Borrowing Richard Outcault

Richard F. OutcaultSometime in 1995, when I was trying to complete the long-postponed second novel (working title: Walter’s Ghost; final title: Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies) in what I was hoping eventually would be a trilogy of novels about the imaginary Derby Dugan comic strip and the cartoonists who produced it across the twentieth century, I was invited to contribute a short essay about Richard F. Outcault to Inks: Cartoon and Comic Art Studies, an academic journal published by Ohio State University. The issue that my piece appeared in–Volume 2, No. 3, November 1995–was keyed to the centennial of the first newspaper appearance of Outcault’s seminal comic-strip character, The Yellow Kid. Obviously (and flatteringly), the editors had read my first Derby Dugan novel, Funny Papers and knew that not only was Derby Dugan based on the Yellow Kid, but that Derby’s creator, Georgie Wreckage, was based, in large measure, on Richard Outcault. I wasn’t given a very high word-count, as you’ll see; even so I was tickled to appear (my first and still only time) in a “scholarly” publication, although my contribution has nary a footnote, and no bibliography.

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131016_12PANEL_RadiumGirls-01.jpg.CROP.original-originalLate last June (2013), I got an email one day from the cartoonist James Sturm who runs the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont, a place I’ve visited and spoken at on two very happy occasions. “This fall,” James wrote, “CCS and Slate will be debuting a weekly feature called 12 Panel Pitch. If you’ve ever wanted to indulge in the tropes that define Hollywood filmmaking (without having to subject yourself to the humiliations of that process) perhaps you’d consider writing a 12 panel comic? You can approach the work sincerely or as a parody but readers should be able to instinctively recognize the genre of film you’re crafting, and expand on your boiled down script/story with their internalized libraries of clichés and fantasies.” Well, of course I wanted to indulge in the tropes that defined Hollywood filmmaking (without having to subject myself, again, to the humiliations of that process), so I wrote back immediately and said, Yes!

Then, in early July, while I was staying in a small cabin on Norton Island, Maine (the same cabin where I wrote at least half of It’s Superman! in the summers of 2003 and 2004), I worked up a script (the genre: “based on a true story”) called “Radiant.”  (In 2010 I spent many months researching the real-life Radium Girls from Orange, New Jersey in order to write a novel called  “Patsy Touey,” which  I’ve completed but which remains unrevised.)

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UnknownThis short op-ed piece originally appeared in the Fredericksburg, Va. Free Lance-Star on Sunday June 16, 2013, and was picked up over the next few weeks by a number of other papers owned by the McClatchy Company. Every time I think I’m finally done with the Man of Steel, yet another opportunity comes up to write about him. Less than a month before I did this article, I’d written the preface to Superman: the Silver Age Newspaper Dailies Volume 1: 1958-1961, just published (August 2013) by IDW/Library of American Comics. My gratitude to my latest Superman-stuff editors: Karen Owen (Free Lance-Star) and Dean Mullaney (LOAC).

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NemoCoverThis is the first essay–an article, really–that I wrote about my great hero and inspiration, Chester Gould, creator of “Dick Tracy.” It appeared in issue number 17 (cover-dated February 1986) of Nemo: the Classic Comic Library, which was founded and edited by Rick Marschall, published by Fantagraphics, and ran for 31 lively, fascinating, essential issues. To my mind, Nemo is one of the great American magazines, a milestone in the development of comics criticism, and I miss it, although Rick subsequently founded a similar magazine called Hogan’s Alley, which is still issued on a wildly irregular basis.

When I was gathering material earlier this year to start up Cafe Pinfold, “Bud, Which Way to the Noble Hotel?” was one of the things I most wanted to include, but I couldn’t find my copy of the magazine. Recently, though, while ambling through the stacks at Special Collections at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Cabell Library in Richmond, I discovered a complete run of Nemos, and Celina Williams and Cindy Jackson, the superbly professional and generous proprietors of Cabell’s comic-art holdings, made and sent me a PDF of my article. I’m delighted to post it here now, alongside of (or actually above) the much-later-written “Heart of Gould.”   Continue reading


LittleNemoThis is a short essay on Winsor McCay that I wrote for the gorgeous catalog (published by Yale University Press) released in tandem with the Masters of American Comics exhibit that originated in 2005 at the Hammer Museum and The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and later traveled to the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Jewish Museum in New York, and the Newark Museum. The exhibit was organized by John Carlin and Brian Walker with Cynthia Burlingham and Michael Darling; the catalog was edited by John Carlin, (the great) Paul Karasik, and Brian Walker. The first novel in my Derby Dugan Trilogy, Funny Papers was set during the tumultuous newspaper era of the 1890s that spawned McCay as well as Richard Outcault, George McManus, Fred Opper and others who, together, created the grammar and the vocabulary of the American comic strip. It was fun and a real honor to be included in such an auspicious enterprise and to find myself in the company of fellow essayists such as Jules Feiffer, Matt Groening, Pete Hamill, Jim Hoberman, Dave Eggers, and Francoise Mouly.

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Scorchycover400I wrote this long essay in 2011 for The Comics Journal’s online version/presence/blog, and it’s still retrievable there–but I’ve tinkered with it somewhat, and updated it here and there. It stands primarily as my awed homage to the many publishers who’ve been reprinting classic newspaper comic strips and comic books in archival editions, and especially to the editors and scholars who’ve contributed their Introductions and Afterwards. But it’s also my attempt to deconstruct editorial front and back matter, to discover its patterns and points of concentration, and to suggest some critical approaches to, and ways to critique, an often-overlooked but very important element of comics-reprint books.

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From” Dick Tracy” by Joe Staton and Mike Curtis, November 16, 2011

Before I loved novels and movies and plays, even before I loved comic books, I loved newspaper comic strips; before I could read, they were read to me, by my mother and grandmother, and certainly long before I turned seven I was reading dozens of them every day of the week myself in the papers we got at home–the Bayonne Times, the Newark Evening News, and the New York Journal-American–as well as the papers I borrowed from obliging neighbors–the Jersey Journal, the Hudson Dispatch, the New York Daily Mirror, and the New York Daily News. The News was, hands down, my favorite paper because it carried my favorite strips–“On Stage,” “Gasoline Alley,” “Moon Mullins,” “Smilin’ Jack,” “Brenda Starr,” “Winnie Winkle,” “Smitty,” as well as my very favorites, Harold Gray’s “Little Orphan Annie” and Chester Gould’s “Dick Tracy.” (I always wanted to like George Wunder’s version of “Terry and the Pirates,” but I just didn’t get it.) To me “Dick Tracy” was the pinnacle of strip comics; I remember lying in bed at night wondering what mayhem tomorrow’s installment would contain, and also wondering how old I’d have to be (17? 18?) before I could show up at Chester Gould’s front door (but where did he live?) and beg him to let me be his assistant.  Continue reading


This essay, which was published in Comic Art No. 9 (Fall 2007), is the second I wrote about the great cartoonist Chester Gould (the first one, entitled “Bud, Which Way to the Noble Hotel?” appeared in Nemo: the Classic Comics Library back in the mid-1980s). I’ve always maintained–because it’s the truth–that had it not been for my early discovery of, and infatuation with, Gould’s “Dick Tracy” comic strip, I never would have become a writer of fiction; that weird and compelling stuff of his just fired my imagination, made me want to make up stuff like it myself. His work is still inspiring to me and I still regularly reread the classic strips, now happily available in gorgeous hardcover editions published by the Library of American Comics. When I was preparing that article for Nemo 30 or so years ago, Chester Gould was still alive, and I spoke with him briefly, twice, on the telephone. It still makes me happy, remembering that I did. I’ve had quite a few heroes in my life, but none to compare with Chester Gould–and I actually got to talk to him!

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TomDeHaven_CCS_2012-650x977Before I was the 2012 commencement speaker, I’d visited the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont once before, in 2009, as a visiting lecturer. CCS is an amazing and inspiring place. The classrooms, studios, offices, and library are scattered all around the little river town–in a former department store (Colodny’s), a former bank, a former telegraph office, and before it was flooded by Hurricane Irene, a former firehouse, it’s a two-year program and the classes are kept small. Founded by James Sturm (The Golem’s Mighty Swing; Market Day)  and Michele Ollie, and with an outstanding faculty that includes Steve Bissette (Tyrant, Swamp Thing, Taboo), and Jason Lutes (Berlin, Jar of Fools), it’s the first school in the U.S. accredited to award an MFA degree in cartooning. The place is at once isolated (good for getting a lot of work done), and not (it’s only about 10 miles down the road from Dartmouth College), and both times I was there, I didn’t want to leave: I wanted to stay and draw comics. Not very feasible, of course–although, as a perk for delivering this commencement address, I was awarded an honorary MFA in cartooning. Man. How cool was that! I framed the diploma, naturally, and it’s hanging on a wall in my writing office. I look at it every day and yearn.

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