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Obituary: Bill Woggon 1911-2003
posted April 30, 2003
 

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William (Bill) Woggon, the creator of and longtime artist for the popular comic book character Katy Keene, died March 2. He was 92 years old.

Bill Woggon began his long and successful career in art in Toledo, Ohio in the 1920s. The fourth of sixth children, he became fascinated with a federal art correspondence course taken by his brother Elmer. Elmer passed the course and became an art director at the Toledo Blade. Woggon did fill-in work at his brother's place of employment before quitting high school at age 16 to become art director at Tiedtkes Department Store.

Early in his career Woggon played an important role in one of the stranger title progressions in comic strip history, the decades-long transformation of The Great Gusto into Steve Roper and Mike Nomad. Elmer Woggon created the Great Gusto feature that would upon its publication in 1936 almost immediately change its name to Big Chief Wahoo. A popular strip of the time largely forgotten now, Big Chief Wahoo appeared in hundreds of papers and spawned both comic books (Fawcett) and little-big books (Whitman). When adventure strips started to push many humorous features out of the newspaper, Big Chief Wahoo changed in tone and direction. Elmer, perhaps feeling his own art style was slightly dated and inappropriate for the feature as it was developing, turned art chores over to brother Bill. The Steve Roper character was introduced in 1940 and eventually took control of the strip, with Mike Nomad being added in the early 1960s.

imageA meeting with Harry Shorten led to Woggon penciling and inking several short stories for MLJ/Archie in the middle 1940s, a time during which he inaugurated the feature Dotty and Ditto, starring a western girl and her pet parrot. He created his signature character Katy Keene in 1945, during a brief moment in comic book history where publishers were stumbling over themselves to provide material for female readers. Good girl Keene debuted in MLJ's Wilbur Comics #5, cover dated Summer 1945, amid the early rush of teenager titles that would briefly eclipse all other comic book genres. (Such an effort must have been on the artist's mind. Woggon did a similar feature that same year for Kasko Comics #1, a giveaway for a feed company). The title's main character, Wilbur, was an Archie knock-off best known for re-living earlier adventures of Riverdale High's redhead in their to-the-letter entirety. But Wilbur had impressive publishing legs given his pedigree, and provided a solid sales anchor for Woggon's new work. The Katy Keene character continued in her back-up position to Wilbur for over 60 issues of that title, enjoying a similar although less frequent place in titles such as Laugh, Suzie and Pep. She received her own title in 1949, by which time Woggon and wife Jane had moved to California.

In addition to Woggon's consistently high-quality artwork, what distinguished the feature was Woggon's use of reader's clothing designs and the use of a popular newspaper strip feature: paper dolls and cut-outs. In what became a story motif so ubiquitous it could be parodied, nearly every page of comic featured a character in a new outfit accompanied by a small text-based aside giving credit to the reader who designed it. The parade of new clothes proved incredibly popular, and even drove plotlines - the character would model, or appear in a movie with multiple costume changes. The Katy feature not only carried her own title, but also less frequently published books like Katy Keene Pinup Parade and Katy Keene Annual in addition to spin-off one-shot titles like Katy Keene Glamour (1957), Katy Keene Charm (1958) and Katy Keene Spectacular (1956). She also occasionally made drop-ins in Archie Giant Series Magazine.

Woggon's approach to costuming wasn't only attractive, but displayed a remarkable level of integrity when it came to utilizing reader's suggestions. While he or an assistant might improve the submission so that they met a certain standard of quality, unlike artists on similar titles Woggon never allowed himself or other artists to create their own designs and pass them off as a reader's. Thousands of readers, including prominent designers such as Betsey Johnson and the late Willie Smith, have credited Woggon with inspiring some of their first creative stirrings in fashion design. The paper dolls, a feature which preceded Woggon taking fashion suggestions from readers, pleased Katy's readers as the same rate with which it made undamaged copies of his books rare and hard to find. As comics, the otherwise wish fulfillment-saturated Katy Keene book came to feature a number of very loosely conceived, sumptuously realized visual jokes on covers. (Multiple samples from "'Bossman' Bill Woggon's" most popular book have appeared as installments in the Oddball Comics on-line magazine feature written by Scott Shaw!) Katy Keene was also a sales success. Woggon told interviewer Shel Dorf in 1986 that at its height the character's namesake comic sold over a million copies per issue. Woggon, who also created a family feature for Archie called The Twiddles, did not own the copyright on any of the work he did for the youth-oriented comics company, and at the height of his career received approximately $50 for a completed comic book page.

Comics historian and artist Trina Robbins paid tribute to the cartoonist's cultural impact, telling the Journal, "All you have to say to a woman of a certain age are the two words, 'Katy Keene,' to watch her eyes light up. Immediately she'll reply, 'That was the comic with the paper dolls, right? The one where readers sent in designs?' And she'll tell you how she used to design clothes for the comic's glamorous heroine, how she used to cut out the paper dolls (One reason why today an uncut copy of Katy Keene will cost you an arm and a leg), sometimes how it was the only comic book she read as a kid. Bill Woggon hit on a winning formula when he opened his comic to readers, creating a pre-computer age interactive comic book. The result was fans who, 30 years later, got Archie Comics to reprint their beloved comic book, and later, to bring her back, drawn by John Lucas, himself an early contributor of designs for Katy.

"I was one of those fans back in the 1950s," Robbins noted. "But, like many other kids, I never realized that Bill redrew the readers' designs for publication. I thought all the fans whose designs were published were little Da Vincis, and, thinking that I could never draw as well as them, I kept my paper dolls to myself. The result was a brown paper grocery bag full of paper dolls that I had designed."

Katy's first run in comics ended in 1961 when the girl's comic trend exemplified by her adventures finally slowed down to cancellation levels for several titles. Woggon later recalled receiving word at his home, the Woggon Wheels ranch, on an April 15th evening, in the form of a phoned telegram from John Goldwater at Archie: "Stop work on Katy Keene immediately, air mail letter will follow." After Katy Keene, Woggon found some work on Al Vermeer's Priscilla Pop, and provided pencils and inks for Dell on the Millie the Lovable Monster feature from 1962 to 1964 - work that was reprinted in the early 1970s. By that time, Woggon had long retired from the comic book field. Woggon's highest profile cartooning job after leaving Archie was in coloring books. He did a popular gift book for the then-mighty Sambo's restaurant chain, and another one for Uncle John's Pancake House. He also found illustration work with Christian publishers.

In 1978, Woggon received an unexpected compliment when fashion designer Marilise Flusser at Saks in New York City used oversized copies of comic covers from Katy's long run as the backdrop in a prominent window display. This event helped spur a revival of interest in Woggon's work. A regularly published fanzine popped up soon after. Woggon received an inkpot award from the San Diego Comic Convention in 1981, signaling a renewed interest the Katy Keene comic.

A fan-driven re-launching of Katy's comics adventures in 1983 featured work by Dan DeCarlo and John Lucas and lasted until 1990. Those comics featured several Woggon reprints. According to a write-up on the paper dolls phenomenon that included a section on Woggon's contributions, in recent years Woggon and Barb Rausch created new work and facilitated some reprints of comics for Hobby House Press. Although Archie does not prominently feature the character in its continuing efforts to promote several properties as potential cross-media superstars, Archie Publications artist John Lucas continues to do the occasional paper doll project with the character, and Katy remains a small presence on the company's web site.

In 1985, Woggon and one-time Katy Keene designer of the year winner Rausch created Vicky Valentine for Renegade Comics, making the cartoonist and his protege one of the more unlikely creative duos in the 1980s indy comix movement. For Woggon collectors, the relatively low print run on that title, combined with its use of cut-out paper dolls, makes finding issues a rare treat. The title was part of a brief mini-movement in the middle 1980s to bring back cutout heavy comics, including Trina Robbins' Misty (Star Comics, 1985) and California Girls (Renegade, 1987), and the appearance of cutout dolls in various Eclipse comic books.

"Bill himself was a charming and dapper gray-bearded gent, gracious and delighted to be remembered after so many years," remembers Robbins. "Despite the fact that Bill was a regular churchgoer, if he noticed that all the boy fans who'd read his comic were gay, it certainly didn't bother him."

Woggon drew on family members to create the supporting cast in his most popular feature, and often mused on how close the Katy Keene character was to his own heart. "I was living in Toledo when I created Katy," he noted in 1986, "And Katy was living in New York, and dreaming about getting into the movies... just dreaming about the big time. Then when we moved out west, I brought Katy out west, too. She always never succeeded in the big time, but she was a dreamer."

Church services for Bill Woggon were held on March 18.

Originally Published in The Comics Journal #252

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