I've been deeply involved in comics for pretty much all my life but I'm still finding new material and information about the medium that surprise me. Did you know that there's a university library in the US that has an enormous collection of classic comics material and has started a modest line of reprints of that material?
Who knew that Michigan State University, of all places, has a large archive of over a million proof sheets of art from King Features Syndicate, over 200,000 comics and an extensive collection of books and journals about comics and sequential art?
Yes, everybody's fanboy dream is up in East Lansing, Michigan, lovingly curated by a smart staff of dedicated professionals whose daily job is to preserve and maintain perhaps the greatest collection of cartoon art in the world, a veritable Library of Alexandria of vintage and modern comic art.
It stands to reason that among all those archives, all those endless shelves after shelves of material both famous and obscure, that MSU would have great runs of many classic comic strips. I honestly am considering taking my next vacation to Michigan to get to spend time with these amazing vintage stories, getting lost in fading newsprint and decomposing stats.
Tim Tyler's Luck is one of those lost classics. MSU has reprinted a run of Lyman Young's African adventure strip that runs from July 1937 to December 1939, containing two and a half years of thrilling two-fisted, old-fashioned action and adventure.
Our protagonist is young Tim Tyler, a classic adventurer; as Reade Dornan points out in her introduction, "Tim Tyler is an All-American boy who dares to capture thieves, ivory poachers, gun runners and foreign spies. He is upright and daring, if a bit naïve. He is not physically strong nor does he carry a weapon, so he depends more on his luck, his pluck and quick thinking to help 'good guys' out of scrapes." Tim is friends with the members of the Ivory Patrol, a fictitious organization empowered to enforce anti-poaching laws and maintain order in an unspecified African wilderness.
One of the most striking things about the adventures in this book is that they represent traditional mid-century all-American values. Heroes are always forthright and honest, never with a doubt about their place in their society. These aren't men who value talk and discussion; instead, the men who live and fight every day in the jungle are men of action. They like nothing more than to jump onto a horse, journey to whatever distant place needs their help and make sure that justice is served.
This sort of storytelling trope can seem outdated and oddly innocent these days, but in the 1930s that mentality was the prevailing mythos of American society, delivering a world where well-administered two-fisted justice was admired and appreciated. For a modern reader, this approach doesn't feel unsophisticated; instead, it feels a lot like watching an old movie where justice prevails and we all dream of a happier, safer America where the line between good and evil was much clearer. (Of course that world never really existed; it only really occurred in our popular American fiction of the time.)
I thoroughly enjoyed this moral clarity and focus in the stories, but more than that I enjoyed the way that Young and his "ghosts" drew all the various animals in this collection. Tim Tyler has a pet black panther in these stories, and the panther is a surprisingly vivid and complex character. Steadfast, strong, loving and fierce, Fang is as realistic a character as any of the humans in this strip – and he quickly became one of my favorites.
There are animals aplenty in this strip, which is another real treat in Tim Tyler. There's very little technology in Tim Tyler's Luck; not a seaplane or jeep or weapon stronger than a rifle, but there is a virtual zoo of animals that appear in these stories. The very first panel of this colection shows readers a monkey running through the jungle, setting the tone for everything that comes after. As the strip moves ahead, Young and his team give readers scene after scene of perfectly drawn elephants (both wild and tame), dozens of horses (including a wonderful storyline where Tim Tyler breaks a wild horse), caribou, wild leopards, even a stubborn donkey.
Some of my favorite strips could have come from a show on the National Geographic Channel: Animals attacking each other in the way that wild animals always have done. The good animals always defeat the evil animals – anything else would have been complexly inappropriate for the era – but the fierceness of the fights looks realistic and powerful in this fascinating context.
I have to mention the treatment of African natives here, because any review of comics produced before midcentury always has some undercurrent of racism. Certainly the central conceit of this series, of white men come to keep peace on the African veldt, is inherently racist and colonial. But with a few exceptions, I didn't see Young's use of Africans as being especially racist. He doesn't exaggerate features or have his African people talk in strange off-English patois as even the great Will Eisner did; instead, the natives do speak with a strange non-specific language and wear costumes that seem ungrounded in realistic costumes, but none of that is delivered in a way that's demeaning to many of these characters, and the Ivory Patrol always treats the natives with respect if not admiration.
This book was printed under a new program that MSU has started to create Print On Demand editions of some of their favorite comic strips; Ruth Ann Jones of the MSU Library was kind enough to share some information about this project with me. According to her, "publishing is outside the library’s traditional role (although it’s becoming less rare among academic libraries) so we have to be very financially cautious. We use the library’s Espresso Book Machine to print the actual book. The EBM is a print-on-demand installation, capable of printing trade paperbacks one book at a time, so we only print the exact number of copies needed, on a cost-recovery model not a profit model."
Though I'm delighted by the huge number of vintage strip reprints that publishers like Library of American Comics, Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly and Hermes Press have released, their collections represent just the veritable tip of the iceberg of classic material that could be reprinted. Most committed comics lovers know about Little Orphan Annie or Buck Rogers, and a smart publisher can help push an obscure collection of magical Barnaby strips.
But there are dozens more strips that have become more or less lost to the vicissitudes of time that were delights in their day but are seen as also-rans by the people who write the histories of the medium. That assertion may be true in a lot of cases but many more of these vintage comics sit as lost classics waiting to be rediscovered. It’s great to see Tim Tyler return and I hope we see many more of these lost classics back in print soon.
Really the only major problem I had with this collection is in the size of the strips on the page. The strips are published four to a page, and are dauntingly small compared with most of the other reprint collections on the market. Unfortunately, that's a printing issue that MSU isn't able to get past; as Ruth Ann Jones told me, "The Espresso Book Machine imposes some design limitations. The largest size we can do is 8.25 x 10.5 – in other words, 8.5×11 paper minus 1/4 inch on three sides for trimming. The width decreases as the page length increases because the same 11×17 cover sheet has to go around the front cover, the spine, and the back cover. An 800-page book can only be 10.5 x 7.4 inches. Tim Tyler is just over 200 pages and 8.125 inches wide.
"Unfortunately the EBM does not have the capability to produce an album format, where the book would be 8.25 high and 10.5 long, with the spine on the shorter edge of the paper. The spine of an EBM book always has to be on the long edge. We considered orienting the strips the long way, so that the spine would be on top as you read, and you’d turn the pages up/down instead of right/left. But there was concern that readers would find that strange and awkward. Our comic art librarian could not think of any other reprints done that way."
That is a problem for anyone who doesn't have young eyes, so maybe a digital reprint program might help some readers – I often wished I could have read these strips on my iPad, where I could have expanded and shrunk the images to suit my eyes. But that, of course, would have defeated the purpose of making this print book available.
Tim Tyler's Luck is extremely cheap – only $18 for almost 800 strips – and is available on Amazon.
I was delighted to journey to Africa with Tim Tyler, Fang and the Ivory Patrol, and I appreciate the efforts of MSU to bring these wonderful strips back into print. I hope they make more smart choices in the future and bring back more amazing and obscure comic strips.