Finding obscure comic strips

10 With Tom
10 questions in 10 minutes

I’ve been reading Allan Holtz’s “Strippers Guide” blog since it started in 2005, I believe. I love it because it’s all about thing I love – comic strips – old, historical comic strips. Alan is a comic strip historian and author of “American Newspaper Comics: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide,” a book I own.

Each day, Allan (shown here) and contributor Alex Jay, talk about old comic strips on the blog with plenty of wonderful images of the strips. Many I never heard of and quite a few bring back memories. I had the opportunity to interview Allan recently for Ten With Tom.

Allan-Medea-Jim

Allan at right, with his wife Media and cartoonist Jim Ivey at Jim’s 90th birthday party.

TOM: I love old comic strips and newspapers and enjoy the Strippers Guide blog, what made you come up with the idea of the blog?

ALLAN: I was about to begin shopping my book, “American Newspaper Comics – An Encyclopedic Reference Guide,” around to publishers. I’d spent over twenty years researching the book, and my name was somewhat known in the comic strip collecting world, but I felt that it would be helpful if I had wider name recognition. In 2007, when I started the Stripper’s Guide site, blogs were the hot new thing on the web. I figured that if I posted regularly about comic strips, with some eye candy in the form of nicely restored old comics, it might help my cause.

Well, it didn’t really help at all with publishers; I ended up having the book accepted by the University of Michigan Press primarily because another author vouched for me. However, I found that the daily regimen of writing short essays, and scanning and restoring the comics, was just what the doctor ordered to stimulate my desire to continue my research work. I also thrive on the feedback I receive from comic strip fans and historians.

TOM: Why Stripper’s Guide? I know what strippers are in the newspaper business, but what made you use that for the name?

ALLAN: I was trying to come up with a catchy title for the blog, and I figured that anyone with an ounce of curiosity would be intrigued by a site that calls itself Stripper’s Guide. Comic strip fans have occasionally called themselves strippers long before I came along, so I don’t get any points for originality. Over the years I’ve fielded my fair share of comments from site visitors who were hoping to find something very different. But maybe I turned a few of them into comic strip fans!

I wanted to call my book Stripper’s Guide as well, but the folks at University of Michigan Press very sweetly told me that there was no way in hell they would publish a book with that title. I still think we could have sold more copies, though …

detective-riley

Detective Riley, an obscure comic strip from the 1930s

TOM: I love the obscure comics, what you post as “Obscurity of the Day.” How do you find those? I know of some old comics I’ve been trying to find and I can’t find them.

ALLAN: Decades of research have yielded a practically never-ending supply of comic strips I can discuss for “Obscurity of the Day.” The real trick is getting the samples to show. Since microfilm photocopies and online newspaper archive images are rarely of decent quality, I have to find original newspapers that print these rarities, from which I make high-resolution scans and then do additional restoration work.

There is a lively trade in old newspaper comic strips. I haunt eBay constantly, always looking for oddball and obscure material, whether in the form of clipped comic strips, complete newspapers, or even newspaper bound volumes discarded by libraries. My collection is pretty vast and I’m always looking for more.

As to the subject of finding dimly remembered old comic strips, I get asked about them a lot. I’ve become a regular Sherlock Holmes when it comes to identifying dimly recalled comic strips from the past. Between a vague description (sometimes as little as “it had a funny looking kid in it”), a general idea of when they remember reading it, and the newspaper they saw it in, I can usually come up with the answer.

TOM: Do you draw? Have you ever created a comic strip yourself?

ALLAN: I’m good at quite a few things, but drawing is definitely not one of them. Unlike the old saying, though, I can in fact draw straight lines. It’s those darn curved ones that are completely beyond me. I think that may be a part of my fascination with comic strips — the ability to boil a story down to a few deftly arranged pen lines never loses its magic for me.

I did actually create a comic strip, though. I used to work in the software industry, and my company had a monthly newsletter. Just for kicks I came up with a sort of a Dilbert-y comic strip for it. At first I tried to populate it with stick figures, but it was incomprehensibly bad. So I drew a closed office door, and had all the dialog emanating from the other side. After submitting two of those, the newsletter was cancelled. I fear it was my fault.

TOM: You are the author of “American Newspaper Comics: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide.” I have owned that book for many years. How did that come about to begin with?

ALLAN: When I first got seriously interested in newspaper comics and wanted to read about their history, I was frustrated by the quality and lack of depth in the references available then. It seemed like everybody talked endlessly about a standard litany of high profile classic comics — Flash Gordon, Krazy Kat, Little Nemo and so on — but when they ventured beyond those strips the information was generally spotty, and often just plain wrong.

So I set out to gather all the basic information about every US newspaper comics and panel — their running dates, creators, formats, and so on. I felt that a comprehensive reference was needed as a jumping off point for researchers who want to go into more depth. I had no idea when I started that I was embarking on a project that would take a lifetime!

The book was originally published in 2011 and I’ve continued researching ever since, so I’ve got lots of new information to share. I’m very proud of the original book, but I’m hoping there’s a way to bring out the 2nd edition at a much lower price. I want comics enthusiasts to be able to buy a copy without feeling that they need to live on bread and water for a month to afford it.

the-captains-gig

A late 1970s strip, The Captain’s Gig, by Virgil Partch

TOM: What comic strip from today or the past would you like to crawl into and spend the day?

ALLAN: Wow, that’s a great question. My first instinct is to say I’d like to be Jiggs from Bringing Up Father. He’s obscenely rich, lives in rococo splendor, and moves through an Art Deco world drawn by the great George McManus. But then I remember that Jiggs regularly gets beaned by Maggie, his harridan wife. Maybe not so great after all.

I could have a wild day as Little Nemo, Buck Rogers or Captain Easy, but I’m enough of a homebody, used to my creature comforts,to take a pass on that.

No, I guess my choice is Dagwood from Blondie. He has a job where he gets away with murder, naps on the couch, and eats the most stupendous sandwiches without ever gaining an ounce. And who doesn’t have a crush on Blondie, whose personality, figure and lovely face put us imperfect real humans to shame.

TOM: Have you met many famous cartoonists? Which ones impressed you the most?

ALLAN: Cartoonists are the celebrity superstars of my world, and I’m sufficiently in awe of them to be a bit shy. I confess that I’ve been in the same room with some of my ink-slinging heroes and sometimes not gotten up the gumption to introduce myself. Which is pretty stupid, because cartoonists are cooped up in their studios so much that when they do get out in public, they tend to be very friendly and giving of their time.

I’d have to say that the cartoonist who impressed me most was still the very first one I met, at a comic book convention in Orlando. Wayne Boring had been the artist on Superman (both comic books and the newspaper strip) in the 1950s and ’60s. By the time I met him he was retired, and I was a snot-nosed 12-year old who saw the gray-haired fellow as a god.

I got up the nerve to approach him with a copy of one of the last Superman comic books he worked on. Much to my amazement, he was not only friendly but sat with me for about five minutes, paging through the comic book and reminiscing about working on it. He even asked me questions, which seemed impossibly congenial. I’ll never forget it.

TOM: Now that Bloom County is back, which of these classics would you like to see come back, too: The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes or Pogo. Please choose just one.

ALLAN: Well, they are all classics, but if I could only have one back, it would by Gary Larson’s The Far Side. I’ve always had a particular affinity for slightly subversive and off-kilter humor (my current favorite strip is Zippy the Pinhead). Although Larson said he ended the panel because he felt his well was running dry, I’m betting that after the long layoff his creative juices have been revitalized and he could have another great run.

TOM: Do you attend comic cons? Which one do you like or prefer?

ALLAN: Comic conventions are about comic books, not newspaper strips, so I’d be a fish out of water. As a kid, when I was more into comic books, Jim Ivey‘s annual OrlandoCon was the highlight of my year. OrlandoCons were great because Ivey invited all these amazing cartoonists he knew, most of whom were newspaper comic strip artists and editorial cartoonists. Meeting these people opened my eyes that comic books were not the sum total of cartooning by a long shot.

From what I understand, nowadays most comic conventions are more about adaptations of comics for movies and television than they are about actual comic books, so I’d be doubly out of my element.

TOM: When you were a kid, what newspapers did you see/read the comics in? What is your earliest memory of reading comics?

ALLAN: I lived in Montreal as a kid, so I fondly recall the strips that ran in the Montreal Star. I especially remember Jasper, which was a comic strip distributed only in Canada. It was about a bear who lived in Jasper National Park in Alberta Canada. I guess that would qualify as an Obscurity of the Day on Stripper’s Guide now!

What really doomed me to a life of loving comic strips, though, was when my dad was doing some plumbing repair under our house and he came out of the crawlspace with an old newspaper he’d found wrapped around a pipe. It was a copy of the Sunday comics from a Montreal Gazette of the early 1940s. This 10-year-old kid had never seen such large, beautifully colored glorious comics. They were a powerful revelation to me, who was used to comic strips printed muddily and on the scale of a postage stamp in current newspapers. I must have read that old comics section a hundred times, and I guess that sealed my destiny.

TOM: Thank you Allan!

Herriman

A 1909 strip by George Herriman.

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