Thursday, June 18, 2009

Harvey Comics Classics Volume 5: The Harvey Girls

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of Harvey Comics Classics Volume 5: The Harvey Girls (Dark Horse, 2009).

Hmmmm. It's very difficult to nail down exactly what's wrong with this collection. There's a lot that's wrong with the whole series, frankly. Across five volumes, Dark Horse has reprinted close to 2400 pages of classic Harvey Comics, but the whole enterprise has been two or three steps away from an ideal bookshelf collection. It's a case where the best, most honest intentions of editor Leslie Cabarga and essayist Jerry Beck have run smack into reality's ugly wall: these weren't the best comics in the world, and Harvey Entertainment's incredibly poor service of their trademarks over the last twenty years has meant an uphill climb for Dark Horse to sell anything with these characters' names on them.

The result, for the fifth and final volume in the series, is incredibly disappointing. To be fair, after two pretty good collections (Casper the Ghost and Richie Rich), the rot set in with the third book, spotlighting Hot Stuff. I struggled through that collection last year and couldn't even finish half of it. It was so monotonous and dull that neither of my kids could enjoy it, either. Then came a fourth volume, spotlighting the baffling Baby Huey, a character that extensive anecdotal questioning has proved that nobody on the planet would admit to ever liking. I never read a Baby Huey comic in my life before the release of that book. I decided as a kid that the character looked stupid and went on with my business of having Shogun Warriors knock over dinosaurs with flying fists. A thumb through the Dark Horse release last year suggested that my seven year-old self had been right all along.

The problem is this: the Little Audrey, Little Dot and Little Lotta stories which all share space in this last 480-page book are mostly a lot more fun than anything in the Hot Stuff or Baby Huey books. I'm not saying these are high art, or even the best kiddie funnybooks around, but I was mostly entertained looking through this collection. Any one of the three characters could have headlined a far more entertaining book than either the Hot Stuff or the Baby Huey one. But after those two collections seemed to flop - anecdotally, I know of one comic shop that did not order volume five at all after poor sales of the previous two - Dark Horse really didn't seem to put a lot of muscle behind the marketing of this book.

After all, while "extensive" - you know I'm kidding when I talk like this, right? - research has turned up absolutely no fans of Baby Huey whatsoever, the same research has turned up absolutely nobody on the planet who admits to even having heard of Little Dot before our friends at Mr. Kitty turned our attention to this oversight. Clearly, the planet has been missing out. Despite her two decade run in comics, Harvey has done such a godawful job keeping their characters in the public eye that she and all of her hundreds of weird uncles and aunts have been completely forgotten. That's not how it should be: the comics are pretty fun distractions, and they went over far better with my daughter than the turgid Hot Stuff. Somebody should have spent the last thirty years putting out Little Dot reprints and toys keeping this character hot, so that a $20 480-page collection of 1950s Little Dot comics would have been a foregone conclusion.

But in this market, I don't see how Dark Horse could justify such a book, especially if the rumored low sales of the third and fourth collections are true.

Honestly, I found a lot to like in most of these stories. Occasionally, the fanciful comedy involving animals was pretty eye-rolling. At one point, a fisherman lands a sawfish, who is very grumpy and runs around the boat using his tailfin like feet, much like those godawful Walter Lantz cartoons that used to waste precious afternoon minutes on UHF channels while you were waiting for something good to come on. There's a lot more of that in this book than you'd like, as befits 1950s kiddie comics with their ancestry in Paramount theatre cartoons. On the other hand, there's plenty of Audrey waging war against boys trying to keep her out of their clubhouse, and Lotta accidentally using her superhuman strength to bring office picnics and travelling carnies down around her ears, and it's mostly really good stuff that every parent should pick up. If you've got kids between five and ten, buy an extra copy for them to beat up and love, because this is a terrific set of stories for younguns, and an extremely good value for money.

As archival material goes, however, it is very far from ideal. I appreciate Dark Horse and Cabarga making the effort, but I do feel that a better book, and indeed a better series, eluded us. Recommended with the understanding that, if you're even half as nitpicky and easily frustrated as me, you won't stop thinking about how much better some alternate universe's Harvey series turned out. It's kind of tough to enjoy funnybooks when you're Monday-morning quarterbacking everything.

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