Saturday, March 7, 2009

Sheldon Mayer Bliss

Sheldon Mayer was in on the ground floor of the American comic book's creation. He was also among its earliest creators and editors.

It has become fashionable in comics-art circles to bash Mayer, condemn his work as primitive and infantile, and, in general, banish him from the pantheon of American comics creators.

This is foolishness, plain and simple, and it must stop at once.

Mayer's contributions to the American comic book run far and deep. Without him, Superman might have remained on the slush pile of history. Without him, comics would have lacked its first autobiographical, comics-about-comics feature, Scribbly (which, as well, contained the first outright lampoon of the super-hero genre in its "Red Tornado" character).

As editor, Mayer shaped the destinies of some of the most popular and enduring super-hero characters: Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and the Justice Society of America. He recruited such vibrant artists as Irwin Hasen, Alex Toth, Joe Kubert and Carmine Infantino to work in comics.

Much of the comics Mayer edited are competent, commercial stuff--pleasant reading if you're in the right mood. His titles, with the exception of the eccentric, demented Wonder Woman, increasingly stressed humor and character over standard heroics. Yet little of this work is truly memorable.

Mayer's most important work was as cartoonist and writer. His Scribbly feature, which began at Dell Comics in 1936, and continued at National/DC/All- American until 1944, is among the finest work of early American comics--newspaper strips included!

Mayer's demands as an editor eventually eclipsed his creative work. In 1944, Mayer's wing of National/DC split off into its own imprint. For a year or so, former DC titles such as Flash Comics, Sensation Comics, All-American Comics, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, All-Flash, All-Star Comics, Comics Cavalcade and the first of a new series of funny-animal humor titles went to press under the All-American aegis.

In 1944 Mayer's Scribbly ended its long run in issue 59 of All-American. Mayer was left with the increasingly stressful job of editing a large line of popular comics titles. He was a fine, if hot-tempered editor.

Legendary stories abound about Mayer's hair-trigger temper. Artists and writers were regularly reamed out by editor Mayer. Inked comic book pages were ripped to shreds before startled artists' eyes; writers were bullied, and told their work was utter crap.

Mayer was obviously not a happy camper in these years. As a journeyman editor of several newspapers and magazines, I can tell you this: editing is stressful and thankless work. The best editorial work appears to be invisible. The last person attention goes to is the editor of a newspaper or a magazine.

The grind never ends. There is never a moment to stop and reflect. A project is put to bed while its successor one begins to take shape.

An editor of periodicals often feels a lack of permanence. The meticulous work that kept an editor up all night for four nights running ends up lining a cat's litter box, or is quickly chucked into the recycle bin. No one keeps it (except for nuts like us); no one remembers it (except for nuts like us).

Mayer would not cartoon again until 1949, when he quit as editor and returned as cartoonist-writer. He would continue to create comics until his death in 1991. Among his most important post-war work was a brilliant revival of Scribbly, initially as comics' first attempted graphic novel; a series of intense, vaudevillian funny-animal stories, including a retooling of an earlier series, The Three Mousketeers; and Sugar & Spike, which debuted as a charming, gentle humor title and shifted into a wildly imaginative, baroque comedy-adventure title with loopy, excitable book-length stories.

There is one exception to this creative drought. Mayer comandeered an entire issue of his funny-animal title.
Funny Stuff's fifth issue was by Sheldon Mayer, cover-to-cover. His cartooning was a bit rusty. He wouldn't become adept at drawing funny-animal characters until 1951 or so.

If cartooning lacked polish, it glowed with sheer vaudevillian chutzpah. Mayer felt obliged to give his readers an explanation of this unforeseen outburst of comics creativity:

There's something heart-breaking about Mayer's humble justification-slash-introduction. As if such a talented cartoonist needed to apologize for having the urge to draw comics!

While the 52-page issue is consistently strong, its lead feature eclipses all else.

With it, Mayer created one of the first pieces of metacomix--a sort of funny-animal Rashomon that bursts the tentative fourth wall with strong comedic intent.

This six-page story abounds with great ideas, none of which I wish to spoil. Please, go ahead and read the story...

There may have been comics (particularly newspaper comics) that breached the fourth wall between fictional creation and flesh-and-blood audience. I think it's safe to say that no comic-book cartoonist had, before this story, used this device solely for comedic intent. (Please, correct me if I'm wrong!)

Will Eisner, Simon & Kirby and Jack Cole burst this bubble as a matter of course in their early comic-book work. In their hands, the effect was meant to engage the reader and drive the frantic pace of their largely-serious narratives.

Mayer employs a brilliant device at story's start: the splash page is protested by its star.

For this notion, Mayer may have been inspired by animated cartoons that used this device. Warner Brothers and MGM cartoons directed by Fred "Tex" Avery, from 1935 on, teem with this device. Characters routinely criticize the progress (or lack thereof) in their cartoons, kvetch about the titles, demand that the story be rethought and restarted.

That's exactly what Mayer does here. J. Rufus Lion orders a new second splash page, and a story that casts him as a heroic figure.

After Rufus has gotten this out of his system, his giraffeoid pal tells his version of the story.

In this second telling, Rufus is no hero. Drunk on "nerve tonic," and barely able to walk, Rufus suffers a humiliating fall into an elevator shaft.

Mayer's humor is earthy and swarmy. We see who J. Rufus Lion really is--a pitiable sot of limited circumstances. This is all rather graphic and adult for a supposed kiddie comic.

Rufus bitches about this tell-it-like-it-is remake, but it's too late. The story's over, and the characters must surrender the space to the next feature.

The story's lack of resolution is genuinely surprising. Comics of 1945 were all about closure and strict structure (or stricture). This story is wide-open, sloppy, meandering, and composed of a fierce energy that comes out of nowhere.

I wonder if many readers wrote in with pro or con reactions to Mayer's self-confessed "yen to sit down and draw pictures." Mayer did no more significant cartooning for another four years.

As one of comics' most vivid cries from the wilderness, Sheldon Mayer's renegade issue of Funny Stuff deserves to be better-known. It's a lost treasure of early funnybook history.

We're pleased to bring it out of the darkness and give this grungy, hilarious lowlife cartooning the attention it so richly deserves.

- Posted by Frank Young