing his nose. He'd be hunched over his drawing board like the Phantom of the Opera at his organ. Just drawing away."1

Holmdale is best-known for his humorous features, rendered in a bulbous, primitive style that resembles the artwork of a rural roadside barbecue stand. His clunky but cheerful character construction, combined with such devices as "flying sweat drops," colloquialisms and agitated lettering schemes, brought a fresh angle to the overworked school of humor features for the American comic magazine (or book).
TOP: The most typically-seen side of "Red" Holmdale were his lumpen, primitive humorous comic strips, such as this example from The MLJ title Pep Comics; BOTTOM: Splash page detail from "Dave Lance," Exposed no. 5.
A dark side looms through the entirety of Holmdale's work, which encompassed a wide swath of publishers, from Timely to Fawcett to MLJ. This side was most compellingly seen in a macabre humor series entitled Gloomy Gus The Dispossessed Ghost. The comics historian Frank M. Young has written about this piece, and I highly recommend his essay, "The Enigma of 'Red' Holmdale and 'Gloomy Gus.'"

A lesser-known avenue of Holmdale's work resides in his non-humor efforts. Judging by the grotesque, primitive figures of Holmdale's humorous pieces, one would judge him lacking in artistic skill. Like his colleague Basil Wolverton, Holmdale was a frustrated realist who seldom had the forum to convey his hidden skills as a stylized, vigorous renderer of the recognizable human form in cartoon contours.

Like Wolverton's non-humor work, Holmdale's probably appears primitive at first glance. Lacking in the arduous pen technique of Wolverton, Holmdale used bold, if crude lines to put across his characters and their emotions--the latter usually dark in nature.

Unbeknownst to the fans of "It Shouldn't Happen To A Dog!" or "Willie the Wise-Guy," Holmdale had a passion for shocking small-town crimes. It has been suggested, by writer Rick Collier, that Holmdale was part of a murder in Illinois sometime in the 1920s.2

Despite the writer's allegations3, nothing was conclusively proven. But Holmdale's fascination comes horribly forth in what is probably his most impressive and haunting work for the comics, "The Widow of Death," first published in Underworld Comics issue 3 (D. S. Publications, 1948). Capable of provoking nightmares, this shocking piece shows a path sadly not taken in earnest by the writer-artist.

As it has been written, "the devil is in the details." And the details of  "The Widow of Death" hold us helpless and complicit as its bloody events unfold--not unlike the layers of shredded skin, bone and flesh that are the poor souls who bear the brutal brunt of Belle Guiness.

Compare Holmdale's eight-page account to this factual history on Wikipedia (read it here) and you will ascertain, and see, that, while the artist-writer compresses the facts, makes presumptive choices, and glamorizes the monstrous real-life Guiness, he essentially conveys, in a series of crushing images, the facts of the case efficiently and passionately.

Perhaps Holmdale had heard the details of this horrifying, century-old case in his childhood. His rendition has, in it, something somewhat akin to that of a folk tale, passed down through the generations. Heaven knows, the real-life account is sufficiently chilling to unsettle, and profoundly affect, a young listener.

Holmdale contributed several other serious, usually gruesome, crime stories to the D.S. line of publications. While there is an undeniable sort of flair to some of them, none completely haunt the reader as does "The Widow of Death."

Two close second-place entries in the Holmdale pantheon are found in issue six of the D.S. magazine Underworld. I reproduce their opening (or splash) pages here, for your edification:

I appreciate this opportunity to publicly air my interest in the work of this unjustly ignored creator of comic magazine stories. I trust this essay has not been an imposition upon your time.

1 Guardineer, Fred, "An Interview With Fred Guardineer," Galactic Convulsions issue 7, fanzine published 1976.
2 Collier, William, Pillagers of the Prairie State, World Class Books, 1954
For those unable to obtain this regionally-published, rather obscure volume, the author indicts Holmdale in a modern-day version of the Medieval "highwayman" scheme. According to the book, Holmdale was part-owner and/or cashier of an obscure rural gas station that made fatal "marks" of its unwary customers. The actual murderer/crooks, Walton James Fallon and Michael "Mick" McMahon, were arrested, tried, and executed in 1927 for their heinous, and regrettable, crimes.
Well, folks, young Harbin might seem a hard "act to follow," especially with those foot-notes--a touch I never thought to add to my own panelological musings! But I feel compelled to "step up the plate" with a humble offering of my own. Perhaps my tastes are less "intellectual" than that of my youthful colleague, but I believe they will offer their own fascinations and add to the discussion ongoing in which comic magazines are no longer considered the "low feeders" of the popular culture world.

My goals, in this installment, are perhaps more "academic" than my legion of fans and followers might be let to expect. But it addresses a serious concern that pervades the final sveven chapters of my in-the-works magnum opus.

The gradual decomposition of the American comic magazine, due to the real-life threat of the Second World War, hangs thematically over my book like a dark zepellin. The slow, sad downward spiral towards "jingoism" and away from "phantasy realms" was a change the American comic magazine would never fully recover from.

Some of the more coarse, less artistically-inclined contributors to the comic magazines clung to the political and patriotical fervor incited by this new wave of red-white-and-blue "freedom fighters."

For the more advanced creators--the "dreamers," as William Eisner named them in one of his late works--this new flag-waving slant was simply a burden to be borne out, for the course of what all hoped was a short and insignificant war.

Sam Gilman was a significant second-tier "dreamer," with the misfortune to have left the panelological scene as this woebegone shift occurred. His "Vapo Man," a contribution to a hastily-assembled, topical comic magazine entitled Man of War Comics, displays the bridge from early inspiration to wartime hostility to chilling effect. Friends, this is not a good piece of work, despite Gilman's most valiant efforts.

An energetic, and some would say gifted storyteller, Gilman was most at home in the knockabout world of a good, solid detective yarn, or a playful costumed-hero fantasia. While the concept of a "Vapo Man" seems ingenious at first sight, the character's shoddy handling soon becomes a source of depression to this reader and student. The faults are numerous:

NO ATTEMPT TO ESTABLISH AN ORIGIN: The character is not even properly introduced to us! He simply appears, and goes into battle mode.

NO EXPLANATION OF HIS POWERS: As might be ascertained from his name, "Vaop Man" is capable of producing a vapor, or fog, that serves to confound and disorient his foes. All well and good. But from whence does this extraordinary ability come? From a muttered oath? A magic ring? Special socks and shoes? Without this necessary, and some would say, basic, grounding in reality, no character can truly convince his or her readership.

NO NARRATIVE TO SPEAK OF: No matter how "farly flung" the early and prime panelology could be, its flights of fancy were always grounded in a recognizable NARRATIVE. A story, to be precise. Cause and effect! Beginning, middle and end! It is a small thing to ask of any comic magazine's contents. Yet "Vapo Man" fails to deliver even in this smallest and most essential manner. 'Tis merely several pages of fisticuffs and explosions, with good meeting bad, and nothing more.

This sort of drivel would soon infest all comic magazines, leading up to the unbearable year of 1944--the "black hole of Calcutta" of the panelologic arts. I have often contemplated the burning of all 1944-dated comic magazines in my holdings. That is, of course, absurd. But the thought has crossed this writer's sage mind more than twice!

Pity poor Samuel Gilman! Also known as "Steve Gilman," this creator began his short panelologic career in 1939, for the various titles published by Centaur Publications. His works got off to a promising start, with rousing tales starring the likes of "Dan Dennis, FBI," "The Masked Marvel" and even "A-Man the Amazing Man."

Somewhat like Martin Filchock, Gilman's work was both primitive and lively. Given time, and experience, his work might have blossomed. But, just as the military agenda interfered with Gilman's creative work, it tampered with--and unfortunately ended--his life. Gilman was drafted in early 1942, and given two weeks' reprieve to hastily finish several stories due to publishers. He worked 'round the clock, mostly to provide some money for his ailing, elderly mother.

He was shipped off to New Jersey for basic training, and then sent out to the battlefields. He was one of the hundreds who perished on "C-Day," the oft-overlooked "dress rehearsal" for the more popular and legendary "D-Day."

There were, in fact, no enemy forces present on "C-Day." This "sham battle" pitted two batallions against each other, in an attempt for military planners to determine the timing of a land invasion from the sea. (Hence the name of this so-called battle.)

As Alvin Hoffer denotes, in his heartbreaking account of the maneuver, from his book Secret Battles of WW II: Unknown and Unsung, the battle was to be fought with "blank" ammunition, including "grenades" that simply released a cloud of baking powder. Unfortunately, the poorly mimeographed bulletin was blurred, due to a spilled soft drink, and that vital information that the grenades be harmless was rendered illegible.

The weapons-makers simply shipped crates of highly "active" grenades to this seemingly benign test-battle. All other "ammunition" was, indeed, blank, as that portion of the memo was intact. (How, or why, the suppliers failed to see the discrepancy, is lost to time.)

All those participating in "C-Day" were encouraged to hurtle handfuls of these supposedly inert grenades, so that their velocity could be measured by primitive radar and motion-detection equipment. Instead of gathering helpful data, the event quickly became a gruesome bloodbath. As Hoffer grimly states:

So thoroughly did these grenades do their efficient work--these talismans of casual death--that no one survived the explosive assault. From dogface private to well-intentioned scientist and statistician to war reporter, all lost their lives on that regrettable day. The matter was quickly swept under the rug by top Army brass, and its existence was suppressed until 1971, when papers relating to the planning of the "C-Day" event were accidentally leaked by custodian Hugh Garlin.

"C-Day" is still scoffed at by some war historians--dismissed as "conspiracy theory" or as a tall tale created by bored GIs on patrol--but it was established, via those rediscovered boxes of paperwork, found by the custodian while conducting a routine sub-basement sweeping, that Gilman was assigned to this sham-battle. Did it happen? Was it all a dream? And what of Samuel Gilman?

I am a patriotic American, but I readily acknowledge that there is much to be ashamed of in our country's history. "Vapo Man" may be a pathetic footnote in panelology, but the loss of its creator is no laughing matter. 

I apologize for the negativity of this report. I merely use it to illustrate certain difficulties I face, while shaping my masterwork of research and history. There are many heartaches amidst the triumphs, of the Great Age Panelological.

But I shan't dwell on the sadness long. There is much joy to behold in this artform's colorful, rampant history. There are side-splitting stories I long to share with you, culled from my interviews of yore. But they must wait until the book itself is completed and released!

Speaking of "release," I must end this massive missive now, as the Diner is due to close, and I must tally the day's receipts and supervise the clean-up. As with comics, reality is always bound to intrude upon the color and adventure of life.

Please let us know what you think of Mr. Harbin's essay. Do you wish to see more of his work featured herein? Or should the lad branch out on his own domain? We await your reactions and (I hope) praise! Until next we meet, my warmest wishes for your health and happiness.