28 September 2009

What's with the Strips, Anyway?

Comic books were my daily entertainment long before I started rummaging through mom's morning edition of The Arizona Daily Star to read the comic strips tucked somewhere inside. Garfield, Peanuts, and my favorite, Bill Amend's Fox Trot, usually made the ride to school a little more enjoyable.
Comic strips predated their cousin, the comic book, by several decades in this country. So it makes sense that most of the earliest American comic book readers - primarily children, immigrants, and the poor -- likely came to the new medium because they'd already fallen in love with the stories and characters from the newspapers.
Comic strip stories were simple, humorous, sometimes bold and outrageous, occasionally subversive, and frequently representative. (I'd get a kick out of Fox Trot for the same reason; I often found parts of me inside Amend's panels. Can you tell?)
But maybe the best thing about comic strips was that they were easy reads. No one needed an education to appreciate the jokes inside their balloons, or a membership at the MOMA to enjoy the art work. In most cases, their readers didn't even need to speak English to understand what was going on inside comic strips, or to walk away from them without getting the punch line.
Yeah, comic strips were definitely cool back in the day. Then again, newspaper comics haven't changed all that much since they were first published over a century ago. But nearly everything else has, and comic books especially have come a long way, baby. Today, comic books stand at the threshold of literature, even fine art. 'Mainstream' comics, from Batman to The Amazing Spider-Man and Hell Boy, have produced characters best described as 'cultural icons'; their stories increasingly responsible for Hollywood's most successful films in the US and abroad.
To be fair, some modern comic strips have gained a measure of success their predecessors would never have known. Peanuts, and a few others including Calvin and Hobbes, Bloom County, and Doonesbury, have become enduring 'classics,' finding life beyond the newspapers; The Far Side, Garfield, and Dilbert are notable examples of strips adopted by pop culture; and classic comic strips like Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Zorro, The Lone Ranger, have literally been co-opted by comic books and science fiction movies and television. Buck Rogers, another scifi slash comic book favorite, began as a Penny Dreadful (or dimestore pulp magazine) before becoming a comic strip in 1929, nearly a decade before the first comic book.
History and achievement aside, comics - strips and books - are no longer America's eye candy. Animation, CGI, and especially video gaming are the top picks for Gen Y folks. Younger readers with a taste for illustrated fare most often dine on McDonald's and manga, the Japanese graphic novel. Once popular only to the Japanese demographic, manga has infiltrated the US (and European) book market, greatly outselling American comics in a way that can only be described as phenomenal. Yet while American comic books have found sanctuary -- and a dedicated reading audience -- inside specialty stores (known collectively as the Direct Market) across the country, comic strips feel a little more endangered every day as their newsprint homes disappear from the publishing landscape.
No, comic strips weren't responsible for the comic book addiction I developed thirty-odd years ago. Thankfully, this form of addiction is a chronic, manageable thing. But its lifelong presence does make me wonder: What manner of sorcery transforms an otherwise well-adjusted individual into a comic book reader in today's Age of Astrophysics and Pokemon? What's the hook that makes potential newbies bite... and is it the same thing that reels them in? How does the comic 'bug' spread among the unsuspecting and suspecting alike, and can it be cured?
All sound questions that deserve to be met with bravery, I think. Which is just another way of me saying: You've all been warned...
The Yellow Kid, the first comic with a continuing series and regular characters, was created in 1894 by Richard Fenton Outcault. Outcault was a comics pioneer, and is generally credited as the inventor of the comic strip. After The Yellow Kid lost its fan base in 1901, Outcault introduced readers to a character still recognized by shoe-wearing folk today: Buster Brown.

Rudolph Dirks introduced The Katzenjammer Kids to US newspapers via King Features Syndicate in 1897. Although The Kids arrived on scene after Outcault's Kid, Dirks' strip actually originated many of the conventions which most define the comic strip art form. Using a sequence of panels to tell a story, as well as his use (and that of F.B. Opper's Happy Hooligan) of word balloons to indicate speech, stand at the forefront of his contribution to comic strips.

Here's what Buck Rogers looked like in the comics. Buck, along with Chester Gould's Dick Tracy, jumped away from their Pulp origins and into the comic strip format. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century began publication in 1929 and remained in print until 1967.

And here's Buck Rogers sporting current comic book vogue, with "clothes" by artist John Cassaday. Newly re-imagined at Dynamite Entertainment, this latest comic series to feature Buck and his 25th Century cast of characters began monthly publication last spring. There's rumors in our century that a feature film may soon be in Buck's future.

Lucy is featured on the cover of The Complete Peanuts, Fantagraphics Books second volume collecting Charles Schultz's legendary strip from the years 1953-1954. Peanuts delivered over 50 years of new stories to American comic strips and those the world over.
(This one I don't get. At all. If you do, please leave me a Back Issue. Thanks!) Sailor Moon (accurately translated as Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon) remains one of the most popular Japanese creations from the last two decades to drop anchor on American soil. Created by Naoko Takeuchi, Sailor is the epitome of 'the magical girl' genre, and has grown into a media franchise that includes animated cartoons (or anime), video games, toys and dolls and, of course, manga. The manga series Sailor Moon was first published in 1992.
Superman appears on the cover of the first edition collecting Alex Ross' work for DC Comics. I can't think of a more appropriate word to describe what Superman, Batman, and their super friends have truly become in today's popular culture. Mythology is a beautiful book, and abbracadabbler's can find out all about it inside our Amazon.com store.
And finally, Pokemon's Pikachu. Satoshi Tajiri gave this little yellow critter -- and many, many others of his kind -- life in 1996. Thanks to Nintendo and a great host of other media, even Superman might lose a popularity contest against this formidable foe.
Yeah, I thought I'd begin and end the pictures part of the blog with something yellow. If I like anything as much as I like columns, its gotta be internal consistency. Laters!

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