October 15, 2009


The Upside-Down World of Gustave Verbeek: The Complete Sunday Comics 1903-1905. Edited by Peter Maresca. Sunday Press Books. $60.

     In the earliest years of newspaper comic strips, through the 1910s and even beyond, no one quite knew what to make of them. The result was an era of extraordinary inventiveness and exploration, with publishers allowing many artists to take up full Sunday newspaper pages – or at least half pages – for forays into everything from domestic strips to works so surrealistic that they might as well have sprung from the mind of René Magritte. The vast majority of the very early strips soon fell by the wayside and are virtually unknown today. Very few remember Harry Grant Dart’s weird “The Explorigator,” Herbert Crowley’s peculiarly poetic “The Wiggle Much,” Raymond Crawford Ewer and Stanley Armstrong’s strange slapstick “Slim Jim,” or Charles Forbell’s never-the-same-layout-twice “Naughty Pete.” Yet this era also included one of the very greatest strips of all time, Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” And it produced one of the most inventive and strange, Gustave Verbeek’s “The Upside Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo.”

     The inventiveness of Verbeek’s strip can scarcely be overstated. It was a six-panel work that was read in the usual way, then turned over and continued for an additional six panels of narrative – using the same art, but now upside-down. The notion of requiring newspaper readers to turn their paper the other way around in order to keep reading was revolutionary enough. The ability to create characters that would be inversions of each other – and a total of more than 60 stories whose narrative would work in this format – was nothing short of extraordinary. But that is just what Verbeek did during this strip’s run, from 1903 to 1905.

     Sunday Press Books, which has established itself as the preeminent restorer and reprinter of early comic-strip art, has now added The Upside-Down World of Gustave Verbeek to a catalogue that already includes collections of Winsor McCay (not only “Little Nemo” but also his less-known but almost equally delightful “Little Sammy Sneeze”) and Frank King (Sunday “Gasoline Alley” strips). Gorgeously produced in large enough pages to allow Verbeek’s comics to be restored to their original size, The Upside-Down World of Gustave Verbeek includes all the Lovekins/Muffaroo strips as well as a sampling of Verbeek’s other work. More than a century after Verbeek (1867-1937) drew these strips, their creativity remains astonishing – even after a reader looks carefully at them and discovers the many tricks Verbeek used to make the format work (including panels showing reflections, such as a lake; backgrounds such as brick walls; and characters with potato-shaped heads). What Verbeek did so well was to pull the artistic elements together to create a series of adventures – for these are adventure strips, despite their many amusing elements. In one, Lovekins and Muffaroo encounter a tiger and huge snake; in another, a “bad tramp” is a threat; an ostrich, a lion and an ogre are dangers elsewhere. Most of the strips lack dialogue, but when there is some, Verbeek letters it so it works upside-down in the second half of the strip – an amazing feat in itself. And there is an occasional panel that is hysterically funny, such as one in which Muffaroo and Lovekins try to grab a fish and end up in a three-character spinning wheel filled with hands, eyes and faces. The Upside-Downs really have to be seen to be believed.

     And it is doubly fascinating to see the strip in the context of Verbeek’s other work. This book includes some of Verbeek’s book illustrations, plus cartoons he drew for Judge magazine and, in Paris, for Le Chat Noir (including a hilarious sequence – risqué by U.S. standards – in which a naked man and woman paint bathing suits onto each other before going swimming in an area where nude bathing is not allowed). Verbeek’s later strips are represented, too: “The Loony Lyrics of Lulu” (1910), in which a girl and her father encounter weird creatures about which the girl writes limericks; and “The Terrors of the Tiny Tads” (1905-1914), Verbeek’s longest-running strip, in which four boys discover all sorts of weird creatures with portmanteau names: Hippopautomobile, Pantaloonatics, Flaminghost, Tamalligator (an alligator’s head with a tamale body!), a Dodoughnut and many more. The wordplay and clever drawings of these strips help explain their longevity and their popularity, for a time, as advertising vehicles (and, by the way, the cartoonist spelled his name “Verbeck” for this series).

     The Upside-Down World of Gustave Verbeek also includes essays that put Verbeek and his work into perspective; an amusing newspaper article about the artist becoming a U.S. citizen (he was of Dutch ancestry but was born in Nagasaki and, because of an oddity in law, was considered a Japanese citizen – at a time when Japanese were ineligible for U.S. citizenship); and many more tidbits that make the book endlessly and delightfully fascinating. The world may have turned upside-down in the century since Verbeek drew his upside-down strips, but his version of an upside-down world remains as enthralling today as it did in those heady early days of newspaper comics.

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