Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips Vol. 2 (1936-1937)by Roy Crane; edited by Rick NorwoodFantagraphics Books, 156 pages, $39.99
Roy Crane may have been one of the progenitors of the adventure comic strip, but he stood quite apart from those who followed in his wake.
While the people who picked up his torch -- folks like Milton Caniff, Hal Foster, Burne Hogarth, Alex Raymond and the like -- shared a fondness for the same genre trappings -- exotic locales, tough guy leading men, crazy cliffhangers, bursts of fisticuffs and pretty girls -- those artists were devotees of a highly illustrative, almost photo-realistic style. It was a style that quickly became one of the most predominant in the medium, at least where melodrama was concerned, as folks like Raymond influenced folks like Joe Kubert, Alex Toth and Neal Adams, who then influenced folks like George Perez and John Romita Jr. and so forth and so on, until we end up at Rob Liefeld on one end and Greg Land on the other.
But unlike all of those folk, Crane was a cartoonist of the big foot, "plop" pratfall school, less interested in perfectly capturing than in giving a guy a funny potato nose or having stars appear in circles around someone's noggin after getting whacked upside the head with a bat or broom or even a walking cane. He was just as interested in a quick, and maybe even occasionally cheap, laugh as he was at chronicling the rip-roaring adventure stuff.
That's nowhere more evident than in Captain Easy Vol. 2, the second and latest collection of Sunday strips following Crane's titular swashbuckling Southern gentleman. In the first collection, Easy was more or less the central focus of the strip, as he discovered lost civilizations, searched for underwater treasure or battled pirates. And while the strip certainly didn't lack for humor, it was clear that both Easy and his harrowing exploits were the central focus.
That all changes ever so slightly in Vol. 2, as Easy starts to segue from lead role to supporting character in his own strip, much as Will Eisner's the Spirit did in later years. His spotlight is pushed aside slightly so equal time can be made for a revolving cast of colorful characters, many of which bear goofy accents, eccentric habits or just downright foppish behavior.
For instance, one lengthy sequence involves a bum who actually turns out to be heir to a throne, with the joke being he really is happier and better suited to be a bum. While Easy expends a good deal of energy trying to overthrow the would-be king's usurper and get his buminess seated on the throne, most of the strip's center on Hoot (as he is called) and his craven, comical behavior. Most of the fighting goes on in the background.
There's lots more folks like Hoot in here, like the millionaire who gets embroiled in a scandal, or so he thinks, the other millionaire who wants nothing more than to avoid his family, the other, other millionaire who's got a secret formula that could change everything but seems bemused that nefarious forces would want to steal it, and so forth.
Crane draws all of this in a disarmingly charming cartoonish style. Within the confines of his 12-panel grid, he delineates a number of goofball types featuring as many silly-looking noses, bald spots, chins, hairstyles and beards as possible. A master of expressions, his favorite seems to be one where the characters eyes roll up and tongue lolls out in a self-satisfied look of rapture, usually caused by the presence of an attractive woman. Indeed the sexual desire seems so potent in these instances that you can tell if the character is going to kiss the girl or pass out from the mere thought of doing so.
And let's be clear here, sex is never far from Crane's mind as Captain Easy is filled near to the brim with pretty girls, all looking slightly peeved with bee-stung lips, big eyes, wavy hair and form-fitting (and stylish) outfits. Crane's women are never pushovers or mere decoration -- indeed they're usually nail-tough dames that aren't afraid to let you know where you stand with them, even if it means socking you on the jaw once or twice (though they often get spanked by Easy for their efforts, an act which suggests things about Crane that perhaps are best left ignored). But at the same time, Crane will frequently bring them up close to the foreground of the panel as if just to remind you (and him no doubt), "Oh, hey, pretty girl!"
Though he was one of the genre's pioneers, Roy Crane's Captain Easy is arguably the most idiosyncratic of all the adventure strips. But it's this blend of loud slapstick, young-boys-styled adventure and blatant sex appeal that make Captain Easy such a winning, fun strip to read. It's a pity Crane's followers focused so much on getting the anatomy right. They should have spent more time on the potato noses.