A New Year's Gift

In ten years of writing this column I've made some interesting connections with people. I've corresponded with many of the artists and writers that I idolized in the seventies, I've renewed acquaintances with childhood friends, and --this always floors me-- Google occasionally leads people to me as being some sort of pop culture expert.

The trouble is, I am not really a comics expert, at least not in my circle. I know dozens of people whose expertise dwarfs mine in many areas. Tony Isabella and Scott Shaw both know way more about monster comics than I do, Win Eckert is far more conversant with the Wold Newton Universe than I am, and there's simply no one to touch my friend Kurt Mitchell when it comes to Golden Age superheroes (Kurt's the guy Roy Thomas consults, for crying out loud.) The only pop-culture areas where I'd truly claim expert-level knowledge are Batman, James Bond, and 1970s Marvel books... with a special emphasis on Conan the Barbarian and the other Robert E. Howard stuff. And even there I can think of six or seven friends who are more knowledgeable than I am. The best you can say for me is that I'm a well-read generalist, most of the time.

But the thing about being a generalist is I tend to write about all sorts of odd things, and quite a lot of the time, I'm the ONLY guy writing about them. Certainly I'm the only one here at CBR who's done columns on things like the paperback cover paintings of Robert McGinnis, or Tom Tyler's turns as the Phantom and Captain Marvel, or Bill Finger's final Batman script.

Which is how it happened that a nice lady named Cynthia Baseler wrote to me about Burr Shafer.

Burr Shafer is largely forgotten today, but throughout the forties and fifties up until his death in 1965, his cartoons could be found everywhere. He was one of the go-to guys for The Saturday Evening Post and The New Yorker. He was most famous for his creation of J. Wesley Smith, a well-meaning doofus who would pop up throughout history to say something inane to famous names of the time.

The Smith cartoons were gathered into two book collections. Through History With J. Wesley Smith and Through MORE History with J. Wesley Smith.

They aren't hot-ticket items, really. There aren't enough of us left that remember J. Wesley. A nice hardcover of either one, with the jacket in good condition, might set you back twenty, twenty-five dollars.

As you may imagine, Burr Shafer and his creation were adored by school librarians. I made the acquaintance of J. Wesley Smith in the seventh grade Reading Center, in this abridged collection from Scholastic.

I loved the book and reread it many times at school, but I never sought out a copy to own myself. Then I was off to high school and reading pulps and sword-and-sorcery and the hot mess that was 1970s Marvel, and Burr Shafer's gag cartoons were soon forgotten.

I didn't think about Burr Shafer for the next thirty-five years or so. But then Julie found the other abridged Scholastic for me at Goodwill and brought it home because she thought I might like it.

My junior high memories came flooding back. It was such fun to get re-acquainted with Shafer and Smith that I wrote about Shafer here in the column.

And that column led Ms. Baseler to me. Turns out that she had a couple of Burr Shafer original pieces she was looking to get rid of that had originally belonged to her grandmother. Here is the lot, with her commentary....

1. The manila folder from my grandmother (Helen Kowalka, lived in southern California.)

2. a small “invitation” front and back -seems like it is an original signature from Burr Schafer’s wife as you can feel it through to the other side- presumably to an event, a gallery showing, an auction, I don’t really know what it was.

I guess this is where they went and bought the cartoons. The only other thing not scanned was a small bit of paper which looks like it had directions of how to get to the place.

3. a blue paper, photocopied, there are two copies in the folder… maybe they got them at the event where they bought the cartoons.

4. Two cartoons - front and back, purchase info on back?

They are in pretty good condition, on thin shiny paper of some sort, and unlike the scan, the back info is not really visible from the front.

That's all the information I have! My grandparents often “collected” artworks, and often thought they would be very valuable- but thats a relative term! If you do sell them, I’d be curious how much you get for them, but they are yours to do with as you please. Do please enjoy in one way or another!

Well, there's no way I'm selling them. They go up framed on the office wall. I felt guilty about accepting such a generous gift and sent her a couple of links to auction sites that offered Shafer originals, but she didn't want to bother and insisted I take them. I did persuade Cynthia to accept a signed book of mine as a quid pro quo. She should get something.

Anyway, more people should see them, so I thought I'd share them here as well. Thank you again, Ms. Baseler. I hope you like the book as much as I am enjoying these.

And everyone else, happy New Year, and I'll see you next week.

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