Sunday, 13 May 2012

STUART HAMPLE Dread & Superficiality: Woody Allen as Comic Strip (2009)

All material Copyright © 2009 Naomi-Stuart Productions Inc. & Hackenbush Productions Inc.

Long before the phenomenal success of Midnight in Paris and the public festival of finger-pointing that was the whole Soon-Yi / Mia Farrow media debacle, there was another Woody Allen whom remarkably few people seem to recall these days – the hapless, neurotic, self-deprecating title character of a 1970s comic strip titled, appropriately enough, Inside Woody Allen.

The strip, which ran from 1976 until 1984 in newspapers all around the world, was the brainchild of a newspaper cartoonist and former advertising artist named Stuart Hample.  Thankfully, Hample possessed the skill and talent necessary to make Allen's character as real and funny on the page as it was on the screen.  The gags he created, sometimes alone and sometimes with the help of other writers, were written very much in the style and spirit of Allen's humour –– literate, insightful, bursting with literary and psychoanalytic references that seemed to capture the zeitgeist of 1970s New York while never allowing the reader to forget that this was a daily newspaper comic strip and not a philosophical dissertation they were reading.  While that may not seem like much of an achievement nowadays, it was actually quite a remarkable feat for its time, particularly when you consider that Hample often had to battle the strip's distributors, the very powerful King Features Syndicate, over what kinds of gags he was 'allowed' to do so as not to alienate the strip's 'non-intellectual' readers. 

It also helped that the comedian liked the idea of being turned into a comic strip character (the only American film comedian to have this honor bestowed upon him prior to this was Charlie Chaplin) and granted Hample unlimited access to his private notebooks.  Allen also gave the artist tips on how to present his character, insisting that he shouldn't be the sole focus of the strip and that it should occasionally feature real people from his own life.  (Suggestions the syndicate quickly vetoed, telling Hample they wanted the Allen character to become 'more sympathetic' and 'more lovable' and even suggesting that he should get married at one point so he would have a wife character to argue with on a regular basis.)  His cooperation made what could very easily have been a shlocky, exploitative exercise in milking a fast buck from a popular celebrity (Annie Hall was poised to win the Oscar for Best Picture the year the strip originally appeared) into something that stands alone in its own right as a worthwhile, funny and enduring piece of cartoon art.

On a personal level, I have a lot to be grateful to Stuart Hample for.  It was my avid reading of Inside Woody Allen each Sunday in the Sydney newspaper The Sun-Herald that introduced me to the work of Woody Allen and helped to develop my own sense of humor.  While I might not have understood every joke – some of them were pretty sophisticated for the average eleven year old to wrap his mind around – I understood enough to realize that this was something I wanted to read a lot more of.  I loved the strip so much that I used to cut it out of the Sunday Comic Section (alas, something which no longer exists in today's severely scaled-down, close-to-extinct newspapers) and paste it into an exercise book so I could re-read it at my leisure –– something I had only ever done with Peanuts before that.


One thing is certain: if you like Woody Allen's films, you should make the effort to hunt down a copy of this beautifully presented, lavishly illustrated book.  I bought my copy a year ago, so it should still be via your local bookstore or favorite online retailer if you're prepared to seek it out.   

Unfortunately, STUART HAMPLE passed away from cancer in September 2010.  You can click HERE to learn more about his life and work.  (He wrote and drew an earlier comic strip called Rich & Famous and later wrote plays and scripts for the 1980s sitcom Kate and Allie as well as creating many popular children's books.)  You can also click HERE to listen to a radio interview he gave to promote the launch of Dread & Superficiality in 2009.

You might also enjoy:
GOOD GRIEF!! Remembering Charles M Schulz
SOME BOOKS ABOUT...Buster Keaton
BENTLEY RUMBLE More Than A Sigh (2003) 

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