For a long time everything I knew about comics I learned from Stephen Becker’s Comic Art in America, a general history of magazine cartooning and newspaper strips originally published in 1959 by Simon & Schuster. As a teenager I kept checking it out of the Bayonne, New Jersey public library; it was the only book I could find about comics—the genealogy, the profession, the practitioners, the story—and it’s where I first got some context for the art form I’d fallen for so hard.
After having my appetite whetted by Comic Art in America, I became a collector of books on the comics. In one nearby bookcase, right here, I have over 20 omnibus histories on hand, and if I count the more narrowed histories (women in comics, cats in comics, comic books only/no newspaper strips, newspaper strips only/no comic books, adventure strips only, underground comix, and toss in various encyclopedias) there are closer to 35. And I have more boxed up in a “storage unit.” Point is, I’ve read many, probably too many, comics histories over the last four-and-a-half decades and they all pretty much reiterate the same chronologies, categories, styles, canonical titles and creators. They also propagate, to one degree or another, the same winsome but apocryphal anecdotes.
Dark Horse Books’ revised edition of Jerry Robinson’s The Comics: An Illustrated History of the Comic Strip 1895-2010, originally published in 1974, is a hundred times more handsome and better illustrated than the first Putnam edition—heavy coated stock, lots of color pages this time. It’s a good-looking object, all right (it should be, at forty bucks) but it doesn’t strike me as all that assiduously updated; previously debunked syndicate lore and hallowed legends about Manhattan’s old Newspaper Row are reported yet again as gospel. The “origin” of the Yellow Kid, for instance, recycles the same lively account I first read in Becker and later found in Coulton Waugh’s The Comics and Martin Sheridan’s Comics and their Creators. The “classic” tale—how the color department at Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World needed to test a new quick-drying formula for tallow-yellow ink, and how jug-eared Mickey Dugan’s big nightshirt in Richard Outcault’s Sunday feature “Down in Hogan’s Alley” turned out to be just what they needed—is sheer fiction, comics’ own Washington-and-the-cherry-tree story, but here it is again.
The social history that opens every chapter of The Comics is potted, written in prose similar to what you find in “Time Annuals” (“The 1970s was a decade of discord and dissent—a period of alienation and cynicism. Little was found without blemish…”), and the strips chosen to illustrate Robinson’s commentaries, while “important” ones, will be familiar to anyone with even the slightest knowledge of comics history: Walt Kelly’s Pogo drawling,“Yep, son, we have met the enemy and he is us,” Caniff’s famously patriotic “Let’s take a walk, Terry,” strip from World War II, George Herriman’s vertical Sunday page featuring a bright-green tree-tall cactus, Ignatz dropping a brick, and Krazy Kat standing below murmuring, “He’ll not fail me—that dollin.” Almost any general history of comics has reproduced the same images. The first “Dick Tracy” daily, the first appearance of Popeye (“Ja think I’m a cowboy?”), Walt and Skeezix at the modern-art museum, Beetle Bailey as a college student.
New to this edition are more than a dozen autobiographical essays by celebrated cartoonists, most of them written decades ago but still interesting. Equally interesting are many of the tight and perceptive critiques of idiosyncratic cartoonists. This is Robinson on Fontaine Fox, creator of “Toonerville Trolley”: “Fox’s animated style was drawn with a nervous speed that gave it an identity as unique as his signature. His marvelously cursive and dashing line imparted a vitality that contrasted with his low-key droll humor. He employed a high eye level in the drawing that gave a unique perspective to the Toonerville community; this innovation enabled him to chronicle a wide reaction to any situation.” Though perfunctory, that about nails it.
In the final chapter, which plunges from the 1970s through the first decade of the twentieth-first century, Robinson (whose own major contributions to the art and profession of comics were recently covered in a full-length biography by Christopher Couch) cops to the difficulties print-based cartoonists face in the digital age while still managing to sound like a cheerleader, if a slightly macabre cheerleader. “Many industry observers predict the demise of the print news media itself—that in the future we will get the daily news directly from our home computers or cell phones. Cartoonists, however, are an indomitable breed. They will survive even if it means a return to their origins—laboriously scratching their personal visions on dank cave walls.” Now, there’s a doomy future. (Robinson has little to say, a few sentences, about on-line comics.)
The Comics is a useful if not entirely authoritative reference work: exhaustive, crammed, but shallow. (Some great eye-candy, though.) It wouldn’t have been my first choice of an out-of-print comics history to reprint. For all of its errors, Becker’s is still the best of the oldies; a used copy goes for over $150 at Amazon. And while I haven’t gone through it with a fine-toothed comb, from just one reading I’d say that Brian Walker’s two-volume history (The Comics Since 1945, and The Comics Before 1945, published respectively in 2002 and 2004, and just published as a one-volume edition) is the most reliable, up-to-date and least biased (which is not to say not-biased) one currently available.