Thursday, March 26, 2009

Jumbo Size Henry

We are pleased to offer you an unknown gem of 1960s comics. Henry Brewster was among a handful of titles published by Myron Fass in the mid-1960s.
Fass seemed to have a yen for Golden Age comic book creators. He published Fat-man, the Human Flying Saucer, a series by C. C. Beck and Otto Binder (who worked together on the classic 1940s Captain Marvel series), and even illegally used that character's name for another short-lived title.

Confusingly titled Jumbo Size Henry on its cover, the Henry Brewster title was drawn (and presumably written) by journeyman comics stylist Bob Powell.

Powell had been in the comics biz since the late 1930s. He had done it all--superheros, horror, aviation, adventure, war, romance, crime. Perhaps the only comic book genre untouched by Bob Powell was "funny animal."

Powell was at the end of his life when he took on this series. He had just been through a misfired stint with Marvel Comics. Powell's atmospheric, highly distinctive work suffered at the hands of inept scripters and, worst of all, heavy-handed, insensitive inkers--one of the unforgivable banes of "The Marvel Age of Comics."

He did his best to breathe much-needed life into such second-string features as "Giant Man" and "The Human Torch." Powell was too much the idiosyncratic stylist to fit into the Marvel way of life.

Powell also did jobs for Topps Chewing Gum, the outfit which also exploited master painter Norman Saunders, and employed underground cartoonists such as Art Spiegelman, Jay Lynch and Bill Griffith to create their trend-setting Wacky Packages parody stickers. (I have worked on this series, too--but that's for another post entirely!)

It appears that Powell was left completely to his own devices in the creation of Henry Brewster. Presented here is the second issue, cover-dated April, 1966. Powell worked on its contents in the fall of 1965, at the latest. The book would have been on newsstands before the end of '65.

There is an interesting story that accompanies this particular copy of the comic--still the only issue I've seen to date. It was part of a large lot of teen-age comics offered on eBay. I bid on the lot to obtain two issues of John Stanley's great Dunc 'n' Loo comic book. One of these was in particularly nice shape. The remainder of the lot was just along for the ride, in my opinion.

I won the lot for a very fair price, sent in my payment (to Canada)... and waited, waited and waited.

The seller became increasingly embarrassed and apologetic as it became clear the parcel of funnybooks was lost in the international mails. After three or four months, my payment was refunded in full. We both expressed regret that the beautiful VF+ (that's comic-nerd talk for "very fine plus," a state of condition close to the revered "mint"--a very nice copy, by anyone's standards) issue of Dunc 'n' Loo was lost to the ages.

I wasn't out any money. The loss of the two comics was sad, but life has a tendency to go on, inanimate objects be damned.

Nine months later, a battered, frazzled parcel showed up in my mailbox. It was covered with bi-lingual postal stickers, each peppered with rubber-stampings and smeared, indecipherable scrawls.

The comics had, almost a year to the day after the auction had closed, finally found their way to me. Inside the parcel, they were no worse for the wear, having been well-packed by their shipper.

I had lost track of this eBay seller. After the seeming end of the transaction, I deleted all our emails. I couid not find him among the many people in my feedbacks. This case was well and truly closed.

I was happy to have the two Dunc 'n' Loos. The stack of comics was, largely, forgettable stuff--Charlton teen titles, bland Dells, and so on. Near the bottom of the stack was the Jumbo Size Henry.

The comic's cover is quite crude. Its composition is awkward, the rendering primitive and the mild gag blunted by poor grammar. Just another dumb '60s teen comic, I thought...
Then I noticed the POWELL signature on the green shopping bag. This encouraged me to look inside.

I found an eccentric, visually innovative piece of comix storytelling. Its 40 pages of interior story and art, apparently all from Powell's hand, infuses a tired genre with wry, understated humor and adds some stunning new tools to the vocabulary of comix.

This is least apparent in the rather conventional opening story, "Don't Monkey With Me." Powell plays it straight, as if to warm up the reader for the fireworks of the subsequent stories.

Powell the writer chooses, notably, not to condescend to his teenage audience, but to understand them. He is contemptuous of the content of '60s pop music, but sympathetic to the plight of young people. The second and third tiers of Page Two thoughtfully and wistfully depict the frustating limitations faced by teenagers--then and now.

The story uses a celebrity caricature--Peter Noone, pint-sized, cuddly singer of the successful British pop group Herman's Hermits. Powell makes "Sherman the Hermit" an apparent American, rather than a Brit, but the caricature is unmistakable--it's almost photographic.

The story's charm relies on the vigor of its well-timed dialogue--and on the eerie, remarkable stylization of Powell's cartooning. He uses a bold blend of cartoony faces and realistically-proportioned bodies. The mixture is sometimes sloppy, but it consistently works.

"Weenie the Dancer" lets some eccentric touches into the mix. The last panel of its third page uses a common comix device--the double-take--as smarmy wanna-be bad-guy Lester reacts to his girlfriend Melody's indifference.

On page four, we see some startling temporal twists. The second panel condenses three incidents into one frame, and arranges them in such a way that the eye follows their kinetic path. This effect is remarkable--in how it conveys a chain of events, and how efficiently it conserves story space.

In the next frame, we see another innovation--one that will distinguish this book. Lester does a modified "triple take"--a device in which Powell depicts the passage of time, as a character's mood shifts as a result of the effects of his or her actions on others.

This is as brilliant a device as anything done by Bernard Krigstein. I have never seen anyone else attempt this effect in the hundreds of thousands of comics I have studied over three decades-plus.

These touches are squandered on an otherwise slight story. Yet Powell's unusual visual devices remain inspirational for even the most outre experimental cartoonists.

"A Shot In Time" features the series' stand-in for the big, bulky, none-too-bright athletic type always found in these teen comics. Animal is unique among his character type. Pensive and extremely soft-spoken (his dialogue is lettered about six point sizes smaller than other characters'), Animal is a genuinely interesting individual.

As with most of Powell's cast, Animal seems likely to exist in the real world. Powell's investment in his characters, coupled with witty writing that never goes for cheap laughs, works particularly well in this amusing double narrative.

Note the stacatto dialogue on page five, panel five, and the graceful passage-of-time tableaux in the center panel of page seven. This story also succeeds in its array of caricatural styles.

The next two stories repeat the established formula of rapid-fire comedic dialogue, crisp, eccentric cartooning and temporal-formal devices. "One Of A Kind" includes a quadruple-take on its fourth page, and another character's striking emotional transformation at the end of its fifth page.

"The Animal Takes a Flyer" is a short story that reverts to ordinary comics forms.

The final story, "A Good Skate," is the book's strongest narrative. Powell plays with expressive extreme "takes" that show the white-knuckle exasperation and panic of certain characters. In another formal innovation, page eight's second panel depicts a series of spoken words as if each is written on a cascading bit of yellow notepaper. Here's another device I've not seen anyone else use.

Powell's innovations are worthy of study by today's cartoonists. They are examples of how to uplift comics narratives with simple but dazzling devices that serve the story.

None of these six stories are masterpieces of plot, character or prose. Yet they work far beyond generic expectations. Powell was confident enough, as a master cartoonist, that he could bend the conventions of teen comics to include some pretty radical formal devices--and yet make them work as drivers of the characters and stories.

Powell's few issues of Henry Brewster are among his final works. Powell died of cancer in 1967 at age 50. Had he lived another decade or two, I wonder what he would have done with these fascinating devices. Would he have continued to work in the shadows of the comics field--in teen titles, romance books, war comics, horror comics? Very likely. His style was not in sync with the growing realism of super-hero artwork.

This late work shows that he had some tremendously strong ideas on how to shape and reshape the comics form. I wish someone had been listening to these notes in a bottle. Over 40 years later, this remains fascinating work. We hope you find it of great interest.

--Frank M. Young