Each book in the ongoing Complete Peanuts series (Fantagraphics) is beautifully designed by the Canadian cartoonist Seth, and features two years of thoughtfully reproduced daily and Sunday newspaper cartoon strips. This magnificently conceived project, whose latest addition is the sixth volume (1961-1962), will keep the work of Charles M. Schulz on the shelves of bookstores for years to come. It’s interesting to speculate on how the American public would react to Peanuts if Schulz were just starting out today. The great man’s mix of whimsical angst and irreverent theology would probably displease bohemians and conservatives alike. In the reputedly prim 1950s, Shulz found not only acceptance but also massive commercial success, perhaps due to the high artistic status that cartoonists enjoyed at that time. Schulz was a true scholar of pre-war newspaper strips and fully cognizant of publishers’ and readers’ willingness to engage with challenging and eccentric cartoons. Dip into any volume of this history to dispel any notion that complex form and content in comics is a recent phenomenon.
The work of fifteen artists, including Schulz, who shaped the development of the American comic strip, has recently been displayed in a travelling exhibition called Masters of American Comics (the catalogue is published by Yale University Press). One look at the extraordinarily far-out Krazy Kat strips, which ran in American newspapers between 1913 and 1944, will make you a fan. Krazy’s creator, George Herriman, was the true genius of pre-war comics, and Fantagraphics has reprinted his brilliant work in a series of trade paperbacks. The recent Krazy & Ignatz 1937–1938: Shifting Sands Dusts Its Cheeks in Powdered Beauty is one of the most agreeably bonkers tomes published in recent memory. Just about every strip tells the story of Ignatz Mouse’s compulsion to hurl bricks at the willing Krazy’s head, and each is told in a linguistic and visual vernacular that defies description.
E.C. Segar’s earliest Popeye comics have just been made available in a gorgeously designed hardcover, also from Fantagraphics. Segar’s Thimble Theatre strips featured some of the most charming characters ever to appear in newsprint, including the hilarious Bernice the Whiffle Hen, a magical African bird with a winning personality. Amazingly, the equally resilient Popeye didn’t appear until 1929, by which time Thimble Theatre was already a decade into its run (and Popeye does not enter this particular volume until page 27 ). It’s easy to see why the character’s mixture of maritime dialect, big-hearted sensitivity and righteous fisticuffs quickly captured the hearts of Depression-era readers. Popeye came to dominate the strip in no time—and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly has launched Walt and Skeezix: 1921 & 1922, the first in a series that collects Frank King’s seminal Gasoline Alley strips. While these books are fitting testaments to King’s incredible illustrative talents, the content (from the early years, anyway) has dated rather badly—not least the regular appearances of Walt’s stereotypical African- American maid.
Moomin (Drawn & Quarterly) collects a cartoon created in the 1950s by Tove Jansson, a Finnish artist who published his work in a British newspaper—proving that comic innovation was not a uniquely American phenomenon. The Moomin strip was a conscious attempt to take Jansson’s much-loved children’s book characters to an adult audience. The Moomins, a family of hippo-like “trolls,” are equally divided between those who are happy with a simple rural existence and those who yearn for the bright lights of the big city. This familial schism provided Jansson’s delightfully illustrated strips not only with narrative drive but also with a very convincing thematic and emotional weight. At their best, these strips manage to wrap the oddness of Krazy Kat, the charm of Popeye and the angst of Peanuts in a distinctly Scandinavian world view. All of these works share a vague mood that could be described as “adorable melancholy”—something that seems like a fading echo from a gentler and (in some ways) more tolerant age.