Comics are a visual medium, but so often criticism of the medium hinges on narrative, ignoring or minimizing the visual storytelling and unique structures that make comics so different from cinema and photography. We’ve decided to change that up with a feature in Loser City that we’re calling Anatomy of a Page, in which we explore pages and panels that showcase the language of comics and how the best visual storytellers maximize the freedom of comics in order to tell stories that can’t be told anywhere else. This installment features a page from issue two of Ogden Whitney’s bizarre masterpiece Herbie, a spin-off of Forbidden Worlds that got its own series at American Comics Group in 1964. You can currently buy an archive edition of it from Dark Horse.
The Silver Age of comics is full of bizarre storylines and characters, but few are as weird as Herbie. Originally created by Ogden Whitney and Richard E. Hughes under the moniker Shane O’Shea, Herbie appeared off and on in the anthology series Forbidden Worlds before receiving his own series in 1964. Herbie was an oddball from the start, looked down upon by his father and others, who called him a “little fat nothing,” unaware that when they weren’t looking, Herbie was off talking to animals and getting into all kinds of magical shenanigans thanks to his use of an array of lollipops that granted him different powers. Even without all the magic, though, Herbie was strange, basically emotionless yet capable of charming politicians and beautiful women.
The second issue of Herbie’s eponymous series featured Herbie as a detective, forced to track down “The Man in the Cloak,” who the “Daily Press” proclaims is the “most dangerous gangster ever known” yet has decided to make the lollipop market his current target, robbing every market and candy store of Herbie’s candy of choice. After some painful days without a way to get his lollipop fix, Herbie starts asking the local animals about this “Man in the Cloak,” with a cornerstore dog feeding Herbie his best bit of intel, a description of the “Man in the Cloak’s” vehicle, a yellow polka dotted truck.
The page I’ve singled out is the moment where in True Detective fashion, Herbie doesn’t realize his adversary is right in front of him. The page begins with an odd perspective, a view from behind and above a bird hanging out on a telephone wire. Ogden Whitney filled the pages of Herbie with these kinds of perspectives, which often flipped visual jokes and puns into something weirder; in this case, the bird’s eye view is forgone in favor of a shot that places Herbie in the foreground but uses perspective to shrink him and portray him as a “fat little nothing.” Because this story is meant to show how weak and desperate Herbie gets without his lollipops, most of the panels focus on his vulnerability. Hence the second panel, where a tired Herbie is leaning against an unseen object, decked out in a Sherlock cap and a magnifying glass. The yellow color motif from the first panel carries over, building up to the third panel, which directly connects to the second and reveals what Herbie is leaning against. Whitney’s decision not to have panels two and three side by side is a bit jarring, but that’s seemingly by design as panels three and four have an interesting symmetry with the wheelwell of the truck connecting to itself across the panels.
The background of panel four features a smell line that gets Herbie’s notice and allows Whitney to get more abstract in the bottom of the page, as Herbie’s thoughts become consumed by his missing lollipops and he turns into a wall crashing automaton, a la the Hulk. Herbie was never a goofy series, which is kind of amazing given its character and storylines, and much of its appeal comes from these more abstract images by Whitney; they’re usually dialogue free and provide strong imagery while also making it clear how bizarre and otherworldly everything about Herbie is. Whitney’s artwork is effective not just because of how timeless it still looks but because of the way it gives a gravitas to everything Herbie does, no matter how weird. What could have been a mean spirited comic about a character who might today be considered autistic is uniquely empowering for anyone who wishes they had better abilities to deal with a world that is set against their success.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with Dylan Garsee on twitter: @Nick_Hanover