Publicly admitting you read comics means you’re willing to put up with a perplexingly persistent notion of the medium as the exclusive domain of the super heroes. Even in the current realm of savvy pop art dabblers as likely to pray at the altar of independents like Image Comics as they are the Big Two there’s this lingering idea that in the beginning there was only the cape and spandex set and it’s just in the past three decades that we’ve really let in the serious Graphic Novelists and autobio peddlers. Sneering intellectual jokesters will spit at the funnybooks without recognizing the origins of that alternate name and basement dwelling dilettantes will tell you it was only when the bearded British men came to our shores that we got hip. But comics have always been weird. Comics have always contained multitudes.On a weekly basis at the start of the 20th century, Winsor McCay cranked out surrealist panel breaking masterpieces lushly detailed enough to inspire both Dali and Moebius decades down the line, with nary a cape in sight. Before Marvel was even an idea, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created romance comics, presaging the soap operas that would eventually inspire Chris Claremont’s convoluted narratives in that other misbegotten Kirby co-creation X-Men. And then there was Herbie.
If ever there was a character to symbolize comics’ bizarre past, present and future, to embody the multitudes the form can contain, the elastic propensity of the medium to take on the shape of an infinite number of variables, it’s Herbie Popnecker. Born fully formed from the minds of Richard E. Hughes and Ogden Whitney, Herbie remains the best known (though still relatively obscure) creation of the American Comics Group, a publisher mostly associated with anthology series. Fittingly, Herbie first appeared in the pages of the anthology title Forbidden Worlds in 1958, and though he would have occasional starring turns in that comic over the next six years, it was the debut of Herbie in his own title in 1964 that would cement his legacy.
Within the pages of Herbie, the titular star was inserted into a number of inexplicable scenarios with a few elements remaining constant. Herbie was mockingly shunned by his father for his status as a “little fat nothing,” a statement that would be offensive and depressing if it weren’t also made ironic by Herbie’s actual antics. Perennially decked out in a less than flattering bowlcut and usually unassuming attire that alternated between blue pants (perhaps indicating an influence on two other rotund animated comic stars of the future), short tie and white dress shirt and a basically shapeless pajama-like superhero outfit, Herbie was nonetheless, to quote Douglas Wolk at the New York Times, “actually a colossus striding across the cultural landscape of his era.” This little fat nothing with an oral fixation soothed by an array of magical lollipops went on adventures through time and across geo-political boundaries, solving problems with the help of ever-shifting, near omnipotent powers and the aid of historical figures and animals alike. Herbie sometimes pretended to be a superhero, but just as time and space were playthings to him, so was genre, another set of restricting preconceived notions to be accepted or altered as his creators saw fit.
Herbie is therefore one of the first meta-heroes in comics, a lucid dreaming counterpart to Little Nemo, who can be perceived as a manifestation of Richard E. Hughes’ frustration with the confines of his corner of the comics industry, years before Jack Kirby turned Stan Lee into a grinning New God huckster in the pages of his DC work or Grant Morrison threatened and then saved his own life in The Invisibles. Hughes was one of those prototypical comics lifers with a boatload of abandoned dreams who likely in part inspired Michael Chabon’s Sammy Clay. Though Chabon relied on a patchwork quilt of comics narratives from surviving Golden Age icons to form the historical backbone of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Hughes’ story mirrors the fictional Clay’s in a number of intriguing ways. They were both editor-writers at successful but less dominant publishers who contributed to their company’s titles under a number of pseudonyms, and they both dabbled in radio and television without much success. Hughes’ iconic superhero the Black Terror even gets referenced as a rival to Clay’s Escapist. And just as the dreamy Luna Moth provided Clay and Joe Kavalier with an opportunity to nod to comics’ surreal Sunday strip past while pushing the boundaries of the current comics landscape, Herbie gave Hughes and Ogden Whitney the chance to poke holes in the often overblown theatrics of the comics of the era.
Herbie’s father is a key symbol of this, with his chronic disappointment in his child, who he perceives to be a lazy layabout when in fact he’s something like a god. For comic creators with dreams of Hollywood or MOMA or at least a Sunday strip, comicbooks were a disappointing brood, looked down upon as entertainment for illiterate immigrants and juvenile delinquents yet even then they were accomplishing amazing feats, almost in spite of themselves. While that internal conflict is made literal in the pages of Herbie thanks to Hughes’ frustrated scripting, what transforms the comic into something truly memorable and unique is the work of Ogden Whitney, who turns that division between an adult perception of reality as a dull venture and children/comics’ hope for reality to be something more magical into an utterly bizarre experience.
The comics historian Dan Nadel once said “The thing I like about Whitney so much is that [his art]is like phone book art—it’s so generic it’s unique,” which is more or less accurate but doesn’t quite convey the nightmarish quality even his most “normal” sequences have. Throughout Herbie’s adventures, the boy is portrayed as basically emotionless, speaking in a manner that is technically correct but disconnected. This alone would lead credence to the theory that Herbie isn’t just comics’ first meta-hero, he’s also comics’ first autistic hero. But Whitney’s art truly brings this notion to life, forcing the reader to simultaneously see the world through Herbie’s distant perspective and see how Herbie is misperceived by that world. Unlike many artists from that era whose work is vivid but rushed, seeming almost primitive today, Whitney’s aesthetic is basically timeless, with ultra clean lines and bright coloring drawing out the exceptional level of detail in his backgrounds. Yet Whitney’s Herbie pages are also full of odd perspectives and disorienting spacing, like this cover of issue number three of Herbie where Herbie walks on thin air, leaving behind two men pleading for his help as they dangle from a skyscraper, seemingly not just dismissing them but also exiting his own comic before it has even opened:
For added effect, Herbie also appears to be walking away with his own logo.
Just as there is a lot of Hughes in Herbie, there is also a lot of Whitney, too. In that same essay, Nadel described Whitney’s romance comics work as “pure terror” and “psychological warfare,” noting that Whitney is “a master of psychological distress,” whose work is “really compelling, almost terrifying.” That makes even more sense when you factor in Mad editor Jerry DeFuccio’s assessment of Whitney as “fat and obviously addicted to liquor,” and his discovery that sometime in the early ‘70s Whitney’s wife died and he was bodily evicted from his apartment after becoming “extremely irrational.” Put simply, Herbie is a great comics creation that came from the brains of two troubled men working in a troubled industry.
Like these men, Herbie is troubled, too, albeit in a more adolescent fashion. One chief difference is that unlike his creators, Herbie had the ability to manipulate the world around him to his whims, with the biggest obstacle to his success not being the supernatural, alien and criminal threats he faced but his obtuse parents (an indicator of the authority issues his creators had, perhaps). Herbie’s success at the time of the debut of his series could be even attributed to this dilemma between Herbie’s parents’ basic disinterest or loathing of him and his seemingly weak, overweight physicality and the world shattering abilities he secretly had. What kid hasn’t imagined they’ve got super powers they just need to figure out how to uncover? Or that they’re destined to save the world? It’s a standard ingredient in engaging superhero stories, but what makes Herbie so unique is that the emphasis is just as much on his parents’ apathy towards his adventures as it is on those adventures—Herbie is a character who appeals not because he is ridiculously powerful, but because even with all that power he can’t impress his parents or peers, and not because of a secret identity. In fact, Herbie eschews secrets, and is famous enough that supernatural monsters summoned from crystal balls know him:
As do bullets fired by gangsters:
But even these “friends” who pay him respect can’t help him with his domestic fame problems, since they’d be treated with the standard parental rejection of “invisible friends” and flights of fancy. It’s not that hard to imagine Hughes and Whitney feeling the same way, beloved by children for their oddball creations, but lacking the respect they feel they deserve from more well recognized peers and artists. Herbie is a meta-character in a different way from the immigrant power fantasy of Siegel and Shuster’s Superman because Hughes and Whitney were a little more self-effacing, a little more honest. Rather than let their creation be their escape route, a power fantasy freeing them from the bonds that slowed them down in real life, they pasted their struggles directly onto the page, embracing the weirdo outcast nature of their artistry and making their creation suffer just as much as they did, doomed to an odd obscurity, never properly credited for the amazing feats they churned out in every page. And in an age where we can each have incredible adventures from home, from the magic realm of the internet, Herbie has only become more relevant and meta.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man, which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage over at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover