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I don't think I've read Animal Crackers since the late 1980s. It ran in The Plain Dealer, which my parents got, and I'd read Bollen's strip along with whatever else was on the page. I don't especially recall any strips in particular, but it just kind of rolled in the background with Hagar the Horrible and Beetle Bailey. I was more interested in Garfield when I was younger, and Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side once those strips debuted.

I did, however, have a small, heart-shaped box with a relief of Lyle Lion under the phrase, "Love is the answer." Lyle was shown asking, "What was the question?" I got it as a Valentine's Day gift from my parents one year. I have no idea what happened to it -- it probably got thrown out around the time I went to college -- but it was on my desk in my bedroom for probably around a decade. And so that box stands out as a stronger memory of the strip to me than any of the actual strips themselves.

Sadly, when I heard of Roger Bollen's passing yesterday, my first thought was, "He was still alive?" Then, having read some pieces that noted he passed the strip on to Fred Wagner in the 1990s, I thought, "That's still published?" I have thought about the strip periodically since I last actually read it, but I never mustered enough interest to see if it was still around.

I don't say that as a means to knock either Bollen's or Wagner's work. (Hell, I've never even read Wagner's version!) But it strikes me as everything problematic with newspaper strips relative to webcomics.

First, the strip is almost entirely reliant on Universal Press Syndicate for marketing and general promotion. But they manage so many comics that Animal Crackers gets lost among darlings like Doonesbury, For Better or For Worse, and Foxtrot to name a few. They're all given more promotion, and get their strips collected in book form to sit on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. As far as I can tell, Animal Crackers hasn't gotten into a book since 1982.

Related to that are licensing deals. As I mentioned, I did have that small box, but with a cast of anthropomorphic animals, you'd think it'd be easier to sell plush dolls and such. I think there are more licensing deals with Andy Capp right now than Animal Crackers. Now, to be fair, that may have been some kind of issue with Bollen himself -- Bill Watterson famously refused to let his creations be turned into stuffed animals. But that there have been at least some licensed pieces over the years, it would seem that's not the case.

Then there's the name itself. It was actually the third newspaper strip to use the name "Animal Crackers" and it's in such common useage thanks to both the cookies and the Marx Brothers film (which predate the strip by several decades) that internet searches on the comic strip are more difficult than other comics. Even if you know precisely the name of the strip, you have to manually filter out loads of unrelated information if you're trying to get to something about Bollen's strip. This obviously was not an issue or concern when Bollen first launched his strip in 1967, but it can be insanely problematic today. Even the Wikipedia entry for the actual strip not only notes the two predecessors, but the image is from one of those as well with no visual reference to Bollen's or Wagner's work.

Animal Crackers was never a bad comic to my recollection. Very much on par with much of what was in the funny pages throughout the 1970s and '80s. But several factors unrelated to the strip's actual contents have kept it stuck as a vague memory from 30 years ago, instead of a part of the contemporary comics scene. Which is unfortunate. But it's also why I think the traditional newspaper syndicate model needs to change in order to be relevant in the 21st century.
New York Comic-Con starts today, and what I wanted to do is highlight some creators/publishers who will be there, and are worth your time and attention because they're making great comics that are NOT about cishetero white guys. Check out (in no particular order) these fine folks...

Blades of Hope, Booth 1062
I've read some previews of their book with some very strong female leads with an international flavor. They're debuting their first book here, and I'm really disappointed I won't be able to pick one up right away.

Northwest Press, Booth 1483
Publishers behind a lot LGBTQ-themed comics, they're probably most known for the Ignatz Award winning QU33R by Rob Kirby. I'm personally more partial to Leia Weathington's The Legend of Bold Riley.

A Piggy's Tale, Booth 143
Tod Emko and Ethan Young's comic about a three-legged dog named Piggy, who may in fact be in attendance at the show as well. Young is also the creator behing Nanjing: The Burning City, which has garnered a lot of praise recently, including from me!

Afrofuturefest, Booth 2444
This is kind of a collective booth to celebrate Black creators. On hand will be Erika Alexander and Tony Puryear (Concrete Park), Afua Richardson (Captain Marvel, Genius), and Chuck Collins (BOUNCE!). I was super impressed with both Concrete Park and Genius -- this would be a great opportunity to check both out!

And... Action! Entertainment, Booth 972
This is primarily about TV director Eric Dean Seaton, but he's also recently come out with a graphic novel series called Legend of the Mantamaji which sounds intriguing.

Xmoor Studios, Booth 948
I've been looking to pick up a copy of Ajala in print for a little while now.

Jamal Igle, Booth 3044
I'm really looking forward to reading his Molly Danger book, which I backed when it was on Kickstarter.

Brooke A. Allen & Shannon Watters, Artists Alley AA9
You're not reading Lumberjanes?

This is by no means a comprehensive list of great non-cishetero-white-guy creators that will be at the show, much less great creators that are worth checking out. But, these are some of the ones that I personally would be most interested in and feel should get much greater notice. So stop by these booths and see if their work excites you. I think there's some really fantastic comics in that list and would highly recommend pretty much all of them! You can either help me out by picking some of these books up and supporting these creators, or piss me off by picking these books up and flaunting that I won't be at NYCC to do so myself. I think it's a win-win for the creators, and win-win for you whether you like me or not!
One of the things I've tried reading up on over the past couple years has been comics history outside of the US, Japan, and Europe. I think that with so many people considering comics an American art form, they tend to relay the medium's history in precisely those terms. Even many of the histories I've read of manga and European comics tend to talk about them in relation to the US. That's not entirely without justification, I suppose, but it does tend to mean other countries get an even shorter shrift. Now I don't claim to be an expert by any means, but how many of you even know that there are comics in Russia, much less a book written about their history? Mexico? Canada? India? Australia?

In any event, one of the things I've found interesting in my readings is that many countries experienced a backlash against the comics industry about a decade after World War II, in much the same way that the United States did. Each culture reacted differently, of course, and the impacts from the social fervor charted how comics came to be made in those respective societies. Where the US resorted to a form of self-censorship that sanitized much of what readers had available, and ultimately led to a swing towards underground comix, Mexico actually enacted legislation that essentially prevented what might have become an underground comix movement. I don't doubt that there were creators doing underground-type comics, but their distribution would have had to have been, for their own safety, even more covert than Tiajuana Bibles were in the 1920s and '30s.

So in that backdrop, I recently learned via Dylan Horrocks about New Zealand's reaction. Much like the US, there was a growing moral outrage against comics, but rather than having a Fredric Wertham beating an ongoing drum to rouse public interest, there were two legal cases (one murder and one underage sex ring) that came to light within a few days of each other in June 1954 that sparked New Zealand into action. A ministerial inquiry from "The Special Committee on Moral Delinquency in Children and Adolescents" was initiated, led by Queen's Counsel Ossie Mazengarb.

The committee ran things very quickly. Hearings lasted barely two months, and the resulting report was issued just over a week after that. Their findings were much harsher than Estes Kefauver's Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency here in the States, but they were unable to actually enact any legislation themselves, only making suggestions and strong recommendations. Not surprisingly, many of them focus on censoring depictions/discussion of sex.

The 70-some page report was then printed and mailed to every household in New Zealand. I don't know exactly how many copies that ended up being but the country's population was north of two million at the time, so I'm guessing somewhere in the one million range? It was evidently more than enough for postal service employees to complain about the huge amount of additional weight they suddenly had to account for.

The report is freely available in several electronic formats thanks to Project Gutenberg, so if you have any interest in how countries besides the US tried to censor our favorite medium in the 1950s, be sure to check it out!
For today's "On Strips" column, I kind of have to talk about Peanuts, as it's the 65th anniversary of the strip's debut. I don't know that I have anything new to add to what you can find elsewhere about the history of either the strip or creator Charles Schulz, so I thought I might share some more personal thoughts on them.

I don't recall my first encounter with Peanuts. Peanuts was created nearly a quarter century before I was born, so it has literally always been a part of my upbringing in some fashion. Heck, both Happiness is a Warm Puppy and the animated Christmas special were around for about a decade before I was! Snoopy has, for me, always been very much a part of American culture.

That means a couple things. First, it meant that I didn't see Peanuts develop. It was a fully formed set of characters from the outset (at least as far as I was concerned). With later popular strips like Garfield and Calvin & Hobbes, I was able to watch their development as their creators found their illustrative and narrative voices. But Schulz was well into a groove with Peanuts by the time I first saw it.

Second, it meant that, while Schulz certainly wasn't done, he had said a lot of what he wanted to say already. The Lucy-pulling-away-the-football routine and the "It was a dark and stormy night" stories had been turned into running gags, where the comedy comes more from variations on a theme than in the concept itself.

In fact, by the time I start reading the strip regularly in the 1980s, Schulz was argueably past his prime. His linework had started becoming shakey as he entered his 60s, and he had largely abandoned some of the adult themes and observations of previous years in favor of the somewhat less dark depictions that came out marketing. Charlie Brown was no longer really manically depressed, but mostly just wishy-washy; he no longer seemed to get angry about his lot in life but accepted it with benign resignation.

And at the time, reprints were not very common. There were probably more of Peanuts than just about any other strip, but the ones I had access to were primarily from the earliest 1950s strips where Schulz was still finding his voice. They were interesting to compare the obvious changes in illustration style, but I largely missed the more cerebral strips that really launched Schulz to comic stardom. So while I heard many fans and cartoonists laud Schulz's work, I was only seeing the least of it.

Furthermore, a lot of Schulz's innovations had been around long enough to have become staples of comics as a whole. Other seemingly age-old strips (i.e. anything that debuted before I was born) like The Born Loser, Marmaduke, and Family Circus had already been influenced by Peanuts and had picked up on various elements that Schulz had introduced to the medium. So not only were Schulz's ideas old hat, but they'd been around long enough to have been copied ad infinitum by others.

Don't get me wrong, I didn't dislike Schulz. The strips were still better than most of what was on the comics page, and the Christmas Special certainly had something magic about it, but the body of work as a whole (of which I had only seen the extreme ends of) seemed over-rated. I seem to recall my father pointing this out in my late teens but, again, the lack of access to good reprint material meant that his explanations were largely from memory (which meant that he couldn't really pinpoint many specific examples) and I couldn't actually see what he was talking about in any event. I was left with what amounted to, "Well, he did some really great and innovative work that mostly overlap the 20 or 30 years that you're missing."

In the ensuing couple of decades of comics research, which includes a wealth of materials becoming more widely available, I've gotten a much better appreciation of Schulz's contributions to both the medium and society as a whole. But I think it speaks to what was a long-standing problem of popular culture: that, until recently, we only had the "now" to assess. Anyone but the most hard-core and dedicated researchers coming to the game a little late might be left out of the loop entirely. People just a few years younger than I am likely have less appreciation of what Garfield's introduction was like and what Jim Davis' contributions were.

But while it's argueable that, fifteen years after Schulz's death, newspapers should stop running Peanuts re-runs in favor of giving someone else a shot, those Peanuts re-runs are works that were almost entirely unavailable to the vast majority of people until the 21st century. So there's (potentially, at least) a greater sense of appreciation of Schulz's work here at 65 than there may have been at 35 or 45.
I'm still recovering from over a week's worth of travel, followed by the passing of my dog, so I don't have much creative writing in me at the moment and I'm just going to take today to point to a just-opened exhibit at the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University. The exhibit is titled "African Cartoon Art: Voices and Visions" and was curated by Gene Kanneberg. It depicts the portrayal of Africa and African voices in comics by both natives and outsiders.

I haven't seen the exhibit first-hand yet, but the photos look promising. It will be on display through the end of the year if you find yourself in the northern Chicago suburbs. A LibGuide is available online.