Wednesday, February 25, 2015
The Comics: The Complete Collection is actually an omnibus, which is where that amusing subtitle comes in. Brian Walker -- son of Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois creator Mort Walker and toiler in the strip-comic mines himself, working the old man's claim since the mid-80s -- assembled two books about the American newspaper comic strip in the early aughts, under the titles The Comics: Before 1945 and The Comics: Since 1945. And the massive slab I have in front of me right now -- seriously, my right arm is resting on it as I try to type; the thing is immense -- shoves those two books between two covers for a single century-long look at one of the great American artforms.
Each book has a general introduction -- the one in Since 1945 recapitulates a lot of what we've just read in the first book; there clearly was no additional editing or changes in turning this into one volume -- and then is divided into a few long chapters by decade. Each decade gets its own introduction, running through the new strips that started at that time and some more general details, and then Walker gives notable strips of that time some space. Major creators like Milton Caniff or Walt Kelly or Charles Schulz get several spreads -- and, actually, these multi-spread sections grow more common in the second half, as there are fewer new strips to choose from. (The untold story here is how zombie strips -- like the ones Walker himself works on -- choked the comics page like kudzu and stopped all but the smallest changes from taking place over the past three decades.) The thirties gets the single longest chapter in the book, which is plausible, though the forties gets even more space, split across the two section.
The original books were a little too early to discuss the migration of strip comics to the web -- or the destruction of the traditional newspaper business by the Internet; take your pick on how to characterize that -- so there's none of that here. The Comics discusses the artform that Hearst and Pulitzer facilitated starting in 1895 and covers it for the next just over a century, but takes no position on what would happen in the future. It's inevitably somewhat nostalgic, though a lot of the best and most interesting comics are in the first half, and are now out of the living memory of nearly everyone. Even the dullest reader will see how the variety of styles and endless flow of words of the pre-war years has been successively cramped into a mostly big-black-line school of art and a tightly limited number of words a day to form a single gag. Sure, the modern form has a lot of great stuff in it, but the older, larger comics sizes could accommodate any of the modern strips and a whole lot more.
But it's not as if newspapers are a growing or thriving business; even if they survive, and their comics along with them, it's unlikely we'll see giant strips across the width of huge broadsheet pages again. And with the web, maybe we don't need to -- though the screens we look at online comics have been shrinking in the past few years as well, so the same problem is happening again in a different format and vastly more quickly.
The Comics is a lovely coffee table book with bits of dozens of great stories and a few hundred good gags. It showcases a great American artform, and gives space to a few dozen incredibly varied artists, writers, and craftsmen, to provide many hours of enjoyment. But be careful lifting the thing, or else you could easily sprain something.