When comic books emerged as a commercial medium in the ’30s, the early writers and artists had a hard time winning the kind of respect afforded to the top newspaper cartoonists, many of whom were practically celebrities. As more of those early-20th-century daily strips have been collected and re-published, it’s easy to see why there was such a disparity in the public response to artists plying similar trades. The diversity and quality of classic newspaper comics is pretty stunning: the savvy humor, the flavorful language, the well-paced narratives, the lively rendering, the experimentation… none of this needs to be excused with any kind of “considering the times in which it was made” modifier. The likes of Gasoline Alley, Little Orphan Annie, Mutt And Jeff, Little Nemo, Thimble Theatre, and Polly And Her Pals are all masterful, vital works of art, not just archaic Americana.
The Craig Yoe-curated book Krazy Kat & The Art Of George Herriman (Abrams ComicArts) marks the latest attempt to explicate and celebrate the work of the cartoonist who stands as an unparalleled genius in a field that didn’t lack for brilliance. As good as Herriman’s peers were, Krazy Kat still stands alone. A little miracle of the comics page, it turned the slapstick love-hate relationship between a cat, mouse, and dog into a surreal, poetic rumination on romantic obsession and the possibilities of art. Yoe makes the case for Krazy Kat via reprints of influential essays by e.e. cummings and Gilbert Seldes, along with new essays by the likes of Bill Watterson, Craig McCracken, Richard Thompson, and Douglas Wolk. The book is light on samples of actual Krazy Kat comics—only about a quarter of the book’s 175 pages feature full strips—but heavy on analysis and ephemera.
It’s the ephemera that make this collection invaluable. Krazy Kat has been praised and picked over so often that the preponderance of prose in Yoe’s book isn’t as essential as it might’ve been 65 years ago, when cummings was picking up the torch from Seldes and advocating for Herriman as one of the great American artists. (Though it is handy to have those two essays gathered in one place, and the others as well.) But in many ways, Herriman still remains a mystery, given that Krazy Kat was never the kind of phenomenon that would’ve thrust its creator into the public eye, and given that Herriman preferred not to say much about his background or his ethnicity. (His parents were registered in New Orleans as “mulatto,” but Herriman identified himself as “Caucasian.”) Krazy Kat & The Art Of George Herriman assembles some personal correspondence, as well as paintings he did for friends and original strips he inscribed, all creating a better sense of Herriman as a man in the world, with colleagues and patrons.
The book also presents examples of rare Krazy Kat merchandise and marketing materials, both for the strip and for the occasional attempts to make animated versions. Those kinds of artifacts are fairly common with strips like Little Orphan Annie, but Krazy Kat was primarily a cult favorite, so seeing toys and playing cards with Krazy and Ignatz is like entering an alternate universe where one of the weirdest and most beautiful comic strips ever created was also one of the most popular. It feels… right.
While Herriman was an artist’s artist who didn’t get his full due until after his death, Bill Mauldin was a superstar who suffered from the changing winds of politics and public taste. Three years ago, Fantagraphics released the two-volume hardcover Willie & Joe: The WWII Years, collecting the cartoons Mauldin drew for his Army division newspaper and for Stars & Stripes, showing the harshness and dark humor of life on the front. Mauldin’s work during the war made him a hero to his fellow soldiers for telling it like it was, even if that meant calling out officers for living soft while their men starved in the mud. When the cartoonist returned home after the war, he collected a Pulitzer Prize, wrote a bestselling book, fielded movie offers, and signed a contract to keep producing a one-panel newspaper comic for the United Feature Syndicate. But while Mauldin’s anti-authoritarian bent was acceptable in wartime as a way to help soldiers feel less isolated in their frustration, civilians weren’t as interested in reading about the injustices and petty cruelties affecting veterans readjusting to life away from the front.
Mauldin would eventually revive his career in the ’50s, after stepping away from the business for a decade. But the cartoons in Willie & Joe: Back Home (Fantagraphics) capture Mauldin at a low ebb personally, and ferociously inspired professionally. Over the objections of his editors, Mauldin drew cartoons about his two soldier characters dealing with estranged wives, limited employment opportunities, heartless fat cats, and an America more petty, materialistic, and xenophobic than the one they’d left behind. Mauldin eventually stopped hiding his opinions behind the familiar faces of Willie and Joe and started drawing direct attacks on the KKK, red-baiters, and the politicians who put business interests ahead of their struggling constituents. In one 1946 cartoon, Mauldin drew a man with a hood and a rifle, with a caption reading, “The man who convinced his draft board he couldn’t carry a gun.” A month later he drew a well-to-do man reading a paper with the headline “Bread Ration Cut” while his wife says, “I meant what’s the fashion news from Paris?”
The material in Back Home is bitter but witty, and remarkable for its courage. Given the platform of a major syndicate, Mauldin used his moral authority—as a firsthand observer of atrocity, venality, and want—to try and make his complacent countrymen feel a little shame. Where his wartime cartoons had said, “I am one of you” to grunts in the trenches, his post-war work said, “What the hell happened to you?” to the people who stayed home. At the time, the public rejected Mauldin’s lectures. Today they’re a blistering reminder that life after WWII wasn’t all suburban bliss and baby boom.
Alex Toth was one of those artists who toiled away in the disreputable field of comic books in the medium’s early years, while dreaming of becoming a newspaper cartoonist. But while Toth’s talent didn’t exactly bring America’s tastemakers around to the power of the pulps, it’s fairly obvious now to anyone who appreciates comics that Toth was no hack. The Greg Sadowski-edited collection Setting The Standard: Comics By Alex Toth 1952-1954 (Fantagraphics) assembles more than 400 pages of romance, horror, war, sci-fi, and crime comics that Toth drew for Standard Comics during a spectacular two-year run in the early ’50s. By the time Toth landed at Standard, he’d been through the wringer of DC’s superhero factory, and he relished the chance to pursue his growing interest in aesthetic simplicity.
The stories in Toth’s Standard work aren’t always top-shelf; the company’s writers largely stuck to the prevailing formulas for the non-superhero comics, loading up on desperate melodrama and twist endings. But Toth brought clarity and drama to the page—the equivalent of a top Hollywood director elevating rote material through elegant framing and camera moves. In Toth’s case, he kept the backgrounds simple (or blank), directing the eye to the characters in the panel. Then he drew those characters at slightly askew angles—never forced enough to be distracting—and gave them subtly exaggerated facial expressions. Nearly every drawing in this book is purposeful and exciting, and they flow together to tell stories so clearly that the words are often superfluous. Setting The Standard is a treasure trove, and a reminder that it’s too bad Toth never had any literary legends writing prose poems on his behalf.
There’ll never be another Alex Toth, though Jacques Tardi is certainly in Toth’s league when it comes to rendering seamy genre fare with real artistry. Like A Sniper Lining Up His Shot (Fantagraphics) is Tardi’s second effort at adapting French crime novelist Jean-Patrick Manchette (following West Coast Blues), and it’s a wonderfully wicked piece of work, tracking a hitman as he tries to sever all ties with his past and retire with his childhood sweetheart. The story’s a familiar one—see Donald Westlake’s “Parker” novels, or multiple films by Jean-Pierre Melville—but Manchette’s approach is especially violent and gory, with a tough twist ending. And Tardi picks up on the sadness underlying the brutality, sketching a black-and-white world where the choice to go to the dark side is irrevocable, no matter how hard characters work to wrest control of their fates…
There’ll never be another George Herriman or Windsor McCay either, but Belgian artist Olivier Schrauwen does a fine job of approximating the high weirdness of early-20th-century newspaper comics in The Man Who Grew His Beard (Fantagraphics), a collection of seven deeply strange short stories. Eschewing conventional narrative, the comics in The Man Who Grew His Beard typically involve a self-described “handsome man with a broad forehead and a beautiful beard” as he wanders outside of his comfort zone and into a world that grows less controlled with every page. Schrauwen mixes ink and paint in ways that blur the distinctions between comics and fine art, and he brings back certain themes—instruction and erotica, primarily—that suggest how men try and fail to place parameters on the primal. But The Man Who Grew His Beard isn’t meant to be “understood” so much as it is to be entered and experienced, in all its wildness. …
Kevin Huizenga’s Ganges #4 (Fantagraphics) continues the artist’s increasingly masterful hybrid of direct storytelling and experimental abstraction. In the new issue, hero Glenn Ganges fights insomnia by roaming around the house, reading a dull book, chasing a cat, searching his memory, and weighing his options—both for the moment and in his life. The story suits Huizenga’s style, since he can document both the familiar minutiae of daily life and the sense of unreality that takes hold whenever someone is up half the night. Huizenga works in visual motifs of endlessly branching possibilities and spiraling shapes, showing how becoming “lost in thought” can be terrifying. In short: This is another terrific installment of a series that’s fast becoming a classic. …
For those who prefer to get their bizarre early-20th-century cartooning straight from the source, editor/historian Rick Marschall has two remarkable books to peruse: Mr. Twee Deedle, Raggedy Ann’s Sprightly Cousin: The Forgotten Fantasy Masterpieces Of Johnny Gruelle (Fantagraphics) and Drawing Power: A Compendium Of Cartoon Advertising (Fantagraphics). The former collects the strip that illustrator Gruelle created to fill the void left by Little Nemo when Winsor McCay departed The New York Herald. Though not as imaginative as McCay, Gruelle’s Mr. Twee Deedle was every bit as colorful and lavishly rendered, telling gentle fairy stories that explore a rich fantasy world existing in tandem with our own, like children having elaborate playtimes mere feet away from their parents’ more prosaic lives. As for Drawing Power, it brings together an eclectic set of examples of comics being used to sell products. The pages are fun to look at—from Mickey Mouse pitching Post Toasties to Dr. Seuss illustrating ads for Esso Marine Products—but the topic is a little too large for a 120-page book, especially one so loosely organized. Then again, maybe that’s the point: to create a reading experience as chaotic and laced with odd beauty as cartooning itself.