Monday, September 19, 2005

Regional Comics: A Request and Invitation for Input

Last weekend, I got a call from Montreal asking for (ahem) Professor Stephen Bissette. Well, I'm neither a professor, doctor, or Ph.D. -- just a layman in academic terms, now teaching about a field I worked in professionally for one-year shy of a quarter-century.

Still, I reckon I'm Prof. Bissette this morning, sending out a call for assistance from anyone out there reading this in a position to respond with information.

While prepping next week's CCS class ("Survey of the Drawn Story," aka Comics History), I'm stumped by a phenomenon I know played a key role in the adoption of comics as a popular medium. These are state comics histories or historical regional comics, and I suspect they were once a staple of local papers and/or state educational and historical societies -- but right now, "I suspect" is about all I can assert, and I do that tentatively at best.

The earliest examples I know of pre-date the birth of American comicbooks per se (that is, pre-1933), and most of those I've tracked down are closer to Ripley's Believe It or Not! in format than comic strips or comicbook narratives proper, but that may be representative only of those state comics histories that were originally crafted for and published in regional newspapers unwilling to accomodate a comic strip proper. However, little or nothing has been written about this geocentric genre that I can find.

I'm going to share with you this morning (in summary form) what little I know, and much of that is thanks to two Texans who ride (stand?) tall in their saddles: Jack 'Jaxon' Jackson and Michael H. Price.

In researching Vermont cartooning and cartoonists, I have seen various cartoon-format Vermont and/or New England maps (including a cherry one Joe Citro steered me to in the early 1990s, and that we used as the prototype for our own Vermont's Haunts 'Weird VT' cartoon map); I would like to track down more, and my interest is suitably perked as of now to make that a destination item in my 2006 flea market expeditions. I've turned up two collected paperbound books of yore -- Quaint Old New England by James Burke, Jr. and William B. Coltin, "illustrated by Jack Withycomb" (Triton Syndicate, Inc., Hartford, CT, 1936), and This is Vermont by George Merkel (The Vermont Historical Society/Elm Tree Press, Montpelier/Woodstock, VT, 1953) -- and I've no doubt there's more (I have dim memories of a relative having a cartoon history of either VT or New England on their shelves when I was a small lad, circa 1959-61).

As I said, it was Jack Jackson and Mike Price who turned me on to the seminal state comics history I'm aware of, Texan History Movies by Jack Patton and John Rosenfield (in contrast to the bylines on Quaint Old New England, cartoonist Patton's name precedes writer Rosenfield's on the earliest edition I have in my collection).

I'm happy to be proven wrong, but seems likely to me that Texan History Movies might be the most celebrated, reprinted, and discussed of all regional comics histories. Patton and Rosenfield's strip was published in The Dallas News as a daily from the fall of 1926 through to June 1927, Thanks to Mike (and to my late amigo Charlie Powell), I have three editions in my collection: the 1935 "Centennial Edition" (Turner Company, Dallas), published to tie-in with the 1936 Texas Centennial Central Exposition and which also incorporates three "Texas History Plays" by Jan Isbelle Fortune; a landscape-formatted paperback "Sesquicentennial Edition" (Pepper Jones Martinez, Inc., Dallas, TX, 1985), which notes in its indicia previous editions from 1943, 1956, 1963, and 1970, citing its reprint as an "abridgement and revision of the 1970 Revised Edition by Graphic Ideas, Inc."; and what might be the most recent reprint, an undated commemorative "Collector's Limited Edition" (PJM Publishers, Ltd. -- actually 'Pepper Jones Martinez' of Dallas, TX, once again) with an official "Certificate of Authenticity" inside ("...We certify that this... is an exact replica of the unabridged 1928 original edition. We further certify that the printing plates... have now been destroyed"). In all incarnations, it's a lively read, sparked throughout by Patton's spry and energetic cartooning and peppered with slang and racist slander (Native Americans and Mexicans are the primary targets) that was palatable in the late '20s but has been oft-censored since (as detailed by a Comics Journal article I can't lay my hands on this morn).

Texan History Movies may remain the seminal regionalist comic of all time in that it was a key catalyst in launching Jack Jackson's expansive comix and graphic novelist career (from the proto-underground God Nose to Jaxon's essential Skull and Slow Death stories to his ongoing historic graphic novels that began with the Slow Death story "Nits Breed Lice" and the serialized Comanche Moon), while inspiring other Texans to ride similar paths (like Mike Price, fer instance). It's also an expansive work, grander in scope and length than any other I've seen (it's over 200 pages long, in a full 12" x 9" format that incorporates eight panels per page plus a central explanatory text block) and by far the most playful and entertaining of its breed; Patton and Rosenfield avoid the sanctimonious piety of the genre like the plague, spicing their telling of their beloved state's history with much rich and sometimes randy humor.

Could it be comics histories of all fifty states exist? There must be more comics histories of other states in the Union, and I'd love to hear about them and/or see them.

So, consider this a call to arms -- let me know if your home state has such a comics volume in its heritage, and if it does, let me know, please! I'd welcome any and all info, access to copies, or (if you're so inclined) info on where and how I can purchase and/or borrow a copy. You can post comments here (which all can access), or email me directly ( with the particulars and permission to quote your email missive here and/or for a future article to be published. If there are articles or papers on the subject, I would love to see them.

"Professor" Bissette says -- Thanks, one and all!

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