AUGUST 30, 2011
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 and Oppenheimer’s Happy Hooligan, both delivered with a visual and comic language that feels as dead and unreadable now as Linear-B, as quickly as we can) are dutifully walked through. Then both books show us the quick colonization of the American mind by these weird, scratchy, vulgar drawings, delivering pratfalls, puns, and stereotypes. By 1908, 75 percent of American Sunday papers had comics sections, and by the end of the 1910s they were nearly unavoidable in both daily and Sunday newspapers. The importance of newspaper editors William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, and Joseph Medill Patterson in the development, style, and spread of strips as both art and business are explained well. Both books exhibit how pop styles can quickly shift to mental toys for obsessives or nostalgics; by the 1960s, the distinctive look of even most pre-1940s strips had disappeared from the cartooning culture entirely except in the works of underground comix artists.
Walker stresses that the characters from the comics pages very quickly colonized radio, early film, and other media, and examining the list he presents of the top comic strips of 1937 shows how successfully they’ve captured our cultural mind. Even today most sentient adults have heard of Little Orphan Annie, Popeye, Dick Tracy, Blondie, and Li’l Abner. We also learn that both offhand condemnations of comics and attempts to canonize them as “real art” date back to the field’s earlier days; Walker quotes the wonderfully named Summerfield Baldwin noting in 1917 that “A person with a fancy for the comic section is ordinarily prone to be ashamed of it….The shame and the excuses are right and natural” except for Krazy Kat, always a beloved intelligentsia exception. The freewheeling and local nature of some early strips gets squeezed out, in Robinson’s telling, by the inherently blanderizing demands of national syndication, where every strip has to potentially appeal to everyone everywhere.
Each strip era from Yellow Kid to Zits gets fair and relatively equal attention in both books. We see shifting themes and approaches sweep the art form, from broad lower class urban and immigrant comedy to space and cop and jungle adventure to family comedy to sociopolitical parody and commentary. World War II caused comic strip reproduction size to shrink because of paper shortages and they never recovered, leading to the postwar trend for cartooning that’s cleaner, leaner, less detailed, less wordy. Gag-a-days about office and family life and pets rule the medium nowadays, with storytelling largely dead.
In the 1970s Cathy Guisewite’s Cathy ushered in what comics historian Ron Goulart dubbed the “Grandma Moses” school of comics, and traditional competence in drawing or cartooning lost prominence. By the 1990s the unpleasantly schematic looking Dilbert looms on the strength of its computer age office comedy to become only the fifth strip to appear in over 2,000 papers. The giants of the medium during the 1980s found life as cartooning stars so uncongenial they all left the game by the mid-1990s (Bloom County‘s Berke Breathed, Calvin and Hobbes‘s Bill Watterston, and Far Side‘s Gary Larson).
One distinction between these two very similar books is Robinson’s inclusion of a series of one-page essays written by famous creators themselves about their art and comics in general. While the names are impressive — Milton Caniff, Johnny Hart, Charles Schulz, Mell Lazarus, Hal Foster, Walt Kelly, Patrick McDonnell, among others — the essays themselves generally are not, trying a little too hard in most cases to be cute, not hard enough to be insightful.
The less the books focus on comics per se, the less useful they are. In a common annoying trope in cultural history surveys, Walker wastes pages on potted and worthless surveys of what was going on in the culture at large, of the “it was an era of flappers and video games, of flagpole sitters and Watergate, of hippies and the Space Race” variety.
And despite the joys of looking at the pictures, the actual comics history part of both books is too tight and quick to provide much insight or pleasure; the criticism is non-existent except for a random sentence here and there, some astute and some bizarre (Robinson overuses the word “quixotic” to describe strips, and never correctly); and little in the way of interesting stories or anecdotes help bring either the creators or their business alive. For that sort of detailed narrative history, the comics fan might want to check out the out of print, but available through the usual online sources, Comic Art in America by Stephen Becker (Simon and Schuster), though that book’s story stops in 1959.
What you want these books for, and what you get, is a chance to look at interesting and vivid cartooning. Unlike Blackbeard’s classic Smithsonian collection, neither Robinson nor Walker offer extended examples of strips telling a story. They both treat their images — plentiful and lovely to contemplate as they are — more as standalone objets d’art. In one case in Robinson, what is laid out to look like one four-panel Winnie Winkle strip reveals itself to the reader, as opposed to the looker, to be four random panels strung together.
The newspaper strip isn’t all of American comics’ history. Blackbeard himself had classic cartooning fan snobbery: he loved comic strips of all varieties, but was contemptuous of comic books. He said of some prominent ’40s superhero comics that they “were psychotic, the work of a lunatic.” Paul Levitz, former publisher and president of DC Comics, has published via Taschen a celebration of the company’s most valuable properties and imperial comic book hegemony.
As the corporate owners of Superman and Batman swallowed up characters and properties from such non-DC sources as EC (Mad magazine), Fawcett (Captain Marvel/Shazam!), Quality (Plastic Man, Blackhawk), Charlton (Blue Beetle, Captain Atom), and the independent graphic novel founding father Will Eisner (The Spirit), those publications and their creators were subsumed into the DC story, making this more the history of a medium and less the sort of unwieldy keepsake one might expect to find looming on your chair at a company banquet.
This book celebrating DC’s three-quarter century of continuity and “mythmaking” came at an interesting time: DC intends this year to make all the history Levitz relates nugatory, in storytelling terms. The company insists it is re-launching all its characters afresh.
This doesn’t hurt the value of this book. Contemplating DC’s history — with the wide variety of comics covers, pages, and other ephemera of a business that was always about more than just lines on paper — is still worthwhile and interesting whether or not Hal Jordan is still Green Lantern or Ma and Pa Kent are still alive, or still dead, or zombies, or whatever. Levitz does as good a job as anyone will probably ever do in presenting that history with both high visual design and efficient but smart writing that, naturally, given Levitz’s past role running the company, glides over ugly issues of creators rights and corporate exploitation that fascinate some comics historians.
Especially in the nineteen-thirties and forties, the wide variations in intent, aesthetic, and just plain competence in the pages and covers from DC’s history gathered here makes for compellingly strange delights, glimpses into realms of comics you just don’t see anymore. Craig Flessel and the proto-steampunky Serene Summerfield are particular discoveries from this book I’d love to see more of. Contemplating decades of crazy ideas and execution in this meticulously detailed monster tome, noting the bizarre collation of repetitive cover image memes such as gorillas, giant hands, and Sphinxes, one agrees with a quote Levitz presents from frequent DC artist Gil Kane and feels “overwhelmed by the energy and the grossness and the vulgarity and the pure vitality that’s spilling off that material.”
While Walker insists that more people are reading strips nowadays then even in comics’ cultural heyday of the thirties and forties, it doesn’t feel that way culturally in this death-of-newspaper age. And DC is beginning an active program of selling its comics digitally. Thus, the artifactual reality of the comic objects whose stories are illustrated by these histories seems threatened moving forward. But with so much rich comics history, strip and comic book, being republished in full, these sorts of sprawling surveys may prove more a treat than a necessity to the comics-curious of the future.