THE DREAM THAT NEVER WAS AND PERHAPS SHOULDN'T HAVE BEEN
There is no bigger animation hero to me than Chuck Jones. I won't be the first to say that, but it holds true all the same. His Warner Bros. shorts during the golden age of animation are the stand-outs to this day, from "What's Opera, Doc?" to "Duck Season! Rabbit Season!" down to "Duck Dodgers and the 24 ½ Century," "One Froggy Evening" and dozens of others you'd know instantly just from their titles. Sam and Ralph? Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner? Pepe Le Pew? Charlie Dog? All created by Chuck Jones. (Let's not forget to credit writer Mike Maltese, whose contributions to all of the above shorts are too often overlooked, but should not be forgotten.)
As it turns out, Jones did a comic strip in the late 1970s that everyone had forgotten about until IDW published a compilation of it last month. I've read both of Jones' autobiographies. I've read books on the history of Warner Bros animation. And nobody ever mentioned this comic strip, "Crawford." It's a footnote in Chuck Jones' life's work. It's hard to think of anything being done today that could be forgotten with the hyper focus the internet puts on every little thing, but "Crawford" came at a different time, showed up in few papers, and lasted only a few months. Worst of all, it wasn't very good.
IDW's collection, "The Dream That Never Was," is poignantly titled, referring to how personal a work the strip was, and how long Jones fought to do something with the concept. Even after the comic strip failed, in fact, the characters and concepts from it lived on in proposals his company made for a long time afterwards. For all the successes Jones had in his life, this was one creative endeavor that didn't pan out the way he had hoped.
And so the book begins, by telling the background story to the strip. The first 50 pages are devoted to an essay by Kurtis Findlay setting up the short-lived strip and how it came to be, tracing the character back two decades to Jones' work at the Termite Terrace, through his attempts to start it as an animated TV series through his own company afterwards, before finally selling it to a strip syndicate and through to a few papers. As sad as the comic strip market is today, imagine a market in the late 1970s that wouldn't buy a Chuck Jones-written and drawn comic strip!
"Crawford" is about a bunch of smart-mouthed kids, including the girl whose every joke is about women's rights, the super smart kid, and the kid who wonders about the English language, et. al. The cast is so scattered that you wouldn't know the name of the "main character" unless it was in the title. The kids are flat, two-dimensional characters meant to deliver the musings Jones felt like sharing that day. The biggest problem with the strip, though, is that it violates one of Jones' own sacred rules. He never wanted his animation to be "illustrated" radio, but his comic strip was. Sometimes, he'd go for a visual gag and everything would perk right back up. Jones' ability to capture extremes in motion worked to his advantage, and even in the times when he'd draw the kids sitting back along the panel border, it was enough visual interest to make worth looking at. But far too many strips just relied on spoken gags slightly enhanced by a character's body language or knowing glance at the reader.
Jones spent a lot of times in the strip's short run talking about the oddities of the English language. Sparingly, they could be funny or clever, but over the course of a week's worth of repetitive gags, they got stale and boring. When the dogs came out and played, or when Crawford would suddenly start doing tricks on his bike, new life boosted my interest in the book.
It had some funny moments, but Jones was not a comic strip gag-a-day storyteller. He did great with physical comedy, quick wits, and a slow burn of gags building up into something great. But trying to put together a simple joke a day seven days a week threw off his pacing. Weekly themes for the strips didn't build up to anything; they feel repetitive. There are even strips where he explains the punchline in the final panel. It's painful. Even the occasional reference to a beloved Warner Bros character feels like he's reaching for a simple laugh from a knowing reader.
I wish he had done more with the format and with his characters' physicality. There's a great Sunday gag panel with one character having troubles with his yo-yo. There's more acting, energy, and humor on that page than there is in the next week's worth of strips. Though perhaps that's not completely fair, as that week followed a theme of a character reading a book on panel, as the two smart characters battle out who's smarter.
The art in the book is spare. It has characters floating in panels, with never a background in sight. Most often, there aren't even props. It's two characters talking to each other with a horizon line or the panel border to stand them up on. Every now and then you'll get a tree, but that's as adorned as Jones' strip ever got.
IDW uses the same techniques it does in the Artist's Editions in scanning these strips in. They're presented not as cleaned up and pristine art pieces, but as the yellowed and corrected production pieces that they were. A small number of strips are lost in time and had to be reproduced from microfilm records, but 99% will be shot from the original art, including pencil roughs, frequent lettering corrections, and even taped-in or glued-on copyright notice.
The 100 pages devoted to the original newspaper run of the strip are liberally sprinkled with Jones' concept art. You'll see rough drafts of strips being worked out on scrap paper. You see punch lines being tested, or character poses being positioned. You'll see alternate models for the characters, some of whom changed a lot from conception to strip.
If that's not enough background material for you, the next 40-page chunk of the book is devoted to the strips that went unprinted, plus various unused gags.
The book finishes in grand style with a 50-page reproduction of the storyboards Chuck Jones' studio did to illustrate the proposed "Crawford" television special in 1969. It's a series of black out gags with Crawford having no luck flying his kite.
I've been very hard on the comic strip in this review, but I'm still recommending the book to fans of Jones' work. For starters, it's an excellent history lesson beyond just being a comic strip reprint book. You'll learn more about animation and comic strips in this book than you would in most straight-up strip reprint books. There is a lot of material in here in addition to the comic, including (as noted) the storyboards, the sketches, the development drawings, and more. And the production values on the book, itself, are high. This is a nearly 300-page hardcover book, bound on the short end of the book. The pages are strong white paper stock. The sections of each book open with an overlay. The black and white line art is on that clear page, while the page behind it presents just the coloring for that image, done in a crayon style. It's a great look, and a simple little thing that makes the book feel high end. And, thankfully, it comes complete with a sewn-in ribbon to act as your bookmark. Those should be mandatory in all comic strip collections, where it's so easy to lose your place.
The final tab for all of this is just $49.99, and it's available from IDW now. If I haven't convinced you yet, check out the promotional site at ChuckJonesCrawford.com. They have lots of pictures of the book and scans from select strips.
COMIC BOOK MEN
I liked the premiere of "Comic Book Men" because it was exactly what I expected it to be. If you were expecting to see a modern comic book store catering to the long tail crowd, welcoming families and women into their shop with an outreach program to help diversify the content and the quality of its business, you're insane. This is a cable reality television show. To expect anything but a clichéd comic shop filled with comic geeks having nerd-centric conversations is just delusional. This is "Jersey Shore" for comic and toy collectors.
As an ex-comics podcaster, I just enjoy the fact that someone with deeper pockets than I'll ever have is funding a video version of a popular podcast, complete with dramatic recreations of the stories discussed on that show.
Plus, "Comic Book Men" is the only show on television featuring Alan Moore reading comics on an iPad in the store like a bizarre Where's Waldo. (Watch the show and you'll see what I mean.)
The show is everything you'd expect the "mainstream" media to create in relation to comics. It equates comics with collectability, casts comic fans as basement dwellers, tells immature jokes about the sex lives of superheroes, and all the usual clichés and annoying tics we've seen over the years. The only thing missing was pseudo-1960s sound effects with balloon lettering popping off the screen. ("Oh, no, Walt dropped a box of comics!" BOOOOM!) Maybe that's next week's episode.
But you know what? I enjoyed it. Heaven help me, but I enjoyed its frenetic pace, its conversational manner, its relatively high production values for the type of show it is, and the way that Kevin Smith comes across almost as a father figure to a bunch of his lunatic employees. I'm not sure that it wouldn't start grating on my nerves in relatively short order, though, and perhaps the six-episode season is a smart idea.
That all said, I'm not going out of my way to watch it again. Sunday nights are already busy enough trying to write this column, thanks.
Also, I don't want to hear anyone complain about the light this show shines on comic book fans if you're out there talking about how great "The Big Bang Theory" is. If you think that show raises the level of conversation up around comics and elevates a comic fan out of his mother's basement, you're only kidding yourself.
Would it be possible to cast a reality television series about a comic store that we'd all like to see in a perfect world? I'm just cynical enough to think not, but the more I think about it, the more I have a solution. You'd need a modern comic shop with a colorful owner in an attractive location. You'd need a large client base and a series of big name guest creators and parties that cater to them. You'd need connections to the local hipster scene, the convention circuit, and more.
You need James Sime and Isotope Comics to sign up immediately.
In the meantime, we're stuck with this. It'll be over in six weeks and we can all go back to laughing at The Android Dungeon on "The Simpsons" and pretending that that doesn't portray the worst in comics, too.
I had my first concert shoot of the year over the weekend, and those images and that story will be told throughout the week ahead at AugieShoots.com.
Many more comics have been read; many need reviewing. We'll get back to more of that next week.