Matt Baker's charming Canteen Kate strips are a perfect example of why I love running this Classic Comics Cavalcade column, because I sometimes feel like an archaeologist uncovering lost dinosaur bones.
Created between 1951 and 1953, these two dozen stories originally appeared in the pages of Fightin' Marines and Kate's own comic – but this beautiful ditzy redhead was hardly the kind of leatherneck that was featured in the rest of the comic. No, Canteen Kate provided slapstick comic relief to the grim and gritty war yarns that surrounded her delightful adventures, with a stack of charmingly ridiculous stories that read with a delightfully dated and ditzily sexist approach that somehow feels completely fresh.
Kate is a civilian employee on a military base in the South Pacific. She runs a canteen where the soldiers can pick up a snack or treat that reminds them a bit of home, along with the lovely American shopkeeper. As drawn by Baker, the unparalleled master of depicting the female form during the Golden Age, Kate is irresistibly sexy and completely chaste, a whirling dervish of energy and life, and a manic dream girl for the WWII crowd.
Kate's stories tumble upon themselves, one absurd event after the next, literally head over heel at times from panel to panel, as our beautiful protagonist drags her long-suffering boyfriend Al along for one absurd adventure after the next. These stories also all center around a wartime setting that would have felt comfortable for most readers of the comic, frequently former GIs who had been home from the War for just a few years and occasionally pining for the fun events that happened alongside the trauma of war.
Thus many stories here surround the idea of Kate or Al inadvertently disrespecting the brass on the base: in one, Al accidentally destroys a cake for Major Herringbone, which leads in a Rube Goldberg-type turn of events to Al baking a new cake with gunpowder instead of flour.
Another involves a group of soldiers whose days on leave in Tokyo are ruined by Kate's ridiculous antics and non-rule-following ways. This absurd set-piece somewhat inevitably involves cross-dressing, some regrettable Japanese stereotypes and an ending in which most everyone is chased by the MPs for traveling without a pass.
Then there are the stories where Kate's good looks and attitude get her out of the jams that she creates; in one, she jealously pretends that she's a USO performer, gets in deep trouble for a time but eventually escapes punishment with a perfectly-timed kiss. In another she destroys a General's Ming vase but continually seems to avoid punishment because she inadvertently camouflaged things in a way that hid her mistakes.
Huh, you know, dear reader, it's kind of strange writing this review because I'm making Kate sound like a villain, a trouble maker, a rogue in the house and ghost in the machine, unintentionally sabotaging and destroying everything that she touches, a beautiful Shiva the destroyer or Dennis the Menace. And I guess that she does mess everything up, cause havoc for her friends and bring chaos upon everyone.
But we readers love Kate for her reckless rowdiness for a few reasons. For one thing, she is a real manic pixie dream girl, continually acting as a wish-fulfillment ditzy redhead whose energy and spirit can't be bottled up by the rules of a militarized society. She's one of those people who rebel just because she can and maybe because she has to. Kate may be as deep as a spoonful of water, but she's delightful fun to watch.
All the credit for the pleasure of watching Kate rests with artist/writer Matt Baker. Baker's been immortalized as one of the finest artists of beautiful women during the Golden Age of Comics, and this collection shows why. Kate is a bundle of energy, sometimes almost literally a pixie, whose small bust, long legs and animated face light up every scene in which she appears. She's an indomitable and irrepressible sprite, beautifully drawn in a way that sets her apart from the olive-drab uniforms that surround her on the page.
The good people at Canton Street Press have resurrected Kate from her unwanted limbo for the first time in over half a century with a great new hardcover collection of stories featuring her. I'd never heard of Canteen Kate or her surroundings until I read TwoMorrows' 2012 Matt Baker biography; that book inspired a thirst to read more and I couldn't be happier than to have that thirst satiated with this volume.
While I'm very glad to have this book in hand, it does have flaws. For one thing, the images in this book look like they're scanned from the art in the original comics without a lot of clean up applied to them. This means that pages are printed as they were in the 1950s – sometimes blotchy, sometimes off-register, and sometimes with a loss of fine lines. I'm sure the folks at Canton Street didn't have many alternatives with this book, and they do their best with the material here, but there's a slight feeling that the material on these slick pages doesn't quite present Baker's brilliant work in its best light.
The introduction by Flaming Carrot's Bob Burden is an affectionate and delightful reminiscence about his journey to discover the art of Matt Baker and good girl art in general, but Burden's writing desperately needed an edit pass to remove some of the typos, missing words and rambling digressions that derail the piece. There's a sense that if Burden had had an empathetic editor, this intro would have been fascinating; instead, it's merely intriguing.
But despite its minor flaws, Canteen Kate was one of the most delightfully fun books I've read in a long time. The wonderful slapstick comedy of these stories, combined with Baker's beautiful art, produce
s a comic experience that is worth celebrating. Thank goodness Canton Street Press has brought Canteen Kate back to a waiting world.