Feb/Mar 2009

Sucker Punch

Comic-book hero herbie was fueled by magic lollipops

Dan Nadel


The first thing to know about Herbie Popnecker is that he’s a good-for-nothing—a fat layabout who doesn’t say much. The other thing to know is that he’s feared and respected the world over. Occasionally. He’s also basically a god. Or at least that’s how Richard Hughes (writing under the name Shane O’Shea) and Ogden Whitney depict him. Herbie first appeared in 1958 in issue 73 of Forbidden Worlds, an anthology title released by the second-tier publishing outfit American Comics Group. It was an otherwise throwaway story called “Herbie’s Quiet Saturday Afternoon,” one not much different from the whimsical fantasies ACG trafficked in. Setting a thematic precedent for the Herbie comics to come, the tale finds the young man being berated by his father (later named Pincus) for his laziness, but Herbie goes on, in just five pages, to tame a tiger, rescue a drowning senator, and rebuff an alien invasion—all via magic lollipops that bestow on him any power he needs. In 1964, after other intermittent appearances, this roly-poly god-in-disguise finally got his own comic book, and these stories have been collected in two superb hardcover editions, with a third and final volume due out later this year.

Herbie is the result of a perfect match between the sensibilities of Hughes and Whitney, just as later Marvel titles, such as The Fantastic Four, would represent a meld of Jack Kirby’s and Stan Lee’s individual talents. Hughes, born in 1909, began his comics career in 1943, as an editor at what became ACG, and he stayed with the company until its demise in 1967. Through thousands of stories and under dozens of pseudonyms, in every genre from western to horror to crime to the supernatural, he specialized in put-upon though appealing protagonists, underdogs who somehow always came out, if not on top, then just about even.

Whitney, born in 1918, started drawing comics in 1939, at the dawn of the modern industry, for what would become DC Comics. After a brief time there, he wrote and drew a feature called Skyman, about a fairly undistinguished flying hero, for Columbia Comics Corporation, but after an enforced break, which came with his service in World War II, he returned to the business with a smoother style, seemingly having grown into his talent in the interim. In 1950, Whitney joined up with ACG and, like Hughes, worked in every genre comics could offer. He excelled at romance stories, becoming known for his curvaceous, Amazonian women and perpetually flummoxed men. Yet these romances (written by Hughes) are tales of distress, not soft-focus daydreams; hearts are broken, men and women cry, and a pungent air of sexual anxiety fills the air. (Echoes of this work are most notable today in the comics of Jaime Hernandez, who has adapted Whitney’s simplified body language and steady pacing for his stories of romance and adventure.)

During this period, Whitney solidified what would be his last and best drawing style. His brushy, luscious line became stiff and uniform, and where he once broke panel borders and created dynamic angles, he now adopted a more muted approach, capturing scenes matter-of-factly. Content, too, became generic: Every boss is bald and plump and chomps a cigar, every businessman looks like Rock Hudson, and every office and home is straight out of the Sears catalog. Whitney’s world was a whitewashed utopia, but one so bland as to be compelling in its plainness. In the context of Herbie (the character is said to have been modeled on the artist himself as a kid), Whitney’s style is especially apt. He renders the fantastic and the banal in the same manner; the deadpan expression of a space creature is identical to that of a shop clerk. Much as Herbie’s emotions never waver, neither does Whitney’s pen line—this in contrast to his more popular contemporaries Jack Kirby, who created hyperkinetic scenarios, and Wally Wood, whose baroque details magnificently choked his panels with information.

Herbie, whose every escapade resembles the Peter Sellers film The Party—a constant barrage of personages bumping into one another, led by a single, charismatic fool—has some incredible adventures. While he’s initially just a regular kid, the series finds him adopting a persona called the Fat Fury, who appears in even-numbered issues. This development was no doubt Hughes’s idiosyncratic response to the superhero craze spurred on by popular titles like The Incredible Hulk, The Uncanny X-Men, and Spider-Man. Herbie’s exploits nearly always involve space and time travel and his masterful control of all beings. In his debut issue alone, he is called to the White House by LBJ, travels to Russia to meet Khrushchev, defeats a dragon in medieval England, and charms Ladybird Johnson. Always alert to his historical moment, Herbie had, just a couple years earlier, heeded the call of JFK and charmed Jackie. Even when his adventures are more prosaic, his creators add a healthy dose of absurdity: In issue 2, his pursuit of the master thief the Man in the Cloak includes a jailbreak, a ride on two birds, and the usual conversations with animals. Hughes’s dialogue is similarly brisk and funny: When Herbie’s mother mentions that walking might “Help you—er—reduce!” Herbie thinks, “Reduce, Re-schmuce . . .” and shuffles along. Hughes often employs multiple genres in a single story, as if reshuffling and rehashing his entire comics career in just sixteen pages. This results in highly enjoyable western-romance-medieval-superhero-crime-supernatural stories worth marveling at as sheer feats of authorial engineering. In issue 7’s “Good Old Peepwhistle,” for example, Hughes riffs on the teen genre as Herbie, graduating from high school, thinks, “Not figuring on anymore schooling. Got important things to do . . . Like improving the world.” When Pincus protests, Herbie weighs his options by getting advice from Harry Truman and the “wize ol’ owl” and by visiting his father’s alma mater. Here, we take an abrupt left turn into the usual romance, as Herbie charms a woman who, it’s claimed, “hates every male alive,” and then we leap into fantasy/adventure as Herbie digs for oil, foils a plot by demons in Hades, and rides to the end of the story on a geyser of crude.

Against Hughes’s manic silliness, Whitney’s visual work is clear and confident. After all, every comedy duo has a straight man—someone to balance the hysteria and ground the act in reality. Had Hughes’s scripts been rendered in a similarly wacky style, they might have lost much of their humor: It’s the contrast between the absurdity of the situations and the flatness of the art that makes this engine run. And for twenty-three issues, it hummed along, Whitney apparently giving up his other freelance gigs to dedicate himself to Herbie, and Hughes cramming every last idea from his journey through comic books into the tightly packed tales. Herbie developed a cult and was somewhat popular in its time, but when ACG’s fortunes declined, the comic went down with the company and was mostly forgotten. The duo’s partnership ended with the title’s cancellation in 1967. Whitney eked out a living for a couple more years working for Marvel and Tower, before falling victim to alcoholism. When his wife died at the end of the decade, he fell apart, perishing in an institution sometime in the early ’70s. Hughes lived until 1974, answering letters of complaint at Gimbels department store. One hopes those missives had as much as flair as his comics work. Neither man was ever formally interviewed, and little solid information about their private lives exists—a shame, as together they carved out a wonderful body of work that deserves its rediscovery and recognition. These are essential comics, genuinely absurdist fun, and nothing like them existed before or has since. Seek them out and spend some time with that rotund good-for-nothing Herbie Popnecker.

Dan Nadel is the author of Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries 1900–1969 (Abrams, 2006) and an editor of Where Demented Wented: The Art and Comics of Rory Hayes (Fantagraphics, 2008).

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