The Golden Age of Comic Strips?

Update – 7/06/2015

comicstripssSo in the nine years since the first installment of this post, the vintage comic strips reprints has absolutely exploded. I would never have imagined in 2006 that what I was calling “The Golden Age of Comic Strip” would REALLY be a gold age. Seriously, I don’t know how this will ever be surpassed, except that someday everything will be available digitally. But for the quality of the reprints that are being made now and the sheer quantity of titles, I don’t see how it could get better. Pretty much all of my personal grails have been addressed, and a lot of secondary ones are on the way. I mean, we’re on volume 25 of Peanuts! Volume 19 of Dick Tracy! Volume 14 of Mary Perkins, which wraps up over 20 years of continuity, just as that strip’s creator, the very talented Leonard Starr, died last week. It’s good that he was able to see such love for his work at that stage of his life. I’m happy I got to meet him briefly during a San Diego Comic Con a few years ago (as he was chatting with Ray Bradbury!) It would be even better if someone would reprint his run that revived Annie in the wake of the hit stage show. In any case, it’s not unusual now for comic strips to be back in the headlines. There is a Peanuts movie hitting the theaters soon (the first since Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown in 1980), the New Yorker is running articles about Gasoline Alley, you can go on a cruise with the top cartoonists of today, and there is a recent documentary that has hit Netflix and VOD about the gradual fall of the comic strip and newspapers in general, and what that means for the future of the medium.

Having begun as a successful Kickstarter campaign, this documentary, Stripped, is pretty good and for those who haven’t been following the industry very informative. Director Dave Kellett interviews over 70 people connected to the comic strip biz including most of the stars from the past 30 years. But there’s one “get” that is truly astounding, seeing as this person doesn’t general give interviews, talk to the public, or have his picture taken: Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes. I don’t think anyone who was alive during 1985-1995 needs to be told the hold that Calvin and Hobbes has on that generation. Or that Bill Watterson is considered a genius for the way he translated universal feelings about growing up into the adventures of a boy and his (stuffed?) tiger. But since his voluntary retirement in 1995, Watterson has been as reclusive as Thomas Pynchon or J.D. Salinger, not making any appearances, not giving any interviews, just generally staying away from any kind of limelight. He preferred to let his work speak for him, which it did indeed, being continually in print throughout the years. And a massive hardcover box set reprinting every single strip was produced in 2005 with a paperback version following in 2012. And that was it. For nearly 20 years only the strip remained to remind us of his genius.

9781449460365_frontcoverUntil now. Now, suddenly, Bill Watterson seems to be (relatively) everywhere. He is interviewed in that Stripped documentary, albeit in voice only. In fact, he apparently liked the documentary so much he drew the poster, his first published cartoon work in 19 years! He also drew the poster for the 2015 Angoulême International Comics Festival, although he wouldn’t be attending, even though it’s tradition having won the Grand Prix the previous year. And even stranger, but more exciting, he once again graced the newspaper comic pages! In an unannounced guest spot on Stephen Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine strip, Watterson drew the meat of a narrative sequence that lasted for a week last Summer. All of this activity is wildly out of the ordinary for the seldom seen artist but his most important recent appearance is that of a very long, very detailed interview with Jenny Robb of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum that has been published as a catalogue accompanying an exhibit of his work:  Exploring Calvin And Hobbes: An Exhibition CatalogueIf you are a fan of Calvin and Hobbes at all, I highly recommend chasing down all of those links and especially the interview book itself.

My homemade Calvin and Hobbes

Even if Mr. Watterson keeps up this welcome recent visibility, one thing you probably will still never see is any merchandise surrounding Calvin and Hobbes. Now, being that this site is mainly about the love of licensed merchandise, you might think that I would be disappointed by this, and possibly pursue that very American pastime of wanting more: more interviews, more cartoons, more Bill Watterson. But surprisingly, I don’t. That hasn’t always been the case. In fact, in the late 1980s I even tried sculpting Calvin and Hobbes myself, for my sister (who still owns these). I wanted merchandise, I wanted plush, I wanted t-shirts, I wanted toys. But Bill Watterson didn’t. Boy, he really didn’t. I’m going to digress here for a moment to reflect on Charles Schulz, a man who did not mind merchandise, or movies, or toys whatsoever. One big reason why he didn’t mind was that he trusted the company who was responsible for the majority of Peanuts products for over 40 years, a company called Determined Productions. While they are sadly no longer around, while Schulz was alive the took extremely good care of his creations. If you bought any Snoopy or Charlie Brown merchandise from the 1960s to the 1990s, odds are it was stamped Determined Prod. somewhere on it. They made books, they made plush, they made the Russell Stover figurines, for cryin’ out loud! And Charles Schulz trusted them quite a bit. I know this because it just so happens I worked for Determined for number of years, mainly designing toys for Wendy’s, but seeing a lot of the overall relationship with the Peanuts brand.

I bring this up because of a story that was told to me not long after I started working there. I was very curious about the history of the company and all the licenses they had worked with, and at one point Calvin and Hobbes came up. Now, this story may be apocryphal but this is how it was told to me, and knowing what we know about Bill Watterson I have no reason to doubt it. Supposedly when Calvin and Hobbes hit big in the late 1980s, Determined wanted to see if there was possibility of manufacturing some items based on the strip (at the time they were making merchandise from a lot of the popular characters of the day such as Felix the cat, Garfield, and Where the Wild Things Are). But they had no way of contacting Watterson directly, as he wasn’t returning correspondence sent to his syndicate. So they asked Charles Schulz to give an introduction, which he did, writing a letter extolling the care and craftsmanship that Determined gave to all of his characters. They created detailed prototypes of Calvin, Hobbes as a tiger, Hobbes as a stuffed toy, and Spaceman Spiff (which I was told were magnificent) and sent them off with Schulz recommendation.  And then they heard nothing. Nothing at all for weeks. Until one day they received a package…that contained no correspondence of any kind, just the cut up remains of the plush prototypes. Thus ended their pursuit of that license.

I’ve thought about this story off and on over the years. The severe reaction to Determined’s overture intrigues me, and the older I get the more I realize that very few things in the world reman untainted or uncompromised. But this beloved comic strip has. And when you read the few times that Watterson has explained himself you see that it wasn’t an easy fight, that he had to battle over and over until he won the full rights to his creation that he was able to protect it fully. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy he’s peeked out for a bit and I’d welcome the occasional artwork, but I think now after 20 years since the end of Calvin and Hobbes I’ve come around to agreeing with his viewpoint. Calvin and Hobbes is a perfect creation; to try and extend it or make anything that takes it out of the realm of comic strip would change it. And not, I think, for the better. So let’s just leave it alone. No more websites about Calvin and Hobbes, no more “peeing bumper stickers”, no more documentaries about what the strip means to everyone. Let Peanuts have the big movies. I’ll be content occasionally taking one of those books off the shelf and letting my imagination take me to places that no movie ever could. Just like Bill Watterson wants it.

Update –

Here’s the thing: San Diego Comic Con is no longer about comics. Yes, I know this is not news. Many, many, many people have pointed out what a shame it is that movie, tv, and toys have taken over the con in the past decade. I am not necessarily one of those people: I enjoy the con more for the broader scope and the inclusion of hollywood. I especially like that SDCC has replaced Toy Fair as the place to celebrate collectors and unveil new toys for the year (although I really wish companies could figure out how to keep a lid on news better so there were more genuine surprises).

mickey1But at its core, SDCC was and is about comics and comic culture. That’s what drives the train. So when huge news breaks, it is a tad disappointing that the major outlets like USA Today, Entertainment Weekly,  and CNN that are covering the con do not highlight it in an appropriate manner (kudos to TIME for recognizing the significance of the news, though). What news is this, you ask? Well the biggest news of the con is this: Fantagraphics will be publishing the Complete Floyd Gottfredson run of Mickey Mouse comic strips, starting in May 2011. This is huge.

Fantagraphics has spent over two years negotiating with Disney over these reprints. And while Carl Barks’ and his Ducks comics are well-known and revered, a much smaller group of people is aware of the seminal work done by Gottfredson on Mickey Mouse. These strips are pretty much the last of the “greats” to be reprinted, in what is now the Golden Age for classic comic strip reprints. What is big about this news is that these strips have NEVER been reprinted uncut before, and many of them not at all. Think about that: for 70 years, Disney has let some of the best work featuring their flagship character go unseen. Can you imagine if Marvel had never reprinted the Ditko Spider-Man issues, except in compilations? Sure, many individual stories have been chopped up into comics over the years, but these stories were heavily edited, rewritten, and relettered.

mickey2While it remains to be seen if Disney can bring themselves to go through with a hands-off policy, Fantagraphics has the best shot ever to not only show these strips as they were originally seen (and from all accounts, Disney keeps excellent copies of everything in their morgue, so they’ll look better than anyone has seen them) but do so in a great presentation, judging by their treatment of Peanuts and Popeye among others. I’m just hoping that Disney sees that these are of historical value and let’s Fantagraphics reprint EVERYTHING, warts and all.

Now where are those Gottfredson Mouse & Friends toys?!?

Original Post – 

comicsIf there is one thing I enjoy collecting more than toys, it has to be books. I like books in all shapes and sizes, but mostly concentrate on biographies, books on history, art, and films. But one genre is the most near and dear to my heart: compilations of classic comic strips.

I think my love affair with the art and stories of yesteryear was first kindled when my parents gave me The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics one year for Christmas. I think it was 1980, because the previous year they had given me the Abbeville Press book of Mickey Mouse strip reprints. I guess because I wore out the poor Mickey Mouse book they figured that I liked the old comic strips…and I did! In fact, I started collecting comics after looking for new comic strip collections led me to the then new phenomenon of comic shops. I eventually found all of the Disney “Best Comics” books, but the Smithsonian volume had turned me on to much more than just Disney; there was the non-stop adventure of Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs and Cap’n Easy, the hard boiled detective work of Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, the dogged determination of Harold Gray’s Annie and Sandy, the everyday living adventures of Frank King’s Gasoline Alley, Billy DeBeck’s Barney Google, and Frank Willard’s Moon Mullins and the surreal and mesmorizing artwork of Cliff Sterrett, Milt Gross, George Herriman, and Windsor McKay.

popeye2But the one strip that really grabbed me (outside of Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey and Carl Bark’s Duck stories) was the absurdist fantasy world of E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre, aka Popeye (At one point, I thought I would even make the ‘definitive’ Popeye website!). Now, growing up with classic cartoons on tv every afternoon in the 70s had given me an already healthy appreciation of the spinach-eating sailor. But that Popeye was nowhere near as rich a character as the one to be found in the original run of comic strips. Sadly, what passed for Popeye in the comic pages of the day was a pale imitation of ‘gag-a-day’ strips done by Segar’s old assistant, Bud Sagendorf. And Popeye was by no means alone in this regard: Mickey, Moon Mullins, Barney Google (now Snuffy Smith) and others had all been reduced to simple comedy, eschewing more complicated continuities and abdication almost all storytelling to comic books and TV. Even those strips like Dick Tracy and Mary Worth that still continued to run longer storylines couldn’t hold a candle to their glory days. And don’t even get me started on the newspaper version of Spider-Man, where sometimes it took weeks for Peter Parker to walk out of his apartment door!

But it turned out that I was in luck! I was growing up at just the right time, as numerous publishers had seen fit to reprint selected titles from the Golden age of newspaper strips, most likely in response to Bill Blackbeard’s Smithsonian volume. Shel Dorf was reprinting numerous title with his Blackthorne label, Bill Blackbeard was covering Wash Tubbs & Easy (and an ill-fated attempt at reprinting the Gottfredson’s Mickeys), Another Rainbow was publishing a massive B&W Carl Bark’s Library, and Kitchen Sink was undertaking the first comprehensive reprinting of Li’l Abner, from 1934 to 1977! Even better, Fantagraphics begin publishing a magazine devoted to comics strips, Nemo, a selection of Little Orphan Annie books, and the jewel in the crown: The Complete E.C. Segar Popeye.

mickey2I gobbled up all of these books and devoured them time and again. The intricacy of the art and the cinematic nature of the storytelling all left me lamenting the state of the modern comics page. But at least I had the reprints…for a time. By the early 90s a shift had taken place. Video games and “grim ‘n gritty’ comics were crowding out simpler fare, and by the middle of the decade even the last of the reprints had died out. Collections of classic strips would be all but forgotten. But there were a few signs of life: DC Comics had been publishing archives of Will Eisner’s Spirit since the late 90s, and in recent years both Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side debuted single volume collections that contained EVERY strips from each’s respective runs. But classic strips still had not gotten their due. Until 2004, that is. That’s when our old friends at Fantagraphics were able to fulfill a lifelong dream of theirs: comprehensively reprinting Charles Shultz’s Peanuts in chronological order (which amazingly had never been done). The sales of these initial volumes far exceeded expectations, leading to a new boom in reprints- not only are the old strips being rediscovered, but this time around (unlike in the 80s) they are being given the upscale designer treatment with heavy stock, handsome covers, and in some cases full color Sundays at the original publication sizes.

In the past year we’ve seen new editions of Buz Sawyer, Peanuts, Gasoline Alley, Dennis the Menace, Dick Tracy, Mary Perkins, Li’l Abner, Steve Canyon, and yes, Popeye, finally printed in a huge edition complete with color Sunday pages. And even more are coming in the future? Who knows. Even though I really would like to see someone tackle Annie and Moon Mullins, my biggest wish would be for Disney to recognize the market out there for a quality B&W reprinting of the Mickey Mouse strips in chronological order. They’ve never been reprinting unedited since publication. But with sequences like this they probably will never have the guts to release it. Which is why I blew a few hundred bucks last year on decent quality xeroxes of the fabled Comic Buch Club Germany portfolio. Still, I’d much rather have a nice clean official version. If these compilations continue to do well in the marketplace, I may yet get my wish someday. And they we might even see toys based on the classic Gottfredson Mouse and Barks Ducks! Oh, and if you really want a good look at the sorry state of today’s comic strips, why not give The Comics Curmudgeon a read?

One comment

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    I too love the mammoth single volume collections of reprints. I just got the Calvin and Hobbes collection – my god it’s huge!! The biggest problem is that you almost have to buy two – one to actually use, the other to keep for display.

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