History, as it’s often said, is written by the victors. But it’s just as often true that history is written by the survivors. That’s true in comic books as much as it is in any other area of history.
That’s why there have been hundreds of thousands of words written about Marvel and DC Comics. Those companies “won”. They’re still alive. Their intellectual properties are relevant to our lives today and are continually appearing on movies and TV. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that we pay attention to those “winners”, really. Those comics and their creators are among the greatest and most interesting in comics history. Their stories are compelling and their work still survives today with an audience that seems to increase in geometrical levels in response to the latest film or TV series. That popularity is deserved, and it’s great for us comic historians to have so many books to consume about our favorite subjects.
But this selective history also gives us gaps. There are long eras in which Marvel and DC weren’t the dominant players in the comic industry, and for many years the bestselling DC comics sold something close to a third as many copies as the comics sold by the dominant player in the industry: Dell Comics (Marvel’s books barely survived the era, of course). We’ve been overdue for a comprehensive look at Dell and their most prominent creators, which is why it’s such a pleasure to see Funnybooks appear and swim against the tide.
Written by one of the deans of American comic book history, Michael Barrier, Funnybooks is a delightfully comprehensive history of Dell Comics. During the height of the baby boom, from about 1950 to the early 1960s, the bestselling comics in America were Dell Comics, and the sales numbers for the second-place company weren’t even really close. For a time, Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories sold millions of copies per month, and Dell’s many movie and TV spinoff comics were as ubiquitous as the programs that inspired them. In an average month in 1956, for instance, of the 37 comics that Dell released, the company published TV spinoffs (Howdy Doody, I Love Lucy, Walt Disney’s The Great Locomotive Chase); western comics featuring well-known figures (Annie Oakley, The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers and Trigger); comics featuring cartoon characters (Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, Popeye), and a handful of comics that fall in between these categories (Uncle Scrooge, Little Lulu).
These were comics that generally emphasized professionalism and consistency over flash and slickness. They also emphasized the characters that young kids loved over the comics of pre-teens and teens. That means that at worst these comics were simply ephemeral entertainment, easy escapism to bring along on a long car trip to the beach or for lazy summer afternoons hanging out with friends and eating Good Humor ice cream bars.
At their best, though, the best of the Dell Comics were among the finest comics ever published. With legendary creators like Carl Barks, John Stanley and Walt Kelly doing work for Dell, there is no way that those comics couldn’t be great. In Funnybooks, Barrier explores the intertwined lives and careers of these great creators, along with side trips to explore the birth and growth of Dell and explorations of the work of other cartoonists as well. He has a wonderful section on the Tarzan work of artist Jesse Marsh, for instance, which was revelatory in its insights on the man and his career.
Barrier saves his best and most passionate writing for the sections on Barks, Stanley and Kelly. He’s adept at intertwining a smart and thoroughgoing exploration of the men’s work with their personal lives. Barrier delivers intriguing tidbits; for instance a story about how Barks delivered some of his finest Duck stories while living in a hotel, away from his alcoholic and abusive first wife (Barks later remarried and was by all accounts very happy). Barrier tells us about Walt Kelly’s sometimes over-the-top drinking and how the famous radio show Amos and Andy deeply influenced the creation of his iconic characters in Pogo. And Barrier tells readers about how Stanley continually improvised his delightful Little Lulu stories, never quite having a plan with them but instead letting the tales find their own pace and weight, thereby allowing them the charming shaggy dog style that made them wonderful.
Most of all, Barrier loves analyzing what makes these creators’ work successful. As you might expect from a man who’s been writing about Carl Barks’s career since the 1970s, Barrier saves his most passionate writing for a deep analysis of the Good Duck Artist’s classic stories, exploring Barks’s work with an intelligence and precision that comes from the fact that he knows this material with a near-evangelical passion. At times Barrier’s ardor for Barks’s work is a bit too strong, as when he devotes page after page to the artist’s essential humanity or the growth of Uncle Scrooge and Donald as characters. Barrier sometimes repeats his points a bit too often, with the conviction of an acolyte, and that begins to feel more like a lecture than Barrier sharing his passion. The few illustrations presented in this book help to make Barrier’s points; perhaps one of the weaknesses of Funnybooks is that it doesn’t have quite enough illustrations.
Another flaw in this book comes when Barrier talks about the growth and evolution of Walt Kelly’s brilliant Pogo. Barrier takes it for granted that fans will understand the greatness and importance of Pogo, but for readers of my generation – let alone a younger generation – the comic strip is a distant memory, often spoken of in legends. It would have been helpful for Barrier to give more context on Pogo, so readers would understand precisely why Kelly is such an important and influential figure in comics history.
All that said, Barrier’s research is impeccable. He had access to Dell’s accounting books and is able to quote the exact sales for each comic and the royalty the company paid out to its licensors. He quotes from letters to and from the creators, giving us a sense of the way that work was communicated (and thereby makes it clear that Barks was always granted a special status at Dell, with much more freedom than his peers ever received). Best of all, Barrier gives context for both the social and company culture of the time, concepts that explain the sometimes awkward feels of these stories that reflect much less enlightened social times.
Mike Barrier’s Funnybooks is one of the most thoughtful and insightful works of comic book research that I’ve read recently. As someone who writes comic history myself, the thoroughness of Barrier’s research, and his passion for his topics, is inspiring – and perhaps even a bit imposing.