Reviewed by Dougas Wolk
Sunday, January 13, 2008
Aficionados of classic comic strips used to have a tough time of it: If you wanted to read Milton Caniff's "Terry and the Pirates" or Chester Gould's "Dick Tracy," you had to track down ancient, hopelessly rare newspapers or rely on fragmentary and butchered repackagings. The last few years, though, have seen a cluster of smartly designed, comprehensive reprints of vintage comics, going all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century -- and, in one notable case, earlier.RODOLPHE TOPFFER: THE COMPLETE COMIC STRIPS Compiled, translated and annotated by David Kunzle | Univ. Press of Mississippi. 650 pp. $55; Paperback, $25
Rodolphe Topffer is sometimes credited as the inventor of comics, although he took after the example of William Hogarth, and the sequential-art tradition goes all the way back to cave walls. The Complete Comic Strips is the first full English-language edition of Topffer's eight " histoires en estampes" ("engraved novels"), originally published between 1835 and 1845. (Editor and translator David Kunzle has also recently published a biography of Topffer.) The Swiss artist drew in a fluid scribble, along the lines of Edward Sorel's New Yorker cartoons, with a sly, whimsical caption beneath each image. His stories amble from one incident to the next, daffily satirizing the social trends of his day. In one sequence, education-obsessed Monsieur Crepin fights off a phrenologist's attempts to skull-grope his way into Madame Crepin's heart; in another, the romantic caricature M. Vieux Bois pursues his "Beloved Object" across land and water, unsuccessfully attempting suicide every time he's spurned. Topffer's sense of pacing is surprisingly modern (he uses "meanwhile . . . " far more often than prose writers of his time), and even though his stories are built around text, he'd already figured out how to let his images augment his jokes instead of merely illustrating them.THE COMPLETE DREAM OF THE RAREBIT FIEND By Winsor McCay | Edited and published by Ulrich Merkl www.rarebit-fiend-book.com. 464 pp. $114
Winsor McCay's comic strips were totally driven by his drawing hand; he cranked out a flabbergasting number of strips and cartoons in the early 20th century, most famously "Little Nemo in Slumberland." Editor-publisher Ulrich Merkl has assembled an enormous slab of a book in tribute to McCay's darker, more adult dream-comic, "Dream of the Rarebit Fiend," which ran from 1904 to 1913. The book includes about half of the extant strips, as well as a DVD with all of them.
The setup of "Rarebit Fiend" is simple: In every strip, a different character has a nightmare -- animals crawl all over a man's face, or a baby accidentally knocks over an entire city -- and wakes up in the final panel complaining of having eaten Welsh rarebit. Merkl's introduction and annotations meticulously trace recurring themes, gags and images picked up by later artists. A 1908 episode in which a fat man evaporates, rises into the air as a cloud and then rains back down into himself was reprised in 1995 as a "Calvin and Hobbes" strip, for instance.
McCay seems to have all but invented Surrealism on his own; you could call a lot of these strips Freudian, too, except that Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams wasn't published in English until 1913. Merkl argues that "Rarebit Fiend" reflects the concerns of its time, but it's still ferociously funny and disturbing now: Anxiety fantasies haven't changed much in the last century.WALT AND SKEEZIX 1925 and 1926 By Frank O. King | Drawn & Quarterly. 400 pp. $29.95
The loveliest rediscovery of the vintage-comic-strip renaissance is Frank King's "Gasoline Alley," in which characters aged in real time, growing and changing. The third volume of Walt and Skeezix, collecting King's daily strips from 1925 and '26, marks a gradual but enormous transformation in the series: Chubby, cheerful bachelor Walt Wallet falls in love, heads toward marriage and slowly learns how to let go of the single life that he's outgrown. The "Skeezix" of the title was an infant left on Walt's doorstep in 1921; he's 4 and 5 years old here, and the barriers between his imagination and his real environment are still permeable. Designer Chris Ware also contributes a fascinating overview of the merchandise based on the strip.
To see King at his best, though, turn to the mammoth volume Sundays with Walt and Skeezix (Sunday Press, $95), a selection of strips spanning 1921-34, printed at their original newspaper-tabloid size. With a full page at his disposal, King let his rubbery characters frolic across nature scenes decorated in fall colors or tumble through dreams far gentler than McCay's. The best "Gasoline Alley" strips provoke smiles of recognition more than laughter -- they're small, happy moments preserved from the changes time brings about.THE COMPLETE PEANUTS 1965 to 1966 By Charles M. Schulz | Fantagraphics. 323 pp. $28.95
The scope of Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" was much narrower -- his cast, aside from Snoopy, was almost entirely children who barely aged over the course of the strip's half-century -- and his attitude toward the passage of time was much darker. Schulz's kids are still working out their place in the world, but their childhood is a rehearsal for an adulthood of pain and regret. In this eighth volume of The Complete Peanuts, lovingly designed by the Canadian cartoonist Seth and collecting strips from 1965 and '66, Linus finds a message from his mother in his lunch: "Study hard today . . . make us proud of you . . . the future is in the hands of your generation . . . I suppose in many ways our generation has failed yours, but we did try . . . please judge us with mercy." "Mom gets carried away," he notes.
By the mid-'60s, Schulz had hit his prime -- even if you don't read his jokes, the facial expressions and body language of his characters are hilarious -- and the 1965 TV special "A Charlie Brown Christmas" brought him even greater fame (Linus's famous reading from Luke is reprised in a 1966 Sunday strip). Most of his characters took a while to develop, but Peppermint Patty, introduced here, is fully formed by her first appearance, her unkempt hair represented by a dozen less-casual-than-they-look pen strokes. Two strips later, when she calls Charlie Brown "Chuck," she's found her role: a note-perfect caricature of the kind of person whose jovial confidence in her own worldview can't be dented by little things like reality.LITTLE DEE Volume 2 By Christopher Baldwin | Good Port. 137 pp. Paperback, $12
The next wave of first-rate comic strips may be less likely to come from newspaper funny pages -- where they're thumbnail-sized and crowded by the persistence of ancient franchises -- than from the Internet. One of the most charming online series is Chris Baldwin's "Little Dee," about a pre-verbal little girl adopted by a bear, a dog and a vulture, who alternately act like smart, cynical twentysomethings and actual critters (Vachel the vulture can't quite give up his scavenger instincts). Little Dee (volume 2) gets a lot of comedic fuel out of sending the cast beyond their usual setting (a cave with an abandoned car nearby) to Chile and Jamaica, although its funniest sequence may be a secular parody of Linus's Christmas scene. When Vachel complains that the cave's flashy solstice decorations have disappeared, Blake the dog steps into a spotlight and recites: "And lo, the good spirit of friendship came upon them and they had good conversation, ate popcorn balls, and sang songs 'til the sun rose again. That's what solstice is about, Vachel." *
Douglas Wolk is the author of "Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean."