On Strips: Known Unknowns

By | Friday, April 07, 2017 Leave a Comment
One of the reasons I started this "On Strips" thing was because I realized that I know far too little about comic strips, and this would act in a way to force me to learn more about them. What continues to strike me, though, is learning just how little I know.

I grew up reading the comics in the newspaper, like many kids. We had Peanuts and Beetle Bailey and Blondie and Dennis the Menace and all those. Later, we got The Far Side and Calvin & Hobbes and a few others. And in studying comic books, I learned about all the form and technique that go into comics, whether they're newspaper strips of pamphlet books. And along the way, I picked up bits of comic strip history. Dad had some books collecting Krazy Kat, Pogo, and some early Peanuts. I sometimes ran across examples of legendary works like Little Nemo in Slumberland, Prince Valiant, and Li'l Abner. And, of course, Hogan's Alley was always (somewhat erroneously) cited as the first comic as we know it.

It was about a decade ago that I came across a cheap copy of R.C. Harvey's Children of the Yellow Kid, which I wrote about here. That was my first eye-opening experience that I knew much, much less than I thought I did. Just sitting down to look at a relatively brief overview highlighted how little I really had picked up over the years. I've been trying to play some level of catch-up every since (without letting current comics fall to the wayside either).

(On a side note, it wasn't long after that I've had similar revelations about other comics formats as well. Manga, European comics, undergrounds, Golden Age comic creators who didn't keep working into the Silver Age... I've been actively trying to pick up on all that as well. )

But in working on this On Strips thing for the past two years or so, I've come to realize that there is far, far less that has been written/researched on comic strips and their creators, compared to comic books and theirs. There's not nothing, certainly, and we've actually seen a number of good books come out in the past couple years to start to rectify this, but I think there's still a huge disconnect between what could be written about newspaper strips relative to what has been written. Especially when you consider how pervasive the form was throughout the entire 20th century.

I mean, it is almost weekly for me that I hear about some comic strip or creator that I'd never even heard of before. Granted, it's not a topic I spent my entire life studying, but considering how much overlap there is with comic books (which I have spent my entire life studying) and that I've been actively trying to bone up on strip history over the past five years or so, I can't imagine how much isn't recognized AT ALL by those who's interest is even more tangential. Like a fan of the Marvel superhero movies. They enjoy the films and are interesting in going to "comic cons" but if you ask them to name the creator of a newspaper comic strip, I doubt they'd be able to come up with more than Schulz, Waterson, Davis, and maybe one other if they have a favorite strip.

And while you might say, "Well, of course!" bear in mind that guys like Al Capp and Milton Caniff once graced the cover of Time. Not their characters, the creators themselves! Guys like Winsor McCay and Otto Soglow were revered like royalty. Walt Kelly and Joseph Musial were greeted with warm respect at the 1954 Senate Subcommittee Hearings into Juvenile Delinquency, while virtually every other comic witness was painted as a "paid apologist."

We are, as I said, getting more research done into some of these folks, and there's certainly more available now than there ever was before, but it's interesting to note that there's still a lot that isn't widely known even among comic experts.
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