Saturday, May 12, 2007

Gumby Free Comic Book Day Special: FCBD Exposed! part 8b: Remember the Children!

Gumby Free Comic Book Day Special, May 2007, Wildcard Ink
contributors: Shannon Wheeler, Rick Geary, Mike Hersh, Mark Bode, Steve Oliff, Bob Burden

No matter where you grow up, no matter what your interests are, most American youth are united by a few unalienable inquiries in their childhood: Why can't real life be as fun as what I read? When will I fit in? When will I go to Disneyland? And, of course, Betty or Veronica? Indeed, these questions are best represented by the universal icons of our culture's long-standing, youth-oriented media: Gumby, Charlie Brown, Micky Mouse, and Archie, respectively. These characters' appeal, best summed up by those simple, innocent motivations, is universal on both visual and existential levels. Indeed, one must not neglect their individually unique appearances; from Archie's redheaded freckledness to Micky's trademarked ears, from Charlie Brown's singularly squiggled locks to Gumby's misshapen green noggin, the fact that even these characters' heads are so distinctive proves that they are inspired "brain-children" for America's children, and have held that standing for years.

Therefore, their participation in Free Comic Book Day is more than a treat -- it's an expectation they couldn't avoid. These icons are the proverbial Student Council for FCBD's annual comics class reunion; they're the glue that holds child-centric visual entertainment together . . .

Which is why I'm not surprised to discover three of these four comics are about escapism, a common theme that children easily understand. In fact, if one accepts that the imagination is a more substantial influence in childhood, then "escape" is an ongoing commonality for the average tyke, utilizing television, books, and toys as conduits of projectionist adventure. As we grow up, we steadily remove ourselves from the media we enjoy, no longer imagining ourselves as the hero (and thus safety-pinning towels around our necks and jumping off of coffeetables . . . oh, like that was just me) but rather simply enjoying the hero's epic as an entertaining entity outside of ourselves. A movie becomes less of a window to another world and more of . . . well, a movie. Even for collectors, toys aren't manipulated but instead displayed as proud shelf pieces. The fourth wall is safely and securely erected.

Which is why I've always liked Gumby.

Gumby was one of the most flexible characters I can recall from childhood, pun intended. Gumby was responsible and sensitive, arguably acting older than his intended age, yet his ability to leap into books reinforced the youthful concept that books were portals of imaginative discovery. I fondly remember Gumby's supporting cast: the ever-faithful Pokey, Prickle, Goo, and those dastardly Blockheads. When Wildcard Ink recently launched a comic book series inspired by Gumby's old adventures, despite my love for the character, I was hesitant to investigate, because the crudity of that old, still-developing claymation is what sparked part of the charm for me. Gumby was more real than any cartoon character, a tangible entity, but still raw in his presentation and (yes, even as a kid I thought) his production value, just as Oswald the Rabbit must have appeared in Walt Disney's pre-Micky days. A comic book could easily clean up those rough edges and present a crisp package, and I wasn't sure if Gumby could wear "streamlined" well. Fortunately, the contributors to Gumby's illustrated adventures apparently realized the sheer exploratory nature of the character and, rather than resort to a standard sequential adventure, have instead opted to test the bounds of the visual storytelling format, implementing different artists' take on a script throughout one issue. In this free sample, the Blockheads swipe a valuable painting from Pokey's favorite museum, and Gumby pops in and out of the other exhibited works to catch them. Geary, Hersh, and Bode divide these artistic responsibilities and really play with Gumby's malleability, and though the final production is hit and miss, the effort is respectfully recognizable. Surreal and sympathetic, Gumby's flexibility obviously entails a transcendence of time and forum, and honestly I couldn't be happier.

Yet, if Gumby represents our inherent drive to delve into make believe worlds, Mickey Mouse represents our childish need to visit one real place, the Mecca of spoiled little brats everywhere: Disneyland. Really, what kid doesn't want to go to Disneyland? When I moved to Southern California, I was amazed that I lived in driving distance of the Happiest Place of Earth, and though I could theoretically go there every night if I wanted to, something about that land holds a reverence for me. That Walt Disney's creative and entrepreneurial achievements reached fruition there is nothing short of admirable, and that said achievements can be reduced to the image of three conjoined circles is phenomenal. Yes, I'm talking about Mickey Mouse, and specifically those trademarked ears. Reading his FCBD installment, I never would've thought that he had something between those ears, but under the pen of animator/illustrator Floyd Gottfredson, Mickey was something of an idiot savant with a pinch of a bruiser to boot. This issue reprints a story that spanned six months' worth of strips in 1936, and seventy-one years later, their just as visually vibrant as ever. This guy wasn't one of Disney's founding Imagineers for nothing. Further, this epic's concept is quite ambitious: while attempting to concoct a growth formula for the plants in his garden, Mickey accidentally creates a reduction component and shrinks himself, then shortly stumbles into the illustrated adventures of a Robin Hood storybook, fighting alongside the Merry Men and rescuing one of Minnie's royal ancestors! Of course, he eventually stumbles out and regains his original height, but the parallels to Gumby's later book-hopping shtick aren't lost to me, nor is the happenstance meeting between two icons of literature that might warrant the first distinction of a "crossover!" Even before Disneyland's groundbreaking in the mid-'50s, Mickey was teaching us the value of escape. Man, those ears have it.

Fantagraphics' Unseen Peanuts is one of the most tasteful FCBD offerings of the entire bunch, respectfully sampling a compilation of heretofore "lost" Peanuts comic strips of the '50s and '60s. What Disney did on film, Charles Schultz did on newsprint, establishing a rich roster of characters that children could adore for generations, and Fantagraphics was wise enough to mine the Peanuts gangs' early years in both a scholarly yet colloquial way so readers could feel like their on the ground floor of something already too comprehensive not to investigate, if you're a fan of sequential art, anyway. These strips, which were omitted from reprints or later compilations mostly because of character or content inconsistencies and thus only appeared once as their original run, are laced with ongoing commentary by editor Kim Thompson, whose giddy yet scholarly excitement at the chance to present these little treasures is absolutely infectious. I confess, thanks to the sheer volume of strips in this issue, just a fraction of what Fantagraphics is packaging in their Complete Peanuts anthologies, I have yet to finish this collection, but only because I refuse to rush through it just for the sake of completing it. I want to carefully crack open the shells of these Peanuts and digest them thoughtfully, as Thompson intends, reveling in their innocence and enjoying their originality. In fact, based on what I've already read, I think I prefer these early strips to what we know of these characters nowadays; Schultz drew the heads more round, the bodies smaller, and captured the vitality and sometimes unmitigated violence of youth without the filters we established later in his career. Not only are we beholding youth in all its glory here, but we're watching a young artist mature with his craft. Although these inconsistencies must have plagued Schultz later in life, perfectionist that he was, considering the joy of retrospection here, it must have been a good grief. Get it?

Finally, Little Archie: Legend of the Lost Lagoon may not have been as compelling as its peers in the "iconic characters from childhood" department, but its subtle themes of sexual tension are telling of what Archie really contributed to kid-oriented comics. As his usual adolescent-self, Archie is an awkward womanizer, torn between the bookish Betty and the vivacious Veronica, and despite his inability to juggle their affections for his own gain, they always forgive him if only to maintain their unending anxiety. Little Archie is a tad more innocent, and in this adventure he and some friends (regrettably sans a li'l Jughead!) are camping and discover a lost lagoon, until then only relegating to urban myth. Of course, girls from the campsite on the other side of the river join Archie's gang to seek refuge from a storm, and in the process, the female camp counsellors become infatuated with the male chaperon, resulting in a strange scene using bandages as some metaphor for intercourse, I can only imagine. Ultimately, though I appreciate what Archie has done for comics and would insist that Aaron Spelling's adolescent soap opera empire owes much to the Riverdale clan, I wonder why "Little Archie" was blatantly called "Little Archie" throughout this issue. None of the other kids' names were preceded with "little," and how would the supporting cast know that this issue's readership would be so more familiar with Archie's older counterpart to make such a moniker-based distinction? It's a narrative flaw based in corporate identity, I'm sure, but distracting nevertheless. Thankfully, Archie didn't keep the nickname as a high school student; otherwise, I think Betty and Veronica would've had nothing to do with him.

I hope these characters' participation in Free Comic Book Day was mutually beneficial to the cause, bringing some attention to the medium's marketing opportunity and also shining a spotlight on the roles these icons have played in child-oriented entertainment. Mickey, Gumby, Charlie Brown, and Archie have been so widely known and embraced for generations that they supersede their native media, from newspaper strips and comic books to animation and claymation, and have achieved success in any incarnation -- a testament to our youth's commitment to their mission. Even if other franchises dominate pop culture in the future, this "comic quartet," alongside a few others, should be respected for paving way to a realm of imagination, a place where children of all ages can escape for a few precious moments . . . even to escape from their own impending adulthood. Something about leaping into a comic book makes even one's most suppressed inner child come out for a spell, and as these characters proclaim to their respective media, it never hurts to remember where you've come from.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm really glad you liked the Gumby book. I loved your review of it. It's nice to read something that actually analyzes the story.

shannon wheeler