Saturday, September 11, 2010

Out of the Vault- Betty Boop Funnies #1

On one level, it seems stupid to waste time on a post about comic books given the other things going on in my life, but on the other hand, given that there's very little I can do at the moment about the other stuff, it seems silly not to go ahead and knock one out.

This week's comic is pretty unusual. It's a small press comic titled Betty Boop Funnies, published right here in Oklahoma in 1978 by Hi De Ho Publications.

So here's the deal. Fandom back in the 1970's was an unusual and eclectic thing. I mentioned a couple of months ago that I dated the modern fan market to the 1980's, when fandom began to split up into smaller, separate subdivisions as a consequence of marketing. Like single-issue voters, today there are literally single-niche fans: fans whose enthusiasms revolve exclusively around one segment of fandom, like American comics, or anime, or vampire romances, which they can do because there is enough product being put out, and enough ways to connect with other fans who share their exact interest, to keep them happy in their niche.

Single-niche fans existed back in the day as well, but they were rarer, because it was harder, for two reasons. Number one, because there was no Internet to allow you to find other fans who shared your exclusive niche and filter out all the other fans who didn't. And number two, stuff was scarcer, so if you were a fan of Spider-Man comics, say, you might not be able to find a lot of Spider-Man specific merchandise unless you really searched hard. And in the process of searching, through catalogs or fanzines or what-have-you, you would be exposed to a ton of non-Spider-Man related stuff--articles about other comics, articles about old films and pulps and radio shows and SF/Fantasy novels and illustrators and on and on.

As a result, old-school fans could be very eclectic and broad in their interests. And in Oklahoma in the 1970's, your old-school fans were likely to be OAFs. OAF was the Oklahoma Alliance of Fandom. Fans of what, you ask? Pretty much anything. The first convention I went to, back in the 70's in Oklahoma City, was a MultiCon put on by OAF. The guests were George Takei from Star Trek, Bret Morrison (one of the radio voices of The Shadow), and George Evans, a comics artist who had worked for EC Comics in the pre-code days. Kind of a mixed bag.

Which brings us back to Betty Boop Funnies. Two of the old-school OAFs were a couple of dudes with alliterative names, Bart Bush and Larry Latham. Bart Bush was the owner of Oklahoma's first specialty comic book store, Down Memory Lane in Norman (and he's still in business, though the store is now named Atomik Pop!). And he was a fan of old movies, including old cartoons. In fact, though his store sold comic books, the shop window featured a painting (IIRC) of Betty Boop and Koko walking down the yellow brick road, characters who didn't really feature in any comic books, though Boop had appeared in a newspaper comic strip for a while. So Bush teamed up with Larry Latham, another Oklahoma fan, to produce Betty Boop Funnies. Both are apparently still active in Oklahoma fandom and photos of both can be found here.

The stories were written and drawn by Latham, who was obviously a big fan of the Fleischers' work, because the stories play out in several respects like the cartoons themselves. There are two Betty stories in the issue, with a middle story featuring Felix the Cat. Both Betty stories feature the standard Fleischer elements of broad, nonsensical comedy in which every item in every scene can come alive for a throwaway gag.

For instance, this scene of Betty leaving work features a time clock coming to life and telling folks to go home, leading to a fairly obvious gag about "punching the clock."

But there's also a cute throwaway gag featuring a punch card with a bite mark, and a small shout-out to the publisher in the form of a Down Memory Lane calendar on the wall next to the clock.

And just like the Fleischers sometimes liked to break the fourth wall and draw attention to the film medium itself, Latham has Koko lean from one panel into the next to slap a villain with a fish. This sequence also features a shout-out to the cartoons in the use of "Boop-oop-a-doop" as a euphemism for sex.

As with most independent publications featuring novice artists, the tone is uneven and there's lots of experimentation that doesn't always work, like the moody shadows Latham explores in this scene. In the cartoons, the Fleischers' artists used lots of washes to create a creepy atmosphere, but the line work Latham uses to evoke the same effect doesn't quite work.

But for the most part, Betty Boop Funnies was a surprisingly good evocation of the old Boop cartoons from a writer/artist with obvious affection for the material. The tone of the stories feels right, and Latham's depictions of the characters stay pretty much on model (note Betty's sixteen spit curls, for instance).

And though Latham is not a household word as comics artists go, he has gone on to a long career as an artist. Shortly after this was published, Latham (living in Los Angeles at the time) found work in the animation industry for companies like Hanna-Barbera and Disney (he talks about it here). And he's currently writing and drawing a webcomic titled Lovecraft is Missing.

So happy endings all around.

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