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Review: ‘Betty Boop #1′

betty-boop-1Betty Boop #1
Writer: Roger Langridge
Artist: Gisele Lagace
Dynamite Entertainment; $3.99
Rated T+

Betty Boop is perhaps unusual among cartoon characters for being one of the few that everybody knows, but relatively few have actually seen seen in her native medium of 1930s cartoon shorts. Her name, striking image and maybe even her voice and “Boop-oop-a-doop!” catch phrase are pretty are pretty much universally known in American pop culture, but that owes more to marketing and the reverberations of her original popularity than to familiarity with her cartoons.

Despite that built-in familiarity, and her time as a comic strip star, a new comic book series in 2016 seems like an unlikely endeavor–until you factor in the fact that the guy writing said new series is cartoonist Roger Langridge.

In addition to his own work like Fred The Clown, in which his skill as a cartoonist and apparent love for classic comics and cartoons is made so manifest, in recent years Langridge has proven a particular facility for adopting the style and voice necessary to adapt some genuinely challenging material, including the original Muppet Show (a Vaudeville-style musical variety show from the 1970s performed by puppets!) and Popeye (the original E.C. Segar comic strip, with flourishes of the cartoons). Animation, music, and especially puppetry aren’t things that necessarily translate easily to comics.

But if Langridge could manage those feats, who better to tackle a new comic book starring Betty Boop, who once danced a hula with Popeye (in 1933’s Popeye The Sailor, the comic strip star’s animation debut).

Langridge is writing Betty Boop, but not drawing it. The art, or “Cinematrography & Titles” as cheekily credited, is by Gisele Lagace. While Betty, like many cartoon stars of the time, was more of an “actor” than a “character,” playing different roles and having different occupations and relationships in each cartoon, Langridge and Lagace essentially collapse various Betty Boop characters and co-stars into a single narrative.

Here she works at the Oop-A-Doop Club alongside Bimbo (an anthropomorphic dog and her original boyfriend), Koko the Clown, and Sally Swing (a later character introduced as they tried to bring Jazz Age caricature Betty into the newer swing style). She lives with her inventor Gramps and puppy Pudgy, more later additions to Betty’s cast when the studio was trying to domesticate her more post-Hays Code.

The presence of these later characters doesn’t mean that the version of Betty is that of post-Code Betty, however. Lagace draws her in her original sex-ed up version, with short dress, noticeable clevage, visible garter belt, jewelry, and flapper curls…which gradually receded as her cartoons grew tamer. Of course, the content here is perfectly all-ages, and none of the things about the character which might have been considered prurient in the mid-1930s are even remarkable today; Lagace’s Betty isn’t wearing anything that would look out of place on a Nickelodeon or Disney Channel live-action show for kids.

There’s nothing sexual about the plot, either. Bimbo has an innocent crush on Betty, and a customer at the club makes a pretty innocent come-on to Betty and Sally and gets a drink poured on his head, but that’s about it (I’m assuming the “T+” rating comes from the presence of alcohol more than anything else…librarians and parents are unlikely to find anything objectionable in here for older kids).

The Oop-A-Doop Club is hosting a performance by Scat Skellington (“and his All-Osseous Orchestra”), a band of ghosts, and the joint is jumping. But back home, Gramps is being evicted by a trio of ghosts who claim to be from “The Completely Normal Bank of Normalness.” Betty must hurry home in a wild taxi ride to save the day, which she accomplishes by essentially shaming the ghosts’ boss Lizardlips until he gets smaller and smaller and is ultimately stepped on.

Lagace’s art lacks the bounciness and elasticity that one might associate with cartoons of the era–and which Langridge seems to capture in his one artistic contribution to the book, one of the several variant covers–but it is a nice compromise of Golden Age Fleischer Studios design and modern comics art. Her Betty, despite bearing the look of the earlier Betty, has slightly different proportions, so that her baby doll head fits slightly better atop her Barbie doll body; here she looks more big-headed than bobble-headed. She also manages the neat trick of making the setting seem timeless; there’s nothing in terms of props that couldn’t exist in 2016, but also nothing that definitively pegs this to a particular decade.

Speaking of neat tricks, colorist (er, “Chromatic Effects” artist) Ma. Victoria Robado makes the book neither black-and-white nor color, but something in between, with most characters appearing in black, gray and white, with spots of color here and there; in Betty’s case, her eyes are green and her lips and dress red, while her skin is cartoon gray.

Overall, the team does an admirable job, but they never really find a way to make the musical numbers, of which there are two or three, engaging. Music is a very hard thing to capture in comics, and Langridge and Lagace fail to adequately innovate a way around the challenge, which results in pages of static, drawn images with lots of dialogue bubbles with cartoon musical notes drawn in them.

It doesn’t really work, although it’s worth noting that it’s really the only thing about the comic that doesn’t.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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