Monday, June 20, 2011
Arn Saba's Musical: A Retrospective Reading
by Dave Kiersh
(originally published on Indy Magazine website- 2005)
Arn Saba's Neil the Horse is a comic book steeped in nostalgia for the past. Featuring character designs highly influenced by classic funny animal cartoons and covers resembling 1930's art deco designs, the series appears an anomaly. Saba's premise was something both old and new: the musical comedy. Saba had a vaudevillian approach, changing the format of his comics several times within each issue. This variety act included the comic strip, comic book stories, illustrated stories, originally composed sheet music, crossword puzzles, and more. It appeared like a modern version of early twentieth century hardbound children's annuals that employed such a variety of techniques rarely seen in comics. This was combined by the playful interaction of letter columns, paper dolls and fashion as seen in the likes of Katy Keene comics. The series, which ran 15 issues from 1983-1988, was published by Denis Sim (Aardvark-Vanaheim/ Renegade Press). Sometimes the material was less than awe-inspiring, particularly the comic strips reprinted from as far back as 1975. At its best, the material was inspiring. Saba's "Fred Astaire Tribute" (issues 11 and 13) showed the cartoonist at the top of his form.
During the 1980's, even the independent comics industry was swamped with hard-edged and often violent material that dominated the mainstream. Neil the Horse, on the other hand, was a light-hearted, fun, romp made up of curvy, bouncing figures. It was akin to only a few other new titles being published, including Scott McCloud's Zot, Wendy Pini's Elfquest and Eastman and Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. All of these black and white comics were attempting to try something fresh while still offering appeal to an audience of both children and adults. Unlike these comics, Neil shared few of the superhero, fantasy, or action influences. Instead, Saba drew upon the other popular staples of comicdom: Walt Disney and Archie comics. His stories and approach, however, were so different that Neil the Horse could never be confused with Carl Barks' Gladstone reprints and the Dan DeCarlo girls appearing on the newsstand around the same time. Saba's combination of 80's pop culture with jazzy animals and dolls recalled a past gone by and created a unique statement. Most distinct is that the choreographed placement of his characters was arranged to a musical score, composed by the cartoonist. The lyrics played the dual role of dialogue and narration just as in a stage musical. This was truly a convention unique in the sequential medium to Arn's oeuvre.
The stars of Neil the Horse include Mam'Selle Poupee (French for doll), Soapy the Cat and of course Neil. All of Saba's characters lack emotional depth, although surprisingly this is not a drawback to his work. It is precisely their one-sidedness that allows their creator to manipulate them so that the focus is placed upon their interactions and movement. Of all the characters, Poupee is the most complex and interesting. Her body is jointed like a Barbie figurine. With the red circles on her cheeks, curly hair and alarmingly large bust and thin waistline, she appears to be a cross between Raggedy-Anne and Dolly Parton. She speaks with a broken French accent and seems unaware of her sexuality. The more developed comics stories involving the three characters show that Soapy and Neil's adventures primarily revolve around the problems faced by Poupee. Neil is a happy go-lucky horse with a predilection for bananas. Soapy is a tough, sometimes grumpy cigar smoking cat whose purpose is to balance out this comedic ensemble.
While Poupee initially appears to be the stereotypical naive blonde, her introspection is later hinted at through Saba's song lyrics, not through dialogue. It is interesting to note that Saba does not make use of thought bubbles. In viewing his comics like a performance or an animated cartoon, he prefers music to portray what the characters are feeling. His lyrics usually show that Poupee, who appears self-assured and loves to dress up, is also yearning for the love of a man. While she finds joy in the companionship of her male animal friends Neil and Soapy, she will remain simply a "living doll" until she realizes the companionship of a significant other. Arn's songs are both lyrical and humorous, yet some have an underlying sadness expressing an unsatisfied yearning.
One cannot help identify this yearning with the knowledge that not long after Saba's disappearance from the comics scene, he underwent a gender transformation. Perhaps his need to realize his female identity is represented through what initially appear to be one-sided characters. Certainly, in his comics we see Arn taking pleasure in dancing beside his heroes. These heroes include Carl Barks, who Arn claims to have "influenced and enriched [his] life more than any other person". Both Neil and Soupy can be seen as descendents of this Disney (or Fleischer) style as well as the many dog-like background characters that come directly out of Barks' duck work. Even more significantly, Poupee is enabled through the comics to dance side by side with Arn's hero, Fred Astaire.
While existing as a fantasy with nostalgic style, the stories and style within Neil the Horse also pay tribute to the present (the 1980's). Poupee wears headbands and works out ala Olivia Newton-John. Neil gets down and breakdances in urban city streets to the accompaniment of a boom box. In "Video Wars" (issues 4-7), the gang comes in contact with characters that inhabit an arcade game. Additionally, Arn pays tribute to his assistants Barb Rausch and Dave Roman frequently. He even published a photo of Roman and the various players in the radio/musical version of the comic. However, Arn excludes himself from depictions of the present. No images (cartoon or photos) of Arn appear in any of the issues. The letters addressed to his comic are all answered in character (by Poupee, Neil or Soapy) rather than by "the creator." The reader only hears Arn speak as himself in later issues when he writes long essay on Fred Astaire (#11) and discusses his pitch to make Neil an animated TV series (#15).
In his Fred Astaire tribute, Arn acknowledges that Fred may not have hinted at his true personality in his work. Responding to a quote from Astaire in which he describes himself as an annoying perfectionist, Arn replies, "This is probably true. But it is the essential part of the Fred Astaire who inspires us to do well... Fred Astaire sets a standard to which we can aspire." Saba set these standards for himself, both as a cartoonist and as a composer. Quoting Bob Thomas, he also writes, regarding Astaire's public persona, that, "Beneath it all were his native shyness, his eagerness to succeed and please". Following the essay in issue #11, Arn has a comic that portrays a lonely Poupee daydreaming of dancing with an Astaire-like man. Once this fantasy subsides, Poupee attempts to write some music but ultimately lies down in desperation. It is only through a phone call (from this same man) that her sadness is relieved. The final comic in the issue shows Poupee with the typical Astaire coat tails and walking stick dancing on an abandoned stage. Through his art, Arn becomes this puppet of a woman entertaining the reader with her movements, reflecting and building upon the greatness of a legendary entertainer. It is through Arn's abstract shyness to reveal himself that the reader becomes drawn in and amused. The man is there even though we do not see his face.
Saba's technique of narrating his otherwise silent comic with music further emphasizes confusion with regards to gender. In "I Was Waiting For You" from #13, the lyrics alternate between Poupee and Astaire. Because of the lack of word bubbles, it initially is unclear as to who is singing the male or female parts, as both characters are most often portrayed with their mouth open. Their joy, as expressed through the lyrics and dance, is in being together. The sanctity of this union is threatened only by the promise of marriage that poses a threat. Poupee and Astaire look the most foreboding, as depicted by Arn, when they are staring at a domestic household filled with children. At the conclusion of the song, when they are singing in unison, it is revealed that they are performing to an audience. For this act, they take a bow. Somehow, it is through the merging of both genders that Saba is willing to find acceptance and take compliments from his fans. His union, while glorious, is far from traditional with Astaire an aging man and Poupee a wooden doll. This sets Neil the Horse apart from traditional comics for children.
The final story is issue #13, "Night Suite," the last story Arn completed for the series (the following two issues consist of reprints). In it, a melancholy Poupee seeks solace in the nightlife. This Poupee is different than earlier versions. Her eyes no longer swirl around unfocused, googly-like. She has taken on a stronger, more realistic presence in that she is able to look directly at men (rather than just animals, faeries, etc.) It is almost as if this hollow doll has begun to be inhabited by another presence. Even her face, once round, has taken on a longer, more solemn and perhaps masculine presence. While dancing in a nightclub, Poupee is enraptured by a young man as the lyrics narrate, "There is nothing more demented/ than two people lying side by side/ Hearing music in each other's sighs;/ But this is how heaven was invented/ By two ordinary fools/ With ordinary dreams/ letting their fortunes entwine." As the music continues, it becomes apparent through the images that Poupee and the man spend the night together. The following day, however, as the sun rises, Poupee is left feeling empty and sad once again. As she walks down the street, she becomes small and hardly noticeable in her sweater and scarf. It was only in the nightlife (and in her sex life) that her movement and body could be freely revealed to interact with others. During the day, there is only the ordinary drudgery, and even Neil and Soapy appear disgruntled by the arrival of the sun.
Perhaps the series came to an end because it was becoming too personal for Arn to draw. The suggestion within the comic itself is that Arn was trying to create a more commercial venue for his characters through the television medium. The proposed animated series, however, appeared to rely more on the funny animal characters and had toned down Poupee's sexuality. While it did not come to fruition, if it did, the personality of its creator most likely would've been stifled. Like the musical comedies of the screen, Neil the Horse has become a sentimental relic. One could only speculate whether or not Saba's transexuality and desire to transform into a woman fostered his exit from the comics scene. It is rumored that before becoming Mrs. Katherine Collins, Arn completed a short, graphic novel featuring his characters. Nearly 15 years later, this story has yet to see print. Perhaps one day it will resurface and amaze us all. I, for one, miss Mam'Selle Poupee, Neil, Soapy and their creator's unique, timeless vision.
Posted by dave k. at 4:58 PM