If, by chance, you’re planning on dressing up as Moses for a costume party, you might want to pick up two hefty new tomes which have similar titles and could easily double as stone tablets: Jerry Robinson’s The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art 1895-2010 (Dark Horse Books) and Brian Walker’s The Comics: The Complete Collection (Abrams). Heavier than the bricks that Ignatz hurled at Krazy Kat and only slightly less deadly in potential squashing power than the anvils that the Coyote tried to drop on the Road Runner, these books are big not only in size but also in scope. Both tell the century-spanning story of American newspaper comics from the early days of The Yellow Kid and Little Nemo to more recent funnies such as Mutts and Zits.
The books earn their bulk by their subject matter: the early comic strip Sunday pages were famously expansive with artists like Winsor McCay and Richard Outcault filling up entire newspaper pages with spectacular panoramic drawings. So the first and most obvious way to enjoy these books is as visual treasure-houses. Anyone who loves comics will find many old favorites including McManus’s incongruous combination of art deco elegance with vaudeville grotesquery in Bringing Up Father, George Herriman’s still magically giddy Krazy Kat, Milton Caniff’s influential mixture of sexy women and noir storytelling in Terry and the Pirates, and the fondly remembered outbursts of fantasy in Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. The art for these old strips comes from a variety of sources: often original art is used, supplemented by tear sheets, which have their own yellowing charm. A few pages in the Walker book suffer from being digitally recolored in a blunt and glaring fashion; a pity because the tear sheets for these strips are a testimony to the subtle shades achieved by newspaper engravers a century ago.
If I’ve been referring to the two books together as one, it is because at first glace they are about as hard to tell apart as identical twins. Both are written by smart insiders: Jerry Robinson is a legendary figure in the comics world. Aside from having a hand in creating the Batman villain the Joker, Robinson has had a storied career doing comic books, comic strips, and editorial cartooning while also being a tireless activist for creator rights and free speech. Along with Neal Adams, Robinson was a key figure in the fight to give Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster credit and financial compensation late in their lives for the creation of Superman.
Walker was born into the comic strip trade by virtue of being the son of Mort Walker, the creator of Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois, two famous strips that the younger man now helps his dad on. Brian Walker also helped create the Museum of Cartoon Art and has written and edited some very insightful books on strips like Doonesbury and Nancy.
The two books are revised and expanded versions of earlier tomes. Robinson’s The Comics first came out in 1974 but now is much larger, with many more color images and a storyline that goes to the present. Walker’s book fuses together his earlier texts The Comics: Before 1945 (2004) and The Comics: Since 1945 (2002), incorporating corrections and new information from the various editions of these books.
Both books take an encyclopedic historical approach which emphasizes the breadth of the medium rather than focusing in detail on particular creators. Key cartoonists like McCay and Charles Schulz are given capsule biographies of a few hundred words and a few pages of art but the books try to nod towards many of the more obscure strips such as Abie the Agent and Winnie Winkle. This encyclopedic approach can leave readers a bit short of breath as paragraphs quickly speed past topics like kid's strips, animal strips, and aviation strips, with names piling on but little sense of what distinguishes one comic from another.
The advantage of the encyclopedic approach is that it gives us a sense of the sheer range and diversity of newspaper comics. As such, these books are a useful supplement to the more specialized reprint projects that now flood the market. Few of us have the time and money to read the complete run of all the strips that are now available, ranging from Peanuts to X-9: Secret Agent Corrigan. So the Robinson and Walker books serve as necessary samplers that let us get a taste of the endless profusion of strips that have been done for over a century.
Both books are worth owning, but if you only had money or room for one, I’d recommend the Walker book, largely because the writing is more scholarly and up-to-date. Robinson writes with a crisp authority, but Walker shows much more evidence of having kept up with the writings of scholars in specialized journals like Nemo and Inks. Unlike a lot of pop culture historians, Walker hasn’t been content to rehash older books and press clippings. As his notes make clear, Walker has also done a lot of spadework in the musty files of magazines like Editor and Publisher, so his book is a genuine contribution to knowledge, being especially strong in showing how the business practices of the newspaper syndicates influenced the art form.
One example will suffice to show the difference between the two books. Robinson repeats the hoary legend that the phrase “Yellow Journalism” comes from the Yellow Kid. Walker takes note of this story but also points out how disputed it has been by historians. As a detailed and informed one-volume history of the newspaper comics, Walker’s The Comics is the best book we have.
In the second half of his book, Walker makes an intriguing revisionist argument. Earlier historians have tended to portray the first half of the 20th century as the golden age of the newspaper comic strip, with the period after the war as a falling off point. Walker contests this view of history and argues that newspaper comics maintained their quality in recent decades. Walker’s contention is only partially persuasive. There is no gainsaying the artistic achievement of strips like Peanuts and Mutts. But these high quality strips are fewer in number compared to the plethora of great work that was done before 1945.
Now that these books exist in handsome editions, it might be worth asking whether we need anymore encyclopedic histories of newspaper comics (or comics in general for that matter). In recent years, the most exciting work in comics scholarship has come from specialized studies that bore deeply into a subject, notably David Hajdu’sThe Ten-Cent Plague and David Michaelis’ controversial biography of Charles Schulz. Robinson and Walker have been ahead of the curve on this trend. We’ve all been enriched by Robinson’s 1978 pioneering biography of Percy Crosby and Walker’s specialized studies of cartoonists like Ernie Bushmiller and Gary Trudeau. The future is likely to bring more studies that go into depth on particular cartoonists and strips rather than skimming over the surface of history. So these two books both called The Comics might be seen not just as tablets and treasury-houses but also as tombstones for an approach to history that is no longer needed.
[A Canadian cultural journalist, Jeet Heer has written for many publications With Kent Worcester, he is co-editor of Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium and A Cultural Studies Reader, which won the Peter C. Rollins Book Award given annually to the best book in American Studies or Cultural Studies. With Chris Ware and Chris Oliveros, Heer is editing a series of volumes reprinting Frank King's Gasoline Alley, four volumes of which published under the umbrella title Walt and Skeezix.]