Monday, May 31, 2010

Near the Wheat Field at the Edge of the Wood

With thanks again to OtherEric of the Digital Comic Museum, we present Walt Kelly's The Adventures of Peter Wheat #2:

Sunday, May 30, 2010

What Kinda Snore is That?

Good morning on a Sunday, Kelly Sunday. Forty five years ago this morning, Kelly once again invoked the name of Charles Schulz, who had won the NCS Reuben award the previous year and was at the top of the comic strip field. As I've said before, I think Schulz was the most oft mentioned-by-name person in the run of the Pogo strip.

Come back tomorrow for The Adventures of Peter Wheat #2.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Walt Kelly's Adventures of Peter Wheat

Without further ado, The Adventures of Peter Wheat #1:

An Appreciative Afterword by OtherEric of the Digital Comic Museum, the fine fellow who has shared these scans with us:

Kelly could have been one of the great adventure strip creators if he had wanted. Peter Wheat is a wonderful, well designed and developed character. The nature of the genre and the art make it easy to think of him as a child at first, which probably helped kids identify with him. Peter is not a child, though, and he does not live in a peaceful world. Death, while never excessively graphic in the series, is always a possibility and is not shied away from, either. There is a real sense of risk and consequences in the series; even when we know that the characters are even less at risk than in normal comics, we feel the threat to them.

Kelly had the freedom to let his characters actually change and develop and he let them do so. While I need to guess at several of the missing issues, what we have shows a very detailed arc with Dragonel changing from enemy, to what the characters themselves describe as "not exactly friends" to friends. Dragonel's father, the Wizard, is in many ways a stock villain, but Dragonel herself is a fascinating antagonist. While her methods may be suspect, her goal is to protect her people from the incursion of the wheat field into the Hornet's territory. This is hardly an unworthy motive; as we'll see in later issues, she arguably has a stronger claim to the ethical high ground than Peter. Kelly never says that directly, but he at least shows the debate even more clearly in later issues. We'll even get a plot where the Hornet Knights split into two groups; one loyal to Dragonel and one to the Wizard.

Later on we get an epic storyline involving the queen of fairyland which runs, as near as I can tell from one issue and and a small scan of two pages from another issue, over 60 pages and featuring some of Kelly's most impressive work. (Go find issue #26 elsewhere online, or perhaps I can get Thom to post it here someday when we don't have other 'new' Peter Wheat material). Kelly is constantly experimenting in these issues—he does several where he's playing with scale and storytelling in fascinating ways. At least once he used a full page splash to create a contrast between Peter and a giant character. His staging is so perfect, it doesn't matter that the page is on the right or that the giant and Peter are allies; it's still a stunning piece of work when you first see it. He's always aware of where everything is—you always have a sense of where the characters and the scenery is. I could probably draw maps of any scene where it might matter; the attention to detail and sheer level of craft is amazing. Kelly was also innovating—as an example, there are several silent fight sequences. Normally Eisner or Steranko get the credit for doing that first, but here we see Kelly doing that from the beginning of the series.

Kelly also took pains to maintain his continuity between Adventures and Peter Wheat News. In issue 20 of Adventures, we see the Wheat Field crew celebrating Thanksgiving and in 21, they help Santa at Christmas. The story in 19-21 of News (19 is the only scanned Kelly issue) is very carefully set up as joining the goblins for a "Thanksgiving and Christmas party". That attention to storytelling is very rare if not unique back then.

As I said earlier, Peter Wheat is Kelly's last major Comic Book only work, the one where he brought together everything he had learned from working on them from nearly the very start. Sadly, the series always had limited distribution and is the hardest Kelly work to find. I know several hard-core Kelly collectors who had never seen the series (other than the very few reprinted issues) before scans started appearing online. Looking for Adventures is bad enough, the stories he did in Peter Wheat News are so rare that I've only even seen one of his issues for sale in over a year of looking. Thanks to the internet, we're finally getting a chance to see Kelly's epic.

Here's hoping more issues turn up or somebody with access to the stories decides to do a collected reprint. For now, just enjoy the beginning of this great Kelly series!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Champeen Cigar Smoker

I'm posting this Pogo strip late Saturday Night, so's you can see it bright'n'early Sunday morn. Cuz it's Sunday, Kelly Sunday, and as per SKS, this strip saw print 45 years ago this morning.

So, the NEXT post will be Peter Wheat #1, yeah yeah finally.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Peter Wheat's Publishing History

We're not jumping right into the Peter Wheat stories, for two reasons. One, I want to properly set up introductions and context of the series; and two, I want the traditional Sunday, Kelly Sunday strip to post first, and then we can let the hot first issue of The Adventures of Peter Wheat have the proper amount of cooling time, as good bread deserves.

Above is, what seems to be, an ultra-rare window decal displaying, what seems to be, true Walt Kelly Art.

And now, let us continue to hear from our friend OtherEric of the Digital Comic Museum, as he gives us his studied history of Peter Wheat:

The various Peter Wheat books and other giveaways were produced by Western Publishing (think 'Dell' at this time) for Bakers Associates, Inc. to help promote Peter Wheat Bread starting in 1948. Walt Kelly provided most of the stock artwork of Peter Wheat and drew the first three years or so of the main giveaway titles, Adventures of Peter Wheat and Peter Wheat News.

Adventures of Peter Wheat was a 16 page giveaway comic book, either the last half page or full page given over to an ad. Adventures of Peter Wheat ran 66 issues, with the first 35 featuring Kelly story and artwork. Later issues were written by Del Connell and drawn by Al Hubbard of Mary Jane and Sniffles fame. It's possible Del Connell did some writing on the last few Kelly issues; in Who's Who he's credited with writing the series starting in 1950 and the last Kelly issues came out in very early 1951. The book was monthly when Kelly worked on it; the Connell/Hubbard issues came out on a much more irregular schedule but are supplemented by several other publications. It continued until roughly 1957.

Peter Wheat News was a four page advertising flyer; the last two pages could be cut off and folded in half to form a four page mini-issue of Adventures. The Peter Wheat News stories were normally three issue arcs forming a 12 page story according to the Fort Mudge Most. The series was monthly and ran until at least issue 61. It may have run much longer; if it ended the same time Adventures did, it would have reached #111. All issues are extremely rare—Overstreet only lists 30 and the Fort Mudge Most guessed it ran to 36. Kelly is thought to have worked on the first 36. I have only seen 3 issues for sale in over a year of looking and a lot of searching online only turns up covers of about 5 other issues. It would not surprise me to learn that some issues no longer survive, at least in their complete form.

Known bakeries distributing Adventures inclue Krug, Sterling, Rice's, Donaldson, Friedrichs', Mrs. Conklings, and the Kitchen Fresh Bakery in Long Beach, California. Which means the book was distributed on both coasts, if not nationwide. Issues also exist with no bakery listed. The only bakeries I've seen issues of News from are Sterling and Krug, which are the most commonly seen names on Adventures, as well. It seems likely, based on our very small sample of scanned issues, that the second page of News was locally produced and specific to the bakery.

There were also a large number of other giveaways featuring the characters. Most of those do not seem to feature original Kelly art, but several do use his promotional art or reprints of other items.

There were at least four 4-in-1 Fun Pacs; those include a healvily abridged reprint of earlier Kelly work. #1 has issue #1 of Adventures and #4 has issue #9; I haven't seen anything from 2, 3, or any later issues. They also include Hubbard artwork. I'm not sure if this is a reprint or not.

There was a coloring book that is mostly redrawn from Kelly panels.

As well there was a Fun Book, a Puzzle Book, and an Artist's Workbook.

In the non-book category, there was a toy truck with an image of Peter Wheat on the side.

And the Peter Wheat Circus, which was several pages of punch-out figures and toys. The Circus doesn't look to have original Kelly artwork, based on the small scans on the one set I saw come up for auction.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Walt Kelly, Comic Book Artist

In anticipation of the upcoming posting of the first three issues of Kelly's The Adventures of Peter Wheat, I wanted to have the stage set for the significance of what we'll be seeing. OtherEric, of The Digital Comic Museum (DCM), has not only generously supplied the scans of those comics to premier here before being installed at the DCM, but also agreed to introduce the series with some background thoughts:

Thom has asked me to write something about Peter Wheat. I assume if you're here, you don't need me to explain why Walt Kelly is wonderful, which will save some time getting started.

Walt Kelly's comic BOOK work is not as well known as his comic STRIP work; but Kelly was pretty much Dell/Western's star artist in the 40s. He more or less defined their house style, and when not doing licensed material, such as Disney characters in his own inimitable way . . .

he often got a byline. There are quite a few books when he even got his name on the cover, which was very unusual for that time.

So at least in the world of comic books, Kelly was a big name when he started doing Peter Wheat, to the point where it's somewhat surprising that he was used on it. Either the bread company asked for him specifically, or Kelly saw something in the series that he really wanted to do, possibly both. Because even based on the roughly 1/3 of the run that I've seen, Peter Wheat was Kelly's finest moment in comic BOOKS, in my opinion.

Before getting into justifying that statement, let me discuss briefly Kelly's other major comic book series.

Mother Goose, while having an extensive run over several years, was predominantly illustrated poems rather than comics, just happening to be in comic book format.

Our Gang was frequently wonderful, but it took Kelly a long time to really turn it into HIS project. And it may just be me, but Kelly's talents always seem somewhat wasted on a series with no fantastic elements. His funny animals or fairy tales are so wonderful that a series dealing with what's more or less the real world seems not to be using Kelly to his full potential.

Pogo, while consistently a delight, really divides into two runs, both with their own weaknesses. The Animal Comics run and the Four Color issues show the development of Pogo and his fellow swamp dwellers, and there is a LOT of work to get them from their early versions in Animal Comics #1 to the cast we know and love in the comic strip. Kelly also didn't hesitate to borrow from himself for the comic strip; there are several stories in the comics where the definitive versions of the stories would later show up in the strip.

The later Pogo Comics, while they feature the characters in their developed form, are firmly secondary to the newspaper version. While Kelly did an incredible amount and quality of work on the comic book, it never quite stood alone without the strip. Perhaps if we didn't have the comic strip to compare with, I would put Pogo first in my estimation. But while all the work on the books was necessary to have the strip appear almost full-grown on the newspaper page, it still comes off as the lesser work—even if it's heads and shoulders above most of the other comic books of its time.

Fairy Tale Parade is perhaps Kelly's best comic book work outside of Peter Wheat. He shows an effort and a love for the material that shines out.

It's clear on many of his stories that he's putting a lot more effort into them than some of his other projects of the time. That's not putting down his other work, just saying that this was clearly where he put any extra time he had while maintaining his amazingly high page count back then.

Peter Wheat is really the heir to Kelly's efforts on Fairy Tale Parade—just by its nature it occurs in the sort of world that fairy tales happen in. I don't know what the Bakers Associates wanted for their comic, but other than possibly asking for the occasional cliffhanger, I can't imagine they were expecting what they got. Kelly took the "Adventures" part of the title seriously, because the book is Kelly's effort to do a straightforward adventure series. It's often amusing, of course, but I haven't seen any stories that are primarily humor, and the book frequently gets surprising dark and sophisticated.

Peter Wheat is Kelly's last major Comic Book only work; the later Pogo run is a spin-off of the comic strip. And in this series, Kelly brought in everything he had learned in almost a decade of being one of the best and brightest comic book artists.