Though it’s not one of the best-known American comic strips, Jack Kent’s King Aroo is regarded as a classic by those who’ve had a chance to read it. Now, a comprehensive collection of the strip is finally available after almost six decades as part of IDW’s Library of American Comics. We talked with editor Dean Mullaney about the collection, creator Jack Kent, and why this may be the best comic strip you’ve never read. But don’t take our word for it – check out the strips spread throughout this article.
Newsarama: Dean, tell us about the basic premise and characters of King Aroo.
Dean Mullaney: The child-like king presides over the postage stamp-sized kingdom of Myopia. King Aroo has a one-man retinue (and prickly yes man) Yupyop. There's the Beautiful Princess From the Kingdom Next Door; Drexel Dragon, who makes it hot for everyone whenever he loses control of his fire breathing; Prof. Yorgle, who thinks he knows everything—and doesn't!; a kangaroo mailman, Mr. Pennipost; the forgetful Mr. Elephant; and Wanda, the first witch to specialize in misspelling.
Starting with the name of the kingdom, the entire strip is one delightful wordplay after another. There really is no other strip like it.
Nrama: Give us an idea of the strip's reputation and influence.
Mullaney: The strip's lasting reputation is based on the memory of fans such as Roy Thomas and Maggie Thompson, who read the strip when it was originally syndicated, and cartoonists who were lucky enough to come across clipped strips.
Aside from them, its reputation is based primarily on a single 1953 collection by Doubleday, and the samples in the Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comics and issue # 21 of Nemo magazine, published in 1986. Because it wasn't seen by that many readers, King Aroo did not have a great influence. With the publication of this Library of American Comics series, we fully expect that to change.
Nrama: Given that the strip had fallen into relative obscurity, how did you first become aware of it? What was your initial reaction to it?
Mullaney: Like most people, I first became aware of King Aroo from the examples that Bill Blackbeard included in The Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comics, and was enchanted by its charm. Later, on visiting Bill, he graciously let me look through his collection of clipped strips, and I was hooked.
Nrama: You worked closely with Jack Kent's family in putting this together -- tell us about some of the things you discovered.
Mullaney: This book contains the first full biography of Jack Kent by my associate editor, Bruce Canwell. In researching Kent's life and career, Bruce and I discovered so much new information about Kent's life from newspaper archives, particularly in Kent's hometown of San Antonio.
Much of what we discovered was a revelation to Kent's own son. For example, no one knew that Kent, who had a lifelong dream to become a professional cartoonist, didn't come to King Aroo from nowhere. He had been an assistant to Elmer Woggon on Big Chief Wahoo, and tried selling other strips before Aroo.
Nrama: And I think our readers might like to know that Kent was one of the original fanboys. (laughs) Tell them about his relationship with many of the great cartoonists.
Mullaney: Yes, indeed. Long before the days of fanzines and comics conventions, Kent was among a group of cartoon aficionados who collected and traded original newspaper strip art. The teenaged Kent struck up a correspondence with his idol, Krazy Kat's George Herriman, that lasted several years.
A late-1930s newspaper article shows Kent proudly standing before the original Krazy Kat Sunday that Herriman sent him. For several years he was also included on Milton Caniff's Christmas card list.
Nrama: He was also one of the early creators to really "go it alone" by syndicating his own work -- tell us a little about this. Was this a unique set of circumstances, and did he set any kind of precedent for future creators.
Mullaney: At first, the strip was syndicated by McClure. Although King Aroo was lauded by critics, it was never a huge commercial success. By the late '50s, very few papers carried it. The only paper than ran it from its beginning in 1950 until the end in 1965 was the San Francisco Chronicle. From 1957 until 1960, King Aroo could only be seen in that single paper.
In 1960, the Chronicle's editor, Stanleigh Arnold, who was a huge fan of King Aroo, started a new syndicate -- Golden Gate Features -- simply to distribute this one strip! The strip was distributed by Arnold until 1965, when the king abdicated for good. So Kent's "going it alone" was not his choice, but due to the vagaries of the market.
Nrama: In your opinion, what is most impressive about what Kent achieved with this strip?
Mullaney: Creating a unique, self-contained fantabulous universe, and also his ability to produce a humor strip that had continuity, not so much based on character or plot, but based on clever wordplay. Jack Kent was to comics what William Safire was to language.
Nrama: Why do you feel it never quite reached a wide audience, despite its quality and loyal following?
Mullaney: The history of popular entertainment is full of "cult favorites" that are of high quality and inspire great devotion in the hearts of a few, but are too quirky to be a hit with the mass audience – King Aroo has long been one of the cult favorites of the comic strip world.
Nrama: Do you have a favorite character? I'm partial to Mr. Elephant myself.
Mullaney: I'm pretty partial to Ha'Penny Bob, a guinea pig who advertises himself as a professional experimentee! If you need a guinea pig, he's your guy. And coming up in volume 2 are two other favorites: "Q.V." and "Viz." -- both of whom are the writer's -- and editor's -- best friend.
Nrama: What are some things readers can expect in future volumes? How many volumes are currently planned for this series?
Mullaney: The most important thing readers can expect is more of the strip. Considering how few papers carried the strip, this will be the first time 99% of the comics reading public will see the strips!
Plus, Bruce (Canwell)'s biography continues, with full details on Kent's life during and after King Aroo. Kent had a second career that was much more commercially successful than his first. After Aroo ended, he became one of the most beloved children's book artists, publishing 40 of his own, and illustrating about 20 by other authors, including Jane Yolen.
Nrama: Comic strip reprints have enjoyed a renaissance in the past decade, with both extensive compilations of daily strips and classic Sunday pages being reprinted in their original format. Why do you feel the public has been so receptive toward these collections, at a time when newspapers and the "funny pages" are in decline?
Mullaney: The audience for these books is not the current casual -- and dwindling -- reader of newspapers. Market research indicates that The Library of American Comics’ audience is, naturally, comprised of collectors, but also of new generations of professional and aspiring cartoonists who want to learn from past masters.
In the case of Bloom County, which topped the New York Times graphic books best seller list two weeks in a row, we also have a lot of other readers who remember the strip from their youth and want to read the strip again.
Nrama: Given the increasingly popularity of online comics, what do you feel webcomic creators can learn from classic comic strips?
Mullaney: The cartoonist Mike Cavallaro and I were discussing the Terry and the Pirates series I edited and he made a really salient point: Visually, the half-page Sunday format that Caniff and all other cartoonists used is amazingly proportional to a computer screen.
So, today's online cartoonists can apply compositional lessons learned from such masters as Caniff and Jack Kent and apply them directly to today's online comics.
In addition, the serial nature of newspaper strips can also be applied to daily or weekly online comics. The goal of getting readers to come back for the next installment is the same, whether in print or online.
Nrama: What other classic strip collections do you have planned at IDW?
Mullaney: This year alone, we're launching several new series, in addition to ongoing ones such as Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, and Rip Kirby; Li'l Abner (with the color Sunday tabs reprinted for the first time), Polly and Her Pals (in a fabulous 12" x 16" size!), Secret Agent Corrigan by Al Williamson and Archie Goodwin, and two strips that have never been reprinted -- Bob Montana's Archie, from the beginning, and in celebration of Blondie's 80th anniversary, Chic Young's classic early strips, in the days before Blondie and Dagwood were married!
Nrama: What else would you like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?
Mullaney: We're in the midst of a sprawling biography of Alex Toth, titled Genius, Isolated and due out in October. We view it as sort of a bookend to our 2008 Scorchy Smith & The Art of Noel Sickles, which I think would tickle Alex, since he was such a huge Sickles fan.
We're working with the approval and support of the Toth family, and in addition to detailed coverage of Alex's life story, we'll be presenting many rare or never-before-seen visuals, as well as complete reprints of several of his stories. We're excited to be offering readers new insights into the mind of Alex the man, and fresh, full-color examples of the work of Alex the artist's artist.
King Aroo: Vol.1 is in stores now.
Zack Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a regular contributor to Newsarama.s