Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Appreciating the funnies

One major ‘project’ of the last few weeks has been the reading of certain comics and comic strips. I’ve been looking at a lot of classic work by some of the best the medium has produced and trying to figure out why I like them and why they work. It’s a wonderful ‘job’ reading the work of Robert Crumb (scary that he was an early influence on Simian, but I love Crumb’s Fritz the Cat and his artwork of that (and any) period), Charles Schulz, Winsor McCay, Harold Gray, E.C Segar, George Herriman, Lyonel Feininger, Otto Messmer, Walt Kelly, Patrick McDonnell, Bill Watterson, Frank King, Crockett Johnson, Lewis Trondheim, Carl Barks, Cliff Sterrett, Chester Gould, Dr Suess and many many more. I’ve been particularly enjoying old comic strips, it’s intimidating looking at such astonishing work but also incredibly enlightening and inspiring. The comics that graced the newspapers of the the early 20th century are staggering in their beauty, originality, wit and invention, that they have been reduced to the tiny crudely drawn little things that are tucked discretely out of the way is a terrible crime. Once upon a time the comic strips were a real draw (no pun intended) for newspapers and the publishers and editors knew it using them to increase circulation. Huge full colour pages containing the elegant mastery of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland no longer exist but they used to be the reason people would choose one newspaper over another (although Nemo lasted a long time it’s popularity came more after the fact, back then slapstick comic strips were the most popular). Now the small space allowed creators has meant they have often become visually bland or have had to fight tooth and nail to allow their work to be showcased in a deserving manner (Bill Watterson is the best example, but Patrick McDonnell is another good one and thankfully McDonnell hasn’t deserted the medium) Even with the reduced space there are still some great strips coming out, but not that many. Once a medium has been so severely restrained and restricted a lot of the greater talent has to go elsewhere, so apart from creators so in love with the medium that they just have to work in it and try their hardest to produce something worthy, what the medium tends to get is hacks (Jim Davis) who churn out dross (Garfield)
If this sounds like the whining of someone unable to realise that something’s day has done then consider the amount of people who still appreciate Peanuts (I am still amazed (but grateful) that a comic strip based on loneliness, losers, depression, pain, whistfullness and failure can be as popular as Peanuts was) three years after the strip ended and it’s creator died. Doonesbury is an institution. Dilbert whilst being nobody's idea of a beautiful looking comic strip is nonetheless smartly written and incredibly popular. Mutt’s has a huge and strong following thanks to McDonnell's understanding of comic history love fine art, poetry and whimsy. Calvin and Hobbes has been over for something like 10 years and is still remembered fondly and appearing regularly in reprints with the books collections still selling, the same can be said of the Far Side.
Chester Gould noted that newspapers struggled to compete against the rise of TV journalism yet the only thing newspapers could do that TV news couldn’t was the comic strip. Comics strips could offer readers something extra, something different and special, instead shortsighted editors gave the comic space over to advertising and forgot that people had grown to see Charlie Brown et al as part of their family. It’s doubtful that the comic strip will ever recover it’s former glory, most people are unaware of the rich history and have no idea what comics strips can be, but thankfully there are people out there who remember and reprint and the internet is perfect for allowing material to be cheaply archived waiting for someone to stumble across it and be transported somewhere magical.


paul said...

this is interesting stuff, i know little about it but it got me thinking about spiegleman's in the shadow of no towers which was a direct homage to the glory days of the newspapers, right down to the broadsheet format.

i'm a big steve bell fan, but i'm not sure if he counts as an institution yet, although he generally gets a big chunk of space on the guardian comment pages.

paulhd said...

I'd say Steve Bell is an institution.
I believe In The Shadow of No Towers not only features Speigleman doing artwork in the style of classic sunday comics but actually has examples of those very comics.