The sheer everyday-ness of Frank King’s Walt and his adopted son Skeezix is a marvel. For decades Gasoline Alley honored small town life and unremarkable middle-class Americans by making their small dramas, conflicts and schemes important to us. King respected his characters and the reality of their lives so much he did what few other comic strip artists have ever done; he let them age, pass on and birth new generations to replace them. In this volume the Great Depression hits but not that you can tell. The more important development is Skeezix coming into his teens with all the attendant drama. Along with the Andy Hardy films and later Archie comics, we are witnessing here the invention of the teenager as a new cultural type. Drawn & Quarterly, with Chris Ware leading the design of this series, makes each volume even more visually rich and loaded with contextual history. Jeet Heer, the most historically knowledganle comic strip critic we have, provides great background here in the 30s, cultural change and King’s response. If you aren’t collecting the full series, this is a great pivotal volume to get for its glimpse into the maturing characters.
Volume 2? You have to wonder if any biographer really needs a two volume bio-reprint to cover the life and art of a single cartoonist. To be fair, Sadowsky’s treatment gives up a massive share of space to reprinting much of Basil Wolverton’s best published work and revealing sketch and spec pieces. But in fact, Wolverton was as singular and curious a character as his art. This volume focuses mostly on his horror and sci-fi work, which was often batshit imaginative. But there is also his caricature art, advertising work, and more. Also interesting and included here are his many failed attempts to break into comic strip syndication with some of his screwball comedy characters of the 1940s like Scoop Scuttle (below). And of course Wolverton leapt from obscurity to fame when his Lena the Hyena caricature won Al Capp’s contest to depict the world’s “ugliest woman.” Wolverton remains a seminal figure. His break from any previous comic art style anticipated (and was revered by) the comics underground more than a decade later.
Wolverton made several unsuccessful attempts to break into what every comic book artist viewed as the mother lode – newspaper comics syndication. Among his several failed attempts to break into strips, he translated his Scoop Scuttle screwball comic book character to a daily format on spec.
Fantagraphics’ complete reprinting of the Floyd Gottfredson Mickey Mouse dailies has been among the most literate and richly contextualized comics history projects in recent years. This one volume color rendering of some of Mickey’s best adventures between 1930 and 1951 is a shorter, more affordable sample. Here is Mickey evolving from scrappy, spunky adventure hero of the 30s to bland suburban everyman of the 50s. Lest we forget, Mickey’s 1930 comic strip launch places him at the advance guard of adventure strips, along with Orphan Annie and Wash Tubbs and Popeye that would bring us 30s powerhouses – Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, Flash Gordon et. al. Gottfredson’s penchant for putting movement, gestures, expression and urgency into every panel is matched by his and collaborators’ mastery of story pacing and suspense. While I would quibble with some of the choices (really, no Phantom Blot?), this is a great sampling across eras for those who aren’t up for buying the enture run.
#8 Elmo: An American Experiment by Cecil Jenson, edited by Frank M. Young, Middletown DE, Labor of Love Press, $14.99
What a find. Young has unearthed and reprinted a darkly surreal strip from the late 1940s by the author of the later Little Debbie strip of the 1950s. It seems like a Li’l Abner knockoff, with the rural rube Elmo encountering urban caricatures. But Jenkens sends Elmo down some of the darkest urban and psychological alleyways of post-war America. Its brief run shows it was too strange for post-war audiences groping to return to normality after WWII. But Elmo suggests a kind of unease to that project that would also come out in 40s noir, crime comics and 50s horror comics.
#9 Charlie Chan, 1938 (LOAC Essentials Vol. 13) by Alfred Andriola. IDW, $29.99
The LOAC Essentials series highlights a full year of classic strips that may not support a full reprint series. And it uses a uniquely narrow format that displays a strip per page for a singular reading experience. It is an inspired imprint from The Library of American Comics that makes accessible many strips that might be lost to history. Charlie Chan had decent locked-room mystery plotting that channeled the popular novels and films. Andriola, who went on to do Kerry Drake strips for years, took his visual cues from Milton Caniff, even if he lacked the master’s rich talents. Modern sensibilities will need to excuse the daily dose of stereotypical Confucian aphorisms, though.
Panel heads, there is cause for celebration. We are in a golden age of comic strip and comic book reprints. Some of us old-timers have been beating the drum for recognizing the art of the “funnies” for decades. But a new generation of readers was raised on graphic novels and unabashed in their love of comic books and graphic narrative of all sorts. And as much as I myself loathe the rise of superhero genres as mainstream adult fare, even I have to admit that it is helping to increase general respect for the full range of comic storytelling.
And so we are getting an embarrassment of comic strip reprint riches in recent years. Here are some of my favorite comic strip archives from this past year as well as some secondary material and a few crossovers into the world of early comic book history. Over the next couple of weeks I will be counting down my ten favorite books on comics and reprints of the year.
#10 The Peanuts Papers: Writers and Cartoonists on Charlie Brown, Snoopy & the Gang, and the Meaning of Life, edited by Andrew Blauner. NY: Library of America, 2019. $24.95
Peanuts has become the Krazy Kat of the last half of the 20th Century. Its light and barely guised philosophical musings, mildly depressed tone and angst-ridden protagonist naturally attract hosannas from the dignified set. It feels like half the masthead of The New Yorker magazine got recruited for this one (Jonathan Lethem, Adam Gopnik, Jonathan Franzen, George Saunders, Ann Patchett, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joe Queenan and of course Chris Ware). Generally I am suspicious when branded intellectuals congregate to lend their imprimatur on pop culture. Who needs ‘em, I say. But there really are some nice insights here that can give even Peanuts fans fresh ways into the strip.