See You In The Funny Pages

Most people think Mizzou’s relationship with comics begins and ends with Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey strip. Walker attended the University of Missouri after serving in the armed forces and developed the Beetle Bailey character originally as a hapless undergrad attending a school much like MU.

Other comics fans may be familiar with the Dick Tracy mural that Chester Gould gifted to Ernie’s Café & Steak House after what I assume was a satisfactory meal there.

The truth is that Columbia’s comic book connection is more extensive than this.

St. Louis’ Steve Gerber attended MU in the 1960s before going to work at Marvel Comics where he created the much-misunderstood, ill-tempered iconoclast that was Howard the Duck. The Duck was the ribald, anthropomorphic essence of everything snarky and bizarre in what has lately become known as the “Marvel Universe,” but it was, alas, far ahead of its time. Even the George Lucas-produced movie flopped, yet the comic remains among the most influential to emerge from the comic book world’s reinvention in the 1970s.

When Frank Stack arrived in mid-Missouri to join the MU art faculty in the mid-1960s, he was already drawing and publishing (under the moniker Foolbert Sturgeon) his “New Adventures of Jesus” strip, regarded by many as the original underground comic. Like Walker, Stack would draw much inspiration from the inanities and contradictions of life and work on a college campus. Now an emeritus professor of art, Stack continues to create and publish several strips internationally, and has donated many comics from his extensive collection to MU’s Ellis Library. (Frank Stack’s son, Robert, drew an excellent strip for The Maneater while an MU student, one of dozens of talented comic artists who got their start at that student newspaper.)

When comics artist J.B. Winter moved to mid-Missouri a decade or so ago, he immediately started to conduct research and educate people about comic art here in Columbia. With the help of friends, he established the Mid-Missouri Comics Collective. The website created by the group, www.midmococo.com, serves as a portal for mid-Missouri artists to communicate and share ideas. Members of this collective sponsor the 24-Hour Comic Marathons that take place occasionally at the Columbia Art League. A few years back, before crowdsourcing, Winter published the remarkable 50 States Comic — a cartoonist “jam session” that featured 50 panels drawn by artists from every state in the union.

Winter’s mission seems always to have been to draw and to educate about drawing. Both impulses drive his newest book, Miss Mizzou: A Life Beyond Comics. The book details the history of Steve Canyon creator Milton Caniff’s comic strip character Miss Mizzou, and the various promotional tie-ins the character inspired in the 1950s and 1960s. Caniff, besides being a widely read strip artist, also helped establish what has become the Smithsonian of Comic Collections at his alma mater, the University of Ohio.

Caniff had no real connection to the University of Missouri other than the Journalism School’s interest in newspaper graphics, but a brief visit to Columbia in the early 1950s made a lasting impression in the form of a memorable character. Miss Mizzou was introduced into the Steve Canyon comic strip in 1952, with her name being a reference to the University of Missouri. The character (loosely based on Marilyn Monroe) is a small-time nightclub entertainer, originally a waitress in Columbia, who gets caught up in international adventures with Air Force pilot Steve Canyon. Miss Mizzou (whose wardrobe was a trench coat worn, it was implied, pas de culotte) quickly became a popular regular character in the strip and would reappear in various story lines during Steve Canyon’s four decades of newspaper publication.

Winter’s book explores the origins and ramifications of the Miss Mizzou character in terms of comic art as well as her and her creator’s impact on Columbia in the aftermath of Caniff’s brief visit. It seems, for example, that his visit and his ensuing contribution to Mizzou culture created a large enough impression on campus and town that Providence Road was nearly renamed in Caniff’s honor. (In fact, there exist several Caniff/Canyon related streets in the subdivision at the south end of Ashland Road.) This is not to mention the scads of speculation over the years as to which Columbian might have served as the risqué character’s inspiration. (MU Professor Emeritus W. Ray Wood swears to me that it was his ex-wife.)

For those interested in the Miss Mizzou character, Winter promises to continue blogging about her on his MisterWinterman.com site.

Or you could just stroll over to the Reynolds Alumni Center on the MU campus to see Caniff’s life-sized, full-color rendering of her on permanent display there.

beetle baileyFrank StackMilton CaniffMiss MizzouMort Walker’s Beetle BaileySteve Gerber
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