THE FUNNY PAPERS: STEVE CANYON

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Terry and the Pirates made Milt Caniff famous but not terribly rich — the strip was owned by the newspaper syndicate which originally commissioned it.  After WWII Caniff abandoned Terry and created a new strip that he owned, Steve Canyon.  The magnificent artwork continued but the story lines got less interesting and the strip’s protagonist, freelance pilot and soldier of fortune Canyon, had a stiff cardboard-patriot quality.

Orson Welles was one of many Caniff fans who found the new strip a terrible letdown, though it remained popular for many years.  It’s entertaining enough for the most part and the artwork makes it worth one’s attention.

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THE FUNNY PAPERS: CAPTAIN EASY, SOLDIER OF FORTUNE

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Roy Crane pioneered the action-adventure comic strip with Wash Tubbs.  The character Tubbs started out as bumbling grocery store clerk but Crane decided he didn’t like the gag-a-day format and started sending Tubbs off on protracted adventures.  Captain Easy, soldier of fortune, a secondary character in the strip, was better suited to this format and Crane developed a new Sunday strip centered around him.

These Sunday strips have been reprinted by Fantagraphics Books, well reproduced in four large-format books.  Crane’s drawing style is just serviceable and his adventure tales a bit bland and formulaic at times, but it’s a genial strip, fairly diverting and important historically.

Worth a look, especially in the gorgeous Fantagraphics reprint editions.

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THE FUNNY PAPERS: CARL BARKS

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Carl Barks didn’t actually appear in the funny papers — he drew comic books — but he is one of the finest of all comic strip artists.

His style of visual narrative is deceptively simple.  His panels rarely draw attention to themselves — they’re well-crafted but straightforward — and yet his stories pop from frame to frame, with a speed and economy that are thrilling.  You might call him the Howard Hawks of comic strip artists, with a technique so masterful that it disappears in the beguilements of the tale.

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Barks’s humor is gentle, more amusing and charming than funny, but the sweetness draws you into his adventure plots with Donald and his nephews and his Uncle Scrooge in an oddly powerful way.  His is a cozy and consoling art, pleasurable in ways that seem to bypass the conscious mind and return you to the innocent diversions of childhood, like pretending to be a jungle explorer in the blackberry thickets down by the river.

It’s art of a very high order.

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WHAT I’M SPINNING NOW

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. . . courtesy of my friend Laura Leivick.

The soundtrack album from the 1950 Broadway production, issued in 1954. Bob Dylan said that listening to Lotte Lenya’s performance of “Pirate Jenny” changed his idea of what a song could be.  You can see why — it’s startling and chilling and brilliant.

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THE FUNNY PAPERS: TERRY AND THE PIRATES

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This is the best of all the action-adventure comic strips, and one of the most brilliant comic strips ever created in any genre.

The narratives are boys-own-adventure stuff — literally, because the main protagonist is, at least when the strip begins, a young teenaged boy named Terry Lee.  He and his adult mentor Pat Ryan, a journalist by trade, find themselves in China and have a series of wild adventures among Chinese warlords and pirates, among them their nemesis The Dragon Lady, a beautiful but wicked pirate queen.

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The draftsmanship of the strip’s creator Milt Caniff is dazzling, wonderfully evoking the exotic locales, but Caniff’s greatest skill is visual storytelling in passages of dynamic panels that hurtle through exciting action sequences.

Orson Welles was an ardent admirer of the strip, and you can see why — Caniff’s method was visually elegant and thrillingly cinematic.

It’s just great stuff.

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THE FUNNY PAPERS: GASOLINE ALLEY

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With Frank King’s Gasoline Alley we come to one of the genuine glories of the American comic strip, indeed one of the genuine glories of America fiction.  It started out in 1918 as a folksy strip poking gentle fun at a group of early automobile enthusiasts — hence its name — but it changed utterly in 1921 when its central character Walt Wallet found a baby abandoned on his doorstep and decided to raise it as a single parent.

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That began a domestic epic that’s still going today — although King turned the strip over to other artists in the 1950s.  Walt named his baby Skeezix, and the strip followed Walt and Skeezix in real time as they aged, decade after decade.  What emerged was as sweet and humane a portrait of fatherhood and friendship and community as exists in our literature.

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Over the years King got more and more ambitious with his Sunday pages — they became at times visual fantasia verging on the abstract, bold and beautiful in their designs and their use of color.

Gasoline Alley transcends the comic strip genre — it’s one of the great American works of art in any medium.  King fashioned a vast tapestry of ordinary American life with the love of a father for his son at its center — not one of the usual themes of American art and all the more precious for that.

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THE FUNNY PAPERS: PRINCE VALIANT

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Prince Valiant is the most beautifully drawn of all the classic action-adventure comic strips.  Its author Hal Foster was a brilliant draftsman and just about every image he ever drew was arresting.  He employed large panels that contained lots of detail, but they didn’t work together in a dynamic way, like the shots in a movie, giving the narrative visual momentum.

The strip thus has a kind of static, or perhaps you could say stately, quality — more oriented towards the pictorialism of book illustrations than towards the cinematic energy of most action-adventure strips.  Foster relied heavily on blocks of expository text to move his tales forward from one gorgeous image to the next.

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Still, it’s a delightful and entertaining strip, aesthetically compelling, and the tales themselves are satisfying yarns, full of chivalric derring-do and spectacular fantasy.

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THE FUNNY PAPERS: POGO

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Complete runs of most of the great strips from the Golden Age of American comics have been or are being issued in excellent editions by the likes of Fantagraphics Books, IDW Publishing and Sunday Press Books.  I’m a collector of many of these reprint series, working my way through them with great pleasure.  Here’s a report on my progress through Pogo:

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Like Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, Walt Kelly’s comic strip Pogo got off to a slow start.  It creates a world located in the Okefenokee Swamp peopled by anthropomorphized swamp critters.  The episodes involve a laconic backwoods sort of humor that isn’t always terribly funny or insightful.  It’s just pleasant, in an off-hand way, though the drawing is consistently impressive.  I never read the strip with much attention when it was first appearing but I’m told it moved eventually into a mode of social and political satire that was penetrating.

We shall see.