Monthly Archives: June 2016

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Look What I Found: Loyd Tireman’s Cocky

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We saw a lot of terrific things on a recent visit to the Heard Museum, a local institution here in Phoenix which focuses on Native American art, past and present. Something that really stoked my imagination could be found not in the museum, proper, but in the bookstore. Neatly lined up on a shelf, there was a group of kids’ books – colorful volumes focusing on animals of the Southwest, done in a vivid 1940s style. It was the Mesaland series: a set of seven volumes written by Loyd Tireman and published by his employer, The University of New Mexico, from 1943 to 1949. These enchanting books were brought back into print by the University press in 2015. As evidenced by Cocky, Tireman’s tale of a feisty road runner and his young family, the books are well worth checking out.

The fourth Mesaland book, Cocky (1946) takes place in a contemporary desert setting brimming with wildlife, with some intrusions by humans (like Felix Slatkin’s classic Bambi, although not quite as preachy). Cocky arrives to set up a nest with his mate, Mrs. Cocky, his odd appearance puzzling a jackrabbit named Hop-A-Long (introduced in a previous Mesaland volume). While attempting to raise chicks with Mrs. Cocky, Cocky encounters a variety of foes, including a rattlesnake and a hunting human. He also sneaks into a farm’s chicken coop to pilfer some food, annoying a hot-blooded rooster. Tireman, a long-tenured professor of elementary education, makes the story both educational and entertaining. The story is fairly realistic and attuned to how real animals behave – like Bambi, it’s not sugar-coated. Having lived and worked in New Mexico for so long (32 years at the University alone), Tireman imbues the story with the ambiance of the Southwestern desert – something totally unprecedented in the ’40s!

All of the Mesaland books are enlivened by dynamic, Dr. Seuss-ish artwork from Ralph Douglass, one of Tireman’s colleagues at the University. Along with Cocky, the series included Baby Jack and Jumping Rabbit, Hop-a-Long (both about rabbits), Dumbee (focusing on a bee!), Big Fat (a groundhog), Quills (a porcupine) and 3 Toes (a wolf).

The reprinted Mesaland volumes are unabridged and nicely bound as compact, dust jacket-free hardbacks. The original two-color printing is done a bit differently in the 2015 books as a standard four-color process, a difference which likely will be only noticed by graphic designers. Cocky can be purchased at the University of New Mexico website, or at Amazon.com. Since the original books have long gone out of print, commanding high prices on the used market, it’s excellent that these wonderful books are back on shelves.

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Slip Me a Mickey, or Two

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I love vintage newspaper comic strips, their rich visual language, and what they say about the period they were printed in. When it comes to re-introducing vintage comics to a new audience, Fantagraphics is one of the best – repackaging often overlooked strips in handsome bound volumes with expert commentary and historic tidbits. In 2011, they teamed up with the Disney company to take on the task of republishing their Mickey Mouse daily comic strip from its classic 1930s era onward. It’s a fabulous project, still ongoing (the ninth volume, Rise of the Rhyming Man, publishes this month). I’d even go as far as to pronounce first volume, Race to Death Valley, as the best book of this type I’ve ever seen. Although I’ve been reading and collecting Fantagraphic’s Complete Peanuts books since they first came out in 2005, the quality of the the first two Mickey volumes has prompted me to switch (besides, Charles M. Schulz, bless his soul, got kind of safe and bland by the mid-’70s).

Probably the most significant thing these Mickey Mouse books does is to put the name of its artist and writer, Floyd Gottfredson, front and center. Although Walt Disney himself drew the first Mickey strips from the late ’20s, he eventually came to rely on a team of men to write and draw the strip –despite Disney’s unique signature printed on every installment. Initially hired as an in-betweener in Disney’s animation department, Gottfredson quickly appealed to the boss to take over duties on the daily strip. Disney waved his magic wand and granted Gottfredson his wish in 1930. Smart move on Disney’s part – the then 25 year-old Gottfredson ended up guiding the Mickey Mouse strip for a full 45 years! That’s nearly as long a tenure as what Charles M. Schulz had with Peanuts.

Gottfredson truly put a lot of vivacity and spunk into the Mickey comic, complementing the rodent’s screen image as the scrappy underdog with a heart of gold. The cartoonist transformed what had been a standard gag-a-day format into a thrilling adventure, with broad, character-filled stories which would unfold for months at a time. His first important story was Mickey Mouse in Death Valley, which had Mickey and Minnie Mouse on a frantic search for a desert gold mine belonging to Minnie’s wealthy uncle. In typical Depression-era fashion, they’re pursued by colorful heavies, including crooked lawyer Sylvester Shyster and his dumb henchman Pegleg Pete, along with a mysterious figure known as The Fox. It’s a rollicking tale, with each panel brimming with wonderful details (did Gottfredson slip in a white-haired cousin of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit?). In other stories, Mickey takes on a fearsome cat boxer named Creamo Catnera (a play on real-life champ Primo Carnera), becomes a roustabout at a circus, and tussles with a band of greedy gypsies. In the latter story, Mickey and Minnie’s friends Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow take on a prominent role. I love how Horace and Clarabelle are the pragmatic older couple pals of impetuous Mickey and Minnie – sadly, their prominence in the Disney cartoons and comics would diminish as the ’30s went on.

Each Fantagraphics Mickey Mouse volume highlights Gottfredson’s best stories from a certain period, in chronological order. While Race to Death Valley covers the years 1930-31 (overlapping into the first week of 1932), the next volume, Trapped on Treasure Island, picks up where the previous one left off, reprinting strips from January 1932 up through the first week in 1934. I purchased both of these volumes at a great discount at Daedalus books. They’re also available via Fantagraphics’s website and (of couse) at Amazon.com.

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