Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Riverboats, Goats and Criminals

By 1946, the Our Gang shorts were no longer being produced by MGM, but Dell Comics was still publishing an Our Gang comic book. That meant writer/artist Walt Kelly had more freedom in the stories he told--able to freely introduce his own characters, use whichever members of the gang he wanted in any particular story, and tell action-adventure tales in addition to giving us slapstick comedy.

A prime example of this is a saga that ran from Our Gang #26 (September 1946) through #29 (December 1946). In earlier issues, the gang had met vaudeville performer Professor Gravy and helped capture a crook named Barrel. Now, Professor Gravy has bought a riverboat and plans to use it as an old-fashioned showboat, cruising along the river along with a number of different acts and putting on shows.

Two of the gang, Froggy and Red, are able to come along. This is a clear sign of the freedom Kelly had--because the comic existed on its own merits and didn't have to showcase the movie shorts, Kelly wasn't obligated to use characters based on the Our Gang actors. He could add or subtract from the cast based on what it best for a particular story. Here he takes Froggy (a character who had appeared in the shorts) and Red (a character I'm pretty sure is original to the comics--though I'm not complete certain of that), leaving the rest of the gang behind for a few issues because they didn't fit into the story he wanted to tell. Of course, each issue included stories by other artists, so any particular character was rarely gone from an entire issue.

Kelly was brilliant at pure comedy, but he was a skilled storyteller no matter what. The first part of the Riverboat Saga involves Barrel, the crook who wants revenge on Professor Gravy, getting a job on in the engine room under a false name. Some other crooks show up as well. But the kids, their pet goat Julip and a few of the adults manage to get the best of them.

The next issue is pure slapstick--Julip swallows a mechanical parrot, which provides him with the illusion that he can talk. A lady wrestler named Guinevere sneaks aboard to look for work on the show and gets mixed up in a scheme to shoot Julip out of a cannon. It is sincerely funny stuff, but also moves the story arc as a whole along, since Guinevere will play a key role in the final two issues.

Because more crooks are stalking the showboat--the unnamed river its sailing on seems to have an
awfully high crime rate. Professor Gravy agrees to transport a valuable race horse. Crooks sneak aboard to rustle the poor beast.

I love Kelly's art here. Most of the action takes place at night and Kelly uses light and shadow brilliantly to generate suspense. Reading this story almost makes you sad Kelly eventually dedicated his career to the comic strip Pogo. That strip was one of the finest to ever grace a newspaper page, but Kelly shows us here he could have been equally superb at giving us adventure stories.

The crooks after the horse accidentally kidnap Froggy and Red, who were in a horse costume at the time.

The crooks talk about doing away with the kids, but reinforcements arrive in time to foil this. It's here we really see how much the Our Gang comics have drifted from the original shorts--while in the movie theaters, it was rare to see a bad guy in an Our Gang short catch fire and run screaming in fear and pain.

The last part of the riverboat saga involves one of the horse thieves escaping. Professor Gravy, Guinevere, Red and Froggy pursue, but Red is captured after the crook rejoins one of his companions.

Red escapes, though the crooks think they've killed him. This gives Red a chance to freak out the bad guys by quickly improvising a haunting.

That's another creepy panel up there, isn't it? By golly, Pogo, look what you took away from us!

Anyway, Gravy, Guinevere and Froggy arrive and--after a brief but sharp gun fight in which the Professor is wounded--the bad guys are captured. The saga ends at this point because Red and Froggy have to return home to attend school. Though after multiple fights for their lives, kidnappings, escapes and gun battles, one wonders what else there is they really need to learn.

Next week, we'll join characters based on toys as they rampage through a toy store.

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