Funny pages: Brian Walker re-examines a century of comics
For anyone who grew up reading the comics in the daily newspaper, who wrestled the section away from taunting siblings, who devised a system for reading in order of lamest (Family Circus) to funniest (Bloom County), it’s odd to see those same strips reproduced in full color, on heavy paper stock, and in a beautifully designed encyclopedia such as Brian Walker’s The Comics: The Complete Collection. Originally, the comics made no presumption to anything beyond entertainment. More ephemeral than even crosswords and etiquette advice, they seemed drawn to be tossed out and forgotten until the next day’s edition. Only the TV listings were more disposable. There was, nevertheless, an undeniable charm to those modest panels, which kept us reading every morning.
In recent decades comics history has grown into a popular discipline, overlapping somewhat with studies of comic books and fine art. Walker’s book is certainly not the only overview of the form’s development throughout the 20th century, but it’s among the most extensive, the most accessible, the most visually satisfying—and therefore the most persuasive of its subject’s inherent worth. This heavy tome combines his previous two volumes: The Comics: Before 1945 (2004) and The Comics: Since 1945 (2006). The new edition contains no new material, and in fact, the two installments have been sutured together somewhat awkwardly. The title page for Before 1945 precedes the table of contents for the entire book, and there’s no general index or bibliography; instead, the end materials for the first half form a haphazard intermission halfway through the book. Given the fine quality of the reproductions, such errors stand out.
They are, however, minor annoyances rather than fatal flaws. Walker, a comics scholar who founded the Museum of Cartoon Art and works on the features Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois, writes in crisp, direct prose, and his research is obviously deep and painstaking. He begins with a controversy that’s still debated today: Was Richard Felton Outcault’s Yellow Kid, introduced in 1894, indeed the first newspaper comics character, or does the form trace its roots back even further? The issue remains not only unresolved even a century later, but Walker implies that it’s largely immaterial: Newspapers of the late 1800s were experimenting heavily with various combinations of drawn visuals and text, and if he wasn’t the first, the Yellow Kid was certainly the archetypal comics character, an impish immigrant child whose antics contained kernels of wisdom and subversion. He begat the rambunctious Katzenjammer Kids as well as their adult counterpart, Foxy Grandpa, not to mention characters as diverse as the Gumps and Little Nemo. That very misbehavior, coupled with the disposability of the form, presented comics as lowbrow and socially deleterious, sparking early debate about the moral worth of the form.
For that reason, the first half of Walker’s history is the more intriguing volume, as comics were only just taking shape. Their artistic and commercial possibilities seemed endless. In fact, almost every late 20th-century trend can be traced back to these early years. Strips like Peanuts and Garfield could not have been so relentlessly marketed without the broad success of Thimble Theater and Gasoline Alley, whose popularity transcended the newspaper medium. The frame-breaking artwork of Bill Watterson’s “Calvin & Hobbes”—perhaps the most visually innovative feature in recent memory—can be traced back to the burst panels and dreamlike sequences of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend.
The history of comics is not so much a history of the United States, but an imperfect reflection of American society. Because they published on a daily basis, comics were uniquely adaptable to the news in other sections of the paper. In numerous asides Walker recounts various trends in comics and connects them with larger issues, such as race and immigration at the turn of the century, women’s lib in the 1920s, the Great Depression in the ‘30s, World War II patriotism in the ‘40s, the counterculture in the ‘60s, and—much later—9/11. These sections are often more revealing than the lengthy summations of each decade, as they ignore the somewhat tedious relationships between artists and syndicates and place the strips in larger, more familiar contexts.
Unlike comic books and film, comic strips never experienced much of counterculture renaissance, although Doonesbury and a few other titles updated the form for the Baby Boomer generation. Increased emphasis was placed on social commentary and running storylines, as artists addressed various real-world concerns over successive strips. While the form flourished in the 1980s and 1990s with the popularity of Gary Larson’s The Far Side, Berke Breathed’s Bloom County, and Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes, comics grew increasingly conservative in their visuals, their humor, their politics, and their concepts. Such features as Jumpstart, Baby Blues, Zits and even a reliably sharp title like Foxtrot resemble post-Cosby Show sitcoms in their predicaments and punchlines.
With titles like The Far Side and Calvin & Hobbes disappearing, comics have lately earned a reputation, whether rightly or not, as a fuddy-duddy art form, drawn and written for a generation still reliant on print media as its primary news source. For that reason, it would have been useful and instructive had Walker written a new epilogue to this volume; in the five years since the publication of The Comics: Since 1945, the Internet has flourished while print newspapers floundered. “Perhaps someday, in the not-too-distant future, an enterprising newspaper editor will experiment with enlarging the comics and printing them on higher-quality paper,” Walker writes in his original conclusion. “Readers would welcome seeing their favorite features in a more luxurious format.” That may have been true in 2006, but in 2011 it’s certainly debatable.
It’s not that comics aren’t equipped to save newspapers, but that the form long ago began gravitating toward the Internet—and mutating along the way. Perhaps the future of comics lies with the readers themselves, particularly on such sites as “I Can Has Cheezburger” and “Comixed,” which allow users to create their own makeshift strips by adding text to photographs. Often the results can be sophomoric or repetitive, but at their best these sites encourage a potentially very sophisticated engagement with text and visuals through the scrim of popular culture.
Perhaps more crucially, the Internet allows readers to interact directly with comics and to subtly reconsider the history of the form. There are several sites like “Garfield Without Garfield” and “Calvin Without Hobbes” devoted to rethinking and in some ways rewriting popular titles. Perhaps the most sophisticated of them is “3eanuts,” which removes the fourth “punchline” panels from “Peanuts” strips to reveal a deep, dark melancholy that is unexpected in the medium. There is no comic relief or release, which itself becomes a strange but effective punchline. In some important ways, these online revampings suggest an evolution away from comics in their original form, and certainly there is currently at least one generation that will never experience the small thrill of reading comics over cereal in the morning or cutting out a particularly funny strip to post on a bulletin board or cubicle wall.
What is the future of comics? Who can say, but that sense of open-ended possibility shouldn’t be worrisome, as it recalls the same spirit that innovated the form in the first half of the century. That makes Walker’s history all the more valuable: By learning what comics once were, we can get a better idea of what they can be.
A long-time writer for Paste, Stephen M. Deusner is a Tennessee-born, Chicago-based freelancer whose works regularly appears on Pitchfork, the Village Voice, and the Washington Post Express, among other publications. He recently contributed an essay on Okkervil River to the book The Poetics of American Song Lyrics, forthcoming from the University Press of Mississippi.