söndag 20 maj 2012

Otto Soglow: Cartoon Monarch. Otto Soglow and the Little King

IDW has done it again; published a thick volume reprinting an American classic comic strip. This time, it's Otto Soglow's "The Little King". At first, the completist in me was rather disappointed that they had decided to do a "selected strips" (or, more precisely, "selected Sunday pages") volume -- albeit a 430-page "selected strips" volume -- instead of a "complete works" but for reasons I'll get more into later, I think that was the right choice.

Jared Gardner has written an excellent foreword, a very informative essay about Soglow's life and career, from his early years in the recent-immigrants neighborhood Yorkville on Manhattan in 1900 as a child of Jewish German immigrants. His father was a house painter and his mother got occasional household jobs. Otto grew up with youth gangs and movies, which he loved. He had to help provide for his family from his early teens, but soon found that he wanted something more than the menial jobs available in Yorkville. He was way too short to get a job in the movies, med he loved drawing, so...

He got a job painting flowers on baby rattles and did evening studies at the Art Students League of New York. Then, he started to get cartoons published in leftist magazines like The New Masses in a dark, heavy style.

Meanwhile, The New Yorker was founded in 1925, and editor Harold Ross wanted to distinguish its look from other, similar magazines by using a simpler, more modernist style of cartooning. Soglow was in the process of simplifying his style, and found a place at the new magazine with his new style and his somewhat surrealistic cartoons. By 1930, Soglow had made a name for himself, and was getting job offers. In 1930, the Little King also made his first appearance in the pages of The New Yorker. As Gardner puts it, "the Little King in The New Yorker played on the surprise of seeing a man with all the privilege and power in the world longing for a simple life of beer and dancehalls".

The Little King was a hit, and comics lover and King Features Syndicate owner William Randolph Hearst noticed. Also, at the time, comics advertising was starting to take off, which was a potential lucrative source of money. Soglow got an offer from Hearst, created a similar strip called The Ambassador until he'd be free of contractual Little King obligations to The New Yorker a year later, and launched The Little King in September 1934.

There's more to the foreword than that, but I can't jolly well steal it all for a blogpost. It's well worth reading, though, so do seek it out.

So why am I quite content with merely a representative collection of The Little King strips instead of a complete, multi-volume collection? Because it isn't all that great a strip.

Don't get me wrong – it's consistently amusing, like when the king joins a riot against the king so's to not be recognized as the King, when he commands out the Gurads so's he can have a full-scale snowball-war,  or when he, leading a parade, gets himself a can to kick down the street, etc. Also, Soglow, much like Ernie Bushmiller, seems to go out of his way to make his gags as visual as possible. However, the king-as-regular-guy-or-going-against-expectations-of-his-high-office basis of the strip doesn't hold for the full 428 pages for me, and Soglow's style is a tad too simple for my tastes – while I love the simplicity of a strip like Peanuts, Schulz had a dynamc, lively ink line that Soglow lacks. Thus, there isn't anything other than the gags to liven up the strip, and sometime around page 300, they weren't enough for me anymore.

Ookle the Dictator is more cartoonish than evil. August, 1940.

There is however a rather interesting sequence of pages starting in May 1940, when a junkman named Ookle plays cards with the diminutive monarch and wins the kingdom from him. From then on, he titles himself "Ookle the dictator" and starts bossing the king around. Later, his role seems to be downgraded to that of a high official in his majesty's government, but the strips where there is genuine conflict between the two are probably the most interesting of the book, with their connection to the current events at the time.

Anyway, worth reading because it is a classic, and for Jared Gardner's excellent foreword. So big thanks to IDW for their consistently high quality reprints of old classics!

(Here is a more enthusiastic review of the book.)

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