Top 2019 Books: #1 All Hail The Screwballs

From Gene Ahern’s”The Squirrel Cage” 1936

#1 Screwball: The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny, by Paul Tumey. IDW/LOAC, $59.99

In my mind, this is the most important contribution to comic strip history published this year. Tumey’s excellent research validates and revives a dominant style of comics of the first four decades of the medium’s history that may seem shallow, silly or just unfunny to modern sensibilities. The imaginative verve is timeless, however. This book fills a real void in our historical sense of comic strips and leads to important questions about how the medium related to the times.

Nonsense, slapstick, harmless anarchy formed a kind of lightly transgressive response to modern times in both early comics and film. But even if we don’t quite get the humor anymore, the antic visual energy of overlooked figures like Walter R. Bradford, Eugene Zimmerman and Clare Dwiggins is irresistible. Tumey takes a biographical approach to the screwball style, highlighting fifteen artists. But along the way he also references scores of others to create a rich overview of a lost style of popular art. 

Top 2019 Books: #2 Harrison “Peter Rabbit” Cady Gets His Moment

#3 Madness in Crowds: The Teeming Mind of Harrison Cady (Beehive Books, $100)

Harrison Cady (1877-1970) may be the most prolific magazine illustrator you never heard of…until now. But his signature crowd scenes and nature fantasies were found in the pages of LIFE (where he was a staff illustrator) as well as Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, among many others, across seven decades. He was also known for his progressive politics, children’s book images and long-running Peter Rabbit comic strip. The small publisher Beehive has nobly revived this wonderfully imaginative mind in one of the most beautifully designed and printed books of the year. Underground comics artist and publisher Denis Kitchen provides an appreciation. But just fall into these thick pages of crisp, oversized images that Beehive has produced. This is what bookmaking is all about, where design enriches substance. You just want to hug it. 

In his magazine and book work Cady was renowned for his detailed, teeming crowd scenes. These enormous tableaux recall Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley in a couple of respects. Cady shared Outcault’s vision of of the modern crowd as a collection of discrete interpersonal worlds. But he also flattens perspective to give the comic audience a privileged, unnatural view of the social scene.

Top 2019 Books: #3 Krazy Sundays, XXL

#3 George Herriman’s “Krazy Kat”. The Complete Color Sundays 1935–1944, edited by Alexander Braun, NY: Taschen, $200

Comic strip collectors will remember Alexander Braun and Taschen’s earlier complete, XXL-sized  Little Nemo collection that delighted Winsor McCay fans and caused hernias everywhere. Braun is at it again. This beautiful but massive reprint captures the color Sundays from the last decade of Herriman’s life and career. Krazy Kat is the longtime darling of highbrow critics since the early 1920s, when Gilbert Seldes dubbed the strip one of the most satisfying works of art in the modern age. Since then critics gush over the gender-bending, mythologizing, philosophizing and satirizing “genius” of the strip. In recent decades scholars added a new dimension to reading Krazy as we discovered Herriman had been “passing” as white throughout his life. Herriman seems to have been the designated modernist Joyce of the medium’s history. And Braun does his part to further burnish Herriman’s stature in his very comprehensive and lengthy prose accompaniment. Reprinting Krazy at this scale also lets us lean back and appreciate Herriman’s mastery of movement, slapstick timing (He was a Mack Sennett fan), layout and use of the full page as a canvas. 

While on the subject of Kracy Kat, it is worth mentioning also that Fantagraphics Press just initiated yet another series it calls The George Herriman Library: Krazy & Ignatz, 1916-918. This edition of Herriman’s full page Krazys cover the same ground as an earlier softcover reprint from Fantagraphics. But this time we get hardcovers, with two years in each volume, and best of all larger, at 11.3″ x 13.8″.

Top 2019 Books: #4 Before Popeye – Segar’s Thimble Theatre

#4 Thimble Theatre and the Pre-Popeye Cartoons of E. C. Segar, by E. C. Segar (Peter Maresca, ed.), Sunday Press, $85

Technically a late 2018 publication, I didn’t get to it until the new year. Peter Maresca’s Sunday Press doesn’t just reprint lost episodes of comic strip history. They think hard about them. Before Popeye’s famous arrival to Segar’s Oyl family saga, Thimble Theatre was a hard-nosed satire of modern American acquisitiveness and family relations, with a big dose of surrealism tossed in. This oversized and impeccably restored selection of Sunday pages shows Segar growing his chops for long story arcs and vicious rogues who somehow succeed in making us root for the otherwise unlikeable Oyls. As usual with Sunday Press productions, this has insightful background material, this time from screwball comics expert Paul Tumey and historian Jeet Heer.