Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips, Volume 1, by Roy Crane. Fantagraphics.
The material collected in this book has been bubbling under the surface of the Golden Age of Reprints for years now. Roy Crane's gotten quick but reverent mentions that cast him as the godfather of American action comics in the supplements to important collections like the Noel Sickles compendium or the Complete Terry and the Pirates. The Crane material featured in Comics Revue was poorly printed but exciting, promising riches if we ever got high-quality reprints. This book popped up on Amazon and had a two-year tenancy in the Fantagraphics man-that-looks-great-I-wonder-if-it'll-ever-come-out purgatory. Now finally, amidst low buzz and Paul Pope and Art Spiegelman name-dropping, a collection of the first two-plus years of Captain Easy color Sundays by Crane has arrived: massive, beautiful, a comic ready to take on the world. And all the comics-cognoscenti anticipation that has built up around it is like blades of grass in the face of the stampede inside its covers. Nothing could have prepared anyone for this.
Captain Easy volume 1 is simply one of the best comics reprints of all time. It's an absolutely lush package, well over tabloid size, its decadent sprawl giving the material all the room it needs to impress, and then a little more just so it slams down a little harder. The production is utterly first-rate, with no stop left unpulled: die-cut corners, cloth binding, top-quality paper, and a perfect design scheme that gives equal mirror to the material's roughness and its sophistication. As an art book, its case is better than anything short of a Sunday Press release. As comics, it simply overpowers.
This book sees Roy Crane take his place with the great masters of American cartooning unearthed by the GARP's concerted archeologists. But what's especially fascinating about this book, not just as an artist's showcase but as positioned in a decade or so of reprint madness, is the context it gives the work inside. The pre-release press and conventional wisdom surrounding Crane is that he pointed the way toward a future that's till in full swing: that of the fightin'-mad hero. And make no mistake, there is much of that in Captain Easy, with hardly a strip going by without a fist slammed to someone's jaw, a machine-gun clip blasted into the jungle, or a biplane dogfight across screen-toned skies. Milton Caniff's vast influence suddenly has a direct antecedent -- add a few more blacks and some sex to Crane's globe-hopping pot-boiler and you have Terry and the Pirates, fully formed. It's one thing to read Gil Kane telling us "Batman was Captain Easy; Superman was Captain Easy," because after all, we hear stuff like that all the time. To see the feature's first Sundays of existence, however, and witness the exact facial expressions of Joe Shuster's Superman spreading across the title hero's mug, is something else entirely.
But Crane is much more than another Caniff lookalike, and nor does he deserve to be classed with the energetic primitives of the superhero Golden Age. Much as those aspects of the future are in him, Crane's work displays just as strong a debt to what came before him. Caniff and Sickles' illustrative/cinematic techniques are nowhere to be found here: instead, the layouts are pure early-1900s cartooning. This is masterfully simplified motion-drawing on a par with King and Herriman as much as it is action stories. Almost vaudevillian in presentation, the page constructions scrupulously place everything inside the panels, the straight-ahead, presentational aspect never cutting into the action in attempts to enhance it, but rather giving the figures a maximum of space to act upon, their full-body hyperbolic motions and cartoony gestures pointing back to early gag comics like Bud Fisher's Mutt and Jeff. Crane anchors his compositions with the drawing, not the camera angles, more interested in the speed and force that simple shapes and instant recognition can give his stories than in the potential obfuscations that tricky "impact shots" could bring to single panels. And the cool, considered quality of the backgrounds against the energy of the figures anticipates no less a talent than Herge, and indeed the entire "clear line" school of French comics.
There's impact enough in the pictures. Crane's drawing is a delight, as broadly cartooned as it's possible to get without yielding to distortion of forms. Minimal linework and figures that are equal parts bigfoot cartoon slam and simplified-realist grace form panels whose wide-open color vistas and hugely exaggerated motions scream from the pages, whipping the eye through running, leaping, tumbling action sequences that stop for nothing, barely pausing to catch their breath at the cliffhangers. Crane relies almost entirely on four types of shots: close-ups for emotion, two-shots for dialogue, panoramas for scene-setting, and full-body angles for action. It's a rhythm with just enough variation to never get old, the bare bones of all subsequent action storytelling laid out by a master, and Crane makes incredible things of his simple materials. Wide-angle shot after wide-angle shot shows the reader hundreds of miles of space in half a page before the camera pans desperately in for a monumental action sequence followed by the tortured facial expressions of a dramatic revelation; or the gorgeous backgrounds in a dialogue sequence will give way to the blocks of solid color that denote sudden, unseen danger.
Crane limits the amount of tools he has to play with: no tricky storytelling, no overdrawing, no excess at all. His minimalism is so gorgeously considered, though, that in the end it allows him to cram more pure information onto the page than any pre-Steranko action artist ever did. The use of simple figures against wide-open spaces lets Crane reduce his panels down to ideograms that carry no extra illustrative weight, only the message of what's going on. The pages are filled to the breaking point with plot and action, but they never seem weighed down: Crane was as aware as anyone before or since of the importance of white on the page, and he uses it deftly to make each sequence breathe, pushing the reader's eye through the plots all the faster with dropped backgrounds or completely blank skies. Everything about these pages is in service to the story, from the spontaneous, tumbling layouts to the figurework, its cartoon element making the characters move stronger and faster than even the best illustrative art could do.
But all the cartoon elements of the figures are deceptive. Crane's style is such that, his head-banging action sequences meld with visual world-building on par with that of arch-illustrators Hal Foster and Alex Raymond. Though he wants his pictures to move, Crane never sacrifices the illusion of reality: the motion he depicts is never set against the formless, stage-y background of early comics. Rather, he focuses on creating a maximum of scenery with a minimum of lines, trusting the lush, expansive color palette of '30s newspapers to do much of the heavy lifting, and creating what seems like a new shorthand trick every week. A barren Gobi Desert village is white space with clay bowls and skinny dogs scattered around in it. An Eastern European village is rolling hills and a few rococo window-frames. A thick jungle -- one tree drawn and the rest in brightly colored silhouette. It goes on like this. Crane has a fierce streak of the environmental cartoonist in him, going to great pains to evoke exotic lands rather than just showing them. The effect is not only the windswept movement in each panel; it's incredible cartooning, a veritable visual dictionary of scenes reduced to their purest, most indelible elements.
Of course, it would all be for naught if Crane's stories weren't interesting, but he proves just as much a writer of great cartoons as he is an artist of them. Captain Easy has the colloquial, breathless tone of the best early superhero material, with the narration's low-class, high-amplitude patois blending into Easy's own homespun voicings. There's less formal disconnect here between narration and dialogue than in any other action comic I can think of, and the impression is that of being told a yarn by a great raconteur, the authorial voice and its peculiarities dictating equally the flow of what happens and what the characters say about it. Crane's plotting adds to the wild-and-wooly feel of things, forever roving for the stickiest situation, the final exaggerated element to bring his boisterous battles and villainous machinations into the same overblown, sensational realm as his drawing.
Most entertainingly, Crane, in addition to being a master action writer, is a master digressor, willing to play a throwaway idea out to its veriest end if it interests him. The first Captain Easy strip features a panoramic sequence on the lost, mythical Chinese province of Gungshi, which the hero sets out for by the page's end. Of course, the journey there proves troublesome, and he lands to explore a mysterious city halfway, never getting around to finishing his quest. Instances of panel-to-panel storytelling are just as shot through with Crane's infectious impatience: there are hordes of characters to keep up with, no chance to draw animals goes untaken, and if the narration uses a bit of visual language, you'd better believe the art will mirror it. Easy's anthropomorphized heart literally swoons at the sight of a beautiful girl, an explanation of the Chinese natives' belief in a great devil-dragon is accompanied by massive picture of the Dr. Seussian beast, tail stranging the entire globe, and the comment that the strip's hero is "a man who laughs at death" comes with a panel of Easy guffawing in the face of a massive skull. It does wonders for the material's energy, never bogging down in the repetitive nature of action plots, and it's also a reminder of just how much comics can do, of how much farther out than books or movies the storytelling can go without losing the plot.
But Captain Easy isn't all vim and vigor. Crane excels at quieter, atmospheric sections too, whether they're slow, solemn, diving-suited observations of life beneath the waves in a sunken city, the white-knuckle gnaw of night in a jungle among headhunters, or the remote exhilaration of piloting a plane over the Himalayas. In moments like these the plot cools and thickens, allowing Crane's sumptuous brushwork and graceful, scratchy mark-making to simply transport us places we've never been, into the farthest reaches of the traveler's imagination. At their best, the more meditative sequences of Captain Easy have an expansive beauty and understated power like that seen in Japanese screen painting, or the landscapes of the old masters.
Every time a beautiful girl shows up (which is delightfully often), it's the same thing. Crane was obviously a great admirer of the female form, and his cartoon realism is never more impressive than when he's simplifying a bobbed, willowy shape down into demigoddess territory. Crane's illustrative side comes into play more often around women, too -- the many unforgettable close-up shots of his doe-eyed, ruby-lipped beauties are perhaps the one truly cinematic aspect of Captain Easy, the panels lingering like a movie camera over the lovely face of a Garbo or a Dietrich. Crane, ever the cartoonist, finds his most transcendent moments of beauty not in the breathtaking natural vistas he limns, but in the faces of the characters he animates.
Captain Easy is simply an incredible comic, a high-wire act by a master at the top of his game. Watching Crane fail to put a foot wrong over the two and a half years of comics collected here is certainly incredible -- but what really makes it something special is how he remains in total aesthetic control over comics that yell and kick so hard for expansion, for new horizons, for the faster, louder future they eventually gave birth to. An essential body of work by an essential creator, this beautiful book represents not just some of the best comics ever done, but a hugely important piece of our history restored to its rightful, majestic place. Crane's masterpiece is the most tangible link yet recovered between the comics medium's broad, cartooned, splashy past, and the more serious, action/plot-driven material that led the mainstream into its current environment. Whether you want to understand comics or just enjoy them, you need this book.