Once in a while, we at Newsarama are privileged to report on the return of a legend. This is one of those times.
Tony Isabella declared him “the greatest character of all time.” Bob Burden teamed him up with the Flaming Carrot. Dan Nadel declared him an undiscovered classic in Art Out of Time. And Marv Wolfman nearly broke into comics by entering a fan-story contest in the 1960s (he came in second).
His name is Herbie Popnecker. And he’s back.
This August, Dark Horse Comics will release Herbie Archives Vol.1, the first comprehensive reprint of the cult 1960s series Herbie. Published by the American Comics Group (ACG), Herbie chronicled the surreal adventures of Herbie Popnecker, a “Little Fat Nothing” to his oblivious father, Pincus.
However, behind his large frame, bowl haircut and inability to finish a complete sentence lurked a being capable of flying (well, walking on air), beating the bejeepers out of any monster and able to converse with any animal. His secret? The power he derived from constantly sucking on lollipops of all flavors, particularly “hard-to-get-cinnamon.”
Called “the first satirical comic of the Silver Age” by Amazing Heroes magazine, Herbie was a one-two punch of deadpan humor and surreal visuals cooked up by the writer-artist team of Richard Hughes (aka “Shane O’Shea”) and artist Ogden Whitney. After becoming the breakout feature in their horror book Forbidden Worlds, Herbie got his own book that featured 23 issues of rampant insanity, including time-travel, encounters with modern-day celebrities and even his own superheroic identity as the plunger-headed Fat Fury.
Though there were a few abortive attempts at reprints (including one by Dark Horse in the 1990s), this is the first time this acclaimed classic has been reprinted in chronological order in a high-quality format. To help welcome back the Fat Fury in style, we talked with Dark Horse editor Shawna Gore about the series and the reprint volume. Read on…or else you want Herbie should bop you with this here lollipop?
Newsarama Note: Art in this feature is not from the final volume, but was scanned from the personal collection of writer Zack Smith.
Newsarama: Shawna, for those unfamiliar with Herbie, could you explain a little about the book and its history?
Shawna Gore: Herbie debuted as a character in an American Comics Group anthology called Forbidden Worlds in 1958. Forbidden Worlds was a fantasy and adventure title, and Herbie emerged as a surprise hit from a formula that appeared from time to time in ACG books—the unlikely hero with hidden talents.
His first story was called "Herbie's Quiet Saturday Afternoon", which basically set up the premise that a typical day in Herbie's life would invariably start with Herbie's dad grumping about what a boring little nothing his son is. Then of course, the second his dad leaves the room, Herbie gets roped into the most jaw-dropping and ridiculous adventures anyone could imagine. And it's never a random occurrence, whatever the adventure.
At some point in each Herbie story, it becomes abundantly clear that no other hero could be called upon to do what Herbie does ... whatever that might be at any given time. So Herbie made occasional appearances in Forbidden Worlds over the years until he debuted in his very own comic in 1964.
NRAMA : Dark Horse tried doing a revival in the early 1990s – complete with a new story by John Byrne – that was truncated after a few issues. What happened, and why did the company decided to try reprinting the project again?
SG: Dark Horse made an attempt to bring Herbie back as the star of his own series in 1992, but after a couple of issues it became apparent that contemporary audiences didn't quite know what to do with the character.
I think it helps to consider context in a case like this. Herbie was originally sort of a parody of a superhero when he first appeared in the late 1950s. By the time 1992 rolled around, there had been many other superhero parodies done on a much larger scale, not to mention Dark Knight and Watchmen.
So what felt new and subversive back in the '50s and '60s probably just didn't carry the same kind of appeal at a time when everyone, even the biggest publishers of superhero comics, were parodying or deconstructing the notion of superheroes as a matter of course.
What we are doing with the material now is a bit different from the publishing plan of 1992. Over the past few years we've experienced a lot of success with our archives series, which collect older material in its original form.
So we're not presenting new Herbie stories, or trying to re-introduce him as a viable contemporary character. We're simply championing the original material and presenting it in a nice format for readers who enjoy getting to read hard-to-find material.
NRAMA: Herbie has had quite an influence on many creators. Have you heard any reactions from creators about Herbie's return, and if so, could you share some of these reactions with our readers?
SG: It's funny, but I usually don't hear this kind of feedback from creators until I bump into someone at a convention after the fact and they mention enjoying, for instance, the Casper archives. I think that's partly because most creators don't know which editor is working on any given title unless it's their own editor. I'm sure I'll hear from more people once the first volume of Herbie comes out.
I did get a nice surprise back in December when I was reading one of my favorite websites, boingboing.net, and one of its editors, Mark Frauenfelder, had posted a link recommending a Herbie story he'd found posted online. That lead me to poke around to try to find more fan stuff about Herbie online, and it's really cool to see how many people have been wowed by Herbie's adventures over the last forty years.
NRAMA: How many volumes will this archive series run, and what will the first volume contain?
SG: We've got at least three volumes planned for this. The first one collects material from Unknown Worlds issue #20, Forbidden Worlds issues #73, #94, #110, #114, and #116, and Herbie issues #1 though #5.
NRAMA: What do you feel is the source of Herbie's appeal?
SG: To start, it's pretty straight-up funny stuff. And I think it naturally appeals to people who like underground comics or really outlandish humor.
Considering the era when Herbie first debuted, his stories can easily be placed in the realm of pop-culture psychedelia. His magical lollipops carry him through time and space and let him have conversations with animals. The humor aesthetic in a Herbie comic is usually along the lines of a Mel Brooks movie. It's smart, really clever, and totally ridiculous.
NRAMA: Does Dark Horse have plans for any new Herbie material in addition to the archives?
SG: We don't have any plans for new stuff at this point, and I don't anticipate there will be any.
NRAMA: Fair enough. Will the archives contain any restored coloring or historical essays about the Fat Fury?
SG: We didn't do much to the color aside from making minor corrections. Our source materials were really clean and in good shape. Scott Shaw! wrote the introduction for the first volume and gave us so much material, we had to break it into sections which basically became the creator bios in the back of the book. It's an amazing essay, and Scott is a fabulous writer who just happens to know more than anybody should about Herbie.
NRAMA: What are some other series that are planned for future Dark Horse Archives?
SG: There are a handful of neat archive titles coming up, including Roy Rogers comics, and a volume of Magic Man. We've also got the eighth volume of Nexus Archives hitting this fall.
But I'm most excited about the first archive volume of Creepy, which is coming out at the end of August. It's my very favorite comics material of all time, and I have been really fortunate to get to work on the collections. It's amazing stuff, and I know a lot of people will be really happy with the presentation of it. That will be the first archive series we've done over-sized to match the original print size of the magazine, and the reproduction of the pages is really beautiful.
Herbie: Volume One premieres from Dark Horse on August 20.