The following reviews are ones I wrote for the International Journal of Comic Art 3:1 (Spring 2001).
Raggedy Ann and More: Johnny Gruelle's Dolls and Merchandise. Patricia Hall. Gretna: Pelican Publishing Company, 2000. ISBN 1-56554-102-2. $35.
Cartoonists, children's books, and merchandise have been linked since the late nineteenth century. While Charles Schulz, Jim Davis, Berke Breathed, and especially Walt Disney are well known to the contemporary reader, Johnny Gruelle has largely been forgotten. Patricia Hall has been working to reintroduce Gruelle, and this book is the second in a planned trilogy. The first was a biography, Johnny Gruelle, Creator of Raggedy Ann and Andy (1993) and the third planned for spring 2001 will be a bibliography. Gruelle was an artist who moved easily between the worlds of comic strips, political cartoons, and children's books, eventually creating a family business that lasted until the 1960s.
Gruelle's life is recounted briefly by Hall, but readers interested in detail are referred to her previous book. This extremely well-illustrated book concentrates on the physical products derived from Gruelle's imagination. As a cartoonist for the New York Herald, Gruelle created the "Mr. Twee Deedle" comic strip which was merchandized as a doll by the newspaper immediately. While doing the comic strip, he also illustrated children's magazines and books. In 1915, he submitted a design for a patent on Raggedy Ann, a doll that was apparently partially based on characters from his comic strip.
The patent was granted and Gruelle began making his own dolls. Raggedy Ann was not based on a familiar character and initial sales were slow. Gruelle generated interest in the doll by contracting with publisher P. F. Volland for a children's book based on the doll. Other characters he developed, such as the duck Quacky Doodles, proved more popular and merchandising included a cartoon series. By late 1918, Gruelle had completed his book on Raggedy Ann and dolls were produced to be sold with it. The book and doll combination was a success and Gruelle continued producing merchandizable ideas until he died in 1938. His family took over the company and continued licensing Gruelle's characters until they sold the company to a book publisher.
Probably because of marketing concerns, the book is a curious mixture of a business history attractively designed as a full-color coffee table book that includes a price guide. Hall writes to appeal to historians as well as collectors of children's books, dolls, toys, and cartoons. Many sidebar pieces detail specific parts of Gruelle's business efforts, such as books, sheet music, and copyright infringements. Anyone interested in Gruelle, cartoon merchandising, book or doll collecting, or popular culture of the first half of the twentieth century should find something of interest in this book.
Evil Geniuses in a Nutshell. J. D. "Illiad" Frazer. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly & Associates, 2000.
A collection of User Friendly, a free online comic strip, raises some interesting questions about the future of comic art. Frazer's strip is written for a specialized audience of advanced computer users and is published by a company specializing in computer manuals. The strip is done on a computer and lacks backgrounds in the simplified art style that Dilbert made acceptable. Illiad has stated that Breathed's Bloom County was an inspiration, but the humor of User Friendly is extremely dependent on knowledge of computers. A niche market product, reminiscent of earlier specialized work such as Jake's military cartoons, User Friendly is not syndicated, but it still appears in more than 150 college papers and several magazines. In the introduction to this second collection, Frazer said, "But today, with the Web, the distribution infrastructure the syndicates possess is becoming less valuable, and is no longer necessary." One of the strip's webpages claims, "The site, UserFriendly.org, attracts more than 2 million visits each month, including more than a half million unique visitors and 15 million page views ...and is now by far the largest web-based comic strip... Compared to more traditional syndicated comics, User Friendly the Comic Strip is catching up very quickly. For example, Dilbert, around since 1986, is syndicated in over 2,000 newspapers. UserFriendly.org boasts an audience equal to 42% of Dilbert’s online audience."
User Friendly can thus be seen as supporting part of McCloud's argument about the transition of comics to the web, but Frazer, O'Reilly, and McCloud decided to publish and charge for a paper version. The ability of both electronic and paper versions to succeed seems to bode well for the future of comic art. The strip and additional information about it can be seen at http://www.userfriendly.org/ and http://www.ufmedia.com.