Notable Books on Comics, 2021…ish (Part 2)

What made me think harder or differently about the comics medium in the last year or so? That is my main criterion for these occasional roundups of books mainly on comic strips but also about early comics. Some of the titles here are filling in holes in our understanding about the history of the comics forms. Others are calling attention to artists or patterns in comics history that I think bear more thought. And many were just plain fun. Feel free to comment on the books you found most enlightening or entertaining about the comics history.

The Metaphysics (Huh?) of Alex Raymond’s Death

Dave Sim’s (with an assist by Carson Grubaugh) The Strange Death of Alex Raymond (Living the Line) is crazy like a fox. Sim’s ostensible exploration of the tragic death of the highly influential artist behind Flash Gordon and Rip Kirby uses a batshit conceit that some “metaphysics of comics” somehow connects everything from Margaret “Gone With the Wind” Mitchell, Milt Caniff’s quiet envy of Raymond, the wives and lovers of multiple comics artists of the 50s, a few B-movies, and whatever the hell else you can imagine to car crash that killed Raymond in 1956. It is also batshit brilliant. It gives Sim the frame in which to recall (and even redraw) a vast swathe of American pop culture and artists that drove the changing styles of 1950s comic strips. At its most lucid, the book delineates the different realisms of Hal Foster, Caniff and Raymond, the development of the photorealistic style, even the nuts ad bolts of brush and pen work. Along the way, forced me to contextualize and appreciate strips like Big Ben Bolt, Twin Earths, and the post-Raymond Kirby years. He brilliantly injects a whining Charlie Brown into the history as Schulz’s aesthetic counterforce to the short-lived photo-realist era of American comics. An he forces us to think harder about the rise and fall of different comics styles. As others like Jerry Robinson and Scott McCloud before Sim have shown, there is nothing like a fellow craftsman dissecting his colleague’s work to deepen a viewer’s appreciation of the artistry and decisions that go into those four panels on any given day. Whether you can track Sim’s idea of metaphysics connecting all of these shards and rabbit holes is beside the point. It sets him up for some deft and truly illuminating rumination on the aesthetics of comics in their historic context.

EC At Scale

I am almost embarrassed to admit how many of IDW’s massive and pricey Artist’s Editions I own. How does one justify parting with $150 for each, even though they reprint in full detail and at original scale the actual final art from some of the great craftsmen in the field? And yet I never regretted investing in Artist’s Editions of early MAD issues, Will Eisner’s The Spirit, and the EC stories of Graham Ingels. This way-oversized scale and hi-def color images of black and white line art and marginal proofing notes seem to put you on the other end of the artists’ pens and brushes. This is even more true of the EC Covers Artists Editiion (IDW), which organizes the cover art of the famed EC comics stable by artist: Johnny Craig, Graham Ingels, Wally Wood, Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis and more. The covers of course were meant to be expansive, immersive teases of issue content, and so we get a single image splashed across the 15X22 page. Every bit of detail feels more like a deliberate, conscious decision, forcing us to think harder about the artist’s process. This is not just another trophy for collectors (or hoarders). It is a valuable experience for anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of the art.

The Golden Age of Wolverton

Fans of the grotesque pointillism of Basil Wolverton have been treated in recent years by Greg Sadowski’s exhaustive two-volume biography and reprinting in Creeping Death from Neptune and Brain Bats of Venus (both Fantagraphics). While those two volumes focused more on Wolverton’s horror and sci-fi work, this year’s Scoop Scuttle and His Pals: The Crackpot Comics of Basil Wolverton (Fantagraphics) is a retrospective of the artist at his madcap best. Ironically, many of these screwball and slapstick series were the fruits of failure. Wolverton conceived of Scoop Scuttle, Bingeing Buster and Jumpin’ Jupiter as daily comics and repurposed them for the skyrocketing (and imaginatively less constrained) comic book industry of the late 1940s and early 50s. In each case, however, Wolverton was satirizing many of the serious genres that dominated pulp magazines, B-movies, radio and comic books themselves. Wolverton clearly is channeling the screwball tradition of Milt Gross, Rube Goldberg and Bill Holman. The zany physical antics propel the action, the wisecracking asides and slang fill most panels and the cultural stereotypes rain in hot and heavy. The foreshadowing of MAD magazine’s satirical approach is unmistakeable. This volume also has excellent annotations adding context to each reprint as well as an outrageous article by Wolverton himself on sound effects in the comics. This one is a treat.

But Is It Art?: Comic Art in Museums

How “seriously” should thoughtful critics and audiences take the comic arts? That question seems to have dogged the cartoon arts since its earliest decades when pioneering pop culturists like Gilbert Seldes wrote extravagant defenses of the new medium. I confess that at this point in my five-decade run writing about mass media of all sorts, I find the relentless defensive justifications of pop culture criticism tiresome. And yet, that story of begrudging acceptance of the popular arts as “art” is its own important subject. One entryway to comic strip history is how the form has been regarded critically over the generations. Kim A. Munson’s Comic Art in Museums (University Press of Mississippi) is not as narrowly focused as its title suggests. While Muson provides a chronological framework and extensive introductory and connective matter, the book is really an anthology of writings by everyone from M.C. Gaines in 1942 to Denis Kitchen, Brian Walker, as well as multiple academics reflecting on the evolving reputation of the medium. I am still making my way through the densely packed book, but can already recommend it as a trove of insight and historical anecdote.

Johnny Hazard Sundays: Caniff Lite

All due respect to Johnny Hazard fans, it is hard to recommend Frank Robbins’ 33-year run as more than competent, middle-list comic strip fare. All of the luminaries also working at its height, Raymond, Caniff, Drake are considerably more interesting in their basic artistry, composition, storytelling. That said, this first oversized volume of Johnny Hazard Sundays does make the case for Robbins’s talents, even though his more mature work of the 1950s was obviously better. He had a strong sense of characterization, especially through facial expression. The moody use of coloring comes through even though some of the copies restored here were mediocre newsprint. And honestly I would have liked more background on Robbins and the thinking behind the strip rather than the intro pieces on his later DC Comics art. Still, Johnny Hazard Sundays Archive 1944-1946 (Hermes Press) gives us a 12X17 supersized reproduction of the Sunday adventure comics experience that is always welcome.

Kurtzman’s Wry Eye

Fantagraphics’ EC Library comes at the often-reprinted EC Comics of the early 1950s in black and white volumes organized by artist. Al the previous volumes have applied a lens onto the evolution of Wally Wood, John Severin, Johnny Craig, Al Feldstein, et. al. But this Man and Superman and Other Stories featuring Harvey Kurtzman before he took over the war titles and pioneered MAD really stands out for increasing our appreciation of this seminal comics artist. Kurtzman is among a handful of comics artists who were not just seminal within the medium but also to the general culture. The pop culture satire he codified in MAD magazine in the early 1950s applied a lens to post-WWII American mass culture that shaped generations of artists and even activists. This volume includes his earliest work for EC’s sci-fi, crime and horror stories. And they all show Kurtzman’s parodic attitude towards each of those genres. Tales like “Man and Superman,” “The Time Machine and the Schmoe!” and “Television Terror” took a light-hearted, even satirical take on the sci-fi and horror staples that drove the rest of the pages of these books. Most of these stories are written by the artist and so less wordy than over scripted tales the Feldstein foisted on most of the EC stable. These embody Kurtzman’s growing understanding of the relationship between word and text in the medium. He loves for high-minded science to go comically awry, along with the petty ambitions of everyman. The wry view of human foibles and hubris, which would inform the morality of his war stories and the satire of MAD, are all being rehearsed in these stories. Already sharp is Kurtzman’s mastery of of the comic form. He thought in panel progressions and the arc of a full page in ways far ahead of most artists. His compositions, use of foreground and background, the sense of motion as the eye moves across the panels, all are as fresh today as they were more than a half century ago.

Chester Gould Takes a Bow

A number of ongoing reprint series had notable additions in the last year or so that call attention to the great work some publishers have been doing to keep the history of comic arts alive. In 2006 the Library of American Comics started an ambitious project to reprint Chester Gould’s full 1931-1977 run of Dick Tracy. With Volume 29 of The Complete Dick Tracy, LOAC finished one of the largest, complete comic strip reprint project, second only perhaps to Fantagraphics’ Peanuts project. I already reflected on Gould’s run and the way he ended the strip. The final volume speaks to what a canny master of comic strip art and business Gould really was. As newspapers shrank the canvas, he adjusted and rethought his signature style accordingly. And while the later years of the strip are remarkably different in look and feel than its first decade, the wild imagination, bizarre villainy, wonderfully improbable chases and escape remained central to a Dick Tracy story arc.

Hank Ketcham and The Art of Dennis

Hank Ketcham made it look so easy…and that was the trick. His loose, thick cartoony line seemed to skate across the page. A Dennis the Menace daily feels so comfortable and easy to take in at a glance, as if we are in the flow of Ketcham’s relaxed line. And his imagery is equally easy, almost as abstract as a UPA cartoon (Gerald McBoing Boing, Mr. MaGoo). But unlike the jazzy cartoon aesthetic of the 50s, Dennis the Menace was firmly situated, perhaps petrified, in the iconography post-WWII white suburbia. And Ketcham himself said he aspired for his art not to call attention to itself and almost look not there.

But of course, this kind of easy transparent style was the result of tremendous skill and care. Take for instance this otherwise anodyne daily of Dennis making yet another disastrous assault on his perennial target, the cookie jar. Ketchum’s loose, flowing pen line was much admired by fellow cartoonists because it was at once light in spirit and cartoony but also controlled and precise. He credits Noel Sickles with teaching him how to use a pen more like a brush and relax his line so it seemed to flow so effortlessly.

Consider the sheer economy of this scene, how so few lines establish his figures and setting. He establishes his modern suburban kitchen setting with such selective specificity – refrigerator and cabinet handles are sparse and abstract, but the three storage jars on the counter embody the post-war mid-century modern style. And yet the broken cookie jar is detailed and minute, pulling the eye to the center of the chaos.

I have read some fellow artists praise Ketcham’s mastery of drapery, and here is a great example of using that detail to carry the weight of mother Alice’s reaction. Henry and Alice Mitchell only speak for themselves on occasion in Dennisworld. Most often they are reacting graphically to Dennis’s transgressions in minute details – the positioning of an eyebrow line, body posture, slightly splayed feet. In this panel, we don’t even need Alice’s facial expression to complete the scene. Ketcham positions us at kid level and uses the drape of her skirt and flying kerchief to render the reaction shot.

Hank Ketcham mapped mid-century American suburbia so simply and beautifully. He was a perfectionist with establishing perspective that made you part of the scene. In this early 50s panel, his composition and staging of characters is everything. It establishes the dynamic among characters and separates Dennis from the group in just the way he is emotionally. And Ketcham’s Disney training comes through in the ways each of the adults is animated and characterized individually. Every person in the scene is laughing in a particular way that suggests their own character and backstory. And it was all told visually with that signature loose and flowing pen work that makes a well-planned panel feel effortless. No wonder so many of his contemporaries envied his artistry.

Perspective was critical to Ketcham. He often finds ways to place us in the scene that also involves us in the flow of the action or in relation to a character’s perspective. The panel above underscores his thoughtful use of point of view to heighten meaning. Here Dennis and the gang’s boyish conspiracy feels more intense, intimate, secretive by being set back from the action.

The aesthetic of Dennis the Menace is centered in the brilliant design of Dennis himself of course. First it is important note that Dennis is impossibly small. Compared to the adults around him, this five-year-old is considerably smaller than his age, barely reaches the knees of his distinctly lanky parents. His bunched, oversized coveralls keep him even more grounded and often give him the appearance of a cannonball in motion.. Dennis rarely trips, falls or loses control. It is the physical and human world around Dennis that loses its footing. Adults grimace, recoil in shock or just scatter and lie akimbo in his wake. Ketcham describes Dennis as innocent. But the power of this strip is the way Ketcham embodies that innocence visually. Dennis is pure innocent determination embodied in physics. Either his low center of gravity keeps him steadfast in his attitude or momentum expresses the conviction of his chase or escape.

In earlier stints at the Lantz and Disney animation studios, Ketcham absorbed his strong sense of animated motion and rich characterization. But he also found at Disney and his work on many Donald Duck shorts the visual model for Dennis himself. With his butt sticking out, legs angled back to balance a cantilevered belly out front, Ketcham describes Dennis in one of his model sheets as “not unlike D. Duck.”  

Nudism is one of Dennis’s favored modes of expression…and Kaetcham’s. He flees his dreaded bath by careening bare-assed and in flight into the neighborhood. He is not just unselfconscious but truly free. When he stands principled against clothing, butt to the viewer, the open arms and declarative mouth dramatize obliviousness, not shame. The otherwise buttoned down Ketcham somehow finds in nude Dennis a way to celebrate visually a sense of liberation in nakedness that in an unlikely way anticipates counter-cultural ideas a decade in advance.

Which is to say that Dennis the Menace exemplifies what makes the comic strip medium distinct. In its best hands, cartooning is not just an illustrated or dramatized punch line. The artwork embodies and deepens the meaning of the idea.

Dennis the Menace on Silly Ol’ Girls

Hank Ketcham says he always found it odd that he spent his life in service to a five year old. But of course Dennis the Menace was never for kids, really. At his best, Ketcham used Dennis as a device for poking gently – ever so gently- at the straitjacket of post-WWII suburban repression and painful social self-consciousness. And Ketcham himself was as straight laced, conventional and revenant as we imagine the Mitchells and their world to be. How else could such a pint-sized hellion find so many lines of propriety to transgress so habitually?

Ketcham’s breathtaking tone deafness to the songs of change singing around him in the 60s especially would surface in a famous episode we will save for another post. But for now let’s enjoy Ketcham at his cleverest, usually in the 1950s, using Dennis as a wry observer of pre-feminist gender typing.

Popeye and Olive Scandalize Father Oyl (1930)

It didn’t take long for Popeye and Olive to hook up after the pugnacious sailor joined the Thimble Theatre in 1929. Popeye because part of the Sunday Theatre in 1930, which is now being reprinted by Fantagraphics. E.C. Segar’s characters had a special kind of grittiness and irascible repartee. And here we see how Thimble Theatre could get remarkably raw. Popeye and Olive’s noisy smooching gets under Mr. Oyl’s skin. The sexuality of the younger generation in 1920s America had been an important topic of discussion across media. WWI had exposed an entire generation to less inhibited European attitudes towards sexuality. The arrival of the automobile especially created a way for boys and girls to escape the scrutiny of their parents. Moral arbiters worried publicly about this new wave of “petting parties” where youth explored their bodies in troubling ways. Apparently, Olive Oyl and Popeye used the Oyl living room for their own personal petting party.

The Working Class Heroes of Clare Briggs

A shoe shine man enters his home after a long day’s work and boasts to his wife about his special talent for snapping his shine rag and using superior polish. After work at a sign painter’s home, the practical artist extolls the superior quality of his brush and his unique mastery of curving letters. A park garbage cleaner muses on spearing newfangled gum wrappers and the challenges of cleaning up eggshells during picnic season. A soda jerk brags to his wife that his colleagues just can’t sling those mixed drinks as quickly as he. A street sweeper shows off to his wife the new brush with just the right heft and breadth for easier work, and then ponders his chances for promotion over “Jerry” who “is good at plain sweeping’ but he’s no good around telegraph poles.”

These miniatures of workingmen returning home at night was the conceit for Clay Briggs’ remarkable Real Folks at Home series of the 1920s. This was a deep dive into the nuances of pride, spousal support, small ambitions, respect for craft among the laboring classes for the most part. There were occasional forays into more vaunted professions like an orchestra conductor, opera singer, or baseball star. But largely Briggs was concerned with the hard-working manual laborers who may have been invisible to the white collar suburban classes to which many newspapers tried to expand their circulation after WWI. This was a regular celebration of the people who made towns and cities run, the dignity of work, and the native intelligence and thoughtfulness of “real folk.”

The Flagman embodies many of the themes Briggs explored in Real Folks at Home. Here a road crew flagman recounts the workday highlights to an admiring, attentive wife. Spousal support seems to be key to Briggs’ working class idyll, where wives celebrate their husbands’ skills, ratify their egos and lobby for them to apply for raises. This is quite different from the chronically bickering and distrustful Joe and Vi from Briggs’ own Mr. and Mrs. strip. But in Real Folks, the male menial laborer is king of his castle and hero of the workplace. Our flagman lectures her on the latest controversy over flagging techniques and how he and his colleagues differ on which hand movement is more effective at controlling traffic. Across these strips Briggs transforms laborers into experts and craftsmen, masters of the brick hod, street sweeping, or road flagging. He invests manual labor with intelligence and discrimination. And, of course, there is male ego. In most of these strips, our blue collar hero compares himself to his less able fellows, the soda jerks who can’t handle mixed drinks quickly, the sweeps who don’t get around telegraph poles, the watchmen who make too few rounds. Real Folks at Home was a celebration of common man pride, ambition and dignity. 

Clare Briggs (1874-1930) was among the best known, best-paid, and beloved of American cartoonists in the 1910s and 1920s. Historians often remember him as a master of the nostalgic slice-of-life panels of small town childhood (The Days of Real Sport, When a Feller Needs a Friend, Aint’ It a Grand and Glorious Feeling). He is also credited with pioneering the format of the daily strip with recurring characters in A. Piker Clerk (1904) at Chicago’s American. He was so popular among newspaper readers nationwide that upon his premature death in 1930, his publisher issued a seven-volume retrospective of his work, from which the images here have been scanned. 

While his slice-of-life panels usually align him with fellow cartoonists like J.R. Williams and H.T. Webster, Briggs could bring a sharper and more satirical edge to his vision of modernizing America than some of his peers. His Mr. and Mrs. strip of the 1920s depicted the ongoing marital dysfunction of Joe and Vi, who often seemed genuinely to dislike and distrust one another. 

Real Folks at Home ran counter to the 1920s trend towards situation comedy among the the rising suburban middle class. This series focused on the moment workingmen returned home.  Sign painter, hod carrier, road flagger, night watchman, traffic cop, mailman, garage mechanic are among the professions Briggs explores. Sometimes, Briggs goofs around with the profession. the orchestra conductor conducts his wife’s singing responses. The tour guide and his wife bark conversation to one another through megaphones. 

But the most interesting examples of Real Folks at Home are appreciations for the pride that everyday laborers take in their craft, the social insights and perspective their jobs give them, and how their wives feed their male egos regardless the profession.

There isn’t a whiff of condescension in Briggs’ appreciation of these workingmen (and a few working women). His key insight is in showing the native intelligence and self-respect of men who see the craft in what others regard as menial tasks. they do. The flagman shows his wife the special twist of the wrist that makes for a more noticeable warning signal. The sign painter who proudly invites his wife to come see his handiwork and skill with curved letters. The nightwatchman who dotes over the quality and freshness of his lantern wicks. The garbageman who bemoans the amount of food people waste. And spousal support is critical to Briggs’ idealization of working class heroism. The domestic There is also a social critique lurking beneath many of these strips, an alternative vision of modernizing, consumerist America from the perspective of the class that services the more affluent, often invisibly. 

This is another great example of the unique aesthetic qualities of the comic strip form and the singular ways it contributed to the cultural conversation. Briggs focused readers’ attention on  aspects of American life and areas of society that were as rich in meaning as they were overlooked. This is what art does; enlarges our perspective and pour sympathies. In his pioneering work, The Comics (1947) Coulton Waugh understood the importance of Briggs, and it is a shame so few of his successors have. “it’s the idea that gets you,” he wrote of Briggs. “The hominess, the truth of it, the insight, the looking into so many tiny dramas, hopes, and frustrations, which no one else ever bothered with and which are utterly real.”  on the medium