Unlike most of the publications to date from IDW Publishing’s Harvey Award- and Eisner Award-winning imprint The Library of American Comics (LOAC), the publication of the first volume of King Aroo was not greeted in most circles by smug nods of approval from the comics intelligentsia. Instead, it was more like puzzled looks.
King Aroo? Wait, aren’t these the guys the ply us with Caniff, Gould, Gray, Ramymond, Sickles, McManus and even Breathed? Who is Jack Kent and why should we care?
Well, as it turns out, the track record of LOAC’s Dean Mullaney and Bruce Canwell is still intact. King Aroo can totally stand with those others.
It’s just that we had never heard of it. That’s something that Canwell wants to change. Scoop's J.C. Vaughn caught up with the editor and essayist to talk about the King.
Scoop: How did you first become familiar with King Aroo?
Bruce Canwell(BC): I was a devotee of the Fantagraphics magazine Nemo, devoted to classic comic strips and those who created them. In 1986, Nemo # 21 cover-featured King Aroo and reprinted a long sequence from late in the strip’s run. Jack Kent’s charming artwork and sophisticated concepts and dialogue made an instant hit with me, so when Editorial Director Dean Mullaney and I were developing the 2010 schedule for The Library of American Comics (LOAC) and the opportunity arose to put King Aroo on it… well, J.C., it was a no-brainer!
Scoop: How did you start learning about its creator, Jack Kent?
BC: That issue of Nemo contained a small amount of information about Jack. In subsequent years, Jeet Heer and Tom Devlin wrote articles about Kent and his work; they kindly shared their work with me. Jack Kent’s son and the older of his two nephews also worked extensively with us, sharing their recollections and family photographs.
Finally, Dean Mullaney and I did a great deal of original research, especially in the newspaper archives in Kent’s home town of San Antonio. That proved to be an invaluable resource.
Scoop: On the surface, next to names like Terry and the Pirates, Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, Bringing Up Father and Rip Kirby, it seems like an odd addition to the Library of American Comics. Why is that not the case?
BC: That’s an easy one! We’ve said from the outset that LOAC’s purpose is to preserve the long and jubilantly creative history of the American newspaper comic strip. Let’s see how King Aroo stacks up against those filters:
“Long:” The King ran from 1950 to 1965. For comic strips, that’s not a record setting timespan, but how many creators get to work on a single concept for fifteen years? I think we can put a check mark next to this one.
“Jubilant:” A big check mark here! King Aroo is nothing if not jubilant — the kingdom of Myopia and its surrounding territories are full of sassy and imaginative characters, clever wordplay, and witty storylines.
“Creative:” Certainly comic strips such as Pogo, Krazy Kat, and Barnaby are viewed as creative. When folks look around for strips that can be compared to King Aroo, guess which strips are universally named? The King easily passes muster here, as well.
Dean and I are delighted to do our part to bring Jack Kent’s work to the attention of 21st Century audiences. Sergio Aragones, Roy Thomas, and Maggie Thompson are already big fans, and of course Dean and I are, too. We think readers who give King Aroo a try will join us on the bandwagon.
Scoop: The flip side of all those famous titles was that you're not really re-introducing them so much as presenting them in a wonderful package. With King Aroo, though, you're really re-introducing a cast of characters and an artist who aren't nearly as well known. What kind of fans might expect to really enjoy this series?
BC: At the risk of offending Shakespeare: “Let me count the ways . . .”
1. Fans of humor strips will find big laughs in King Aroo. If you enjoy Krazy Kat and Pogo, you owe it to yourself to check out King Aroo
2. Fans of fantasy with a touch of whimsy will feel right at home in Myopia. This could range from Oz buffs to the audience for Tim Burton’s new Alice In Wonderland movie to readers of Vertigo’s Fables
3. Fans with young children will find Jack Kent’s work has great “all ages” appeal. In its approach, King Aroo reminds me of TV’s Rocky & Bullwinkle — both have different levels of appeal for different age groups and both avoid talking down to anyone in the audience
4. Fans who love great comics should give Aroo a try, especially if they’re feeling a little let down by their old favorites and would like something fresh and different. I have a friend who fits that category. I sent him an advance copy of our book and he wrote back saying: “Aroo really is Pure Happiness packaged between two covers. Where has this been all my life? It’s easily the best thing to cross my path in two decades.”
If we could get a good cross-section of those four groups and pick up some other readers by good word of mouth, I think we’d have a sell-out on our hands.
Scoop: How would you describe King Aroo to someone who hasn't read it?
BC: King Aroo is a gentle, humorous fantasy set in the tiny kingdom of Myopia, where King Aroo and his faithful-but-prickly retainer Yupyop are the only humans. Mr. Pennipost, the kangaroo mailman comes with a built-in pouch for letters and parcels. Wanda Witch practices black magic -- and believe me, she needs lots of practice! The forgetful Mr. Elephant is a favorite of many fans, and Professor Yorgle knows everything — just ask him, he’ll tell you so!
Stories include the King and Yupyop visiting The Kingdom Next Door (where Aroo falls in love with that land’s Beautiful Princess — “B.P.,” for short); an encounter with Sally Peep, who like Little Bo loses her sheep — though Sally loses them in a poker game; and Yupyop’s adventures as a knight errant. As you might expect, there is more erring than there is knightliness!
Again, I think people should also know King Aroo is terrific “all ages” material. In these days of seemingly endless debate about fiction that’s “appropriate” or “inappropriate” for various age groups, it’s a pleasure to read something pre-teens, teenagers, and adults can all read and enjoy for different reasons.
Scoop: You mentioned the research you were able to do on Jack Kent. What resources were available to you?
BC: As I said, we started with the Nemo issue, received the articles by Jeet Heer and Tom Devlin, and began our communication with Jack Kent’s son and nephew (Jack himself passed away in 1985). It was tremendously exciting when Jack Kent, Jr. discovered a sample of Willy Nilly, a strip his father had tried to sell before he placed King Aroo with the McClure Syndicate. It’s a pleasure to be able to share that never-before-printed comic with our readers.
Dean also located a copy of a 1953 paperback collecting early King Aroo strips. This book featured an introduction by Gilbert Seldes, one of the early proponents of comics as an art form. His text was useful to us.
What we found in the San Antonio newspaper archives was intriguing enough to make us expand our searches into other newspapers. That’s where we discovered Kent’s romancing of a New York actress, Leigh Allen, whom he turned into a King Aroo character. We still have some tasty and surprising material from the newspapers we’ll share with readers in Volume 2, which will be out around the holidays (a perfect Christmas gift!).
Scoop: As you began to put together your text about him, what stood out to you?
BC: J.C., there are a lot of folks like you and I, who do work in the comics field because we love it, and there are other fans who dream of carving their own place in this arena. Jack Kent was not only one of us, he was one of the pioneers who showed us the way! Jack was part of the very first generation of fans. As a boy in the 1930s, he wrote to all the major comic strip artists, flattering them while asking for an original piece of artwork. Meantime, he kept honing his artistic skills until finally he made it, selling King Aroo and graduating from being a fan to the ranks of the pros.
If you've ever worked hard on your drawing or writing or inking skills in hopes of breaking into comics, Jack Kent's story is your story. Heck, if you're a professional who worked long and hard to earn your role in comics, Jack Kent's story is your story, too.
Scoop: One of the things we've really enjoyed about the various volumes of the Library of American Comics has been the ability of you and your fellow essayists to put things in context. How important do you think that is?
BC: Now that is an excellent question. I like to think LOAC’s research and essays are important to our collective knowledge of the comics, and there’s supporting evidence to that effect, since at their request I’ve turned over my research on books like Scorchy Smith to OhioState’s renowned Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. But who knows? Maybe my ego is clouding my judgment.
What I know for sure is, the essays are the fun part of the LOAC experience. Jeff Kersten and Max Allan Collins write about Dick Tracy from an insider’s perspective. Jeet Heer is the acknowledged worldwide expert on all things Little Orphan Annie, and in the essays I write, I’m always cognizant of the fact I’m telling a story, so I strive to be entertaining as well as informative. I hope readers find our essays are like the cherry on top of the sundae, not like a dose of castor oil!
Scoop: What will future volumes of King Aroo include?
BC: More wordplay, more whimsy, more Myopean misadventures with the King and his zany subjects! Oh yes, and more family photographs and anecdotes from Jack Kent, Jr. and his cousin, Kent Cummins. There’ll also be another essay by me in which Jack Kent builds his own “King Aroo’s Castle,” has his work championed to an unprecedented degree by the influential Stanleigh Arnold, and is praised by the likes of noted author Jane Yolen. It sounds cliché, but I think it’s truly a case of, “If you liked Volume 1, you’ll love Volume 2.”
Scoop: What else is coming up from the Library?
BC: The next LOAC essay carrying my by-line will appear in our first volume of Al Capp’s satirical hillbilly masterpiece, Li’l Abner. Denis Kitchen, who represents the Capp estate, has written a sincere and interesting introduction.
This summer kicks off with a LOAC sampler comic that will be available as part of Free Comic Book Day. After that, Jeet Heer turns his attention to Cliff Sterrett’s surrealist masterpiece, Polly And Her Pals, which we’ll be printing in an oversized 12” x 16” edition, while Brian Walker helps showcase Blondie like you’ve never seen her before. We’re going back to the strip’s beginning, when Dagwood was a wealthy heir and Blondie was a Betty Boop-style flapper.
Then in the fall, Dean Mullaney and I collaborate on a one-shot titled Genius, Isolated: The Life & Art Of Alex Toth. This should be the artist biography of 2010; we see it as a companion to our 2008 Scorchy Smith & The Art Of Noel Sickles, which I think would tickle Alex greatly, since he was Sickles’s biggest booster. Toth fans are already buzzing in anticipation, because our book will reprint the entire run of Toth’s Jon Fury comics for the very first time.
We’ll also have new releases of the ongoing series you mentioned — Little Orphan Annie, Rip Kirby, Dick Tracy — plus new Bloom County and Family Circus volumes, as well as the launch of Secret Agent Corrigan and our first collection of Bob Montana’s Archie newspaper strips.Now you know why I tell Dean the LOAC motto should be: “Sleep is