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I only discovered Gordo a couple of years ago. It actually debuted on this day back in 1941, and was written and drawn exclusively by Gus Arriola until his retirement in 1985. Arriola used the strip to introduce many U.S. citizens to Mexican culture (Arriola, while born in Arizona, is of Mexican descent) and did it with such finesse that Charles Schulz once described Gordo as "probably the most beautifully drawn strip in the history of the business."

Let me share a few examples so you can judge Schulz's comment for your self...
I've seen a lot of people point to that one about a visual interpretation of jazz as a favorite and inventive use of the medium, but I find the sequence about Pepito getting a black eye absolutely brilliant! The storytelling going on there works astoundingly well, especially when you consider that A) it's wordless, B) there are two radical shifts in the visual point of view within nine panels, and C) the first half is entirely interpretive with nothing identifiably drawn until panel 6. To pulls that off takes, I think, a phenomenal amount of talent!

Arriola isn't one of those cartoonists who people only recognized after his death either. He was well known and respected, both by peers and by readers, from very early in the strip's run. In R.C. Harvey's biography of Arriola, he quotes high praise coming from, besides Schulz, Mort (Beetle Bailey) Walker, Hank (Dennis the Meance) Ketcham, Paul (Mad) Coker, and Eldon (Playboy) Dedini. Arriola won the National Cartoonists Society Humor Comic Strip Award in both 1957 and 1965, and is credited, as I said earlier, with introducing a wide swath of the U.S. to Mexican words and customs.

There have only been a handful of books collecting his strips, despite having worked on them for just shy of a half century, and none of them, I believe, have been in print for the past 25 years. It's really a shame since the work is so amazingly brilliant. In this "Golden Age of Reprints" we have going on now, it's almost shocking that no one has started collecting these strips in a handsome package yet. If they do, I'll certainly be first in line to get a copy!
Back in 1988, there was a cereal called Morning Funnies from Ralston. The hook was that they had licensed a number of characters from King Features, and the back of the box had several comic strips printed on it featuring those characters. Furthermore, you could open a back panel and reveal another two pages of comics.

Most everything you need to know about the cereal can be found in this three-minute contemporary review...

The cereal only lasted about a year, but they managed to put out ten different sets of comics. (All of the box art can be viewed here, although they don't include the interior flap.) They apparently did realize that they would need to update the comics featured pretty often, but they still missed a fundamental problem which I haven't seen written up in any of the articles I found online while researching this. The problem Ralston missed is that you can read the eight comic strips on any given box in one sitting. The entertainment value they tried to instill in the box itself would last for all of five minutes. The next day, you're still stuck with those same eight comics. And the day after that, you've still got the same eight comics. And the day after that... until you finish the entire box of cereal. Which, if you followed the recommended serving size, would be about two weeks. One week if you had a sibling.

This was 1988, you'll recall, so people were still getting newspapers. If you were so inclined to read your funnies in the morning over breakfast, you'd not only get more frequent updates via the paper, but there were a lot more of them too. Even the dullest kid on the block could have figured out this issue after the second day with the box.

So even if you liked all the strips (and let's be honest, they weren't the cream of the crop back then, even if you're limiting yourself to King's properties) and even if you liked the cereal itself (and, by all accounts, that's highly unlikely) you've still got this fundamental flaw in the very concept. To get this to work... I honestly can't think of a way to get this to work. You'd almost need to make the box out of a digital display that updated itself daily. Which is technically do-able now, twenty years later, but our disposable culture hasn't gone so far yet that we can afford to put LCD screens tied to small microprocessors with a wireless connection into a shipping container that's designed to be thrown away after a week or two. It's technically possible, but insanely impractical.

I suspect the licensing of so many characters didn't help either. The problem most of those licensed type cereals had was that so much money was spent on the licensing that they had to cut costs on the food itself. So the cereal simply didn't taste very good. Batman cereal? Crap. Mr. T cereal? Crap. Smurf cereal? Crap. G.I.Joe cereal? Crap. (Flintstones is probably about the only one to buck that trend.) I've heard complaints that Morning Funnies was WAAAAY too sweet, but I just recall being generally unimpressed.

Morning Funnies is one of those weird, little footnotes in the history of comic strip lore, seemingly remembered more by cereal enthusiasts than comic strip fans.
Fumio Obata's Just So Happens was published last year in the UK and back in March here in the US, but I only just stumbled across it in the bookstore. The story is about a young Japanese woman, Yumiko, who moved to England about a decade ago. She's got a decent life, living with her fiancé and working as a designer in London with some of her friends. But early in the story, she gets a call from her brother saying that their father just died in an accident. The story then follows Yumiko as she heads home, visiting with family, and dealing with her father's funeral.

It's a quiet story. Much of the dialogue is in Yumiko's head, and there are some extended passages that are basically just dreams. In and among the funerary traditions she sits through, she finds herself thinking back to a Noh theatre rehearsal she stumbled across several years earlier, likening the almost robot-like precision of the actors' movements to the individual elements of the funeral services. It's about removing the actors so completely that one can find comfort in the utter predictability of the actions.

The flip side of that, however, is the loss of individuality and free will. The prescribed actions set out by the script are, by design, meant to completely subsume the actor's very identity. It's this aspect that Yumiko seems to have nightmares about. And it's only while visiting her mother afterwards (her parents had divorced years earlier, and her mother did not attend the funeral) that Yumiko destroys the entire theatre in her dream.

Yumiko struggles throughout the story between her two worlds: the Japan where she was raised and has family, or the England where she created a life of her own. But the question she also has is: is this new life she created really just the dream her mother sought? She continues pondering that question on her trip back to England and, only after collecting her luggage and walking through the gate, does she really reconcile her feelings.

Obata has an incredibly light touch with his storytelling. Almost nothing is told in explicit detail, and it makes readers a very active participant in the story as they suss out the inferences. Even the resolution isn't very overt -- we don't see her greeted by her fiancé or anything obvious; Yumiko just blends into the crowd at the airport. It's a refreshing change from many commercial stories that spoon-feed their audiences. There was nothing here I had to work hard for -- all the pieces are there -- but I still had to work a bit to assemble them for myself. And I think that's a strength of the work.

The light linework and watercolored hues also speak to the subtlety of Obata's work as a whole. With the exception perhaps of one double-page spread, there's nothing visually splashy in the book and even that one spread is somewhat muted with a nearly monochromatic palette. Every aspect of the story here -- the art, the writing, the storytelling -- serves to compliment one another, and heighten the reader's interpretation of the story as a very reflective, contemplative one.

The book highlights the difficulty in navigating one's own path against familial traditions. But while it does somewhat play off the notion of race, it's not treated as an alienating factor. Rather, it's just different sets of cultural mores that cause Yumiko's agita, not really any notion of race as we generally consider it. Yumiko's life in England has little overlap with her family in Japan, so the only code-switching she really needs to concern herself with occurs gradually during the 12-hour plane ride. It's not two cultures she's struggling to reconcile, but two identities. Which means that the story can be read more broadly -- "who am I really" versus "who am I acting like to cater to my family's expectations".

I think it's that aspect that resonated most with me. I'm not Japanese, I'm not a woman, my parents are still alive and married, I haven't translocated to a country that speaks a different language than what I grew up with... But I still very much understood the struggle of identity. And while I think that's a question I've largely resolved for myself, it's hard not to appreciate the subtle beauty of how Obata handles it here.
Faith #1
About 15 years ago, I was spending a lot of my comics reading trying to become better versed in the Marvel Universe. Particularly the early 1960s material. I'd gotten a pretty good handle on the early days of the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Avengers, and the X-Men, so I turned my attention to Dr. Strange. The previous ones weren't too bad because, while I couldn't afford the originals in many cases, they were all popular enough to warrant a variety of reprints, most notably the Marvel Masterworks.

Dr. Strange wasn't as popular, though. He had only one of the last of the original Masterworks volumes devoted to him, and it quickly proved difficult to find even a few short years after its publication, with available copies fetching fairly high prices. I ended up spending a lot of time tracking down a weird mish-mash of titles (Doctor Strange Classics, Marvel Tales, Giant-Size Marvel Triple Action, later issues of Strange Tales...) trying to complete his story.

Now, of course, it's much easier. The Masterworks line was revived in both hardcover and paperback, with a total of six Dr. Strange volumes. There've been four volumes of The Essential Doctor Strange. Not to mention that many are available digitally. And that's Dr. Strange, who's never been a particularly big seller for Marvel.

Much has been written already about how this cornucopia of reprint material has made it much more difficult to sell individual back issues. The market for them is pretty much just collectors looking for the original artifacts now, as opposed to readers who want the stories. (Which the publishers, by the way, don't care about. They make absolutely nothing off back issues sales, whereas issuing a new reprint of the same material will bring revenue back to them.) What I'm wondering about, though, is the after-market sales of these reprints.

Like I said earlier, that Dr. Strange Masterworks book was hard to find and pricey when I did find it. But I can go to Amazon right now, and order a 2015-printed copy for less than $40. The 2008-printing of Essential Doctor Strange is less than $25. I can still track down older copies, but unless I was a collector on the hunt for that particular edition, why would I?

The implication of that is that comic shops, the ones who have largely dropped their back issue stock in favor of selling trade paperbacks and hardcovers, are even less like used book stores than they used to be and more like a niche contemporary bookstore. By that I mean that customers aren't going to browse their stock of books hoping to find an old Masterworks that has never been re-priced; they're going to browse a curated selection of contemporary books published within the past couple of years at most.

I just read a piece where a retailer noted that any pamphlet book that doesn't sell in ten days is like spoiled milk and effectively unsellable. I'm suggesting that the TPB and HC aspects of their ordering isn't much different, perhaps having a shelf life a little longer than ten days but probably not more than a month. With some exceptions like Understanding Comics and Watchmen that are perennial sellers, a reprint collection isn't worth much after its initial publication because another edition will likely be coming around soon anyway.

Comic shops used to be operated not unlike a library, with the goal being one of maintaining a deep selection of material. I wonder now if they're more akin to a simple mailstop -- just central location for people to pick up what's passing through. There have always been huge challenges in running a comic shop, but as I'm reflecting on it, I think they've shifted even more radically than I had been thinking before.

I've been making the argument for several years now that a shop almost needs to become a destination in and of itself in order to stay solvent. It can't be just a place to pick up comics or discover new ones; it has to be a place to be, where you hang out and become part of a community. In light of my thinking above, I think that notion of a comic shop needing to be the primary reason someone goes there (with picking up comics being a secondary consideration) is more imperative than ever.
First, it is absolutely incredible that there are not just courses for comic study at accredited universities, but there are schools -- schools, plural! -- that are focused exclusively on teaching comics. The Center for Cartoon Studies and The Kubert School are certainly the most prominent, but there are others. (!) The programs are somewhat different, not surprisingly, but they have the types of specialized courses you would expect: figure drawing, storytelling, lettering, coloring, etc. Basically, everything you need to be an artist in the comic industry, whether you apply that to making comic books, comic strips, webcomics, whatever. Some even have "professional practices" classes where they teach about building a portfolio, marketing yourself, creator rights, etc.

But, from what I can tell, none of them cover what is possibly the single, most important part about becoming a professional comic creator. Which is simultaneously the least understood/appreciated aspect of becoming a professional comic creator (from the perspective of the stereotypically right-brained creatives who want to make comics for a living). And that part that doesn't seem to be mentioned? Actually making a living.

There is nothing (again, from what I can see) about the different ways you can actually earn money being in comics. There's no discussion of how a company like Marvel or DC might hire you versus how a creator-owned book at Image might work versus how a syndicated newspaper strip pays you versus how you're able to make a living doing webcomics. Those are all wildly different models, and require different types of skills above and beyond your ability to draw comics. Furthermore, they're all various forms of freelancing and therefore don't provide anything in the way of health benefits, which would have to be sought out independently.

It is absolutely not the sexy part of being a comic creator. And I can almost guarantee that every student taking the class will rank it as their least favorite. "I just wanna draw comics -- what the hell do I care about 'business models'?"

But if we're at a point where we do have a good amount of choice for students who want to study sequential art, doesn't it make sense to provide an education that a full picture of what being a comic creator is like? Yeah, if you want to be the next Robert Khoo, you're going to go to a business school and maybe take a course or two on storytelling or comic appreciation or something. But if you're going to be drawing comics every day, then you'll want to go to a school that provides a deeper level of work on those drawing related skills. And while that focus should indeed be on the comics creation process, I wonder if aspiring creators should be made more aware of the "earning a living" part of this.
There are a number of sites out there that present pretty much nothing but comic book news. It's not a huge market and doesn't pay particularly well, but it's there. There are other sites dedicate to manga and anime news. Again, not tons of competition, but still viable concerns. Most of the more general news sites that talk about pop culture in any capacity bring up comic book news fairly regularly too. Heck, Stan Lee was on NPR's Morning Edition just yesterday.

But what we don't see much of is comic strip news. There aren't any dedicated news sites for strips, and it's rare they crossover into comic book news sites. Peanuts is getting a bit of attention at the moment, but mostly in reference to the movie. Aside from that, we get about zip. There's a Garfield animated cartoon that's been around since 2009 but it's barely even mentioned on! And aside from the occasional (and unfortunate) death of a creator and an annual passing mention of the Reuben Awards, we don't hear much.

So I'm sitting here wondering why that is. Why isn't there enough news to warrant at least a few dedicated comic strip sites? Why does a magazine like Hogan's Alley focus primarily on historical pieces? (I mean, besides the fact that it's a printed magazine and inherently slower than a website.) Why do comic books dominate headlines over comic strips?

Here're some facts about some specific comic strips...
  • Dean Young inherited Blondie when his father passed away in 1973. He's been working on the strip ever since.
  • Pearls Before Swine and Six Chix are two of the more recent comics United and King have syndicated. They both debuted fifteen years ago.
  • Bill Amend and Gary Trudeau dropped their daily strips in favor of Sundays only in 2006 and 2013 respectively. Many newspapers continue to run Foxtrot and Doonesbury re-runs during the week.
  • Charles Schultz died in 2000, a day before the last new Peanuts ran. Aaron McGruder quit Boondocks in 2006. Both strips continue to be syndicated in re-runs.
  • Little Orphan Annie ended in in 2010 after an 86-year run. Brenda Starr ended in 2011 after 70 years.
Where I'm going with this is that the comic strip market is so closed and insular that it doesn't really make news. We don't have new strips debuting, we don't have many old strips retiring, the original creators have largely passed away already so their work is being continued by a younger generation... There's just not much going on.

Argueably the biggest news in comic strips last year was Bill Watterson doing several guest strips for Pearls Before Swine. Watterson, who had retired as a cartoonist nearly two decades earlier! It was news because he was no longer in the comics industry. He left in 1995. He was news in large part because he was the first outsider to appear on the funny pages in over a decade.

Readers bemoan the nature of legacy comic strips. That they recycle the same jokes and gags their predecessors use, and keeping them in circulation prevents new voices from being heard. But the often unspoken corollary to that is that recycling jokes and keeping out new talent means nothing new is happening. With nothing new happening, there is no news. With no news, there are no news sites. With no news sites, there's no easy way for readers to stay informed -- and interested -- in the comic strips beyond the strips themselves (which, as noted before, are mostly recycled). With decreasing interest, there's less incentive to bring in new cartoonists. With no new cartoonists... well, we're back at the beginning of this cycle.

The insular nature of comic strips is, in effect, creating a downward spiral of disinterest among readers. There are certainly other factors at play here, as well (declining in newspapers generally, for example) but the comic strip industry isn't doing itself any favors by making their "big" news events things like this extra Sunday supplement of old strips that's supposed to be in papers this weekend.