8 Past Masters of Child-Friendly Comics That You Really Ought to Introduce to Your Little Ones
1. Carl Barks (1901-2000)
What Kirby did for superheroes, Barks did for ducks. Long praised as one of the most important comic artists of the 20th century, Barks spent most of his working life toiling in anonymity; it was only in the 1970s, after his retirement, that fans discovered Barks was the “good duck artist” behind hundreds of stories starring Donald Duck, Scrooge McDuck, the Beagle Boys and all the other denizens of Duckburg. From 1943 to 1966, Barks sent Donald and friends to the ends of the world (and sometimes beyond), often in search of fantastical treasures to add to the pile of riches sitting in Uncle Scrooge’s cavernous money bin. His fanciful depictions of mythical creatures, lost civilizations and far-flung locales inspired millions of young readers, including two tots named George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who freely admitted the idea for the rolling-boulder booby trap in Raiders of the Lost Ark came from a 1954 Uncle Scrooge comic.
Where to find his work: Barks’ stories from Uncle Scrooge and Walt Disney Comics & Stories have been reprinted several times over the years; one of the most recent, The Complete Carl Barks Disney Library from Fantagraphics, will include about 6,000 pages of art spread over roughly 30 volumes when it’s complete.
2. Bob Bolling (b. 1928)
As if being chased by two attractive women throughout his adolescence wasn’t good enough, Archie’s youth was jam-packed full of adventures involving aliens, pirates, and the world-dominating schemes of a mad scientist named Doctor Doom (no, not that one). He can thank Bob Bolling for that. The former Navy man started freelancing for Archie Comics in 1954, where his knack for drawing children led to work on strips like Pat the Brat; when publisher John Goldwater decided to launch a comic starring Archie and the gang as kids, he naturally turned to Bolling. From 1957 to 1965, Bolling worked exclusively on Little Archie (the title character was always called that, even by the other kids in the strip), writing, drawing, inking and lettering half the stories in each quarterly issue. One issue could see Little Archie flying off to Mars, while the next could be a sentimental tear-jerker about nothing more than two kids making their way home. Bolling still draws for Archie today, but his work on Little Archie will likely be what he’ll be most remembered for. Or as Jaime Hernandez of Love and Rockets fame once put it, “He would draw lone silhouettes off in the distance, and they seemed so lonely it made me want to cry. We’ve been trying to write stories like that ever since, trying to convey those feelings that he put into those stories.”
Where to find his work: Any decent collection of Archie digests should include a mix of original and reprinted work by Bolling; Archie Comics has also reprinted many of Bolling’s classic Little Archie stories in a series of trade paperbacks titled The Adventures of Little Archie.
3. Walt Kelly (1913-73)
Walt Kelly is not a name that a lot of younger comic fans would recognize, and that’s a shame. Kelly was one of the true superstars in the newspaper comic strip business; his 26-year strip, Pogo, ran in 500 newspapers in 14 countries at the height of its popularity, and the titular possum and other inhabitants of the Okefenokee Swamp have been credited by other creative types (like Bill Watterson and Jim Henson) as major influences on their work. But before all that, Pogo first appeared in 1942’s Animal Comics #1, one of the many childrens’ comics that Kelly illustrated for Dell Comics. After he spent a few years as an animator for Walt Disney on films like Dumbo and Fantasia, Kelly moved into comic books, where he produced such stories as “Prince Robin and the Dwarfs” in titles like Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, Santa Claus Funnies, Our Gang Comics and Uncle Wiggily. Pogo’s success led Kelly to take him into the more lucrative world of newspaper comic strips in 1949, and the rest is history.
Where to find his work: A number of books collecting Kelly’s Pogo work have been published over the years; a Fantagraphics box set in 2012 collected the strip’s first four years of dailies and the initial first three years of full-color Sunday strips. Kelly stories that have fallen out of copyright can also be downloaded for free in the Dell section of The Digital Comics Museum.
4. Sheldon Mayer (1917-91)
Sheldon Mayer started out as one of the first employees of National Allied Publications (later DC), making him one of the first contributors of original material to comic books. And if that weren’t enough to secure his place in history, he’s also credited as the editor who rescued a rejected strip called “Superman” from the slush pile in 1938. So what does a guy like that do for an encore? Only create one of most adorable strips starring nonsense-speaking tykes ever invented. Mayer retired from editing in 1948 to devote himself full-time to cartooning; Sugar and Spike, his biggest success, ran from 1956 to 1971. Sugar Plumm and Cecil “Spike” Wilson could walk but not talk, and communicated in a baby language that only they and other babies could understand. Anyone reared up on Rugrats (for which Sugar and Spike was an obvious forerunner) will enjoy picking up any issue from the run, which is just as much a reading delight for grown-ups as it is for the wee ones, if only because the book acknowledged a universal truth: a smart, bossy female like Sugar will always be able to wrap a poor sap like Spike around her finger.
Where to find his work: DC published a hardcover “DC Archives” edition in 2011 that reprinted the first 10 issues of Sugar and Spike. DC and Mayer had an agreement, unusual for the time, that no one except him could write Sugar and Spike stories, so official DC reprints and the occasional cameo in a modern-day comic book are the best you can hope for if you’re craving some Sugar (and Spike).
5. John Stanley (1914-93)
John Stanley didn’t come up with Little Lulu; that was Marjorie Henderson Buell, who created the mischievous girl in 1935 when the Saturday Evening Post lost the popular Henry cartoon to a competitor. Nine years later, Buell and the Post parted ways; the first comic book starring Little Lulu appeared a year later, in 1945. Stanley, with Buell’s blessing, took the ball and ran with it, writing the Little Lulu comic for 14 years — about 150 issues, all told — as well as drawing the covers and the first handful of issues (artists Irving Tripp and Charles Hedinger were tasked with finishing Stanley’s rough sketches). Under Stanley’s watch, Little Lulu’s world grew exponentially, with an entire neighborhood of kids and well-meaning adults filling the pages; a typical story might find Lulu and her friend Annie scheming to “teach the fellers a lesson” or outwit the tough kids in the West Side Gang (or even worse, avoid the clutches of Truant Officer McNabbem). POSSIBLE THESIS TOPIC ALERT: Tubby: Inspiration for South Park’s Eric Cartman or no? I think a very convincing case could be made for the yes side; if anyone happens to know Matt and Trey, would you mind asking them on my behalf?
Where to find his work: The Little Lulu Library was a collection of 18 hardcover volumes published by Another Rainbow Publishing between 1985 and 1992; more recently, Dark Horse has published a series of “Giant Size Little Lulu” paperbacks for modern readers.
6. George Carlson (1887-1962)
A lot of the comic-book pioneers in the 1930s and ’40s weren’t much older than the kids they wrote for; George Carlson, by comparison, got into the business relatively late in his career. A commercial illustrator and cartoonist, Carlson was 55 when he began writing and illustrating Jingle Jangle Comics, a book unlike anything else that appeared at that time. Intended for small children, Jingle Jangle Comics was a “comic of the absurd,” as sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison wrote in a 1970 essay about Carlson’s work — and for 42 issues (1942-49), Carlson did two series in the book: “Jingle Jangle Tales” and “The Pie-Face Prince of Pretzelburg.” Carlson’s stories weren’t big on plot (or anything else that suggested order or logic), but he had an amazing gift for constantly throwing absurdities at the reader, both in the form of wordplay and ridiculous non sequitur images. Or as comic book scholar Michael Barrier once put it, “Carlson functioned best when he improvised — that is, free-associated — incident upon incident to an ending, rather in the manner of small children playing an adventure game among themselves, and making it up as they go along.”
Where to find his work: Perfect Nonsense: Chaotic Comics and Goofy Games of George Carlson, coming out next month, is the first book that I’m aware of that focuses on Carlson and his work; samples of his Jingle Jangle stories can also be found in A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, in which I found Barrier’s quote.
7. Georges “Hergé” Remi (1907–1983)
Originally conceived as an adventure strip for a Christian newspaper’s insert for children, the earliest stories of Georges Remi’s Tintin were basically extended chase scenes punctuated with poor jokes and slapdash art. But Remi (who signed his work Hergé, the French pronunciation of his reversed initials) got better and his fourth album, Cigars of the Pharaoh, was a huge leap forward in quality, introducing the villainous Rastapopoulos and inept detectives Thompson and Thomson. In all, Hergé produced 23 Tintin books between 1929 and 1983, and they have gone on to sell more than 200 million copies and inspire movies, musicals, parodies and even museum exhibits to Hergé’s genius. Why have so many been entranced by the adventures of a boy journalist and his dog in faraway lands? Maybe because the stories have a little something for everyone: awe-inspiring art and adventure for the kids, political satire for politically minded types, slapstick for those of us in need of a laugh. And anyone who doesn’t agree Captain Haddock is the greatest sea captain of all time is a “miserable molecule of mildew” — and you can quote me!
Where to find his work: Pick a bookstore, any bookstore. If it’s worth your patronage, it has a decent collection of Tintin books for sale.
8. Warren Kremer (1921-2003)
The story goes something like this: Harvey editor Sid Jacobson was frustrated by the poor design of most comics in the late 1940s, so he brought in Kremer — who had more than a decade of experience at that time — to bring a more animation-friendly look to his line. Clearly, he liked what he saw, as that was the start of a 35-year relationship between Kremer and Harvey that only ended when Harvey Comics ceased publishing in 1982. Kremer created or refined many of Harvey’s best-known characters, including Casper the Friendly Ghost, Wendy the Good Little Witch, Hot Stuff the Little Devil, Little Audrey, Stumbo the Giant and Richie Rich (a Kremer co-creation who can lay claim to starring in more individual comic stories than any other, except maybe Archie). Soon after he started at Harvey, all other artists in Harvey’s humour stable were instructed to emulate Kremer’s style as best as they could. How well-respected was Kremer by his peers? According to one Internet source, artist Marie Severin said this when Kremer once visited Marvel’s bullpen: “They don’t know it, but this is the best artist who ever walked through these doors.”
Where to find his work: Dark Horse published a series of Harvey Comics Classics during the past decade highlighting much of Kremer’s work; aside from that, there hasn’t been (as far as I know) a book focusing specifically on Kremer’s career.