Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A LOOK BACK: Books about Comics (Part 2)

In a past blog, I reminisced about several books from my youth that fed my interest in cartooning and comics history. I mentioned this would be an ongoing feature at my blog, and I'm pleased to continue with a new installment.

Great Comics Syndicated by the Daily News-Chicago Tribune
by Herb Galewitz (1972)
I received this book as a Christmas gift in 1975, requesting it after spotting it in a bookstore.

This oversized book is light on the text and heavy on the reprint material, featuring as the title suggests the great comics syndicated by the New York Daily News-Chicago Tribune newspapers. Since I was living in New York City at the time—with the Daily News my parents' Sunday newspaper of choice—the book had resonance for me and gave me special appreciation for the strips I followed in the Daily News' Sunday comics section.

The editors who guided and built these storied newspapers in the early 20th century—cousins Robert B. McCormick and Joseph Patterson—were legendary for their ability to spot and develop strips in a very hands-on manner that had "legs" and connected with readers. Just a sampling of these strips include The Gumps, Little Orphan Annie, Blondie, Dick Tracy, Winnie Winkle, Moon Mullins, Gasoline Alley, L'il Abner, Terry and the Pirates, and Flyin' Jack—all classic "hall of fame" strips in anybody's book.

In retrospect, I've come to realize that this book was in actuality very imperfect and wouldn't pass muster with today's comic-book purists and historians. While a few complete story sequences are included, in an effort to provide a representative sample of the longer-running strips, often only a week's worth of strips are reprinted, usually in the middle of a story or adventure, which was torture for someone like me interested in reading a full adventure and seeing how a story turned out.

A particularly egregious choice was the decision to distort many of the reprinted strips to make them fit the oversize dimensions of the book. As a result, likely unbeknownst to the unsuspecting reader, some of the strips are unconscionably altered and "squashed." See the sample below, for example, compared to a reproduction of the same strip reprinted from NBM's definitive '80s compilation of the series' entire run—most of the Terry dailies in the volume (like many other strips) are reprinted in this fashion and, being the Milton Caniff acolyte I was, I conscientiously aped the squat style of the figures, realizing later that this was not the quirky, conscious style of the artist but rather a bad reproduction choice by the book's author!
Nevertheless, being in my early adolescence at the time—and given that such classic reprints were hard to come by in those days—I was none the wiser and this book was a treasured possession that I pored over constantly studying and reading. So it remains a book for which I have fond memories, warts and all.

The Great Comic Book Heroes by Jules Feiffer (1965)
Feiffer's Great Comic Book Heroes is considered a classic, credited with helping to renew in the 1960s interest in the classic comics of the Depression era from Feiffer's youth, that were the foundation of the modern comic-book industry. It remains an important book to many people of my generation as well, introducing me and my peers to the classic origin tales of familiar heroes like Superman, Batman, the Human Torch, etc., at a time when these classic strips were not easily available.

The first part of the book is a multi-chapter personal essay by Feiffer (reportedly expanding a piece he wrote for Playboy)—it's not so much a history of the early days of the medium as much as a personal remembrance of the raw power of these comics and the effect they had on him as a boy. He writes a bit about the artists and the characters; talks about how they inspired him to create his own home-made comics as a child (he even reproduces the cover of one of his childhood self-made comics, which fascinated me since I myself was doing the same thing as well, as shown in this post); and vividly portrays life in the trenches working as a journeyman artist in one of the comic-book "sweatshops" that sprouted up all over New York City in the early days of the industry.

The majority of the book, however—approximately two thirds of it—is devoted to reprinted full-color comics from the era, including the origin tales of many of the characters. (While Fantagraphics issued a new edition of the book in 2003, the reissue does NOT include the reprint art, presumably for copyright and licensing reasons.)

This book is also noteworthy because it re-introduced Will Eisner's Spirit to a new generation of readers, myself included. Feiffer devotes a whole chapter to the Spirit, and includes a Spirit story in the book. This is understandable since Feiffer entered the field as an assistant to Eisner. Nevertheless, given the prominence Feiffer gives to a relatively unknown and obscure character that had not been in published for nearly a generation, the series was a tantalizing revelation to younger readers. In addition, because Feiffer preferred the early pre-war version of the Spirit (tellingly, the version from his childhood before he worked on the strip), an early story from the series is presented in the book, though most historians agree that the series' post-war period was the apex of the series. As a result, it wasn't until the mid-'70s when the Spirit began being reprinted by Warren Publications that I realized the Spirit that I had faithfully co-opted for my own adolescent self-made comics was actually "off design" and not the commonly-accepted version of the character.

(Years later, I attended a slideshow presentation given by Feiffer as part of a series on the comics presented by the Los Angeles Public Library. This was around the time the cartoonist also was promoting the release of a new book, the Man in the Ceiling (1995). I had brought along a copy of the book for him to autograph, and when it was my turn to get his signature, I reminded him of an anecdote in his book that when he first began working for Eisner, one of his first jobs was to sign Eisner's name to the finished Spirit strips because he said he was better at it than Eisner was. So I asked him if he could inscribe an Eisner signature to the book. He laughed and signed the book, "Jules Feiffer AKA Will Eisner.")

A History of the Comic Strip by Pierre Couperie and Maurice C. Horn (1967)
This book was in the collection of my high school library in New York (as well as my college campus library in Los Angeles), and another one I was quite taken with for a time. (I don't own this volume personally.)

Originally published in France where popular art and "genre" literature are not quite as much frowned upon upon as they are in the U.S., and where classic comic strips can be admired as high art, this book offers a subtle but different approach to looking at comics.

Until relatively recently, in the U.S., most books about comics usually study the medium in a cultural or pop culture context.

In contrast, A History of the Comic Strip generally starts from the supposition of comics as "art." Reminiscent of Lichtenstein's comics-inspired fine art work from the period, panels from strips are often "blown up" in the book pop-art style, often giving readers a whole new way to look at the works.

My memory of the book has dimmed a bit over the years, but I have great memories of this book presenting the work of people like Milton Caniff and Burne Hogarth in an exciting, fresh new way that was fun while also taking the value of the work seriously.

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