16 August 2011

Discovering Illustrator Frank Kramer

The latest issue of The Baum Bugle, the research journal of the International Wizard of Oz Club, is very impressive. Most of the content is former editor Atticus Gannaway’s study of Frank Kramer, illustrator of Jack Snow’s The Magical Mimics in Oz (1946) and The Shaggy Man of Oz (1949).

I won’t deny that this is a specialized topic: the work-for-hire illustrator of two of the least beloved later sequels in the Oz series, whose other art appeared mostly in pulp magazines and sports novels. But Atticus’s research is especially impressive because:
  • Very little was documented about Kramer before, even within fan circles. Basically, all the information we had came from Snow’s Who’s Who in Oz; though Snow was in the best position to know about Kramer’s career, he wasn’t thorough or reliable.
  • The articles assemble findings from many different approaches: archival research, interviews, analysis of illustrations, round-up of critical commentary. 
I was particularly struck by some behind-the-scenes details about how Kramer worked on his two Oz books. I hadn’t known that Magical Mimics was ready for publication a year or two before it appeared; wartime shortages caused the publisher, Reilly & Lee, to postpone it. That meant it took Snow even longer than I’d thought to finish a sequel (which he eventually did by borrowing a lot from L. Frank Baum’s John Dough and the Cherub, then out of print).

Jack Snow evidently found Kramer through the pulp magazines, a market both men were working. Snow thought Kramer’s line style and experience with out-of-this-world subjects meant he could stand in for longtime Oz illustrator John R. Neill, who had died in 1943. I think Kramer manages some impressive effects in his books (Atticus quotes my praise for one illustration), though I agree he didn’t give Snow’s child heroes any more life than Snow did.

Most surprising, the article shows that Reilly & Lee gave Snow instructions to pass on to Kramer. I’d never heard of a publisher working that way—usually they try to insulate the author and artist from each other. I guess that shows how pitifully Reilly & Lee was scraping along by the late 1940s.

Some people don’t like to know the commercial stories behind their favorite books, any more than they like watching laws or sausage being made. At least in my adulthood, I find that topic almost endlessly fascinating.

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