The 1980s was the decade of the black-and-white comic boom—and the inevitable bust. The boom was started in part by three successful self-published comics: Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest, and Dave Sim’s Cerebus the Aardvark. A comic-reading public that wanted something besides the same tired superhero formula or the sex-and-drugs heavy (and often misogynist) underground comics snapped them up. The black-and-white pages were cheaper to print than color, and soon new publishers with new titles were springing up like toadstools after a rainstorm.
At first it seemed as though any black-and-white comic book would sell (and at first they did), and there were some pretty bizarre but briefly successful books with titles, like Cold Blooded Chameleon Commandos or The Pre-Teen Dirty-Gene Kung-Fu Kangaroos, riding on the armored coattails of Ninja Turtles, but along with the silliness came some good comics that are still with us, like Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot, Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, Max Collins and Terry Beatty’s Ms. Tree, and Joshua Quagmire’s Cutey Bunny, and some good comics that unfortunately didn’t last, like Bill Messner-Loebs’s Journey, and the subject of this essay.
In the midst of the hysteria of the black-and-white boom, along came Neil the Horse, tap dancing his way into the hearts of America. (Well, mine, anyway, and enough others to keep the comic going for fifteen issues.) Five parts Donald Duck artist Carl Barks, five parts Fred Astaire, and a hundred percent Arn Saba, the banana-chomping, rubber-legged equine’s comics were a refreshing change from the dark, grim and gritty, ultraviolent mainstream comics that seemed almost de rigueur during the eighties. His Art Deco–looking characters sang and danced their way through some pretty wacky adventures: inspired by the manic adventures of Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck, along with a healthy dose of surrealism à la Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo, Neil got caught in a photocopier, producing hundreds of Neil clones; he met Mr. Coffee Nerves and consumed a gallon of the stuff, with expected rubber-legged results, and he and his cigar-chomping pal, Soapy the Cat, went to Hell (not as a result of drinking all that coffee!).
From issue no. 1, in the manner of old comics that had always included at least two pages of prose and other features, Arn’s comics featured prose stories along with paper dolls, crossword puzzles, and enthusiastic letter columns. One prose story, “Neil the Horse in Old New France,” begins in the first book and runs for six issues, for a total of thirty-one pages, a small book in itself.
Neil had already been syndicated in thirty small-town Canadian weekly newspapers (and one American paper, the Menomonee Falls Guardian, an all-comics weekly) when Cerebus creator Dave Sim saw Arn’s art in an exhibition. Sim and his wife and publisher, Deni Loubert, had been talking about doing a backup to Cerebus to give other Canadian artists some exposure and were looking for the right material. He decided Arn’s fanciful comic art was just what he wanted to showcase in the back of Cerebus. It took another year before Neil—and Arn—got his own title.
From the beginning, Arn exhibited a magnificent disregard for deadlines. In order to get the comics out on time, he relied on a little help from his friends, especially David Roman, who contributed backgrounds and with whom he collaborated on plotting and development of concepts and characters; and Barb Rausch, who had emerged from Katy Keene fandom and who, in the true spirit of that interactive comic book from the 1950s, supplied Mam’selle Poupée paper dolls and fashions in every issue. But on the whole, the book reflects Arn’s personal vision.
Although the stories starring Neil and his tough-talking sidekick, Soapy, differ dramatically from the romantic stories starring the zaftig French doll, they all represent aspects of their creator. Arn, who had gender-reassignment surgery in 1994, and is now Katherine Collins, explains in an email interview with me:
I realized, after maybe ten years of doing NEIL, that Neil, Soapy, and Poupée quite perfectly represent the three main active ingredients of my personality:
• Neil himself is the fun-loving child, trusting and guileless, able to find joy in almost everything, and totally lacking in a dark side. My “inner child” is still very alive, and not very inner.
• Soapy is the worldly business sharpie, very happy to break laws—in fact, eager to—and tinged with a world-weariness. But he has a heart of gold and is too generous for his own good.
• Poupée is, of course, my female self, but more importantly (and more consciously, at the time) my lovelorn, heartbroken, and ever-yearning self. Poupée is still yearning, and wishing upon a star.
• I stress that I did not design the characters around my psyche; they simply emerged, and it was to my great surprise when I later realized the concordance.
Unique among the black-and-white comics of the 1980s and, in fact, unique from any comic ever published, Neil the Horse is the world’s first and only all-singing, all-dancing comic book. Each issue includes sheet music and lyrics—you can play the songs on your piano!—and along with the lyrics, some evocative poetry that is not set to music, all by Arn, who truly lived up to Neil’s motto: “Making the World Safe for Musical Comedy.” Not all the poetry is evocative; some is just plain hilarious. My favorite:
If all the sky were apple pie
And all the trees were bread,
And all the sea were grapefruit juice,
Then we would all be dead.
Along with the music comes dance. Arn actually manages to choreograph virtual dancing on the printed page, usually starring Mam’selle Poupée. Issue no. 13, part 2, of Arn’s Fred Astaire tribute, is almost all song and dance. Using a little gray box called a Thermal Printer, Arn was able to print out Polaroid-sized black-and-white pictures from videotapes of Fred Astaire movies. In the interview, Katherine writes,
I would pause videotapes of Fred, print a picture, advance it a split second, print another, and so on. From this, I learned what dance looks like not only when it is moving but also when it is captured. That way, I could devise which exact poses I needed to depict the dances in my stories.
About that issue no. 13: Despite reprinting early Neil stories, fan mail, and related ephemera, Arn, as usual, totally ignored his deadlines. The first page of that issue shows Neil, Soapy, Mam’selle Poupée, and Fred Astaire dancing before neon lights that spell out:
Below, it says:
The Fred Astaire tribute part two is late by ten months! Here is our pledge to Comic Fandom: We’re never on time!
He meant it! Issue no. 14 came out almost a year and a half later. To make up for keeping his pledge to comic fandom, the book was a whopping sixty-four pages, reprinting the original newspaper strips and just about everything else that had not yet been reprinted. The last issue of Neil the Horse, no. 15, came out only a month later, filled out with model sheets for the hoped-for Neil animation project and still more newspaper-strip reprints. Arn’s (and Neil’s and Soapy’s and Mam’selle Poupée’s) last words to his readers: “May the Horse be with you!”
It was time to go. Every boom must have a bust, and the black-and-white comics boom was over. A comic that may have sold six thousand copies in 1985 sold half that much by 1988. For five years, Arn Saba had made the world safe for musical comedy. Neil, Soapy, and Mam’selle Poupée should have been hoofing and singing their hearts out on a Broadway stage, and perhaps someday they will.
Trina Robbins is a comics writer, former comics artist, and a prolific historian and anthologist of women in comics. She is the author, most recently, of the memoir Last Girl Standing.
The Collected Neil the Horse, by Arn Saba (now Katherine Collins), is available from Conundrum Press.