Today, Berkeley Breathed’s “Bloom County” is gone. So is the Green Sheet — it disappeared in 1995, when the Journal merged with the Milwaukee Sentinel. But that memory came back to me as I browsed Brian Walker’s “The Comics,” a beautiful guide to 100-plus years of funny pages. Walker’s doorstop of a tome — at 672 copiously illustrated pages, it conjoins his books “The Comics Before 1945” and “The Comics Since 1945” — is excellent at conjuring the feeling of feverish joy that comics can provide, the feeling that led me to archive my 10-year-old passion. It’s less excellent at exploring the reasons — hinted at by the death of the Green Sheet — that, so often, the comics no longer give that feeling.
Walker — son of Mort, creator of “Beetle Bailey” and “Hi and Lois” — is a tireless researcher and a thoughtful curator. The true treasures of “The Comics” are the more than 1,300 strips reproduced within. Early works of creators like Richard Outcault — whose 1896 “The Yellow Kid and His New Phonograph” is credited by Walker as the first-ever true comic strip — are vibrant portraits of urban life, even if their dated references and lingo can be difficult to penetrate today. Mid-century comics that you may consider square (if you consider them at all) shine on these pages: “Prince Valiant” is gorgeous; “Nancy” is jazzy and inventive.
And “The Comics” excels in highlighting wonderful examples of strips that will make you glad that someone, somewhere, was hoarding these comics like a kid on a kitchen floor: Ted Shearer’s poignant “Quincy,” set in the inner city from 1970-86; Jerry Dumas and Mort Walker’s Pirandellian meta-comic, “Sam’s Strip,” about a comics character who knows he’s a comics character, which lasted less than two years in the 1960s; “Male Call,” which “Steve Canyon” creator Milton Caniff drew unpaid for World War II soldiers — one representative strip offers four sultry, semi-clad girls, with the caption “You mean you want a gag, too?”
Comics fans will find plenty to quibble with. Where are the deadpan modern-day pirates of Chip Dunham’s “Overboard”? Why do Denys Wortman (one of the great chroniclers of Depression-era New York) and Dow Walling (whose 1933 “Skeets” strip is my favorite in the book) receive only passing mentions? What about the great alt-weekly comics artists, like Lynda Barry or Matt Groening?
Many readers will also be frustrated by Walker’s congenital niceness, which means that anodyne features get praised above and beyond their actual importance. (Is “Mother Goose & Grimm” really “wildly entertaining”?) As a writer, Walker reminds one of his dad, who had multiple mediocre strips running nationwide at once. He’s a hard worker, but not all that inspiring.
“The Comics” is resolutely optimistic, which means that it pays scant attention to the issues facing comics today: legacy strips, still taking up space in comics sections years after their creators’ deaths; the shrinking of comics pages and mass closures of newspapers nationwide; the talented new generation of comic-strip artists who avoid newsprint entirely. (Webcomics receive nary a mention.) Discussion of the future is reserved for a single page at the end of the book, on which Walker indulges in pure fantasy: “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. . . . The newspaper’s circulation might take off.”
Nevertheless, “The Comics” is worth the hefty weight (seven pounds!) and heftier cover price ($40!). To leaf through its pages is to be repeatedly surprised and delighted by the list of “Little Nemo in Slumberland” ripoffs (“Nibsy, the Newsboy, in Funny Fairyland”) rushed into print by competing syndicates; by the realization that someone (specifically, Rudolph Dirks) had to invent comics shorthand, like those beads of sweat that indicate fear; by the misbegotten ideas of bygone days: the strip set entirely on an unpopulated island, or “Marvin” creator Tom Armstrong’s satirical comic about a TV host that ended in the hero’s assassination, or Popeye urging a pregnant Olive Oyl to get an abortion. (An aborshkun?)
Most amazing of all? The 1922 salary of long-forgotten cartoonist Sidney Smith for his strip “The Gumps,” not at all outrageous for a comic strip at the time: $100,000 a year, with a brand new Rolls-Royce delivered triennially. “The Comics” is terrific at summoning the past, only mediocre in describing the present, and hopeless at discussing the future. But it’s still an essential text for anyone interested in the history of a most disposable art form.
Kois is the author of “Facing Future,” about Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.