Making the world safe for musical comedy (and Canadian comic books)

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The Collected Neil the Horse revisits one of the craziest comics published during the eighties black-and-white boom

Neil the Horse was a black-and-white comic published in the eighties. Vancouver artist Arn Saba, along with a couple of collaborators, wrote and drew 15 issues for Aardvark-Vanaheim (publishers of Cerebus the Aardvark) and Renegade (an off-shoot of A-V). Prior to the first issue of the comic, published in 1983, Neil starred in a comic strip for a number of weekly newspapers in British Columbia, Saba’s home province. In 1989, Renegade published the last issue of Neil the Horse. Both Neil and his creator disappeared.

Now the story can be, and is, told. With the publication of The Collected Neil the Horse (Conundrum Press, softcover, 360 pps, $25CDN), Neil, his companions Soapy the feline grifter and Mam’selle Poupée the lovelorn living French doll, and their creator finally get the second look they so richly deserve.

Even at a time when comics artists were striking out for unknown territory—not quite underground, definitely not mainstream—Neil the Horse was an anomaly. Saba combined his love of Carl Barks (the celebrated funny animal cartoonist best known for his Scrooge McDuck comics for Disney) and Fred Astaire (!) into what is probably the world’s first and maybe only musical comedy comic. Along with short, straight-up comic stories, Saba filled Neil the Horse with illustrated prose pieces, extended narratives, cartooned dance sequences (which the artist “slavishly choreographed by printing out stills of Astaire in motion on a thermal printer attached to his VCR,” according to this recent Quill & Quire piece), and sheet music of original songs composed by Saba. The comic’s tag-line was “Making the world safe for musical comedy,” something that could not be said of many other comics, then or now.

The Collected Neil brings together most if not all the material from the comics (excepting letters pages and perhaps some other ancillary material) as well as Saba’s early Neil the Horse comic strips. These are reproduced at the end of the book, along with a “backward” by the author and a recollection of Neil the Horse collaborator Barbara Rausch.

For the most part, this collection is a wonder and delight. A wonder that this comic was ever made at all, never mind that it found an audience (however briefly); delight in the innocent, fully-formed world within. As Quill & Quire writer Conan Tobias notes, the cast’s adventures “were non-linear and surreal. Many took place in their home base of Bananaburg, but the characters also could find themselves sailing to New France with no explanation, and none needed.” While the stories follow their own internal, whimsical logic, the black-and-white art is clear-lined (“ligne claire” as the French would say) and often elegant. It’s obvious that Saba studied Barks for the latter’s storytelling ability as well as plot devices, and even as some panels can be quite busy with character and detail, the art never gets in the way of the story. (The earlier comic strips can be a little harder to follow.)

As the series progressed, Saba became more ambitious, opting for longer narratives (“Video Warrior” and “Canine the Barbarian”) and more and more “musical comedy” sequences. These usually feature Mam’selle Poupée, though sometimes the full cast as well, with minimal text or song lyrics written by Saba.

The publication of The Collected Neil the Horse is cause for celebration, for comics fans (most if not all of the work holds up today, thanks to Saba’s rule-ignoring, timeless approach) and especially Canadian comics fans. But it also helps answer the question of what happened to Saba.

Following the last issue of Neil, Saba tried to get various other Neil-related projects off the ground, including an animated series and a graphic novel. When nothing panned out, the artist took it personally and retreated from the comics world.

By then, Saba had begun transitioning to a woman. Today, Saba is Katherine Collins, is back living in Vancouver (after years in the U.S. and Toronto), and is recognized for her/his pioneering work.

In 2013, the Joe Shuster Awards inducted her into the Canadian Comic Book Creator Hall of Fame in 2013. In May of this year, coinciding with publication of The Collected Neil the Horse, Collins was inducted into the Doug Wright Awards’ Giants of the North cartoonist hall of fame.

She explains all of this in an introduction and afterward. She also writes movingly about Barbara Rausch, her collaborator on art for many Neil stories. As Collins explains in “Loving Memories of Barb Rausch”, Rausch was a unique character in her own right. In her teens, she contributed to a fashion comic called Katy Keene but didn’t pursue art as a full-time career until she was 40, at which point she moved from Flint, Michigan to Los Angeles. Rausch’s story, and that of Collins—including her former life and experiences following her transition—provide a poignant counterpoint to the adventures of the banana-obsessed Neil and his beautiful friends.

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