Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Mystery Inker

Doug Gray's wonderful comics blog (a treasure trove of Barks, Stanley, Wiseman/Toole, Bolling, et al) whets the appetite for the upcoming book collection of Bob Montana strips by collecting some black and white Montana Archie strips.

As a kid, the only place I ever saw any Montana strips was in the digests, where they were reprinted as four-panel "gag bags." I can't wait to see the strips in chronological order -- especially since some of those daily strips seem to suggest that it was more than the pure gag-a-day strip it later became. (Some of the 1946 strips appear to be from a larger story about going to a camp for the summer.) Also, it demonstrates that "it's Frankie!" gags were absolutely everywhere in 1946:

Except for some covers and short gags, Montana basically removed himself from the comic books quite early on and, until his untimely death in 1975, handled only the newspaper strip. Newspaper strips were more prestigious and more widely-read than comic books at the time, and it was the strip, not the comic books, that probably did the most to establish Montana's creation as a pop-culture icon.

What I love most about these strips -- apart from the pleasure of seeing Montana fully credited in a way that he hasn't been since he died -- is the way they look, especially the inking; I'm not usually one to notice inks or even fully understand what an inker does, but the inks are so strong and solid that it almost seems a shame that the Sunday strips had to be printed in color. I wish I knew who inked for Montana. According to an interview of Joe Edwards (Li'l Jinx) by Jim Amash, he did some inking and lettering for Montana, and there was a short period when Montana would do only "the heads, and the fingers if it's related to the gag, and even the shoe if possible," with Edwards finishing the rest. But he didn't say how long this arrangement lasted, and I don't know that a lot of the inks or letters have much in common with Edwards' style.

Edwards didn't mention who Montana's regular inkers were, but he did explain the kind of inking that gives the strip its flavor: "the inkers started to pick up his technique of thick outside. If you look at it carefully, it's a heavy line outside, but it's almost a steady line, almost like you took a ballpoint and did it, so it's the same weight."

The other thing I love about these strips is Montana's Betty, which I don't think has ever been bettered; we're so used to thinking of her as a goody-two-shoes, or a psycho stalker lunatic, that Montana's sexy, catty, reasonably well-adjusted character -- like the heroine of a Hollywood teen movie of the era, but with more edge and even tighter sweaters -- is a relief. I think the strip, at least early on, is the only incarnation of the franchise that portrayed Betty as sexier and less innocent than Veronica.

After Montana died, most of the strip was turned over (like everything else in the '70s) to Dan DeCarlo; it's gone through a number of artists since then, but has never been particularly above the level of a half-page gag in the comic books. But as for the Montana strip, I've known people who prefer it to any of the books.

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