PAVEMENT magazine

COMICS COLUMN

April / May 1998

Books about Newspaper Strips

The glory days of the newspaper strip were before World War Two, when ‘the funnies’ were arguably America’s most popular entertainment medium and when cartoonists experimented constantly with form and content.

For an introduction to the great strips of the early years (and their successors) try Ron Goulart’s The Funnies: 100 Years of American Comic Strips, R. C. Harvey’s The Art of the Funnies: an Aesthetic History (University of Mississippi, 1994) or Rick Marschall’s America’s Great Comic Strip Artists (Cross River Press, 1989). David Kunzle’s A History of the Comic Strip (University of California, 1973 and 1989) is the most ambitious academic history of the form. The two volumes to date cover from the fourteenth century to 1895!

Good biographies include Winsor McCay: His Life and Art by J. Canemaker (Abbeville, 1987), Krazy Kat: the Comic Art of George Herriman by J. McDonnell et al (Abrams, 1986), Good Grief: the Story of Charles M. Schulz by Rheta Johnson (Pharos Books, 1989). Tom de Haven’s novels Funny Papers (Viking USA, 1985) and Derby Duggan’s Depression Funnies (Metropolitan Books, 1996) vividly evoke of the New York cartooning scenes from the turn of the century to the 1930s.

The best compilations of the strips themselves are The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, edited by Bill Blackbeard & M. Williams (Smithsonian Institute, 1988) and The Comic Strip Century, a two-volume slipcased collection, edited by Bill Blackbeard & Dale Crain (Kitchen Sink, 1995).

Many individual strips have also been reprinted, including such classics as: George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, Lyonel Feininger’s Kin-der-kids, Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie, Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates, Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, E. C. Segar’s Popeye, Walt Kelly’s Pogo and Al Capp’s Li’l Abner.

Since the 1950s, newspaper syndicates have obliged cartoonists to work within increasingly oppressive size and style constraints, in response to the decline in newspaper readership and budgets. These days strips like Garfield exist mainly to support huge merchandising industries, relying on simple repetitive gags and template-like drawings. Some notable exceptions exist - Charles Schulz’s Peanuts was startingly innovative in the 1950s and 60s; Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury is a more recent example.

Few contemporary cartoonists have done more to shake up the industry than Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes. Over the years, Watterson has fought the syndicate system head on, struggling to retain creative control over his strip and to prevent its becoming just another fridge-magnet icon. He refused to allow any merchandising - a stand which has cost him (and the syndicates) countless millions of dollars in potential revenue. He insisted on taking holidays - essential if he was to produce the strip on his own (Garfield, for instance, is produced by a large studio). And he managed to smash the syndicates’ stifling rules on the layout of Sunday strips. As a result, the last few years of Calvin & Hobbes Sunday strips are a rare return to the creative innovation that characterised the first few decades of newspaper strips.

In recent years ‘independent weeklies’ like New York’s Village Voice and the Seattle Stranger have been home to something of a creative revival of the comic strip. The Voice was an early pioneer of this trend for more adult, ‘underground’ strips, with the cartoons of Jules Feiffer, although a recent cost-cutting frenzy by the Voice’s new owners has made it into a virtual comics-free zone. Some of the best of the new ‘alternative’ strips available in book form are Lynda Barry’s Ernie Poeek’s Comeek, Ben Katchor’s Julius Knipl Real Estate Photographer, Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead and Matt (The Simpsons) Groening’s Life is Hell and Lloyd Dangle’s Troubletown.

Local Comics News:

Three of New Zealand’s best cartoonists (Timothy Kidd, Sophie McMillan and Adam Jamieson) have got together to produce a new monthly comic - See Saw. With two issues out so far, it’s already my favourite local anthology since the glory days of Strips and Razor. If you’ve ever read Tim’s Half a World Away and Illumina, Adam’s Cataract and Blink or Sophie’s Interlude Pie, you’ll know you need this. If you haven’t, then you’re in for a treat - these are three of the most talented cartoonists New Zealand has ever produced, all capable of lyrical storytelling and beautiful drawing. Whet your appetite with See Saw and then gorge yourself on their solo comics. The latest - Illumina #2 and Interlude Pie #7 - are the best work yet from Tim and Sophie. These are among my favourite mini-comics from anywhere in the world. So get a move on: See Saw is $4 from P.O. Box 5722, Wellesley St, Auckland (you should be able to order their solo comics from that address too).

Comics supplied by Gotham Comics, 131 The Mall, Onehunga, Auckland. Ph/fax: (09) 634-4399, email: gotham@comics.co.nz, website: www.comics.co.nz. Mail orders welcome.

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