Sunday, March 18, 2018

Neil the Horse

I don’t believe in “best” lists, at least not the way they are presented as some sort of objective final word. I get that we all understand that they just represent someone’s opinion anyway, but even the notion that somehow you can compare, say, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen to Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge to Art Spiegelman’s Maus to Walt Simonson’s Thor to fill in whatever comic you think is the best comic ever is ludicrous. Having said that, if we are going to have lists of the best comics ever, one that should always be on those lists is Neil the Horse, created by Katherine Collins

I probably discovered Neil the Horse through a news item or article in Amazing Heroes magazine, maybe in one of their annual preview issues. At the time (1983), I would have been pretty immersed in the comics scene. I primarily read superheroes, because that’s mostly what was available, but I was also really interested in independent comics of the time. As a kid, most of my comics reading had been humor comics from Harvey or Gold Key, mostly based on cartoons, including the Pink Panther, Hanna-Barbera shows, and Disney cartoons. In the 80s, humor comics, particularly funny animal comics, were fewer and farther between, so whenever I heard about one, I would gravitate towards it.

Certainly, Neil the Horse was very distinct from the other comics I was reading. It was clearly influenced by the works of Disney comics artist Carl Barks, but also by things like the Fleischer Studios cartoons of the 1930s, other classic children’s comics, and even Hollywood musicals. Stories often featured song and dance numbers, with sheet music included for the songs. One could argue that comics—a silent, static medium—is not the ideal choice to present something based in sound and motion. However, you can only make that argument if you haven’t read Neil the Horse.

Collins and her collaborators—primarily Dave Roman and Barb Rausch, who I actually recognized from the then contemporary Katy Keene comics from Archie—managed to capture movement and dance on the page. Apparently, Collins freeze-framed videos of Fred Astaire movies to model the poses, but there’s much more here than just copying photos. The layouts of the dance sequences contain a genuine sense of rhythm and energy. I had never seen anything like that on the comics page before, nor have I seen it since. Best of all, Collins even produced a Fred Astaire tribute issue, wherein Mam’selle Poupee has a chance to dance with one of my favorite performers. I don’t know if any other comic can claim to have a Fred Astaire guest appearance in its pages. But while the song-and-dance numbers were certainly a signature feature for the comic—its tagline was “Making the World Safe for Musical Comedy”—those were only a part of why Neil the Horse was such a great comic.

At its heart, Neil the Horse (the comic) tells the adventures of three friends: Neil the Horse, a kind-hearted, innocent, banana-loving horse; Soapy, Neil’s cigar-smoking, cynical cat friend with a heart of gold (usually), and Mam’selle Poupee, a doll, and a true romantic. The Neil the Horse newspaper comic that predated the comic book showed how Neil and Soapy met; Poupee just joins the cast with no introduction or explanation about why she is a human-sized, living, thinking, feeling animated doll living in a world of animal-faced humans. But that’s okay; it just doesn’t matter.

The series doesn’t tell a linear set of stories for the characters. Sometimes their adventures take the form of a serialized comic story. Sometimes we get illustrated prose. Sometimes we get a short comedy tale, or a surrealist romp, or nothing more than a song and a character moment. Sometimes we get a puzzle or a game. Sometimes the stories are in a contemporary city, or in a magical fairy land, or a mash-up of both, featuring fairies versus spaceships from video arcade games. Sometimes the stories are set in the past, or in a mythical land out of Robert E. Howard. Through it all, Neil, Soapy, Poupee, and their relationships remain constant.

While I loved the comedy and the dancing, what truly endeared Neil the Horse to me in my teen years were the stories focusing on Mam’selle Poupee’s search for love. I felt like I really identified with her yearning to find someone to love. I understood that while she didn’t want to be alone, she also didn’t want to just be with someone for the sake of being with someone. It had to be with the right someone. For a comic showcasing a rubber-legged horse who could be distracted by the promise of bananas and a cigar-smoking, hard-drinking cat out for an easy buck, this series showed a great deal of depth and sophistication when discussing the human heart. Even when those stories about the human heart were told through the vehicles of a horse, a cat, and a doll.

So much of that depth and sophistication came through the subtleties of the art. Collins and her collaborators truly brought their characters and stories to life. The series ran for a mere fifteen issues, but those stories and characters have stayed with me my entire life.

Tragically, Collins ended the series after those fifteen issues, with the hopes of launching a Neil the Horse animated series. Sadly, that never came to pass. Nor did a promised Neil the Horse graphic novel. Even more tragically, Collins came to believe these opportunities dried up because nobody cared about her work. Instead, it would seem that instead, transphobia and intolerance and bigotry were responsible; Collins was born Arn Saba, and only transitioned into Katherine Collins later in life. The irony that a comic so completely about love, friendship, and acceptance as Neil the Horse should be waylaid by such petty-minded stupidity makes me sad and furious. It makes me sad and furious that Collins had to suffer because of people’s small-minded ignorance, and selfishly, it makes me even more furious to learn that we were denied new Neil the Horse stories as a result.

Fortunately, some twenty years later, Neil the Horse is back in print in a gorgeous edition from Conundrum Press. This oversized book contains all the Neil the Horse comics and stories from the comic books and the newspaper strips. The reproduction is fantastic. The book includes an introduction by Trina Robbins and a “backward” by Katherine Collins, explaining how Neil the Horse came to be, and the circumstances of her life since the final issue. Best of all, she says she’s working on new stories, health permitting. 

As much as I love some comics, I have resigned myself to the fact that what we’ve gotten is all we will get. Sometimes, it’s circumstances beyond anyone’s control. We aren’t ever going to get new Rocketeer stories by Dave Stevens, nor will we get new Crossfire stories by Mark Evanier and Dan Spiegle or Tellos by Todd DeZago and Mike Wieringo or Cloak and Dagger written by Bill Mantlo, due to the creators—or some of them—no longer being with us. We might get new stories about these characters from other creators, but it’s never quite the same.

We won’t get new Zot stories by Scott McCloud, because he’s not interested in telling them any more. Just the other day, I read that Todd DeZago may be stepping away from comics altogether, which means no new Perhapanauts stories. It also looks increasingly as if we will never see Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty return to tell more stories about Ms. Tree. And while DC Comics tries to bring back Batman and the Outsiders every few years, they never have creator Mike W. Barr write it. And even if he did, it wouldn’t be drawn by their co-creator, the late Jim Aparo.

However, every now and then, I get the return of a favorite comic by its original creators. Mark Schultz is working—slowly—on a new Xenozoic Tales graphic novel. Dean Motter is doing new Mister X stories. I hear Paul Chadwick is working on new Concrete material. Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragones have never really stopped producing Groo the Wanderer tales. And, of course, Ron Randall is producing Trekker on a regular basis again.

Hopefully, we will soon be able to add Katherine Collins and Neil the Horse to this list. Even without the promise of new material, the complete-to-date Neil the Horse that Conundrum has collected stands as a high-water mark in the medium of comics. It deserves to be read by anyone who enjoys comics that feature great stories and great art. But if we can get even more? I don’t even have words for my reaction.

This week’s Pop! of the Week is, once again, not a Pop! But it is the only horse-related Funko item we have in our collection: the Dorbz Ride of Wonder Woman on a horse! 

That’s all I have for this week. See you next week!

1 comment:

  1. Glad to find this article! Sometimes it seemed as if nobody else remembered this wonderful series. I now plan to order the collected edition. Thanks for a great write up...