Friday, 5 May 2017

Katherine Collins Gets Back In The Saddle

Neil The Horse creator, Katherine Collins (formerly Arn Saba)
Quill & Quire, May 2017

(from Katherine Collins Gets Back In The Saddle by Conan Tobias, Quill & Quire, May 2017)
...Black-and-white independent comic books began to grow in popularity in the late ’70s and early ’80s, as titles like Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Dave Sim’s Cerebus found a welcoming audience though the burgeoning direct comic-shop market. Sim, based in Kitchener, Ontario, was a fan of Neil the Horse. "It was a very odd strip," Sim told me recently. "It was definitely far more in the charming category than the funny category, though it had its moments there, too." When Sim and Deni Loubert, his then wife and business partner, decided to expand their press, Aardvark-Vanaheim, beyond publishing Cerebus, they contacted Saba, and in 1983 the first issue of Neil the Horse Comics and Stories appeared on stands.

Sim and Loubert's mandate was complete creative control for their artists. "We had a huge discussion about what he wanted to do," said Loubert, who remains close friends with Collins today. "We’d never really done something like this. Cerebus kind of grew organically. So we talked at length." Saba settled on a format reminiscent of the Rupert Bear children’s annuals he had loved. Every issue of Neil the Horse was a grab bag of newspaper strip reprints, lightly illustrated prose pieces, a letters page answered by Saba in character, and paper dolls with accompanying outfits for Poupée, drawn by Barb Rausch, who had been a popular “reader-contributor” of fashion designs to Katy Keene, Bill Woggon’s teen-model series published by Archie Comics in the 1950s and ’60s. Rausch and Dave Roman, an artist and jack-of-all-trades, assisted Saba with much of the plotting and pencilling work, allowing him to follow Walt Disney’s model of stepping back to oversee others as they worked on his creations.

The Collected Neil The Horse (Conundrum Press, May 2017)

Saba did not set out to make comic books, but they were the format that allowed him to perfect his creation. Neil, Soapy, and Poupée’s new adventures were non-linear and surreal. Many took place in their home base of Bananaburg, but the characters also could find themselves sailing to New France with no explanation, and none needed. The more grounded Neil stories featured settings that seemed timeless, with only occasional present-day flourishes: in one story, Poupée wears Olivia Newton-John–style workout gear; in another, Neil breakdances with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

Characters in the Neil comic – which often featured the tagline “Making the World Safe for Musical Comedy” – broke out into song and dance even more frequently than they had in Saba’s newspaper strip. The book’s most uncommon feature was the sheet music for original songs Saba wrote as a soundtrack to the new Neil stories in each issue. A two-issue tribute to Fred Astaire featured not only several new songs, but extensive dance numbers between the Hollywood icon and Poupée, which Saba slavishly choreographed by printing out stills of Astaire in motion on a thermal printer attached to his VCR.

Sim and Loubert’s personal relationship ended in 1983, and Aardvark-Vanaheim’s assets eventually were split between them. Sim retained Cerebus and Loubert took all the remaining titles, including Neil, and formed a new company, Regenade Press. Neil’s numbers were strong – between 6,000 and 10,000 copies per issue, according to Loubert – but by the end of the decade, the black-and-white market was suffering from rampant speculation, and Renegade folded in 1989. The final issue of Neil the Horse debuted the animation-friendly characterizations Saba had been working on. Neil remained largely unchanged. Soapy gained fingers and the ability to walk upright, while Mam’selle lost some of her over-the-top sex appeal. Several production companies, including Toronto’s Nelvana, optioned the animated Neil over the next several years, but ultimately all passed on turning it into a series. After Saba’s ill-fated meeting in San Francisco, all avenues were exhausted, and Neil was never seen again... [Read the complete article here.]

Katherine Collins will be inducted into the 2017 Giants of the North, Canadian Cartooning Hall of Fame at this year’s Doug Wright Awards and Conundrum Press are releasing "The Collected Neil The Horse" in May 2017.


Dominick Grace said...

Looking forward to this collected Neil finally coming out, despite being hosed by Hermes Press's Indiegogo campaign when they were the proposed publisher. They collected pledges from supporters, never did the book, and did not refund pledges, as pledges were deemed "donations" for which you were guaranteed nothing. I do not believe supporters of the indiegogo campaign are getting anything from the new publisher, either. Needless to say, I will never buy another book from Hermes Press, but I WILL still pick up Neil the Horse.

Steve said...

I have all 15 issues (a couple even signed by Katherine) and some Charlton Comics title with a Neil story, so what would be much more interesting to me would be an extensive presentation of the comic strips.

The comics are easy to find on eBay, it's the strips that are so unlikely to ever see the light of day again.


Dominick Grace said...

According to the products description on the Conundrum webpage, this volume includes newspaper strip reprints, which I assume refers to the Neil strips. I also assumed it means that all of them would be included, as this is called the "Collected" Neal the Horse, but maybe not.