Brian Walker’s two books on American newspaper comics, “The Comics Before 1945” and “The Comics Since 1945,” have been combined in a new and lavish omnibus edition, “The Comics: The Complete Collection” from Abrams Books. Walker surveys more than a century of strips and the book is jampacked with more than 1,300 images, including rare examples provided by the artists themselves. All of it is organized by decade and interspersed with creator profiles and trenchant analysis of the different genres and trends. More than a pop-culture scholar, Walker is a creator himself — since 1984 he has been part of the creative team that produces the “Beetle Bailey” and “Hi and Lois” strips. I caught up with the Connecticut author to talk about the glorious past and uncertain future of the great American comic strips.
GB: As far as craft and just pure talent, who makes the short list of artists that you would consider the truly elite figures?
BW: Although there are hundreds of artists represented in “The Comics – The Complete Collection,” there are 36 who received the “masters” treatment, with full-page profiles and a sampling of their most outstanding work. Among the artists I selected were pioneers (Richard Outcault), innovators (Winsor McCay), storytellers (Harold Gray), illustrators (Alex Raymond), humorists (Johnny Hart), satirists (Garry Trudeau) and new traditionalists (Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman). This was as short a list as I could come up with.
GB: If you step back and look at innovation and impact, fame and legacy, whose faces makes the Mt. Rushmore of comics, say, after 1945? How about before 1945?
BW: Can three dozen faces fit on the Mt. Rushmore of comics? If I had to narrow it down to four from before 1945 I would pay tribute to the pioneers of the art form: Richard Outcault, Rudolph Dirks, Frederick Opper and Winsor McCay. In the postwar period I would choose Charles Schulz, Garry Trudeau and Bill Watterson.
GB: In your studies I’m sure you came across many figures that for reasons of timing or situation just never got their due. Tell us a story about someone we should know — but probably don’t – and a bit about their life trajectory.
BW: The best example of an artist who was under-appreciated in his time was George Herriman, the creator of “Krazy Kat.“ Although intellectuals in the 1920s praised his work it was never popular with the general public and “Krazy Kat” only appeared in 35 newspapers when Herriman died in 1944. It has since become one of the most revered strips in comics history. There are many cartoonists represented in the book who were great talents in their time but are no longer household names. Among these I would include: “Tad” Dorgan, Cliff Sterrett, Billy DeBeck and Roy Crane.
GB: There so many wonderful creations and memorable ideas in comics history, and we all know many of them. What we don’t know are some of the terrible misfires, regrettable characters and misguided notions. Tell us some of the things you’ve come across that didn’t make it into this book of yours.
BW: There have been many cartoonists and artists from other disciplines who have tried and failed to create successful comic strips. Dr. Seuss did a short-lived newspaper feature during the 1930s. Comic book legends, Jack Kirby and Wally Wood, made attempts to break into syndication in the 1950s. Mad magazine artists, Jack Davis and Don Martin, and New Yorker cartoonists, George Booth and Gahan Wilson, also had brief comic strip careers.
GB: The great ongoing-story strips — especially the adventure ones — are fascinating to me, especially “Terry and the Pirates,” “Flash Gordon” and “Tarzan.” What was the competition like in the heyday of those sorts of strips? Were the rivalries ever bitter? Is there a year you would point to as the pinnacle of output?
BW: The golden age of adventure comics was the decade of the Great Depression and 1934 was when the most memorable features were launched. That year saw the debut of “Secret Agent X-9,” “Jungle Jim” and “Flash Gordon” by Alex Raymond, “Terry and the Pirates” by Milt Caniff, “Mandrake the Magician” by Lee Falk and “Li’l Abner” by Al Capp. It was a remarkably fertile period for comic creators and the competition was fierce, with syndicates releasing “copycat” features to duplicate their rivals’ successes.
GB: It’s difficult for younger readers today to understand the impact and reach of someone like Charles Schulz. Talk a bit about “Peanuts” — it really was a singular sort of success, wasn’t it?
BW: Schulz’s creation was a brilliant combination of simple graphics, sophisticated humor and commercial adaptability. In an age when television was pulling readers away from newspapers, a comic strip that delivered wit and wisdom in daily doses and appealed to adults as well as kids was just what editors needed. “Peanuts” not only answered the challenges of size reduction and competition from television, it was a major influence on the next generation of comics creators.
GB: Is there any mystery, large or small, that you are still looking to unravel in your studies of comics history and the creators behind the strips? Some personality, industry happening, turning point or piece of insight that eludes you?
BW: Although I have been around comics my entire life, I learn something new about the art form every day. There is still so much research to do and comics historians are constantly debunking myths and revising the record. I made many surprising discoveries while writing these books. I never knew that Bud Fisher’s court case against the Hearst organization over the ownership of “Mutt and Jeff” went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (Fisher won the appeal). Or that advertising in the Sunday funnies in the early 1930s had as significant an impact on the future formats of comics than the newsprint shortages of World War II.
GB: As a creator yourself, it must be interesting to track, if you even can, how your scholarship affected your own strips through the years. Is there a thought you have on that subtle dance?
BW: In the late 1980s, I wrote a book about Ernie Bushmiller’s “Nancy.” I had always looked down on this strip, convinced that its appeal was limited to children and senior citizens. But after researching Bushmiller’s career I developed an appreciation for the deceptively simple and occasional surreal qualities of his work. Ernie’s advice to other cartoonists was, “Dumb it down.” Although I don’t take this literally, I do strive for economy and clarity in my ideas for “Beetle Bailey” and “Hi and Lois.”
GB: My own favorites from comic strips in recent decades are “The Far Side” and “Calvin and Hobbes,” which share a sort of whimsy and nimble view of the absurd. Both of the cartoonists retired much younger than figures of comparable stature in previous generations. Another 1980s-90s figure, Berkeley Breathed also seemed to lack the desire or stamina to string together decades on a strip. Do you see a connecting thread there or are these just the quirks of individual careers?
BW: Larson, Watterson and Breathed all abandoned their successful creations during the same year — 1995 — so it’s hard to deny at least a casual connection. All spoke of burnout trying to meet the demands of producing daily features and refused to compromise the integrity of their work. The older generation of cartoonists thought of themselves as entertainers who were paid to sell newspapers. The generation that came of age in the 1980s described themselves more often as “artists” who were expressing a unique vision. This changing self-awareness might explain why these creators retired at the peaks of their careers.
GB: There’s a line in your book that declares that comic strips “continue to thrive.” Many cartoonists and comics lovers might wish that more than they actually believe it. How would you frame this moment in time and how do you feel about the future of this medium that you know so well?
BW: Reports on the death of newspaper comics are premature. I believe that there will always be newspapers, in some form, and that comics are the most unique features that these publications have to offer. But the future of comics is not limited by the fate of the publishing business. Cartoonists are meeting the challenges of digital technology in the same way that they adapted to radio and television in previous decades. The era of million-dollar syndication deals might be over, but lucrative careers are still possible for talented cartoonists. Jeff Kinney, who created the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” as a Web comic before becoming a bestselling book author, is only the most recent example of how cartoonists continue to come up with innovative ways to communicate to their audience. The last panel has yet to be drawn.
– Geoff Boucher
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