A pastoral scene with (l-r) Soapy, Neil and Mam'selle Poupée. Artist: Arn Saba.


Original medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: Great Lakes Publishing
First Appeared: 1975
Creator: Arn Saba
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Living up to its slogan, "Making the world safe for musical comedy", Neil the Horse contained actual sheet music of original songs, as well as regular comics stories and heavily illustrated prose stories, in each issue — making it a very unusual comic book. And before that, it …

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… was a very unusual newspaper comic. When it debuted, on Oct. 3, 1975, it appeared in weekday papers despite the fact that it did so only once a week — but it was done in a two-tier format; that is, twice the size of a regular daily. In that, it was not quite unique. Star Hawks, by Ron Goulart (Tekworld) and Gil Kane (Green Lantern) made the same attempt to enlarge the scope of artistic expression in the dailies. In neither case did it turn out to be a commercially viable format.

The Neil the Horse series was syndicated to Canadian newspapers. At first, its creator, cartoonist Arn Saba (a native of Vancouver), handled the syndicating himself. After a couple of years, he and a partner, Toronto cartoonist Jeff Wakefield, formed Great Lakes Publishing, a syndicate specializing in Canadian productions such as Neil. It was about then that it was made more acceptable to space-conscious editors by dropping down to a single tier.

The title character was a child-like innocent drawn in a retro style strongly reminiscent of animated characters from the silent and early sound periods, but exaggerated. His legs were even more curvy and flexible than the "rubber hose" limbs of Bosko, Oswald and their contemporaries; and the rest of him consisted mostly of simple ovals. His pal Soapy, a relatively realistically-drawn alley cat who smoked a cigar, provided counterpoint. After a few years, Mam'selle Poupée, a stringless, living marionette like Pinocchio, was introduced. Despite being what she was, Poupée (whose design has been compared to a cross between Raggedy Ann and Dolly Parton) was at least as complex a character as both of them put together. It was Poupée who brought Neil and Soapy into the world of another of Saba's major interests, live theatre, so of course she became a regular.

In its early days, the Neil the Horse series was done as a light-hearted adventure story, in serial form. Later, it became a gag vehicle, in which some of the gags seemed to have little or no point but just presented amusingly surreal vignettes about the characters. It was entertaining, but only appeared in about 30 newspapers, a fact Saba attributed to the relative unimportance of national origin in the estimation of readers and editors, over such factors as familiarity of the characters. It kicked the bucket in 1982, and Great Lakes Publishing disappeared along with it.

But that wasn't the end of Neil. He'd already appeared in a couple of 1980-81 children's magazines done by Potlatch Publications in Ontario. His debut in regular comic books was an 8-page story in Charlton Bullseye, made by his only U.S. publisher with a cover date of July, 1982. Then Dave Sim and Deni Loubert, publishers of Cerebus the Aardvark (and only incidentally also Canadian), took an interest.

Sim and Loubert made Neil the Horse Comics and Stories the second title published by their Aardvark-Vanaheim, which went on to include normalman, Flaming Carrot, Journey and several others. They later split the company, with Sim's portion retaining Cerebus and Loubert's Renegade Press taking all the rest. Between 1983 and '88, 15 issues came out.

Neil was subsequently the subject of a non-comics musical comedy, with actual music in audio form, as opposed to the sheet music of the comic books. It was broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Saba also completed a 64-page graphic novel about Neil and his friends, but was unable to interest any publishers in it.

Saba took the rejection as a hint, according to later autobiographical material, and left the cartooning field. In 1993, he opted for trans-gender surgery, and now lives as a woman under the name Katherine Collins. Her interest in a revived career in cartooning has waned since then, so there is little chance of a Neil the Horse comeback.


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Text ©2007-08 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Arn Saba.