I think the most telling thing about the Harvey Comics exhibit at the Cartoon Art Museum is that I already knew what I’d write about it before I even saw it. Nowadays, “poor little rich boy” Richie Rich has become the vehicle of parody for those of us who grew up reading his exploits. Whereas in the comics his immense wealth was used as a springboard for adventures and invention, nowadays he appears as a device to satirize everything from hipster slumming to George W.
Why has Richie become so maligned whereas Disney’s Uncle Scrooge remains fairly unimpeachable, despite both of them (if I remember correctly) owning nearly identical dams full of money? Perhaps because Scrooge McDuck is still so strongly linked to the revered cartoonist Carl Banks. Indiana Jones may still rule the multiplex today, but from the late Forties onward, if adventure had a name, it was the name of a duck. It is only at this exhibit that I learn any of the names of artists and writers who penned the tales of Richie and his less well-off pals, names like Warren Kremer, Howard Post and Fred Rhoads. Carl Banks seems to be the exception. For most of the history of comics companies enforced identification with brand rather than touting the qualities of individual artists and writers whose fight for recognition (and compensation) continues on today. The subtitle of the exhibit is after all The Art of Harvey Comics
It’s odd to discover that Richie Rich first appears in the Fifties, when middle class domesticity was the model for happiness. After all, the Twenties and Thirties were the great decades for admiration and daydreaming about immense wealth. They gave us Ritz crackers (and Ritz cracker apple pie, which is fantastic), Monopoly, “My Man Godfrey,” Little Orphan Annie and Daddy Warbucks. We are told that his early exploits actually “had a humorous slant that poked fun at the Richs’ immense wealth.” I would have loved to have seen those.
Richie joins a number of other characters sucked into the orbit of the Harvey brand. Some of their properties were actually not of their own creation at all but rather acquisitions. Harvey nabbed Caspar the Ghost and Baby Huey from Paramount Pictures in 1957. The exhibit notes of Caspar that “(h)is image is the second most widely recognized in the world, after Mickey Mouse” which I somewhat doubt. I would imagine that Buzzy the Funny Crow must then be something like the second least widely recognized in the world (now that I think about it, they probably meant “recognizable” and even then you could quibble a bit about what they mean by “image.” If you mean likeness, I’m willing to bet more people recognize Gandhi or Elvis than Caspar the Ghost. And how about Superman?). If there is any commonality amongst them it is that they’re the kinds of characters that make religious rabble rousers throw fits. There’s Hot Stuff, the original Hellboy. There’s Wendy the Good Little Witch, Spooky the Tuff Little Ghost and the Ghostly Trio (which were the basis for Harvey suing Columbia Pictures over the Ghostbusters film logo. The judge, dismissing the case noted sardonically “There are only very limited ways to draw the figure of a cartoon ghost”).
I have to give it to the artists and writers, these characters have personalities, even if they are rather one note. Little Audrey exclaiming “He makes me so mad I’m all tired out!” reminds me of my niece. Their sentences always end in an exclamation mark which isn’t so bad considering Marvel Comics would take punctuation to new highs (or lows) in the Sixties by using multiple exclamation marks in a row, even after a question mark. You might have never heard of Little Dot, I’m not sure I remember reading her as a kid, but she’s my new favorite character. While the other characters under the Harvey banner would give someone on the religious right an aneurysm, her character has them all beat for sheer audacity. She may in fact be the only comic persona whose main characteristic is that she suffers from a mental disorder.
“Dots are people’s friends!”
“Dots try to help people!”
“Dots talk to me by mental telepathy!”
Those are all actual quotes from the story on the wall. When her friend tries to shake her out of her delusion, we can see Freud nodding in recognition in our mind’s eye.
“But I love dots… and they saved your life, Lotta!”
“You saved my life!”
“But dots warned me of the danger!”
Wit is indeed the denial of suffering, Dr. Freud.
I’m beginning to think there won’t be any Richie Rich stuff at all despite the exhibit bearing his name. But here we are, several panels with our hero in the genre I most associate him with from my childhood. The mystery kicks off in media res. “That’s Gloria getting into a car up ahead, Bascomb!” Richie apparently screams as he lounges in the back of his limo. “But- she has a date with me!” Wow. I don’t remember Richie being so full of himself. Richie, or rather Bascomb the chauffer, tails Gloria to a circus where she slips into a tent. Richie smoothly gets past the ticket taker: “A press pass? You’re not a reporter!” “No, sir,” replies Richie. “But I own the Richville Times! I also own the land this circus is on!” The fact that he builds that little explanation like a tower of Jenga clinches it: Richie is a dick. He could have simply said he owns the land at the beginning. Notice that unlike some other well-to-do men on a mission he never tries to simply buy the guy off. He needs those dollar bills for his pool.
Well, that’s it. I’m at the end of the exhibit and I haven’t seen or read anything that really made me reconsider what I’d planned on writing before I’d viewed it. In Kenneth Baker’s review of Chihuly’s exhibit at the de Young he observed that “(e)ducated viewers cannot look for long at Chihuly’s work without wishing there were something to think about. So they think about something else.” This isn’t merely a case of high art vs. low art because I recognize the skill behind the pen and ink work on the wall and I really loved these stories as a kid. I used to “borrow” my sister’s copies of Hot Stuff from the plastic tub she had them stowed in under her bed all the time. I recognize the Cartoon Art Museum is in kind of a bind. They’re stymied a bit since to fulfill their mission it’s important to present works that are historically important or influential. But if they want to convince people that cartoon and comic art have the potential to be regarded as high art they need to offer some kind of critical appraisal rather than just a general love-in for Harvey which no longer even publishes under that name. Why put up on a wall what can be picked up in a dollar bin at a flea market and enjoyed without leaving home? Why should I look at them with greater attention then for a laugh or two? Is the regard for comics diminished by being mass produced? Or does identification with brands and companies rather than creators blind us to great work subsumed into a body of mediocre or hack work (quick, name five Disney artists responsible for character design)? What defined the work of individual artists forced to conform to a house Harvey style? Why are house styles like those of Harvey or Disney accepted without reservation whereas anime is held to task for its exaggerated stereotyped features? Were they always light entertainment or did they ever touch on sensitive issues? What happened to the whole bruhaha involving Richie Rich parodies being seized for alleged copyright violation? With people still burning Harry Potter books today (until they get bored and move on to the next threat to civilization) there seems to be a lot worth discussing. A strong curatorial voice would be helpful, as would a tighter focus like that found in the Asian Art Museum’s exhibit last year on Tezuka’s work.
I think the unusual inspiration from figures from folklore more likely to raise hairs than a chuckle and the always shifting attitudes in America toward excessive wealth would both have been fascinating topics for the museum to tackle in relation to the fine comic art on display.