Thursday 23 January 2020

Retro Hugos 1945: Best Graphic Stories

Over the past 75 years, few types of storytelling have evolved more than the graphic story. This is
Top picks for comic books
published in 1944:
1) Superman #30
2) Plastic Man #2
3) Donald Duck - Mad Chemist
4) The Spirit - Clara Defoe
(Image via
evident in form, style, marketing, writing, and content. The stories told in 1944 are much shorter than modern comics, often just eight to 15 pages per story, with multiple stories in an individual edition of a comic book. In addition, the pages are significantly denser, with more exposition packed into a given comic panel.

It’s difficult not to see these differences when revisiting contenders for the Best Graphic Story of 1944, which likely presents a barrier for many audiences. That said, it can also give us perspective into which artists and writers were pushing the medium forward at that time.

Having quit Disney animation the year before, a then little-known writer and artist Carl Barks had begun producing the first Donald Duck stories to be first-published in print (rather than originating as film). His dynamic layouts, deceptively simple figure work, and effective use of paneling in story pacing quickly made his work stand out. Contractually unable to sign his name to any comics he produced, for two decades Barks was known to the public simply as “the good duck artist” of Donald Duck.

Two of the classic stories of Barks’ 20-year-run on Donald Duck were published in late 1944, the
second of these “The Mad Chemist” is both the more memorable and the more science fictional. The plot sees Donald developing super-genius intellect, inventing a new chemical, and travelling to the moon. While the layouts are less dynamic than Barks’ experiments of just a year later, you can already see him chafing against the constraints of the medium. In 1999, The Comics Journal ranked Barks’ run on Donald Duck as seventh on their list of the 100 greatest comics of the 20th century, and it is difficult to argue with this assessment.

Another of the great comic creators of the era, Will Eisner, had his career interrupted by the Second World War. In his absence, publisher Quality Comics brought in Hugo-shortlisted author Manly Wade Wellman to script with Lou Fine doing pencils of their top-selling book The Spirit (which still bore Eisner’s name). The results are a mixed bag, though the July and September editions of the book contain stories worth noting. I’m likely to include “For the Love of Clara Defoe” on my ballot.

Carl Barks' classic Donald Duck comics
have been endlessly reprinted, and for
good reason!
(Image via
Fearing for the fate of their business in Eisner’s absence, Quality had also hired a young creator named Jack Cole, whose most famous creation Plastic Man was given his own comic book in 1943. Due to wartime paper shortages, only one edition of the Plastic Man solo book hit the shelves in 1944, but his adventures continued to appear in the anthology book Police Comics.

Cole’s effervescent visual imagination and dynamic pencil work redefines what was thought possible in a comic book. As puts it, “These stories helped invent the tools and style that would push comics forward throughout the 1950s, and are still a lot of fun today.”

There are so many great Plastic Man works to choose from that year and it’s hard to narrow it down to a single issue. Police Comics 31 offers us a great story about the wartime draft, in issue 34 Plastic Man is forced to take a nonviolent approach to in a metafictional narrative about appeasing his censors. In terms of narrative construction and art, these works hold up better today than almost anything else published that year. For my ballot, I’ll have the only issue of Plastic Man’s solo book that was published that year; “The Gay Nineties Nightmare” shows better use of colour, more dynamic layouts, and a willingness to work text into the frame that would inspire countless imitators over the decades.

Throughout the 1940s, the most popular comic book on the market remained Captain Marvel Adventures. The success of last year’s Shazam! movie, based on these comics, shows why this character has enduring appeal; the childlike glee of Otto Binder’s creations, the celebration of the families that we build for ourselves, and the empowerment of the underprivileged and strong themes that still resonate.

Despite being one of the best-loved Captain Marvel stories of the era, long-running serial “The
As an aside, if I had my druthers,
the 1945 story that introduced Black Adam
would have been granted a Retro Hugo,
but since the 1946 Retros were handed out
in 1996 prior to the creation of
the Best Graphic Story category,
that is not possible.
(Image via Comic Book Herald)
Monster Society Of Evil
,” which ran for two years in Captain Marvel Adventures, has significant flaws (including depictions of Japanese Americans and Africans). This makes it a difficult inclusion on a ballot, though it also pushed the genre forward, being one of the first examples of long-form storytelling in American comic books. Though it’s lesser-known, the short but delightful romp “Dr. Sivana’s Twin” from issue #59 is likely to be on my ballot.

Possibly my top pick for the Retro Best Graphic Story trophy is Superman #30, which introduces us to classic villain Mr. Mxyztplk. This is a memorable story about an extradimensional prankster who torments Superman, and would turn up numerous times over the decades (eventually killing Superman in Alan Moore’s 1986 two-part story “What Ever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow.”)

Mxyztplk’s (that’s not a spelling error, later writers changed the name to Mxyzptlk) reality-warping powers provide Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel with an opportunity to play with the medium. The story ends with a weird abruptness, and Joe Shuster’s art is a bit stiff compared with some of the other artists working in that era, but the playfulness of the story and joy of scenes where Mxyzptlk animates an ambulance make it a classic gem.

As a category in the Retro Hugos, Best Graphic Story presents larger barriers than many other categories. In part because of the evolution of the medium, and in part because so many of the classic stories have been reinterpreted so often that modern audiences might be far more familiar with wildly divergent versions of what was originally published. I would urge those nominating to at least take a look at the original stories before nominating and voting.

No comments:

Post a Comment