75 Years of DC Comics : The Art of Modern Mythmakingby: Paul Levitz
Illustration Courtesy of Taschen Publishing
THE HISTORIAN, EDITOR, AND COLLECTOR Bill Blackbeard made the world of modern comic strip reprints possible by his dogged efforts to rescue them from far-flung newspapers being systematically destroyed by libraries. With his masterful co-edited Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics anthology in 1977, Blackbeard exposed a generation of fans and cartoonists to the fact that moldering, disappeared old comic strips were cool and desirable.
Blackbeard personally clipped and collated over 350,000 Sunday strips and over 2 million dailies, stored them in his own home for decades, and eventually donated them to Ohio State University. Jenny Robb, who now curates the archive Blackbeard created, says that Blackbeard's careful preservation, contextualization, and editing "transformed comic strips into objects with legitimate cultural, historic and sometimes even aesthetic value." (Gotta love that academic "sometimes.")
Blackbeard died this year, his mission accomplished. Over a dozen series of complete strip reprints that build on and rely on his preservational or historical legacy are in progress, including Li'l Abner, Peanuts, Krazy Kat, Gasoline Alley, Bloom County, Captain Easy, Pogo, Blondie, Prince Valiant, and Popeye.
As he passed, two giant books treading Blackbeard's turf have been reissued or updated. These books help comics aficionados both casual and serious realize how completely Blackbeard's efforts and influence shaped the historiography. Thirty years ago, huge historical surveys of comic strips were sketchy maps to lost civilizations. Now they read more like shopping catalogs.
Jerry Robinson's The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art 1895-2010 (first issued by Putnam in 1974, reissued and updated) and Brian Walker's The Comics (originally published in two volumes in 2002 and 2004) do the same thing in the same way. They both provide a light, quick written account of trends and major creators in newspaper comics. But that's not the important part. The important part is how those histories, cursory as they are, are surrounded by rich and copious strip reproductions.
Those make these books valuable indeed. In both cases, the reproductions are abundant, look fabulous, and don't miss many artists or strips of importance. They also delve beneath the obvious or well-known. Each comic fan's tastes will and do vary, but I was especially delighted at the samples of Hal Forrest's elegantly pulpy Tailspin Tommy, Jimmy Swinnerton's modern-looking pre-modern Little Jimmy and Charles Kahles's bizarre Billy Bounce. Signs of old fashioned sense of comedy are also goofily charming, such as Lank Leonard's "Mickey Finn" top strip (a small strip that accompanied a Sunday strip, separate from but packaged with it by the same artist) from the '30s about "Nippie-He's Often Wrong!" Indeed, from the example presented by Walker, he is.
The pre-history (cave paintings, Bayeux Tapestry, Rodolphe Topffer, yes, right, fascinating) and early history (let's rush through Outcault's Yellow Kid&...