Dark Horse Comics continues to do God's work in bringing some of the great children's comics of the past back in print. First John Stanley's Little Lulu, then their Harvey Library Classics library reprints, and now the first volume of the Herbie Archives.
Richard Hughes and Ogden Whitney's Herbie is one of those curious older comics, meant for children certainly, but so strange and just. . . off, that no one who read an issue, either in its original form or in one of the sporadic reprints over the years, has forgotten it.
Herbie Popnecker is a little boy living in a nondescript early '60s neighborhood with nondescript '60s parents. He's not much to look at, rotund with Moe Howard hair, Coke bottle glasses, and a constant uniform of blue slacks, white shirt and tie. Scott Shaw!'s informative introduction suggests that the artist Ogden Whitney was drawing a portrait of himself as a child. Sad if true.
In an interesting twist on the usual bland family relationships in most children's comic books, Herbie's father is portrayed as despising his son. In almost every story, Dad mocks Herbie for his weight and what he thinks is his son's slothfulness. This is probably the most jarring aspect of the comic, the one element that could never appear in a children's comic book today. Here it plays matter of factly.
And of course, in a time honored tradition, Mom and Dad are the only ones who don't realize that their son is special. You see, with the help of the super-powered lollipops he keeps in a drawer in his room (I said this book was strange), Herbie can fly, go back through time, walk under the ocean, turn himself invisible, and do whatever else creators O'Shea and Whitney could come up with.
On top of that, Herbie is irresistible to women, Jackie Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson most prominently in this volume, but since girls are icky, he doesn't return their affection.
Whitney was not a flashy artist, but he did have a facility with celebrity faces. Herbie runs into many of the political leaders of the day, Kennedy, LBJ, Churchill, Mao, Khrushchev, Castro, Churchill, and they are all instantly recognizable. And of course, they know Herbie on sight.
As do the monsters who realize their time has come the second they see the little monosyllabic fat boy with the lollipop in his mouth. The best stories in the book have the loose, riffed feel of a daydream: what if Herbie went to Camelot, or to Hell, or into outer space.
My only hesitation about Herbie Archives Volume 1 is selfish. I wish there was more of it. I wonder whether it would have been better served as a phone-book style black and white reprint, which is what Dark Horse has done with the Little Lulu and Harvey reprints. Furthermore, the entry cost of the full bore color hardback archives approach might be too steep for someone on a budget who doesn't already know about the goodness that's in here. As with a lot of the artists of this period, Whitney's work is so clean that it wouldn't lose much without the color.
But with that said, this book is certainly worth the price. The coloring is wonderful. It hasn't been cleaned up too much, so the pages have the look of a slightly decayed comic, what you might have in your hand if you shelled out the cash for a copy for one of the issues at your local comics dealer.
As Herbie says in the promotional art for issue #4, "Of course, you don't have to buy it -- you can be stupid. Only means blood, fractures, teeth scattered around, not nice."