Thursday 7 January 2010

Dr Feelgood - Plastic Sam - Russ Heath - Harvey Kurtzman - Plastic Man - Jack Cole, Etc, Etc, Ad Ininitum ...

I remember when I first stumbled over Dr. Feelgood sometime around 1974 when Prog Rock had arguably reached the peak of (imo) pretentiousness and even the more proletarian manifestations of rock music were generally subsumed in a sea of glitter and tack. It was like a breath of fresh air and I must have just about worn the grooves of their first LP white with continuous replaying on the old dansette record player that our parents had bought us some ten years earlier on the strict condition that we wouldn't defile the old homestead with anything more wild than Millie Small's "My Boy Lollipop".

Yeah ... Right!

Anyway as far as I was concerned the Feelgoods were the business, they had a nicely revivalist thing going with their ongoing homage to Chicago Blues and good old Rock n Roll with some fabulously ironic wordsmithing by their guitarist Wilko Johnson whose choppy and distinctive style of guitar playing owed much to the legacy of the pre beat group school of rock guitar as best evinced by the legendary Mick Green (of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates fame in case you didn't know) but where they really scored big time was with their stage act, a rock solid rhythm section that looked like a plumber and his mate and a demented guitarist that would skitter about all over the stage looking like the Dauphin on speed fronted by a lead singer in a filthy suit that had all the menace of a man that's woken with a blinding hangover having spent the night in a battered Capri in the back of a pub car park. It was one of those bands that you just had to see. Here's why:

So going back to their first LP titled "Down By The Jetty" with the picture of windblown Feelgoods with a lovely backdrop of Canvey Island where they and their white transit hailed from. On the back of said record sleeve was the first appearance of their soon to become high profile logo. It was one of those weird moments as a dim memory was gently nudged deep in my subconscious. I knew I'd seen it before.

Of course it was "Plastic Sam" from Mad no. 14 August 1954 (for you bibliophiles) but the man that worked up the logo, none other than Wilko Johnson would more likely have encountered the strip in one of the Signet Mad Paperback reprints that had flooded these shores for much of the previous decade.

The strip was drawn by Russ Heath who was being trialled as a possible successor to John Severin, who was no longer working with Mad's perfectionist and all round genius editor Harvey Kurtzman. This was Heath's second stab at working for Kurtzman, having blown a previous gig three years earlier with a so-so rendering of a story for the debut issue of Frontline Combat. Heath's approach for attempting to ensure that the gods or at least Kurtzman smiled upon his labors, was to stick very closely, in fact slavishly close to Kurtzman's layouts which would always be supplied on tracing paper affixed to each sheet of the pre-lettered strip that the artist had to work to. No opportunity here for the artist coming up with fancy layouts - storytelling was king and Kurtzman was rigorous in ensuring his vision was adhered to.

Heath's problem was that in being so over cautious he slightly neglected to offer up anything of himself in the process, Jack Davis had this all out wacky style, Woody's stuff was similarly distinctive and tres seductive with lots of really off beat humor suffusing his work and Bill Elder was just at his best when it came to working on Kurtzman's layouts. He'd ensure that he kept to the intent of the layouts but within that structure he'd create layer upon layer of manic Elder detail as you can see here on the post Mad Goodman Beaver. Heath in contrast didn't go much beyond inking up Kurtzman's tracings treating them as pencil work to be sharpened up rather than layouts to be built upon.

Anyway the inevitable happened and Heath blew the second gig but went on to become one of the mainstays of the irascible editor from hell, Robert Kanighier and created some truly stunning work for D.C.'s
war titles and later became one of the premier artists working on James Warren's line of comic magazines as this page from Blazing Combat attests.

But what of the source for Plastic Sam?

We'll look at that tomorrow.


  1. Another absolutely engrossing post. Great video of the Feelgoods too (that takes me back) and your description of them is the best piece of writing I've seen in years.

    The page fom Blazing Combat looks mouth-wateringly good and the story too - I'm hooked in just one page. Who's the writer? As for the Frontline Combat page - that sound effect when the artillery opens up had me chuckling. It doesn't mean the same thing in US English, I think?

    Looking forward to hearing all about Plastic Man's origins. Seriously, Peter, these posts are gold dust. If you collected them all in a book I would buy it.

  2. You're too kind Dave and I'm really delighted that you haven't seen the Russ Heath Blazing Combat story. I'll run the complete thing soon along with some of the photos that Russ took to facilitate the amazing artwork that he created for Archie Goodwin's script.

    Goodwin wrote all the scripts for Blazing Combat when the U.S. was deeply embroiled in Vietnam and they are something of a homage to Kurtzman who was scripting Frontline Combat and Two Fisted Tales at a time when the U.S. was deeply embroiled in Korea.

    So which comic creative is going to pick up the baton for Afghanistan I wonder? Mind you a thankless task as both the previous writers soon discovered.

  3. Garen Ewing is the real expert on the Afghan Wars - even invited onto the Beeb once, I believe, to talk about it. So juxtaposing those 19th century struggles with the situation today could be interesting. On the other hand - Garen, if you're reading this - I guess Rainbow Orchid doesn't leave a lot of time for another major comic project!

  4. Quite true, Dave - though the Second Anglo-Afghan War did creep into one panel in Rainbow Orchid, and also opened my DFC strip (as a flashback). Maybe one day...

    Another super post, Peter :-) (I may not comment often, but I check in every now and then and catch up!)

  5. Ooh - forgot to say - a recent-ish edition of Commando (no.4156) had a Second Afghan War-set story called The Fighting Sapper.

  6. Great to hear from you Garen and needless to say I'm looking forward with much anticipation, bated breath even, to the second thrilling volume of The Rainbow Orchid