Film Review: Caveman: V.T. Hamlin & Alley Oop

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The influence that some of the most popular comic strips have had on American culture is readily apparent to just about everybody, both in the effects of that influence, and the awareness of their source.

The most obvious example is Peanuts, which has probably had the most cultural impact and is still one of the more widely published strips (even if it’s in permanent repeats). But think too of Dick Tracy, Dennis the Menace and Popeye, which may have been eclipsed in the mainstream imagination by their adaptations into other media, but the line between their strip origins and the fingerprints they’ve left on our culture is wide, straight and brightly drawn.

V. T. Hamlin’s Alley Oop though? Everyone’s heard the golden oldie song of the same name, and, sportscasters still refer to slam-dunks or long passes as an “alley oop,” but how clear is it where the song came from, or what inspired the sports term?

Caveman: V.T. Hamlin & Alley Oop is a documentary dedicated to redrawing that line. Written and directed by Max Allan Collins, a dizzyingly prolific prose writer and comics writer who has scripted the Dick Tracy newspaper strip and is probably best known for writing Road To Perdition, Caveman does an admirable job of laying out the appeal and influence of the long-running strip, and sketching the life of its colorful creator.

It’s not a great documentary—some scenes betray just how cheaply made it is, important things seem glossed over—and I ’m not sure its appeal will prove able to transcend the relatively narrow audience of cartoonists and sequential art enthusiasts, but at the very least its a strong celluloid essay on Hamlin’s extraordinary talent and place in comics history. It may be an inferior work, but it reflects great work.

The strip Alley Oop is still being produced, and is now on it’s third set of cartoonists, and is seen by 46 million people daily (I’ve never actually seen one in a newspaper though; none of the four cities I’ve lived in have had paper that carried it). It began in 1933, when Hamlin crystallized America’s growing fascination with dinosaurs into an ongoing continuity comedy/adventure strip about caveman Alley Oop and a small society of cavepeople in dinosaur times (with frequent time travel trips to other eras).

Collins makes great use of Hamlin’s own art, from both the strip and his doodlings as far back as high school, plus photos of Hamlin, to tell the cartoonists’ early life story and the genesis of the strip. He also assembles an all-star line-up of talking heads.

In addition to Hamlin’s daughter, and all three of the other creators to have worked on the strip, Collins sits down with such eminent cartoonists as the late Will Eisner, Sergio Aragones, Stan Sakai, Frank Stack and Trina Robbins, plus Dinosaurs and Cadillacs creator Mark Schultz and Broomhilda creator Russell Meyers, publisher Denis Kitchen, and a couple of comics historians.

Their enthusiasm is infectious, but even the nicest words out of the mouths of some of the giants of cartooning—and Eisner’s point about the continuity between cave drawings and comics seems particularly inspired in a discussion of a comics caveman—Hamlin’s drawings speak for themselves, and Collins is canny enough to give them plenty of screen time.

The various strengths of Collins’ film make the weaknesses especially unfortunate. Hamlin seems to have lead a fascinating life, and while Collins covers it start to finish, a particularly big event—his falling out with his art assistant and personally-groomed successor Dave Graue—is talked about but never explained. At less than an hour, surely Collins had time to go into it, and the result is a pretty good documentary on a great subject, one that fails the transcendental test, but remains must see for comics fans.

Caveman: V. T. Hamlin & Alley Oop screens tomorrow night, Wednesday, October 10, at 7 p.m. at the Wexner Center’s Film/Video theater. Click to wexarts.org for more info.

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