The Library of American Comics have published a number of comic strip collections through IDW including Terry & the Pirates, Little Orphan Annie, and Bloom County. This month, they bring us Jack Kent’s King Aroo which may well be the best comic strip that you’ve never heard of. Westfield’s Roger Ash recently contacted Bruce Canwell, Associate Editor of The Library of American Comics, to learn more about this exciting new book.
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Westfield: Jack Kent and King Aroo aren’t that well known today. What can you tell us about both of them?
Bruce Canwell: Roger, here’s why comics readers will love finding out about Jack Kent — he was one of us! He absolutely adored comics. In his teenage years, during the mid-’30s, he was part of the very first generation of fans… some wags might even say he was part of the first generation of fanboys. He referred to himself as “Texas Jack” in letters he wrote to all the major comic strip artists (this was all a few years before Action Comics #1, remember, so comic strips, not comic books, ruled the day). His letters were brimming with boyish enthusiasm, they showed how carefully he studied all the strips, he outrageously flattered the artists, and he always asked them to send him an original piece of artwork. His approach worked – seventy-five percent of the artists to whom he wrote sent responses that included autographs, pictures, and yes, original strips or drawings. Jack built a sizable collection in only about a year’s time! He ended up on Milton Caniff’s Christmas card list. He got letters and long-distance phone calls from George Herriman. All the while, Kent kept honing his own artistic skills until finally, he made it: he sold King Aroo and graduated from the ranks of the fans to the ranks of the pros.
If you’ve ever worked hard on your drawing or writing or inking skills in hopes of breaking into comics, Jack Kent’s story is your story. Heck, if you’re a professional who worked long and hard to earn your role in comics, Jack Kent’s story is YOUR story, too.
Of course, there’s a lot more to his life than “fan makes good”… but of course, you have to read my text feature to find out the rest!
Now, about King Aroo. The strip ran for over fifteen years, from 1950 into1965, though it did not enjoy wide circulation for much of its run (Kent later joked King Aroo made him “world famous for blocks around”). It’s a whimsical fantasy set in the tiny kingdom of Myopia, where King Aroo and his faithful – if sometimes grouchy – retainer Yupyop are the only humans. Our first volume includes stories about magic spells gone wrong, trips to neighboring lands (such as The Kingdom Next Door), and simple slices of life about the King and his Myopean subjects. The main thing each of these stories has in common is, they’re all really, really funny!
Westfield: Who are some of the other characters in the strip?
Canwell: We’ve talked a bit about King Aroo and Yupyop. Another major character is the kangaroo postman, Mr. Pennipost, who carries the mail (and lots of other things) in his pouch. Kent once said he was relieved none of his readers ever complained about Mr. Pennipost’s gender, since in real life, only female kangaroos have pouches.
Wanda Witch is a good girl practicing black magic – and the results of her spells prove she needs plenty of practice! Professor Yorgle is the resident know-it-all (well, know-some-of-it, anyway). Mr. Elephant is as gentle as he is big, because he simply forgets to be angry. And there’s also Drexel the Dragon, because what’s a fantasy kingdom without a dragon?
There are plenty of clever, engaging “guest stars,” too, My favorites include Sally Peep (a descendent of Little Bo who loses her sheep – in a poker game), the ibex who was reared by moles and grew up to be afraid of heights, and Abou Ben Riley, who was named after a then-famous jazz drummer (and not Peter Parker’s clone). Abou Ben flies into Myopia inside his flying carpetbag – which is so much safer than a flying carpet, donchaknow.
Westfield: What about King Aroo appeals to you?
Canwell: I’ll point to three things that make King Aroo stand out. First, Jack Kent’s artwork is casual yet fluid, almost graceful; it perfectly captures the light-heartedness of the strip. Kent’s writing is clever and sharp, his characters endearing and funny. Good art plus good story equals good comics!
Second, I love how King Aroo appeals to readers of all ages. This summer I read all the 1950-1952 strips, some of them for the very first time, and I was constantly entertained. I have three nieces and nephews who are all now teenagers, but I think they’ll enjoy King Aroo as much as I do. And in April, I’ll become an uncle again (the younger of my two sisters is expecting her first) – I’m picturing a few years from now, when my new nephew or niece and I are cracking up as we read about the King and Yupyop and Mr. Elephant together.
Finally, I see touches of many other terrific works in King Aroo; Jack Kent learned from others as he was developing his own singular style. “Texas Jack” corresponded with George Herriman, and there are definite echoes of Krazy Kat in King Aroo. Walt Kelly once offered Kent an assistant’s job on Pogo; Kent turned that down, but incorporated some of Kelly’s storytelling devices into his own work. It’s not often mentioned, but I also see traces of Peanuts in King Aroo – Sparky Schulz was a Jack Kent fan, and the admiration ran both ways. That said, I think King Aroo‘s closest comparison is with TV’s Bullwinkle And Rocky. They both have different levels of appeal for a variety of age groups, and both succeed in never talking down to anyone in the audience. That’s a tough trick to pull off, but Jay Ward does it in Bullwinkle, and Jack Kent does it equally well in King Aroo.
Westfield: There are always great extras in the Library of American Comics books. What can you tell us about the extras in this volume?
Canwell: As you noted at the outset, Roger, not much has been published about Jack Kent. There are some brief biographical pages on the Web. Jeet Heer and Tom Devlin published short articles in years past. Back in 1986, King Aroo was cover featured in issue # 21 of Nemo Magazine. Beyond that, not much… until now.
Library of American Comics Editorial Director Dean Mullaney and I have done a lot of research about Kent, and we’ve unearthed plenty of fascinating biographical material for our readers, much of it never previously discussed in those past articles. Volume One of King Aroo will also mark the first time Dean and I have been able to directly work with an artist’s descendants – Jack Kent passed away in 1985, but he is survived by a son, nephews, and a niece. Kent’s son and the older of his two nephews have worked extensively with us, providing invaluable first-hand insights as well as many of the photographs and pieces of original art that will accompany our text pages. Jack’s son also provided us the original proofs from the McClure Syndicate, from which we’ve shot the strips for the first book. King Aroo readers will owe Jack’s relatives a big vote of thanks for helping us tell Kent’s story and showcase his delightful work.
Westfield: The Library of American Comics has done both collections of well known comics such as Family Circus and Little Orphan Annie, as well as little-known strips like King Aroo. How do you decide what strips to collect?
Canwell: That’s an easy one! Dean and I do the strips we enjoy that are not already being done by other publishers. Sometimes we miss out – only days after we started talking about the possibility of reprinting Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs & Captain Easy, Fantagraphics Books announced their Captain Easy series. It’s always a little disappointing not to get to do a given series, but then I put on my reader’s hat and recognize we’re all fortunate that publishers such as Fantagraphics, Sunday Press, Checker, Classic Comics Press, and others do such fine work. The strips that don’t come to us all end up in very good homes.
And certainly, The Library of American Comics has plenty of projects coming out in 2010 and beyond! As soon as I finish work on King Aroo I’m ramping up on Li’l Abner, which we’ll be collecting in its entirety, with dailies and Sundays published together in each volume for the first time. I’m really excited we’re reprinting Blondie by going all the way back to the strip’s beginnings, which are very different from the picture of the Bumsteads most readers carry in their heads – Mr. Dithers is a loooong way in Dagwood’s future! Then if the names “Bob Montana” and “Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson” mean anything to you, you can likely figure out two other projects we’ll be releasing, starting next summer — Montana’s Archie newspaper strip and Secret Agent Corrigan by Archie and Al. Whether your tastes run to Riverdale hijinx, super-spy intrigue, or something in-between, we’ve got you covered.
Westfield: Any closing comments?
Canwell: When we launched The Library of American Comics in 2007, I was honored to help build a definitive chronological collection of Terry And The Pirates. In 2008, it was like a treasure hunt unearthing artwork and facts about the great Noel Sickles for our Scorchy Smith release. In the first part of 2009, researching, editing, and writing about George McManus and Zeke Zekley for our first Bringing Up Father volume was a tremendous amount of fun. But in some ways King Aroo is the most fulfilling project of them all, because the strip is outstanding fun, Jack Kent’s life story is so interesting, and we’re hoping to give an important but often neglected comics series the attention it so richly deserves. I know these days money is tight, and many folks are reluctant to take a chance on something new, but I’m hoping against hope readers will give King Aroo a try, because I think they’ll grow to love it as much as I do!