1940s American popular culture produced works of breath-taking crudeness. This lumpen quality is sorely missing from present-day mass media.
While crude, berserk ideas still dominate our daily detritus, any visual imperfection or misjudgment is Photoshopped or vectorized into a conforming blandness.
Where are the "Red" Holmdales of today? I sorely wish there was material as slapdash, primitive and ill-conceived as the story we're about to share with you.
Herbert W. "Red" Holmdale was a journeyman comic book artist in the 1940s and 1950s. This article will give you a brief q.v. on Holmdale.
Holmdale's moisture-expelling, goggle-eyed characters look like something your cigar-smoking, sweaty uncle would draw on the margins of newspapers, or on napkins at a restaurant, to amuse uninterested children. His work has that All American, reg'lar feller quality also found in bus-station graffiti and high school yearbook illustrations.
Holmdale was a mainstay of the 1940s titles published by MLJ Comics. They are best known for their endless line of Archie teen comics. During WWII (the big one), MLJ struggled to find its place in the funnybook firmament. Their line of superhero comics was modestly successful--indeed, some die-hard collectors consider them hot stuff.
Although great cartoonists like Jack Cole and Mort Meskin worked for MLJ, the bulk of the company's comic book publishing was gruff, sloppy stuff, aimed at the LCD "mass market," with coherence merely a happy accident. What better place, then, for a "Red" Holmdale to ply his weary trade?
Holmdale's unsung masterwork is "Gloomy Gus," a most unusual series that appeared in the schizophrenic Top-Notch Laugh title. No other comic magazine best illustrates the market schism of wartime America. Kids wanted superheroes--this was known. They also apparently craved a "joke book" full of stereotypical goofballs. Top-Notch Laugh Comics delivered the goods.
Here's a very typical cover (by Holmdale) that shows this awkward and vain attempt to please all the kids, all the time:
For their dime, wartime kids got 68 careening pages of funnybook product. "Pokey Oakey" was a Li'l Abner imitation; "Senor Siesta" a caricatured Mexican. Other T-NL mainstays were Ed Goggin's horrendously drawn "Three Monkeyteers," effeminate high-school closet-case "Percy," private-eye spoof "Snoop McGook," cheesecake teen fun with "Suzie," and Bill Woggon's surprisingly elegant cartooning on the Western comedy "Dotty and Ditto."
For the serious side of "America's funniest joke book," MLJ offered the fallen star of The Black Hood, a masked avenger feature rendered without passion or reason.
And then there's "Gloomy Gus, the Homeless Ghost." American comics may have produced a more terminally Wrong-with-a-big-W feature, but if so it remains to be seen.
There were several screwball film comedies in the early 1940s about ghosts, death, the Hereafter and reincarnation. Here Comes Mr. Jordan or Heaven Can Wait may have inspired Holmdale to create his magnum opus.
The series' premise, perverse to its core, is easily grasped by reading this representative story, from Top-Notch Laugh #33, cover-dated February, 1943. Just read it and see for yourself:
Now, imagine yourself to be Alfred Rotella, of Long Island, New York. It's 1943. You eagerly await each new issue of Top-Notch Laugh-- specifically for "Gloomy Gus."
You are moved to write a letter to the editors of your favorite funnybook. An urge also compels you to mail in your photograph.
You wait...and wait...days pass...weeks pass...and then, one winter morning, your dream comes true. You get to tell the world how much "Gloomy Gus" means to you.
Alfred Rotella, life as you know it is now over. There are no more mountains to climb; no more rivers to ford. Step in front of the next moving streetcar and join "Gloomy Gus" in his existential top-notch laughs.