I keep having ideas about where my recent interest in newspaper comic strips is going to wind down... and then I unearth something from our comic art collection at work and have to completely reassess my plans. I knew practically nothing about Roy Crane's Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy comic strips when I began sorting the collection; after browsing through just a sampling of the strip, I knew I had to see more for myself - and from the comfort of my home!
The advertisements for Fantagraphics's Roy Crane's Captain Easy Soldier of Fortune: the Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips Volume 1, 1933-1935 (deep breath) didn't do the tome justice; as you can see above, it's a beautiful big hardcover book, measuring 15 inches high. Gosh, I love giant comics.
In fiction, I find myself more interested in seeing where ideas originated as opposed to where they are now; so often I find authors borrowed concepts from creators who inspired them while those inspirations themselves delve back even further. Having already seen where much of the development of the adventure strip came from while reading Terry and the Pirates, I was interested to look back even further to Captain Easy. This is probably where my journey ends unless I develop a sudden yen to read Hairbreadth Harry.
To those who know nothing of Captain Easy (I was one of you some 6 months ago): Captain Easy began as a supporting character in Roy Crane's humour/adventure strip Wash Tubbs circa 1929, proving to be far more macho than the strip's own hero; in 1933, Crane began featuring Easy in his own strip on Sundays while Tubbs held down the daily strip. Captain Easy was one of the earliest adventure strips and also among the most influential. Like a progential Indiana Jones, Easy traipses across the globe looking for adventure, rare artifacts and lost civilizations - but his primary objective is to make some money. He has no particular need of the money, spending what he makes on just having a good time and funding further adventures. He's essentially a hand-to-mouth adventurer.
And yet, despite his mercenary origins, Easy has a heart; when the slave girl Rose Petal insists on being his property he repeatedly refuses her: "...You're free. I won't have you for a slave. Understand?" The monarch Mogul tries to put Easy to death but later needs Easy's help to escape a bandit hoarde; rather than abandon him, Easy first smuggles food to Mogul, then breaks him out from the bandits and carries on to save Mogul's life several times over.
In the course of this tome, Easy goes treasure hunting in a remote part of China, only to be forced to aid the local emperor against the greater threat of mountain bandits; next, Easy acquires a slave and carries her home, enduring attacks by pirates and thieves; following this, Easy goes diving for treasure in a sunken city but attracts the attention of a fierce tribe of warriors and another band of pirates; finally, Easy helps a princess return to her eastern European kingdom only to be thrown into local intrigue when a nobleman challenges him to a duel, then plunges the entire nation into war!
Although Captain Easy is a mix of humour and adventure, the war storyline at the end of the book becomes a little more grim than typical episodes; the above sequence is like a very twisted Looney Tunes cartoon - first soldiers depart on a train; second, dead soldiers are sent back on a train complete with cars marked "Without Legs" and "Without Arms;" third, a body is strewn over barbed wire. By 1935, obviously the fear of another World War was on people's minds and here Crane seemed to be channeling the horrors of World War I, which is what people would have anticipated seeing replayed (but as Will Rogers said, "You can't say that civilization don't advance, however, for in every war they kill you in a new way.").
After the increasingly-realistic efforts of Milt Caniff, it's something to go back to Crane and see how while he used realism in some things (such as the European castles or industrial factories), he usually eschewed realism. Animals (including bears, elephants and tigers) tend to be very cartoony; the horrors of war seen above are also depicted in very simple and (darkly) comical lines. Rather than realism, Crane's strip seems to have had its own continuity of form and design and stuck with it. It certainly suits the high-flying adventurous spirit of the strip - and of Captain Easy himself.
Captain Easy is well-aged fun and Fantagraphics seems to have done right by it; highly recommended!