Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Letter From William Ekgren

No letter came today. There wasn’t one yesterday and I don’t expect one tomorrow. But I do have the two that he sent me and perhaps that’s enough.

My small obsession with William Ekgren began years ago when I first saw his three comic book covers. Visual non-sequiturs unrelated to their comic’s contents, excruciatingly rendered, morose, swirling miasmas of ochre and muted reds. Fittingly they fronted comics entitled WEIRD HORRORS and STRANGE TERRORS.

Who was this artist? When it became apparent that not even a little was known about him, I set out to unearth what I could. That many year quest was detailed in my article, “Who Is William Ekgren?”, that I recently posted on this blog back in February. Briefly, it seems that the Norwegian born Ekgren was an itinerant Expressionist painter who had only a cursory intersection with comic book art in 1952.

Thanks to that and the trail my search left on the Internet, I received several emails from acquaintances of Ekgren. Most surprising of all, though, was the one I received from Niklas Ekgren, William’s grandson.

In fractured English, Niklas wrote of his grandfather’s life when he moved back to Sweden from the U. S. in 1959. William had married, fathered some children and he continued painting up until the mid-Nineties. Good information, but it was the email’s last lines that stopped me cold.

“He is still alife (sic), in fairly good shape at the age of 88. He lifs (sic) in Uddevalla in south Sweden.”

William Ekgren--ALIVE?

William Ekgren (2006)

An exchange of emails followed. I asked if an interview with the aged artist was possible. Niklas checked with his grandfather and he gladly consented. I quickly responded with a set of questions, simply put so as not to tax him, but hoping that some information would be gained.

Several weeks later a letter arrived postmarked Goteborg, Sweden. Not knowing what to expect, I opened the envelope with some trepidation.

The letter was five pages in length of handwritten cursive filling every line on each page. In the uppermost margin, scrawled across the page was the line, “Uddevalla, Sweden--December 22, 2007 (on the year’s darkest day)”

How gloomy. How perfectly Scandinavian.

After a paragraph thanking me for my interest and my article, Ekgren went on to answer my inquiries in detail. Not surprisingly since he was writing in his second language, at times his sentence structure was skewed and his choice of words was confusing. This required some effort on my part to interpret his intent. In the text that follows I sometimes had to reword his text. Whenever possible though I deferred to his words and transcribed them faithfully. For added clarity, his words are in italics, mine in plain font.

“At the age of 17...I did begin at the Valand School and the Nils Nilsson School, both in Gotemburg, but after 5 days in each of them, I was forbidden to come back. This due to the fact that I had far too many ideas of my own about Art, teaching, religion, politics, nationalism, racism, etc…. So, until 1939--I did various art studies of my own in museums and libraries, while supporting myself chiefly by drawing portraits and caricatures.” (note: he was born July 6, 1918)

“The art of Edvard Munch did have some influence on my painting, but even more so: the Pointelists Seurat and Signac, the Cubists, Van Gogh, Leonardo Da Vinci…but also traces of Art and Craft productions by Australian and African peoples…”.

Ekgren then began relating his experiences in World War II.

“About my participation in the Winter War on the side of Finland against the Soviets…".

The Winter War was the name given to the 1939-40 conflict between the invading Russian army (then an Axis power) and the vastly outnumbered Finns. Even though the Soviets eventually prevailed, they lost five solders for every Finn fatality.

“In the middle of January, 1940, I came to a training camp about 40 km south of the Swedish-Finn border…there I was trained to become a sledge-driver and groom…thus for carrying food, ammunition, wounded, etc., at the eventual front. I was trained with much shouting…but never became clever at anything, not even the very assiduous skiing.”

“Then one early morning in late February, we started to the front. We went by railroad--I with two sick horses--to Kemijarvi in the northern Lappland…from there we (the 2nd Group Tinoss) by personal means (moved) on…I dragging two horses until one of them collapsed and got left in the snow. Finally we rested. I and 4 other horse-draggers began walking in light and powdery but deep snow about 50 km northeastwards from Kemijarvi to a so called second frontline. The temperature that morning showed -18 degrees Celcius."
(0° Fahrenheit)

“My hands and feet were in extremely bad condition, so when the peace was a “factum” some weeks later, I was in the hospital in Rovaniemi…I was invalided until the end of the year…but with enough able hand to draw portraits and caricatures to support myself…(I got) to Norway two days before Corporal Hitler’s group occupied it. Then I was in Oslo about 3 weeks, very near Formebu Airport, which was bombed by British planes almost every night.”

“In the springtime of 1941 I worked as a messman on a ship going to South America. We visited Brazil two weeks, Uruguay one week and then Buenos Aires, there I was taken into a hospital due to a fever (which proved) to be malaria.”

“From there--in the beginning of January, 1942--I was again taking off as a messman on an American, Panama flagged Standard Oil tanker. On April 7, around 7 o’clock, we were torpedoed by a German U-boat about 40 nautical miles northeast of Natal, Brazil. After nearly 3 months in Brazil we, the crewmembers--alas! minus one man--came to New York. The torpedoed tanker’s name was Ben Brush…”.

Ekgren’s recollection here is slightly flawed. The Ben Brush was indeed sunk, but it was by the Italian submarine, Calvi, on April 12, 1942. He was correct, though, in asserting that one crewman was lost in the sinking.

Björkar (circa mid-1940s)
[image courtesy of Curth Ekgren]

“My first coming to the U.S. was in the winter of 1942 and the second was in the summer of the same year. The third was in April 1946 and I then tried to make myself at home by drawing portraits, caricatures as well as painting some outdoor motifs. Also 2-3 days a week I had a few hours instructing at the Norheim Studio (in Brooklyn) and even instructing housewives in their homes.”

portrait (1945)
Reportedly painted only months before Ekgren left for the U.S.
[image courtesy of Curth Ekgren]

“I kept my things of importance in a rented room during the winters while roaming about the world on a Panama flagged ship 3-4 months each year until 1950.”

portrait (1946)

“During the 1950s I lived a little here and there in New York City--on St. George on Staten Island, 200 Mott Street in Manhattan, the section called Little Italy and in Harlem one year…”

“In the early 1950s I was a member of the Manhattan Gallery East…also I was one of the first 20 or so members of the Bedford Village Art Guild in Brooklyn--the only non-African American…”.

The next portion of Ekgren’s letter dealt with his comic book covers and took me completely by surprise.

“One day in the Spring of 1952--at the Greenwich Village Outdoor Art Show--three men and a woman were murmuring between themselves looking at one of my paintings…after less than 5 minutes they had bought the publication right to it--for 100 dollars. After a week they gave me the painting back so that I could sell it again…the same procedure came about at the next Outdoor Show (and then the next after that)…the same persons coming back, acting in an almost impolite way and paying 100 dollars for each picture. The editor’s name was Archer St. John (one of the four).”

Ekgren at Greenwich Village Outdoor Art Show (circa early 1950s)
[image courtesy of Heritage Auctions website]

Ekgren at Greenwich Village Outdoor Art Show (circa early 1950s)
Could Archer St. John and company been in the crowd that day?
[image courtesy of Heritage Auctions website]

That explained a lot. Ekgren’s comic book career never really existed. His comic book covers were unlike any others because they never were intended to be comic book covers. Chance selections by St. John, editor Marion McDermott and two unidentified colleagues. Was Matt Baker, St. John’s art director, also part of the group? Alas, we may never know.

“I did never draw or paint any special artworks for comic books or other publications. The works I at all times created were meant as free pictures--to be exhibited as such…”

“And concerning the three pictures you’re familiar with--they never meant more to me stylistically or subjectively, then most of (the) works produced by me…”.

Girl at Piano (circa early 1950s)
[image courtesy of Heritage Auctions website]

portraits of children (1961)
[image courtesy of Roger Jonasson]

The final portion of Ekgren’s letter is the most personal, dealing with his beliefs and a startling revelation.

“…as both an artist and a poet, I’m self-educated and the same must be said about my knowledge of the English language, plus my citizen-of-the-world and vegetarian philosophy.”

“Although I am still going strong very well for my 89 years of age, I naturally enough cannot be sure about having hours, or even less, of a future. But I am not a pessimist, having as yet not found any sane or crazy reason to be so.”

“About that and that: yes, of course, I’m schizophrenic, thus being more nutty than a fine fruitcake. But thus far I’ve been able to handle this “mental thing” rather nicely, by using ingredients, as well as wholeness, as basic measures giving informative vividness and strength to all my creative activities.”

“And please, let us skip the Mr. title between us. My name is William, Ekgren, Bill, or anything that suits you, Ken, to call me.”

“Sincerely, William Ekgren”

There has been only one more letter between us since, but at last report, Mr. Ekgren--I mean, Bill--is alive and creating in Sweden.

unnamed painting (mid-1990s)
[image courtesy of Curth Ekgren]

Rick Kane: Week 3

Once again it's time for our weekly presentation of the Tom Grimaldi provided, E.C.Stoner drawn, Walter Gibson written masterpiece: "Rick Kane, Space Marshal".

This time around I'm posting eight "Rick Kane" dailies instead of the five I have been posting. It finally dawned on me that daily strips run six days a week, not five.

And that's why I'm sleuthing rather than teaching math.

Sept. 7, 1951

Sept. 8, 1951

Sept. 10, 1951

Sept. 11, 1951

Sept. 12, 1951

Sept. 13, 1951

Sept. 14, 1951

Sept. 15, 1951

Sunday, May 16, 2010

BILBOQUET--Found in Translation

(The beauty of the Internet is that somewhere, somebody has the answer to any question.

In this case, my request for further information about the seminal French comic tabloid BILBOQUET has been been fulfilled by the kindly assistance of Michaël Dewally. Michaël, a dedicated French-born comic historian currently ensconced in America's Midwest heartland, has generously translated the text of L'AGE D'OR DE LA BD - les journaux illustrés 1934-1944 (THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMICS-The Illustrated Papers 1934-1944), a 2004 overview of French comics by Jean-Jacques Gabut.

L'AGE D'OR DE LA BD - les journaux illustrés 1934-1944
by Jean-Jacques Gabut

Michaël paraphrases Gabut's text (drawing his information from pages 28, 32, 105 – 106, 180 – 183 of the book) and brilliantly puts BILBOQUET into an understandable historical context. So let me step aside and turn this over to Michaël, our very own Auguste Dupin.

"BILBOQUET was published by les Editions Montsouris. The first issue is dated February 6, 1938 and ran weekly for 48 issues before being absorbed into PIERROT. During its run, BILBOQUET published mostly US material. In all, les Editions Montsouris were an unlikely candidate to reprint Eisner’s work on "Les Boucaniers", a.k.a., "Hawks of the Seas".

Founded in 1880 when it first published LE PETIT ECHO DE LA MODE, a magazine targeted at female readers, Les Editions Montsouris was an old publication house that was dedicated to publishing few US materials in its three illustrated weeklies: PIERROT, LISETTE and GUIGNOL.

LISETTE #49 (Dec. 6, 1931)
as reprinted in L'AGE D'OR DE LA BD
by Jean-Jacques Gabut

LISETTE (started in 1921) published mostly text but notably carried "Little Anny Rooney" and GUIGNOL (1919) never ran any strips. PIERROT (1925), on the other hand, was more illustrated but focused on French and other European material, including work by Pellos, Liquois, Gervy, Stonkus, Le Rallic and Rob-Vel (creator of "Spirou").

PIERROT #10 (March 10, 1929)
as reprinted in L'AGE D'OR DE LA BD

In this context, the publication by Montsouris of BILBOQUET was an odd experiment and proved short-lived. One can conceive that the old house bowed to the pressure and the success of the other illustrated weeklies that published American material. Yet, by 1938, it seemed too little, too late which conceivably explains it short-lived tenure.

LE JOURNAL DE MICKEY #10 (Oct. 21, 1934)
as reprinted in L'AGE D'OR DE LA BD

Paul Winkler, creator of LE JOURNAL DE MICKEY (# 1 published on October 21st 1934), is responsible for the appearance of American material in France’s illustrated weeklies. Winkler not only got the rights to publish the Disney strips through Opera Mundi, the publication house he co-financed with Hachette, but he also struck a contract with William Randolph Hearst to distribute the King Features Syndicate’s material.

L’AVENTUREAUX #18 (Feb. 1936)
as reprinted in L'AGE D'OR DE LA BD

Thus began the revolution that spawned many imitators, starting with Winkler’s own ROBINSON (1936) and HOP-LA! (1937). Others were Libraire Moderne’s JUMBO (1935) and AVENTURES (1936) [Note: AVENTURES was the first to publish "Superman" in France as "Yordi"], Les Editions Mondiales ran HURRAH! (1935) and L’AVENTUREAUX (1936), La Société Parisienne d’Edition (S.P.E.) created both JUNIOR (1936) and L’AS (1937), and other lesser known titles also appeared.

JUNIOR #86 (1937)
as reprinted in L'AGE D'OR DE LA BD

In light of this explosion of reprints, when Les Editions Montsouris thought to enter the fray, it seems that most US material was already under contract with one of its competitors. During its short run, BILBOQUET is known to have published "Hawks of the Seas" ("Les Boucaniers"), "Tailspin Tommy" (Jean Reid), a strip distributed by the smaller Bell Syndicate, "Captain Bilboquet" by Gene Ahern (presumably Ahern’s "Room and Board"*, a strip started in 1936 when King lured Ahern away from NEA), and "Polo L’Eclaireur Marin" by Léon A. Beroth (could it be "Don Winslow"?). [*excuse the interruption, but it looks more like an older reprint of Ahern's "Our Boarding House" to my eyes--Ken Q]

"Les Boucaniers" ["Hawks of the Seas"]
HURRAH! #199 (1939)
as reprinted in L'AGE D'OR DE LA BD

Success-wise, Montsouris’ lone American material magazine lagged its more illustrious competitors. While it is difficult to ascertain actual publication numbers, estimates are that, pre-War, the weekly numbers were: LE JOURNAL DE MICKEY (500,000), ROBINSON (400,000), HOP-LA! (300,000), HURRAH! (250,000), JUMBO (250,000), AVENTURES (250,000), JUNIOR (200,000), L’AVENTUREAUX (130,000), L’AS (100,000). BILBOQUET ran about 150,000 copies a week.

Upon the demise of BILBOQUET, "Hawks of the Seas" found a new home in HURRAH! from issue # 189 through 250 while "Sheena" ran (appropriately enough) in JUMBO for another publisher. Eisner’s "Hawks" was in good company since at the time HURRAH! was also reprinting: "Bob l’Aviateur" ("Scorchy Smith") by Frank Robbins, "Luc Bradefer" ("Brick Bradford") by Clarence Grey, "Gordon Fife" ("Gordon, Soldier of Fortune") by Carl Pfeufer, "King, Le Roi de la Police Montée" ("King of the Royal Mounted") by Allen Dean, "Myra North" by Ray Thompson, "L’imbattable Pinky" ("Radio Patrol") by Charlie Schmidt and "Tarzan" (dailies) by William Juhre.

One thing I find surprising is:

1)The book does a terrible job at listing the strips that ran in BILBOQUET. While it lists "Hawks of the Seas", it does not list "Tailspin Tommy", even though you have it documented in your issue. The book really emphasizes the larger print run weeklies. Interestingly, the author lists "Jean Bolide" by Forrest as having run in ROBINSON from issue 1 through 194. This can only be again "Tailspin Tommy" which then must have run in more than one weekly at a time.

2)"Tailspin Tommy" makes sense in BILBOQUET, being a strip from the smaller Bell Syndicate … but "Don Winslow", another Bell Syndicate strip, is all reprinted all over during the same period, i.e., "Don Winslow" appeared in L’AVENTUREAUX from # 1 through 245 and also appeared in LE JOURNAL DE MICKEY from # 171 through 257 (re-titled: "Bernard Tempête").

All in all, the appearance of this material in BILBOQUET is not surprising but the mix in the mag is odd (isn’t it always)."

Très bon, Michaël! And thank you once again, mon ami.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Rick Kane: Week 2

Once again, thanks to the generosity of reader Tom Grimaldi, here is the second week of the Walter Gibson/Elmer C. Stoner daily, "Rick Kane, Space Marshal".

Sept. 1, 1951

Sept. 3, 1951

Sept. 4, 1951

Sept. 5, 1951

Sept. 6, 1951

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Eisner/Iger au Francais

I hadn't intended to revisit the Eisner/Iger shop anytime soon. After several posts about their WAGS work I figured to move on to other subjects. But a very recent addition to my very eclectic collection cried out to be shared.

The publication is entitled BILBOQUET, a curious choice since it refers to an ancient game of catching a tethered ball on a peg. Reinforcing the relationship, the tabloid's logo helpfully depicts the game's required equipment. The 8-page tabloid itself reprints various American comic strips, not unlike the British/Australian WAGS that has been the subject of several posts in these parts.

(Sunday, August 14, 1938)

This issue is apparently #28 and is dated (in French, of course) August 14, 1938. According to the smaller wording beneath the logo, BILBOQUET was published weekly and promised, "aventures" and "gaiete", which I assume you can figure out for yourself.

While BILBOQUET prominently featured the popular American strip "Jean Reid, l'audacieux"--literally, "Jean Reid, the Daring"--on its opening page (what's that, you never heard of "Jean Reid"? How about "Tailspin Tommy"?) it's the appearance of two lesser known strips that prompted my purchase of this in the first place.

(by the way, "Our Boarding House" becomes "Cap'tain Bilboquet", "Freckles and His Friends" mysteriously translates into "Grindeson Et Cie", in English, "Grindeson and Company", and best of all, William Ferguson's "Our Curious World" is bestowed with the refreshingly honest title, "Je Ne Sais Pas Tout" or "I Do Not Know Everything".)

The presence of the cowlicked haired youngster with large button eyes in the logo is the tip-off. That's "Scrappy", the Charles Mintz cartoon character that was the star of his own Eisner/Iger strip in issues of WAGS.

In full disclosure, I first found out about the "Scrappy" strip's BILBOQUET publication from Harry McCracken, former editor-in-chief of PC WORLD magazine, noted blogger and most significantly, the world's foremost authority on "Scrappy". McCracken's own acquisition of an album of collected BILBOQUET issues prompted his email to me a few years back asking if I had any details about the Mintz character's ties to the Eisner/Iger shop. Unfortunately at the time I had nothing for him, for it was several years before I bought my first WAGS and saw "Scrappy" among the other Eisner/Iger content.

Scrappy va au Guatemala
[Scrappy Goes To Guatemala]

If you look to the small notice in the bottom left panel, it grants the strip's copyright to "ag. francaise de presse" and not to Eisner/Iger's Universal Phoenix Feature's Syndicate, nor Editor's Press Service who handled its distribution, nor Charles Mintz, whose name is emblazoned on the strip in its WAGS incarnation.

WAGS vol. 2, #36

The same goes for "Les Boucaniers", the French name for Eisner's "Hawks of the Seas".

Les Boucaniers
[The Buccaneers]

The appearance of Eisner/Iger shop material in foreign language magazines has been known for a while. Most famously, Al Williamson wrote about the Spanish version of "Hawks" he read as a child in Columbia circa 1939, in his introduction to the Kitchen Sink book reprinting of the strip.

What is intriguing is that this French version appeared in 1938, not long after its WAGS publication. Since BILBOQUET was a weekly, it likely started in early February 1938, months before JUMBO COMICS hit the newsstands. Ironically, this means Americans were among the last to see the Eisner/Iger shop's output.

According to various Internet sources (caveat lector!), BILBOQUET only lasted into January 1939, at which time it was absorbed into PIERROT.

As always, dear reader, I welcome any further information on this subject.