As a kid, there were a few boyhood phases, standard at the time, that I never went through: I never got into baseball cards, I never liked G.I. Joe or playing soldiers, and I never felt comfortable with the world of comic books—at least, not the comic books my friends tore through, the Batmans, the Supermans, the Spidermans, the X-Men and the other straight-faced superhero books of the 80s and 90s. I’m not entirely sure why: I enjoyed cartoons of all kinds, I loved drawing, and I certainly had no problem with your typical comic book action-adventure plotline—two of my favorite cartoons growing up were He-Man and The Transformers. I just never felt comfortable in the world of comic book superheroes: I guess I told myself that the ever-more-complex DC and Marvel universes felt all-but-impenetrable, and more than a little intimidating, and possibly deeply corrupting. To put it more frankly: I wasn't even cool enough for comic books.
Where I did feel comfortable—very comfortable, in fact—was the funnies page, that reliable bastion of wholesome family entertainment, mild yuks, and occasionally blistering satire (if you knew where to look for it; for as long as I can remember, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has separated Doonesbury from the rest of the comics, kind of like a political prisoner). I’ve been picking up comic strip collections for as long as I’ve been reading, starting with Garfield (the first 20 or so volumes of which are still shelved in my old room) and Peanuts, as well as old collections of Dennis the Menace, Family Circus, and Marmaduke passed down from my sister and parents. As a pre-teen, I moved on to The Far Side, Fox Trot, Bloom County, Calvin & Hobbes, and Life in Hell, buying two or three volumes at a time, then devouring them as quickly as possible before flipping back to page one and starting over again.
And then, as a college kid, or maybe even before (though certainly not by much), I came to realize just how un-cool my tastes in comics were—that is, I realized that fans of “proper” comic books were, in fact, pretty un-cool to begin with. And I was less cool than they were.
And so, for a time, I turned my back on the funnies. But while I was away from the fold, trying to fake my way into the hip crowd, something funny happened to the funnies: they got cool. Illustrators, graphic artists, and finally publishers seemed to be rediscovering classic strips like George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, while alt-press weeklies were all running bold, unconventional strips like Tony Millionaire's Makkies, Max Cannon's Red Meat, Keith Knight's The K Chronicles, and Tom Tomorrow's This Modern World. Not only have old comics found new life in thoughtfully designed, comprehensive, multi-volume collections, but some impressive new comic strip talent has set up shop online, forming what may be the most exciting community of cutting-edge comic strips since Herriman and Winsor McCay were on the scene. (For examples, see Anthony Clark's Nedroid and Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton, whose first collection has made it onto several year-end best-of lists, including PW’s). Even Garfield had claimed a measure of cool, thanks largely to the retro-fitted existential antics of Garfield Minus Garfield. Naturally, I’m having an increasingly difficult time trying not spend all my money on these fresh new volumes, especially the handsome new collections of classics like Popeye, Peanuts, Krazy Kat, and Little Nemo in Slumberland.
This week, Fantagraphics tests my will anew with the first volume of Walt Kelly’s Pogo. To commemorate the release (and further weaken my resolve), the PW Tip Sheet is excited to feature art from the collection, called Through the Wild Blue Yonder. You'd be smart to remember it for the nerd's nerd on your list this year, and probably for the next ten-plus years: Fantagraphics plans to release another eleven volumes. I guess I better clear out some space next to the Garfields.