For my money, Li’l Abner is the funniest of all the classic American comic strips. (A couple of the episodes featuring Fearless Fosdick, a merciless parody of Dick Tracy, are the only comic strips this side of Mad Magazine that have ever made me laugh out loud.)
Al Capp, Abner’s creator, had a lively sense of the absurd, which he combined with a relentless cynicism to fashion a comic tone all his own, somewhere between slapstick farce and satire. The hillbilly inhabitants of Dogpatch, Abner’s home town, are both wise in their ways and idiotic — Capp ridicules them even as he uses them to ridicule the more sophisticated characters they meet.
Nothing is sacred in Capp’s view of things, everyone is preposterous. It’s an attitude that keeps the reader off balance, ready to be elbowed unexpectedly in the ribs by some outrageous gag or other. Comedy and sentiment rarely mix well — Capp’s total avoidance of sentiment frees him up for creating laughs at will.
There are echoes in this approach of the tone of E. C. Segar’s Popeye strips, with their manic knockabout gags and omnidirectional violence, but Popeye always remains heroic in his bullheaded way. Abner is always a boob, even when he’s doing the right thing, usually by mistake.
Capp’s strip is one of the few great ones that hit the ground running. Abner, Daisy Mae, Mammy and Pappy Yokum appear fully fledged from the start, ready to carry the strip onwards for decades.
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Between 1956 and 1966, Jules Feiffer drew a satirical comic strip (initially called Sick, Sick, Sick) for The Village Voice. All the strips have been reprinted in a volume titled The Explainers, which I’m working my way through. I read a lot of them originally in the 60s, when they started to be collected in paperback editions.
Reading them today, I’m struck by how relevant they remain. The specific cultural references have dated, but the issues — unpopular wars, political hypocrisy, insufferable hipsterism, manic consumerism and discombobulated gender relations — are depressingly au courant.
They chart the Age Of Anxiety as it transformed into the Age Of Hysteria, neither all that different from the current Age Of Hysterical Anxiety. Their wit seems as sharp as ever — not always the case with satire as it ages — and their insights as acute.
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This is one the best of the soap opera comic strips — aimed primarily at women, they generally offered romantic or domestic melodramas with female protagonists. Their visual style tended to be realistic, with superb draftsmanship and dynamic angles within the panels punching up the drama of the narratives.
Leonard Starr was a master of the form. His Mary Perkins On Stage follows the life and loves of a young woman who arrives in New York hoping for a career in the theater. Her professional struggles and romantic entanglements hurtle along at a dizzying pace, with spectacular emotional tensions and climaxes in almost every strip.
The melodramatic twists and turns may be conventional, but Starr’s skills as an artist and visual storyteller keep them entertaining and addictive.
Ben Katchor is one of the truly great modern comic strip artists. He has a quirky drawing style, influenced a bit by the work of Ben Shahn, and quirky obsessions. Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer is a Katchor strip that appears in The Forward and other publications. Some of the strips are collected in The Beauty Supply District, a book I’m reading now.
They’re set in an imaginary New York that resembles sections of the real New York as it once was, vestiges of which remain — clusters of small-time manufacturers, retailers and wholesalers of modest industrial products and novelties.
When I first moved to New York in the 1970s I lived on a street in Chelsea which housed many such establishments — a maker of flags, a maker of coat-hangers, a maker of trophies. They’re all gone from my old neighborhood now, but they live on in Katchor’s strips, along with the eccentric salesmen who used to hawk such goods, the local cafes and delis that served the owners and employees of such firms.
They become in Katchor’s strips a kind of self-enclosed universe of desperate hustle and baffled ambition and weary resignation. It’s a universe that seems to know it’s doomed but carries on regardless. Today’s New Yorkers are dining in upscale restaurants that once housed cheap novelty display rooms, living in wildly expensive lofts where flags were once sewn. Katchor’s world is populated by the characters whose ghosts must still haunt such places.
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 The Complete Peanuts:
I’m in early stages with this strip, in the middle of 1953. The tone of the strip at this point, wry and genial, is still a bit bland. The center of the strip, Charlie Brown, has taken full shape as the good-natured but anxiety-ridden everyman he will remain, but the characters around him have yet to coalesce into iconic figures, though Snoopy is closing in on iconic status.
Charles Schulz, Brown’s creator, still seems to see the strip as a series of observations on childhood, not on Life Itself — in short, the universe of the strip has not yet become mythic. But it’s getting there.
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. . . who lives in France, is putting his life on the line publishing cartoons like this.
But, hey — we in the West are hypocrites, with plenty of innocent Muslim blood on our hands. Who are we to condemn radical Islam for placing a great artist like Crumb in that kind of jeopardy?
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With thanks to Sir Barken Hyena . . .
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[From the always magical Golden Age Comic Book Stories.]
The second page of a story published in 1950 called “Serum To Codfish
Cove”, by the legendary Carl Barks, found on Rodney Bowcock’s Comics and Stories blog, which Mr. Bowcock has sadly just abandoned.
I’ll be posting the whole thing (ten pages in all) as a tribute to Barks and to
Mr. Bowcock, whose blog will be missed.
The legendary Carl Barks drew Donald Duck comics for about 25 years starting in 1942. He didn’t have a spectacular graphic style — what he did have was a stunning narrative efficiency, great imagination and irresistible charm.
This is the first page of a story published in 1950 called “Serum To Codfish Cove”. I found it on Rodney Bowcock’s Comics and Stories blog, which Mr. Bowcock has sadly just abandoned. It was a great site. In his introduction to this story, Mr. Bowcock observed that it would have taken another comic-book artist at least twice as many images to tell the same tale. In Barks’ hands it just flies along, without ever seeming rushed or abbreviated. It’s also great fun.
I’ll be posting the whole thing (ten pages in all) as a tribute to Barks and to Mr. Bowcock, whose blog will be missed. I wish I’d taken the time, back when I had the chance, to tell him how much I enjoyed it.
The first adventure continued — enter the Dragon Lady!
The second of the four coolest books published in the past few years is another oversized volume from Sunday Press Book — Sundays With Walt and Skeezix. It collects a number of Sunday pages from Frank King’s brilliant long-running strip Gasoline Alley,
one of the glories of American popular art. I’ve written before about the
series from Drawn and Quarterly Press which is reprinting the entire
run of the daily strip in a succession of handsome volumes — but the Sunday
pages are something else again.
In the daily strip, King created a narrative masterpiece graced with
many flights of visual invention, but in the color Sunday pages his
visual imagination grew much bolder — lyrical, almost abstract at
times. He looked at the Sunday page sometimes as an arena for the
wildest experimentation — to see just how far the expressive potential
of a comic strip might reach.
In the Sunday Press collection we can see these Sunday strips almost as
their first viewers did — in the same colors and in the same size.
It’s a measure of our culture’s descent into mediocrity and triviality
that no work of such ambition and grace now accompanies any daily
newspaper in the land, and certainly no cable news channel. It
used to be assumed that the visions of great popular artists ought to
be part of every American’s daily dose of media. Today only cheap
digital graphics and portentous musical jingles accompany the canned “news”
doled out by the major media outlets.
Americans have never liked being spoon fed “culture” — meaning culture
that somebody decided was good for them. That was the beauty of
the comic strip — it was an art form so unpretentious, so vernacular
and casual, that Americans could consume it over breakfast or before
dinner without a trace of self-consciousness or social anxiety. But its
expressive range was almost limitless. We know that from the work
of artists like Frank King, who in their own quiet but audacious ways
tested its limits to the full.
You could read through these comics and weep that stuff this great used
to be thrown up on the porches of millions of Americans by
paperboys every Sunday morning — and isn’t anymore. Or you could read through them
and take heart at the fact that stuff this great could ever have been part of
American popular culture — and so might be again. Why not?
You can buy Sundays With Walt and Skeezix here.
four coolest books published in the last few years all reprint work by
masters of the American comic strip. These books are so cool,
so unspeakably cool, that when I look at them I can’t quite believe
they’re real. But they are.
The first of them, Splendid Sundays 1905-1910, is a huge volume that reprints in full size many of the Sunday color episodes of Winsor McCay’s classic strip Little Nemo.
McCay was the most cinematic of all comic strip artists — he created
fantasy worlds that are visually plausible but wildly whimsical,
exploding with dazzling transformations and dynamic movement through
One should also say that McCay was not by any means the wittiest of all
comic strip artists, nor the best storyteller among them, but the
visual imagination of his strips transcends those limitations.
The strips reveal their brilliance more fully the better and
bigger his work is reproduced. That’s the importance of Splendid Sundays, which
for the first time in nearly a hundred years lets us see the strips in something resembling the
medium for which they were created — a full-sized newspaper page.
With even small reproductions of the Nemo
strips we can sometimes feel as though we’re falling into the spaces of
Nemo’s nighttime dreamworld. With Splendid Sundays we tumble headlong into
that world — and it’s a truly magical place to be. Sunday Press
Books has done a signal service to our culture in creating this huge
and hugely wondrous book.
You can buy it here.
It’s an exciting time for fans of the classic American comic strip. A few small, quality-minded publishing houses are issuing handsome new reprints of some of the glories of the genre — including, from Drawn and Quarterly Press, the start of a complete run of Frank King’s masterpiece Gasoline Alley. Volume two has just appeared, continuing the adventures of Walt, a genial car nut, and bachelor, who one days finds an infant on his doorstep and decides to keep and raise him.
King began his domestic epic in the 1920s (the strip premiered in 1918 but the kid didn’t appear at Walt’s door for a couple of years) and kept it going into the 1950s (when he turned it over to other artists), allowing us to watch the child, named Skeezix, grow up in real time. The strips of the early years constitute a sweet, sharply-observed paean to single parenthood and, more importantly, a deeply-felt celebration of the joys of fatherhood without equal in American art.
The strips have been unavailable for years, and never presented in complete form — check them out and cherish a rare treasure from our culture’s not-so-distant past.