Even as we’re seeing and possibly shuddering over the End of Books As We’ve Known Them, there’s a High Renaissance happening in classic-comics reprint publishing. It’s as if a hive decision was arrived at among publishers to produce, once and for all, a comprehensive national comics library in print. I’m not sure how profitable it is, but the quality of the books has been extraordinary, far exceeding the last fertile period in the mid-to-late 1980s and early ’90s during the heyday of Kitchen Sink Press and Flying Buttress/NBM.
Built to last (good design, good bindings, good paper, satiny ribbons), the Library of American Comics’ multi-volume complete runs of newspaper strips like “Terry & the Pirates,” “King Aroo,” “Little Orphan Annie,” “Dick Tracy,” “Rip Kirby,” “Bloom County” and “Archie” are transporting to pore over, as are their single “best of” volumes culled from “Bringing Up Father,” “ Polly & Her Pals” and “Miss Fury.” No less valuable are more modestly produced books like Hermes’s collections of the daily “Phantom” and “Buck Rogers” strips, and Classic Comics Press’s series showcasing mid-twentieth-century story strips (“On Stage,” “The Heart of Juliet Jones,” “Dondi” and “Big Ben Bolt”). Dark Horse is doggedly reprinting, on a reliable schedule, many of Dell and Gold Key’s early 1960s adventure and mystery comic books, including Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, Jesse Marsh’s Tarzan, and Dr. Solar Man of the Atom, as well as Jim Warren’s Creepy and Eerie titles. Fantagraphics is currently midway through collecting Roy Crane’s Sunday “Captain Easy” pages, has released the inaugural volume of Floyd Gottfredson’s “Mickey Mouse” dailies, and scheduled the complete “Barnaby” as well as a new Carl Barks duck-library in color. Drawn & Quarterly is doing (and doing it beautifully) Frank King’s “Gasoline Alley” under the series title Walt & Skeezix.
As fascinating as the comics themselves (and sometimes even more fascinating) are the books’ editorial front- and back-matter—the introductions and the afterwards, the biographical, historical and critical essays. After reading a ton of this supplementary prose material recently, it seems to me there are five separate but usually overlapping varieties of it. Some essays, or a sequence of essays in a single book, cover all five; others just one or two, scanting or ignoring the rest. In multi-volume collections, individual volumes often will concentrate on one or another kind of contextual material, saving the others for later. (For example, in the Library of American Comics’ Little Orphan Annie series, one volume might present editorial matter focusing on Harold Gray’s private life, another on Gray’s professional relations with his bosses at the Tribune Syndicate, and yet another with how he introduced his bedrock conservative politics into the strip and the reactions it provoked. Cumulatively, the series covers all five different kinds of material.)
Historical/cultural/social context. An introduction or afterward ought to describe the time when the strips being reprinted were published originally, acquainting or reacquainting the reader with a particular national moment (Jazz Age, Great Depression, World War II, the Vietnam era, etc.). This can, and sometimes does, devolve into trite or self-congratulatory p.c. discussions of now-offensive or tasteless racial, ethnic and gender stereotypes, as with Craig Yoe’s remarks in The Golden Collection of Klassic Krazy Kool Kid’s Comics. “So, in this book,” he writes, “you might spot some smoking. I deplore this disgusting habit as unhealthy, but I didn’t want to deny you the pleasure of some terrific comics that happen to have a few repugnant stogies.” More rewarding essays spring from the archival labor and thoughtful extrapolation of cultural criticism. Here’s Jeet Heer, for example, writing in the first volume of Roy Crane’s Captain Easy: The Complete Sunday Strips: “In retrospect, Easy belongs to the lost generation of the 1920s and 1930s, the cohort that was jaded by the false rhetoric of democracy and glory that flourished during the First World War…With his mixture of cynicism and a still-lingering decency, Easy is reminiscent of the hardboiled detectives that Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were writing about in Black Mask Magazine.”
Introducing the first “Phantom” dailies (Hermes Press), Ron Goulart is similarly informed when he points out that various “phantom” characters flourished in the early and middle 1930s (“in pulp magazines and comic strips–The Phantom of Crestwood, the Phantom of Paris, the Phantom President, the Phantom Magician in ‘The Adventures of Patsy'”), as is Maggie Thompson when she identifies movies and radio programs as inspirations for the character of Archie: “[T]he film A Family Affair had introduced the teenager Andy Hardy in 1937 and evolved into a series, making a star of Mickey Rooney. A different teen was the subject of The Aldrich Family, introduced as a summer-replacement radio show July 2, 1939 on NBC… Sensing the possibilities of a comic-book series featuring a teen, MLJ” (the publisher and precursor to the Archie Comics Group) “tried out Wilbur in Zip #18 (September 1941). But the true turning point came when John Goldwater told artist Bob Montana and writer Vic Bloom to take their cue from Hardy and Aldrich” (Archie, Volume One, Library of American Comics).
In the second installment of Stan Drake’s The Heart of Juliet Jones (Classic Comics Press), Howard Chaykin convincingly argues that it wasn’t radio soap operas with their “awful organ music” that lent the strip its “narrative spine” but rather “the Technicolor so-called ‘women’s pictures’ being turned out in Hollywood [during the 1950s; “Juliet Jones” premiered in 1953] by the likes of George Cukor, Douglas Sirk and George Stevens.”
Occasionally, historical/cultural/social/political contextualizing can get the better of an otherwise solid contributor, leading to declarations which, in the absence of proof, can seem wildly improbable. In his afterward to the 1947-1948 collection of the Complete Dick Tracy (Library of American Comics), Jeff Kersten maintains that Chester Gould drew heavily on then-current national and international politics for that year’s storylines, asserting first that “The Mole eerily anticipates, contextually and as individual caricature, a newly prominent figure in the news of 1947–Whittaker Chambers” and then that “Mumbles is Chet’s metaphor of the Soviet Union’s intelligence apparatus, which, he believed, had successfully co-opted the American progressive political movement in support of Moscow’s goals.” Really? How does Kersten know that? Unfortunately, he never says and his claims end up sounding like something a Fox News pundit might muster up if Fox News pundits bloviated about comics.
2. A description of how the strip works graphically and narratively—in particular how it works throughout the run of strips contained in a particular volume. One of the fascinations of reading a complete-run reprint series is following the gradual evolution of a single strip’s picture-making and storytelling. In some instances, though, an introduction (or afterward) will generalize about the strip, paying little attention to the actual calendar year or two of dailies/Sundays actually being reproduced. And there’s a tendency—depending on whether the author is primarily a prose writer or a visual artist—to concentrate either on the nature of a strip’s narrative or graphic qualities, on the one thing or the other, rather than discussing them as the unit they are.
Introductions to Charles Pelto’s superb black-and-white Classic Comics Press collections are usually contributed by an illustrator or a cartoonist, which can result in a charming appreciation of the creator’s drawing chops and the strip’s overall look (with great attention paid to pen nibs and brushes), but not much about its narrative strategies. (Clearly, Howard Chaykin is guiltless when it comes to this.) Alternately, professional writers can tend to favor a strip’s plot (or gag) arcs and character development over the line art and design, and in the most problematic cases end up merely recapping episodes contained in the book. Full synopses seem justified only when there’s a larger issue to be addressed—as when Ron Goulart gives a blow-by-blow account of the first Phantom adventure in order to point out how, in mid-story, Lee Falk suddenly changed his mind and altered his original conception of the character from a disguised New York City playboy to the India/Africa-based “immortal” jungle man of mystery.
Two of the most dependable contributors to reprint books are Jim Steranko and R.C. Harvey, the two of them equally at home with comics narrative as with comic art. In dozens of essays and books Harvey has spent the last 30-odd years hammering home his insistence upon the “visual-verbal blend,” and Steranko, going all the way back to his pair of great comics’ histories (why hasn’t somebody reprinted those?), knows how to write comprehensively and effectively about the medium, rarely privileging one element above the other.
In the sixth and final book in the Library of America Comics’ “Terry and the Pirates” series, Harvey’s essay on Milton Caniff’s last several months’ tenure on the strip is smart and subtle, identifying and crisply explaining significant shifts in emphasis: “The stories of 1946 seem more free-wheeling than they’d been during the war years of regulation-guided military machinations. Caniff’s graphic style, too seems freer, sketchier, looser. He embellished his brushwork with a pen more than before, noodling drawings with fussy pen lines that modeled facial detail and made clothing seem softer, more flexible. Terry’s panels were still drenched in the liquid sheen of shadowy black, but the forms were not etched solely by light and shadow.”
Etching forms solely by light and shadow was the specialty of Caniff’s great pal and mentor Noel Sickles, who invented “the comics chiaroscuro movement,” and in Noel Sickles and the Art of Scorchy Smith (Library of American Comics) Steranko presents an absorbing, comprehensive case history of the artist’s three-year run on the feature, beginning with a detailed recounting of how, at his syndicate’s direction, Sickle, filling in “temporarily” for the ailing John Terry, was required to dumb down his draughtsmanship and imitate Terry’s stodgy, static linework and slow-as-molasses storytelling, an imitation/limitation that was both perfectly done and, for a man with “a compulsive sense of discipline and perfectionism,” excruciatingly boring.
When it became apparent that John Terry wasn’t going to return to “Scorchy Smith,” Sickles was given the strip, but with the lugubrious new caveat that he only gradually introduce his own “style.” It was a torturous feat of invention/reinvention and one that Steranko’s essay follows step by step, showing exactly how Sickles sloughed off Terry’s conventions and incrementally developed a new rendering strategy, an Impressionism that would influence generations of story-strip cartoonists. Steranko painstakingly identifies dates when crucial elements first made their appearance: “[I]n mid-strip on May 16, 1934…Sickles transformed many gray areas to startling, solid black…[so that] clothing folds and wrinkles were suggested by the most casual brush slashes.” And: “On January 28, 1935, Sickles…switched to chemically-developed Double-Tone board for his grays, giving him greater control over detail (although he used only the lighter of the two grays available, because he felt the darker did not reproduce well).” A reader’s pleasure and satisfaction, of course, come in being able to flip immediately to these specific strips and see a great cartoonist innovate.
Jeet Heer is as apt as Steranko to refer to particular strips in order to illustrate points about an artist’s approach to work, to problem-solving, as he does in this deconstruction of a 1935 “Little Orphan Annie” daily in the sixth volume of the ongoing series: “Warbucks represented the benevolent face of business. He works with inventors and investors, rather than robbing them…G. Gordon Slugg represents the flip side of the equation: he cares for nothing but his own power and mistreats all those around him… In the strip of August 20…Gray even makes an interesting visual parallel between the two men: the first two panels show Slugg, followed by two panels with Warbucks in the same pose. Slugg is the mirror image of Warbucks.”
3. Placement of the cartoonist/strip within a graphic and narrative tradition or genre with attention paid to which artists (or which art movements) influenced the cartoonist’s work, and who, in turn, the cartoonist, or the strip, later influenced. Of all the five varieties of supplementary material in reprint collections, this one is most consistently present. While discussing Roy Crane’s Sunday “Captain Easy” (Volume One), Jeet Heer is both dead-on and perfectly illustrative of this third variety: “Designing a whole page as a coherent unit, Crane was working in the tradition of Winsor McCay and George Herrimann even as he was telling brisk violent stories set in a fancifully-imagined Asia that would influence younger cartoonists such as Will Eisner and Jack Kirby.”
And here’s Steranko (again) on Noel Sickles: “[He] claimed he applied his artistic inspirations–which included the French Impressionists and Claude Monet, the German humor magazine Simplicissimus and American cartoonists T.S. Sullivant and J.R. Williams–to the comic strip.” And: “His enthusiasm for the movies and derivative narrative approach clearly confirm Sickle’s cinematic inspirations.” In a biographical essay in the same book, Bruce Canwell does a superb job of pointing out those artists—beside Caniff—most influenced by Sickles, including Fred Ray, Frank Giacoia, John Romita Sr., the great Alex Toth, Frank Miller and Hugo Pratt.
Introducing their co-edited Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics (Abrams ComicArts), Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly argue that many of the artists who created kid comics of the 1940s and 50s “had as direct an effect—arguably as strong as the influence of MAD and the horror comics–on many of the underground cartoonists of the 1960s… The melancholy in many of today’s more emotionally resonant graphic novels can be found right below the manic surface of John Stanley’s work; Jeff Bone’s Bone characters are clearly first cousins to Walt Kelly’s Pogo; Uncle Scrooge’s pince-nez seem to come from the same optician as Vladek Spiegelman’s eyeglasses in Maus.”
Writing about the introduction of fantasy-based characters like Punjab and Mr. Am into “Little Orphan Annie” during the mid-1930s, Jeet Heer drops in these apt nuggets about Gray’s influences and echoes: “While it is easy enough to imagine such early characters as the Silos or the Flints appearing in the socially realistic novels of Sinclair Lewis or John Steinbeck, Punjab and Mr. Am belong to a different order of literature–they would be more at home in The Tales of the Arabian Nights or the fantastic novels of H. Rider Haggard.” You think: H. Rider Haggard—of course! And suddenly Gray’s macabre and compelling strip takes on yet another dimension.
4. Artist biographies, with attention paid to family, stages of career/work, working methods, assistants, and relations with publishers and syndicates. With a series that plans to completely reprint a strip with a long—sometimes a many-decades-long—life span, it must be difficult for an editor to know exactly how or when to produce biographical material: lump it all together in the first couple of books or dole it out, matching an evolving life to an evolving comic strip or comic-book series? (I vote for the latter.)
Despite Dan Clowes’s quip that a cartoonist’s life is utterly boring, the great newspaper cartoonists, especially of the first and second generations, as well as the creators of Golden and Silver Age comic books, lived interesting (if not always glamorous) lives. More importantly, though, the lives they lived—sometimes charmed and adventurous, other times difficult, chaotic, impoverished, querulous—directly influenced the work they produced day by day over long stretches of time.
Probably because I knew very little about Jack Kent before the Library of American Comics’ King Aroo series began to appear (and who would’ve thought it ever would have appeared!), Bruce Canwell’s biographical essay there is revelatory. I’d known, for instance, that Kent was a Texan (San Antonio), but not that he’d been one of the first collectors/traders of original cartoon art (he was a puckish conniver and wheedler), or that he’d assisted Elmer Woggons on the “Big Chief Wahoo” strip.
Canwell may be less analytical than, say, Jeet Heer, but he’s easily Heet’s equal in digging out the biographical gold, and he’s also surprisingly playful in his writing: he concludes the first installment of his Kent biography in Volume One with an old-fashioned cliffhanger. After recounting Kent’s youth up until his marriage to Juliet Bridgman in 1952, he writes: “Jack Kent Jr. would be born in July of 1955—but Juliet was not Jack’s mother.” Tune in next volume.
Canwell also has done exemplary work sketching in the life of (and giving due credit to) George McManus’s long-time assistant Zeke Zekley (Bringing Up Father: From Sea to Shining Sea, Library of American Comics); he’s performed the same valuable service for Milton Caniff’s much-maligned successor George Wunder in the final volume of Terry and the Pirates series (also Library of American Comics).
Thomas Andrae’s essay on Floyd Gottfredson in the first volume of Fantagraphics’ “Mickey Mouse” strip reprints (Race to Death Valley) is brilliant both as biography and extrapolation. After recounting how Gottfredson accidentally shot himself in the arm as a boy, Andrae segues neatly to this: “Like other great artists who have turned tragedy to advantage, he persisted, and drawing with his bad hand, he eventually developed a drawing style that compensated for his physical limitations. Because he had lost most of the flexibility in his hand, he had to draw by moving his entire arm—something that is taught in penmanship classes but which artists are rarely trained to do. This gave his drawing a sweep and flair few others attain.”
5. Bits of business. In the theater, a bit of business is some quirky surprise–a small gesture, a facial tick, a special sideways glance, a certain way of moving–that an actor brings to a role. It’s maybe not something defining but it’s surely memorable and creates an indefinable aesthetic “extra.” As applied to introductions and afterwards, “appreciations” and biographical essays, bits of business are those unexpected, oddball factoids and digressions that lend a measure of added value or delight. They’re, well, just fun. Here are some examples of my favorite bits of business from the giant pile of reprint books I’ve been through.
–Roy Crane and his new bride originally “lived in a small apartment in the suburbs of Cleveland Heights (later the home of cartoonists Harvey Pekar, Robert Crumb and Bill Watterston)” (Captain Easy, The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips, Vol. 1; Jeet Heer; Fantagraphics). I like knowing that, just as I like discovering that the original name for Captain Easy was Jim Early.
–During World War II, while working for the Office of War Information, Lee Falk hired Alfred Bester, later to become one of America’s greatest science fiction novelists, to help with the scripting of “The Phantom.” Also: Lee Falk’s first love was the theater—a good bit of biography, amplified by this perfect little bit of business: “He ran five theaters and produced around 300 plays and directed 100 of them. He wrote twelve plays, two of them musicals.” (The Phantom, The Complete Newspaper Dailies Vol. 1; Ron Goulart; Hermes)
–As a boy living in Santa Monica, California, Bud Sagendorf “got unlimited art supplies from his sister, who was the local art supply store’s head buyer. As Dame Fortune had it, this was the very same store where the creator of Popeye, Elzie Segar, bought his paper, pens and India Ink. In 1931, Bud’s sister arranged for the budding cartoonist, just 17 years old, to formally meet The Master, Segar.” Nice. As is this: after finding out that Sagendorf’s favorite reading material was science fiction, Segar immediately hired the kid to help out in his studio. (Popeye The Great Comic Book Tales by Bud Sagendorf; Craig Yoe; IDW)
And, finally, my absolute favorite:
–“In Baltimore circa 1928, there was a ‘Polly and Her Pals Club,’ where African-American dancers wore chic flapper dresses in the manner of [Cliff] Sterrett’s heroine. A dance club named after a comic strip was not unheard of at the time. In the 1910s, a ‘Krazy Kat Club’ opened in Washington D.C. A bohemian hangout and speakeasy, the Krazy Kat club was busted more than once by the police; its clientele included college kids, flappers, and gay men and women. In the 1930s in Chicago, there was a Krazy Kat Club organized by teenaged African-Americans.” (Polly & Her Pals; Jeet Heer; Library of American Comics)
Reading, or in some cases rereading, the supplementary materials in a few dozen recently published reprint books has been like getting a full-bodied new history of American comics, cartoonists, syndication and publishing, but it’s also given me a huge appreciation for the difficulty in composing this kind of material, and for the artistry demanded in getting it right. And right now there’s an awful lot of that artistry on display.