Saturday, March 11, 2006

Rebus Called Up

Although Rebus was surprised to be called up from the cartoon reserves to serve in the Cartoon War, he's flattered that anyone remembered him. The panel above shows him reacting to the startling notice for him to return to active duty.

Rebus, depicted below at the top of Biograph Theatre Program No. 53, is best known for his role as the Biograph's official spokesdog. Drawn by yours truly he made his initial appearance on a Midnite Show handbill in what was that storied Fan District cinema's first year of operation (1972). His name, Rebus, came a few weeks later -- it started as Uncle Rebus, then Uncle was quickly dropped -- when he reappeared in a single panel that I drew for my own amusement. It was titled: "Have a Good Time," which had become the Biograph's motto.

A month-or-so later, that single panel has grown into a nine-panel comic strip, called "Rebus Wakes Up." It was subsequently published by VCU's student newspaper, The Commonwealth Times, which morphed into a pulp comic tabloid called "Fan Free Funnies" for three issues in the spring of 1973.

What is a rebus?

It’s a word puzzle. The viewer sees a line drawing of an eye, then a plus sign, then the letter “c”, then another plus sign, then the letter “u.” Decoded that means “I see you.” Such little puzzles, usually somewhat more complicated, were common in publications aimed at children in the 1940s and '50s. The original Rebus comic strips all had little rebus puzzles in them, somewhere.

In the 1970s a circle of area artists was into drawing cartoons, making short animated films and even making large cartoon paintings. Inspired by “underground comix,” there was a scene, of sorts, in the Fan District then which revolved around cartooning. In some ways it was a precursor of the illustrated fiction wave that began to be noticed about ten years later. Anyway, in such a make-believe world, Rebus was a minor celebrity ‘toon, perhaps along the lines of local pitchman who appears on TV frequently selling sofas, promoting community events, etc.

Rebus continued to pop up on Biograph handbills and programs all during my tenure as the Biograph’s manager (1972-83). Rebus also helped out with other projects, such as my 1980s Rock ‘n’ Roll promotions with Chuck Wrenn; we called our partnership Lit Fuse Productions.

Later, to make my then-girlfriend laugh -- she thought Rebus was a chump -- I did a black humor series of small paintings called "Documenting the Death of Rebus." In each piece he was being killed off in a different way. Then she moved out.

Undaunted, Rebus made a rousing comeback in a series of 'toons published in SLANT (1985-94), doing some of his best work. As well, he has appeared on various posters, calendars and T-shirts. etc., I've produced over the years since.

No comments: