Oddball Comics: An Introduction
I've been fascinated by comic books and cartooning nearly all of my life. I taught myself how to read with "funnybooks" (as they were referred to back in the Lower Devonian Age, otherwise known as the 1950s.) I soon became an avid reader and collector of these four-color pamphlets. I already had developed discerning taste; anything with Superman, a gorilla or a dinosaur on the cover was a must-have item! (And in those days, it wasn't uncommon for a comic's cover to feature all three…) I even charged for the crude drawings I'd scrawl on the book covers of my classmates -- three cents for a werewolf's-head, five cents for a whole surfer, etc. - in order to supplement my allowance, allotted to the purchase of even MORE comic books! (Sometimes it seems like I'm still working on that basis…) Eventually, I illustrated ads for comic book shops in exchange for my weekly fix of funnybooks, then I graduated to "the hard stuff", managing a comic book store (with my artists' studio in the back room!) By the time I could finally support myself by drawing cartoons professionally (for comic books and animation), I'd already logged about 23 years of reading and collecting comics!
Over the years, my comic collection had grown steadily, and as it became necessary to organize and "groom" the monstrous mound of four-color pulp, I began to notice that I always wound up with a pile of funnybooks that defied categorization. These featured odd genres often from small publishers; many of them weren't even "regular" comics books, but were, instead, promotional "giveaways" printed as premium prizes or advertising gimmicks. Other than the work of those cartoonists (Jack Kirby, Carl Barks, Gilbert Shelton, Sam Glanzman, Orlando Busino, Harvey Eisenberg and others) whose work impressed me to the extent that their unique talents would eventually influence my own drawing style, it were these comics that somehow fascinated me the most. Before long, I found myself inquiring at comic book shops and conventions "Can you show me the box of comics you can't sell?" Nowadays, that would mean I'd probably wind up with a carton of Valiant's TUROK #1, but back then, that turned out to be the best way to augment what was to become the core of my Oddball Comics collection. Cheap, too!
By the mid-70s, (while I was working for the American Comic Book Company, a comics shop and mail order service, run by David T. Alexander and Terry Stroud, specializing in the obscure) I'd assembled a carousel's worth of slide-photographs of the covers of what the ACBC's Carl Macek and I then called "esoteric comics" and performed my first late-night slide show at the con. The assembled audience couldn't believe what they were seeing: blown up to wall-size, the bizarre images of various funnybook covers both familiar and obscure were riveting and hilarious. And the response to my improvised observations, was to say the least, gratifying. Well, another twenty-five years (or so) have passed since then, and my Oddball Comics slide show has become something of a tradition at the convention, playing to standing-room-only crowds. (Strangely enough, every time the show is performed, even I notice some odd detail that I'd never noticed before!)
Some people collect comic books according to publisher. Others collect comics based on specific characters, time periods or creative personnel. But since I've started doing my Oddball Comics slide show for the entertainment of fandom in general, I've encountered numerous collectors and funnybook aficionados who only seek comic books cover-featuring such Oddball (to my thinking, at least) themes as redheaded people, cameras and fish!. For that matter, I still flip over practically any comic featuring a dinosaur or a gorilla on its cover! Why do so many fans and collectors harbor such arguably eccentric boundaries to their tastes? Who knows? In a time where diversity of material seems to be a non-issue in the besieged world of comics publishing, I just dig the notion of such individuality!
Also, you have to understand that I have an odd advantage when it comes to assessing comic book art, Oddball or otherwise. Having entered the industry (through underground 'comix") in the late 1960s, I've written and/or drawn hundreds of comic book stories. When you've produced as much comics-related work as I have, you quickly learn that NOTHING is written and drawn purely by accident (except possibly in the cases of certain spectacularly inept comics creators, and they usually don't last too long!) Creating is a conscious effort, and with rare exception, comic books have always been a "work-for-hire situation" environment. Combine these factors, and you'll start to understand why various aspects of composition, design and posing attract my cartoonist's eye with unique, surprising and often sidesplitting results! Just consider me to be your personal sherpa into the often-ridiculous realm of Oddball Comics, folks.
Before long, Robert Overstreet asked Carl Macek and I to co-author an article on "Esoteric Comics" for the 1977 edition of his annual collector's bible, THE COMIC BOOK PRICE GUIDE. The resulting article, "Esoteric Comics, The Ultimate Collectable" was somewhat odd itself (Carl favored an academic, rather intellectualized approach to the material, while, seeing things through a cartoonist's eyes, my observations were much more directed to the bizarrely goofy aspects of these four-color anomalies.) The article, labeled "Presented By The American Comic Book Company", I attempted to quantify "esoteric comics" into a number of categories:
Whew! Even though I wrote that list over 23 years ago (Holy Moly!), it still sums up much of the appeal of Oddball Comics. (Never fear, folks, you'll be seeing all of those comics mentioned in my Oddball Comics feature here at CBR sooner or later!) Ultimately, though, the article mainly served to increase the interest in so-called "Esoteric Comics", and the prices of these previously-obscure books rose accordingly (not to mention alarmingly!) In fact, I began to detect a disturbing trend; whenever I'd perform my late-night slide show at a comic convention. The next day, I'd notice that the dealers would have salvaged out copies of many of the books in my show, to display them with healthily marked-up price tags! Although I was starting to realize it, (especially after a fanzine article criticizing the promotion of "Esoteric Comics" by my friend and fellow cartoonist Don Rosa) I'd become an unwitting shill for the back-issue dealers!
In order to distance myself from this phenomenon, I decided to change my nomenclature for the subject of my slide show presentations: "Oddball Comics". I wanted to promote these comics for their entertainment and historical interest, not to help set artificially-manipulated collector's prices, and I felt this new moniker would make my cheerfully lowbrow approach to the material even more obvious than ever.
Eventually, I made a deal with Denis Kitchen's late, lamented Kitchen Sink Press to produce a set of 36 ODDBALL COMICS TRADING CARDS in 1994. The following year, Denis masterminded an arrangement with Avalanche Press to produce an ODDBALL COMICS CALENDAR. But as cool as these incarnations were, I still longed for the perfect format for spreading my Oddball screed.
First I approached Gary Carter, editor of the wonderful specialty magazine COMIC BOOK MARKETPLACE with the notion of a monthly column on Oddball Comics. Although I did manage to cover the subjects of Oddball ARCHIE comics and Dell's mind-blowing (to me, at least) KONA, MONARCH OF MONSTER ISLE, the column was unfortunately short-lived due to the crushing weight of my professional deadlines as a cartoonist. Then Denis approached me with the intention of publishing my "dream project", a lavish "coffee table" book of ODDBALL COMICS! But the combination of a depressed comics market and internal troubles at Denis' company prevented further discussion, and the project died along with Kitchen Sink itself.
Since then, I've had a number of inquiries about further Oddball Comics projects, but frankly, I just didn't have the time or resources to initiate them. But after finally connecting to the Internet last year, the possibilities of an on-line ODDBALL COMICS feature has intrigued me. After discovering Comic Book Resources (and collaborating with Gail, the brilliantly funny creator of CBR's weekly humor column YOU'LL ALL BE SORRY!) I soon became acquainted with CBR's Grand Pooh-Bah and all-around good-guy cyber-boss, Jonah Weiland. Jonah immediately saw the possibilities inherent in the material, and suggested doing a daily ODDBALL COMICS feature. (Which, strangely enough, with my frantic schedule, will actually be easier to research and write than a less-frequent series of longer columns...at least, let's hope that's the case!)
As time goes on, in addition to sharing the cover images of 'the craziest comic books ever published", Jonah and I will be adding lots of fun bells and whistles (hey, it's better than the usual smoke and mirrors) to ODDBALL COMICS. Some of my cartoonist pals will be checking in to show us and comment upon their favorite Oddball Comics. We'll be creating an Oddball Comics Hall Of Shame, as well as opportunities to rate each daily Oddball Comic (with one-to-five Oddball icons), trivia contests, a message board and a chance to nominate your own picks for Oddball immortality. Plus, you'll be able to order boxed sets and uncut sheets of my ODDBALL COMICS TRADING CARDS! There will even be a link to my cool new website (that Jonah is designing even as I write this), which will feature: an on-line portfolio of my cartooning; animation clips, storyboards and model designs; updates on and previews of my current projects in comics, cartoons and advertising; my professional resume, original artwork for sale; links to other cartoonists' websites; drawings by my budding-cartoonist son Kirby, and even more surprises! (Holy Moly, I'm turning into Stan Lee here!)
But so much for hype. ODDBALL COMICS is finally here in what promises to be the ideal format, with, a new Oddball Comic every day, five days a week…and we're not running out of material any time soon! Have fun and remember that every comic book is a potential Oddball Comic…it all depends on just how you look at it! - SS!
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