A King Comes to Print
Late in 2011, IDW released “Cartoon Monarch: Otto Soglow and the Little King.” Although collections are still in print in Portuguese and French, this is the first time that “The Little King” has been made available to the US public since the strip ended in the 1970’s. (Somebody correct me if I’m wrong). “Cartoon Monarch” collects dozens of “The Little King” strips, as well as a run of the off-shoot “The Ambassador.”
In the introduction, one of the editors mentioned that they first read Otto Soglow’s work in a collection of “The New Yorker” cartoons at the library (don’t get me started on “The New Yorker”). It was the same for me. After seeing “The Little King” in one such book, I looked up and down for a copy in print and found a Dell comic from the 1950’s titled “The Little King” and featuring the King, but obviously not written by Soglow. It was a standard Dell comic with a couple 10 page stories that cashed in on the popularity of the strip. I was disappointed. This collection of “The Little King” is the first time I’ve really been able to read the strip.
According to the introduction, Soglow got his start in leftist newspapers before moving on to “Collier’s” and “The New Yorker.” Soglow joined William Randolph Hearst’s King Features Syndicate. “The Little King” quickly became an advertising juggernaut, pitching everything from Standard Oil (BP, Exxon, Chevron) to Pepsi to toys.
There are hundreds of “The Little King” strips in “Cartoon Monarch.” The strips are presented in a very nice hardcover (IDW has really nailed publishing cartoons with class). The printing is nice and clean, so I assume they had to go back and clean up scans from old newspapers or whatever old copies they could find. I’m not sure why the publisher chose to print the first quarter of the book in color and the rest in black and white. It certainly does not detract from the book in any way, because I prefer black and white.
The introduction is nice because it includes some fun samples of Soglow’s work before “The Little King” as well as examples of his advertising. The introduction puts a little too much emphasis on Soglow’s early cartoons for politically left newspapers. There don’t seem to be many years in which he was cartooning for such papers, so the thesis that “The Little King” represented Soglow’s inner struggle between leftist social views and his marketing machine seems off. Soglow was all-in for making money.
Artistically, I enjoy looking at “The Little King.” The lines are tight, rigid, and mathematical. A lot of people, including the editors, think that Soglow is one of the most economical cartoonists out there. I disagree. Every strip has several unnecessary panels that add nothing to the final gag. Such panels are visually pleasing, but they serve only to show the process of the King as he drives in a car or walks past his guards or runs down a hallway (but mostly drives in a car). The whole strip could often be presented as the first panel and the final “shock” panel. This is not economical to me, which isn’t a bad thing because the art is pleasing.
There is one thing about the art that makes me cringe. When I’ve seen “The Little King” in microfiche, some of the pictures are very dated because they have racist images of Africans or people of African descent. Drawing an entirely black face with enormous white lips and a tiny cranium was pretty common in the 1930’s and Soglow wasn’t alone. The animated adventures of “The Little King” (another marketing ploy) had even worse images of African tribes-people, so the book, which has only one or two such images in the background, is relatively tame. I imagine the editors tried to keep those types of images out of the book, even though they are important from a historical and social perspective.
Soglow’s jokes are as consistent as his controlled lines. In each final-panel, the King is put in a very un-regal position, whether he is chasing a pretty blonde, joining a mob, or trying to put the Prince to bed. Each gag has a lot of build up and no disappointment. It’s not exactly a pantomime strip because most strips have speech that set up the scene; however, the words are sparse compared with other strips.
I’m very happy to finally have the chance to read a huge chunk of Otto Soglow’s strips.