I remember when I was a kid earnestly pouring over the oversize comic strip book collections that were housed in my town’s public library. Bill Blackbeard and Martin Williams’ Smithsonian collection remained the lodestone, naturally, but there were many other titles that afforded me glimpses into the glorious four-color days of newspapers past. Books by folks like Coulton Waugh and Maurice Horn, with titles like The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy would set my heart a-reeling and I would gently attempt to balance them on the handlebars of my bicycle as I furiously pedaled home in anticipation of discovering and rediscovering people like Herriman, McCay, Segar, and the like.
I can easily see some modern youth greeting Brian Walker’s The Comics: The Complete Collection with similar anticipation, though hopefully they won’t attempt to precariously place this ginormous tome on their bikes (they ride scooters these days anyway, right?). The massive book, though by no means as seminal as Blackbeard and Williams’s, serves as a rather respectable and thankfully updated entry into the “Comics 101” field.
Of course, The Comics is really two books sandwiched together: The Comics After 1945, originally published in 2002, and The Comics Before 1945, published in 2004. Considering both books have been easily available in stores for years, and that even a “complete” version similar to this one has been lurking about on Borders bargain tables for some time now, one would have hoped that this latest edition would provide some new content – perhaps a new introduction, something on webcomics or an update on some of the newly popular strips. For example, at the end of the book Walker wonders whether titles like The Boondocks, Get Fuzzy, and Pearls Before Swine will succeed in the cutthroat 21st century. Considering one of those strips has already been ended and the others have seen considerable success, it seems a foolish question and makes the book appear already dated.
But let’s move on. The book is structured thusly: Each decade gets a chapter, as Walker attempts to summarize the particular cultural history of that time period in America and the happenings and trends found within the comic strip industry. Interspersed are one-page biographies of notable cartoonists such as Milton Caniff and Charles Schulz, along with a healthy sampling of strips covering various decades. Samplings of lesser-known or less influential strips are also provided, especially if they reflect the era in some particular fashion, as do the child strips of the 1930s. Most of these smaller strips will already be familiar to comics fans, although there are a few notable discoveries, like Roy Doty’s Laugh-In.
Walker’s scholarship is solid. He refuses to parrot long-standing myths, like the notion that the Outcault’s Yellow Kid is where the phrase “yellow journalism” springs from, and instead relies on hard research, both his own and those of other scholars. He’s at his best when talking about the industry and how it has changed over the ensuing decades. His examination of various business practices and how it shaped the industry (and vice versa) is fascinating. He’s weaker when trying to discuss the aesthetic merits of the strips in question; he has a tendency to elevate less-worthy work and fall back on cliché when discussing the truly great.
Comics After 1945 was originally designed as a counterpoint to previous comic strip compendiums, which normally wind up at the end of World War II or near to it and then disparagingly decry the state of the industry in the postwar world. Walker, the son of Beetle Bailey creator Mort Walker and the current gag writer for that strip as well as Hi and Lois, obviously feels that postwar period has been unfairly neglected.
He makes a good point. Notable strips after 1950 include not only Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes, but also Bloom County, Gordo, Pogo, For Better or For Worse, and Doonesbury. Even lesser lights like Garfield, Wizard of Id, and Cathy present enough craftsmanship and humor to make a case for the state of the newspaper comic being far from the wasteland it’s often made out to be.
At the same time, there can be no question that the golden age has passed. In the medium’s heyday, readers had full-page spreads by Hal Foster, Alex Raymond, and Roy Crane. And that was just for starters. The amount of talent on display and the space given to that talent was truly staggering. An while much skill continued to infuse the funny pages after 1950, there can be no question that the comics section’s importance and artistry dwindled as the years continued. A certain sameness takes over the book as minimally drawn gag strip after minimally drawn gag strip comes to the fore, and Walker pads the book out with considerably lackluster features like The Muppets and Sally Forth.
With just about every strip of significance being collected in some fashion these days, most comics historians – amateur or otherwise – are well aware with the timeline presented here. There are very few revelations. What makes the book work are the healthy sampling of art work Walker provides, some of it original, the aforementioned pulling behind the curtain to see the business side of things, and the author’s determination to extend the timeline beyond the medium’s initial, arbitrary sell-by date. For those curious parties who might just be coming to Herriman for the first time or who haven’t yet discovered the joys of Roy Crane or, for that matter, Lynn Johnston, I can’t think of a better introduction.