Terr’ble Thompson by Gene Deitch

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The Real-Great Adventures of Terr’ble Thompson! Hero of History!
By Gene Deitch
Fantagraphics Books

Terr’ble Thompson CoverIt would seem, upon first impression, that Fantagraphics is beginning to scrape the bottom of the barrel in their admirable, if Sisyphian task to put every piece of sequential art ever printed back in to circulation. They’re well into Schulz and Ketchum’s canons. The Complete Crumb project is into its 17th volume, with an equally endless number of sketchbook releases supplementing each new book, amassing a printed oeuvre of work that few aging hippies who don’t own their own Vermont-based ice cream manufacturing company can afford.

Where does all of this leave us now? Staring at the brightly-colored cover of The Real-Great Adventures of Terr’ble Thompson: Hero of History, which bears the surprisingly earnest tag line, ‘The Most Obscure Strip of the 1950s Rescued at Last.’ Well, earnest until you realize that its boldly self-proclaimed its own obscurity is perhaps one of the book’s most immediately strong selling points. The other is that, while most contemporary comic book collectors will likely not immediately recognize Gene Deitch’s name from the output of his lengthy career, they will perhaps be quite able to link his surname to fellow Fantagraphics artist, Kim Deitch.

Kim, it turns out, is Deitch’s son. The elder Deitch has had a long career in the animation game, working on Tom and Jerry, Popeye, and Krazy Kat shorts, and directing the 1961 Oscar-winning short, Munro, alongside scriptwriter, Jules Feiffer, who also saw the release of his illustration masterpiece, The Phantom Tollbooth that same year. Terr’ble Thompson himself, would later morph into the more successful (and not coincidentally less unfortunately named) animated short star, Tom Terrific, who would later make his debut on Captain Kangaroo.

When he was first launched in 1955, Terr’ble Thompson’s tagline was a, not surprisingly a touch more optimistic that its 2007 counterpart. ‘The Exciting New Concept in Comics,’ reads the top of a promotional page. And why wouldn’t the forces behind it be indulged unflagging optimism? Deitch after all, was an unquestionably talented artist, launching his strip in the wake of Peanuts and Dennis the Menace, two wildly popular strips that followed the exploits of young children. A year before, Deitch had been in Arthur Shimkin’s studio, watching Art Carney record voices for a Terr’ble Thompson Golden Books record.

Six months after his comic debut, however, Terr’ble Thompson was cut down in his prime. The final panel from the April 15, 1956 strip ends with Thompson’s mother asking, ‘do you think he’ll come back?’ The answer was a resounding ‘no,’ and the Thompson strip, like the acetate pressings of that 1954 Golden Books recording, was locked up in the vaults.

What we’re left with then, in the just over 100 pages of Fantagraphics’ book, is in essence the entire history of Terr’ble Thompson—supplemented by Deitch’s recent rediscovery of possibly the only copy of the Golden Books musical in existence, which is available as a free download, over at Fantagraphics’ site, and anyone with even a passing interest in the subject matter is strongly advised to have a listen. The audio is broken up into two parts. The first is a fascinating intro by Deitch, explaining the genesis of the strip, and the story behind the record. The second is the musical, which, in its entirety, lasts some nine minutes.

The strip’s plot of is a retroactively familiar one, which predates the similar adventures of Mr. Peabody and his boy sidekick by half a decade: a red-haired boy travels through time, rubbing elbows with historical figures—a white dog sidekick, incidentally, was about to be introduced around the time of the strip’s cancellation. An occasional subplot, featuring his seemingly oblivious parents predates the adventures of Dexter, the red-haired, pint-sized Stephen Hawking by some four decades. Whether this all qualifies as the ‘Exciting New Concept’ that it’s billed as is up for debate, but one thing seems for certain: it was a strong and novel enough a concept to have kept the script going for far longer than its half-year-long run.

The real appeal to the strip, however is Deitch’s artwork. It’s very much of its time, while appearing to starkly contrast other strips of its age. Deitch’s simplistically curvy line style seems to have more in common with the cartoon advertising the late-50s and 60s than the characters that shared news pages. Terr’ble Thompson and friends seemed to share a lot more aesthetics with Tony the Tiger and Quisp than Charlie Brown and Snoopy. And where the black-and-white panels do a lot to demonstrate his fairly unique line, it’s the color pages that really jump. Deitch fills his pages with color—sharp, bright, contrasting colors, which, had he used his powers to move product, would have sure whet droves of young palates for sugary breakfast cereals.

With forwards by Deitch and cartoonist son, Kim, an afterword by Ganzfield publisher, Dan Nadel, sketches, and other supplements, Fantagraphics’ miniature anthology is well worth a look for any fans of newspaper strips from the era, and makes a surprisingly strong argument for the strip as a lost masterpiece.

–Brian Heater

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