Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Man With the Three Exclamation Points

I've recently been going over some old Marvel/Timely/Atlas Patsy Walker comics by Al Hartley, and one thing that surprised me is how similar his early work is to his better-known Christian (or Christian-influenced) comics. He underwent a religious conversion in the late '60s, at which point he started consciously working Christian messages into secular comics -- though as I've said before, the messages were sometimes hard to distinguish from "hippie" messages of the same era; he shared the hippie obsession with the idea of returning to a better, purer, more natural state -- and, eventually, into the Spire comics.

But this story from Patsy Walker # 72, which Hartley drew and also wrote himself (Stan Lee didn't even put his name on it), has all the characteristics I associate with Hartley's later stuff: the combination of moralizing and trippy fantasy. The binary opposition, where one character is purely "good" and another character's function is to learn from the pure, good character. The over-wrought dialogue, often ending with Hartley's trademark, the triple exclamation point !!! Hartley really didn't change much in the '60s; he simply added an explicit religious dimension to what was already a quasi-religious preachiness.

Hartley's Patsy is a pretty interesting title for that and other reasons. As I've said, Hartley's art kind of creeps me out, with all the huge eyes and facial lines. But it certainly is different from other comics of this type, which went for art that was either more realistic or more cartoony. Patsy was like that even before Hartley took it over, but his predecessor, Al Jaffee, didn't like the material; Hartley completely embraced the fusion of romance comics with humor comics, and turned out a title that had a strange freakish integrity.

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