Tuesday, November 18, 2008

COMIC STRIP CORNER :: A Strip Reprint Primer

by Andy Mansell

Comic Strip Corner—a great place for Christmas shopping! Located in the back of the store, between the action figures and the Fiction/Lit section. This is a place everyone should drop by and visit. Have you ever been interested in the comic strip collections, but don’t know where to start? Well here is a primer for you to get going!

FIRST you need to get comfortable with the format of the strips. Most if not all of you are more comfortable with storytelling on the comics page. The eye travels from left to right and top to bottom. The capable writer and editor make sure all of the important information—"rocketed to earth as an infant, young Kal-El…", etc—is found somewhere within the context of the first few pages. On the last page you get a plot twist or reveal.

The comic strip is a bit different—not necessarily better or worse, but different; and like manga, you need to be aware and ready for the subtle differences so you can thoroughly enjoy the reading experience.

There are two basic kinds of comic strips, the gag-a-day humor strips and adventure strips. Most of the strips found today in our local Charlotte Observer are humor strips. They very often follow a mini-plot that lasts the course of the week, but each day (should) end in a punch line.

SOME HUMOR STRIPS I'D RECOMMEND:

PEANUTS
--no introduction is necessary. Jump in with any collection, although I suggest you start with any after #3. Currently the reprints are up to 1970 and the strip is about ¾ of the way through it’s twenty year run on unequaled originality, creativity and laugh out loud humor.

DENNIS THE MENACE
--a must for every fan of humor as well as required reading for any budding cartoonist. Hank Ketcham had to sell his joke every-day in 1 panel and a caption. Every line had to count and boy did it!! Pick up any volume and read it for laughs, but then slow down and look to see how the man got sooo much out of so little space. A pen and ink masterpiece!!

The other basic comic strip type and the main focus of most of the current reprint projects are the adventure and continuity strips from the heyday of the newspaper comic strip—1934- 1960. To summarize (very) quickly: These kinds of strips were born out of an era when the daily newspaper--along with the radio and the Saturday movie matinee--were the most popular forms of cheap entertainment. Cartoonists needed to create characters that were fully developed and story lines that provided non-stop cliff hangers; the successful strip made sure the reader absolutely HAD to buy the paper the next day to find out what happened next!!

A new reader to the strips needs to get into the rhythm of the adventure strip—panel 1 quickly re-caps yesterday’s action, panel 2 moves the story forward, panel three gives a slight hint of what is coming tomorrow… Once you are used to this style of storytelling, you are in for the ride of your reading life!

SOME ADVENTURE STRIPS I'D RECOMMEND:

Assuming the majority of the readers of the Heroesonline blog are hard- (or at least medium-) core super hero and/or science fiction fans, I am going to recommend the following strip collections to get your feet wet and in turn shows you just how entertaining comic strips can be.

MODESTY BLAISE
--if Lara Croft and James Bond had a baby girl she may very well have become Modesty Blaise. This is a truly adult daily strip about a two former world-class villains turned secret agents—Modesty and companion for life (but never lover) Willie Garvin. The plots are always intricate, the danger is always real. The intrigue is thick, the body count is high and very often our heroes endure severe and realistic trauma both physical and psychological. This is a strip that explodes off the page and in 30-odd years, the writer never, never took the easy way out. A new reader can start anywhere. The 4 or 5 collections in the store are all highly recommended. You will not be disappointed.

TERRY AND THE PIRATES by Milton Caniff
--is this the greatest adventure strip of all time? Arguably... but unquestionably, it IS the most influential. A young writer and his ward go off to China in 1934 in search of adventure and boy do they ever find it! Pirates, revolutions, smugglers and finally World War II. And the women!! Burma and the Dragon Lady may be the two greatest creations in comic history. Caniff presents situations with realistic violence and adds a woman who is a lightly veiled hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold and a powerful and dangerous pirate/revolutionary in the Dragon Lady. Terry the young ward grows up throughout the course of the strip and the action tales are peppered with situations where his budding maturity runs head long into the clutches of these two great femme fatales! Just writing about it makes me want to go back and re-read them. The only draw back is that Volume 1 begins with Caniff nowhere near his mature artistic powers... it takes a while for the artwork and story to fully develop, but when it does (the beginning of volume 2) there is no turning back.

FLASH GORDON by Harry Harrison and Mac Raboy
--4 volumes from Dark Horse. These collections are Sunday pages written by sci-fi legend Harry Harrison and drawn by virtuoso Mac Raboy (Captain Marvel Jr). The pages are gorgeous to look at. Granted our blond hero is a bit blasé, but the sci-fi concepts are surprisingly well thought out and the Raboy’s artwork is nothing short of gorgeous. The only drawback is that the Sunday pages are printed in black and white. The plus side—you get over 4 years (!) of Sunday pages for $20.00!!

FLASH GORDON by Alex Raymond
--the original. Although the stories are far superior in the Raboy editions, these full color collections from Checker present one of the high water marks of all comic illustration. Alex Raymond’s art is a joy to behold. Movement, swashbuckling sword play, evil villains and gorgeous women.

BATMAN and SUPERMAN
--For any fans of the Dynamic Duo and the Man of Steel’s golden age stories... these are very inexpensive collections that show the charm and excitement these characters displayed in their formative decade- the 1940s.

STAR HAWKS
--written by Ron Goulart and Archie Goodwin and drawn by Gil Kane. The complete run of the strip in one book. This was the last great adventure strip. The action and intrigue explode off the page. Reminiscent of many of the outer space super-hero books published by Marvel and DC in the late 70s, but with strong consistent focus and the same artist all the way through. This is an over-looked gem.

If you like what you’ve read, or if you are more a fan of alternative or Indy comic books, it will be time for:

THE ADVANCED CLASS: Life In The Great Depression

WALT & SKEEZIX
--by Frank King, one of the all time greats. A daily chronicle of a lower middle class family in the Midwest. Unlike most other strips, the strip is told in real time. They experience the fads of the 20s, the depression of the 30s and the war of the forties. Utter charming, utterly humane, heart-breaking, hilarious and sometimes embarrassing. Very much like life itself.

POPEYE
--by E. C. Segar. As regular readers of this blog can attest, I can’t say enough about this strip, its influence on all strips that followed, the iconic nature of the characters and the political and social farces in which E.C. Segar, their creator, involved them in, but above all Popeye is rip-roaring action strip with plenty of laughs.

LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE
--by Harold Gray. Charles Dickens meets Fox News. Never has one strip been more political, more melodramatic and more suspenseful. A moody, forbidding and yet optimistic masterpiece that needs to be read in it’s entirety to be truly appreciated. Forget the musical—this is the real deal. This strip affected the political beliefs of its readers for 30 years. Harold Gray was grooming all of us to be Republicans who could succeed without FDR to help us out of the Depression.

To me these three are in may ways the pinnacles of all comic art; the fear is that if you dive into any of these three cold, you may be startled and possibly put off by the challenging, and often dated, material.

Try Modesty Blaise, or Flash Gordon, Star Hawks first and then let us know what you think here on the blog! Thanks for reading!!

8 comments:

Rich Barrett said...

Nice list, Andy. I've been meaning to try Terry & The Pirates for a long time now. Really like Caniff's artwork. In fact, Dave Sim's Glamourpuss has gotten me interested in a lot of the realist comic strip guys from that era.

And yes, I need to pick up a Popeye book soon.

Popeye (Volume 3 I think?) was actually an award winner in Print Magazine's recent Regional Design Annual. It's a nice looking book.

Dustin Harbin said...

Rich, I love you, but are you seriously (SRSLY!) saying that you've bought GLAMOURPUSS and not read Bottomless Bellybutton or Popeye yet? I don't even know you anymore...

Neil said...

Nice, Andy! They need to start paying you a consultant fee. Or at least give you some sort of kick-back or something.

Monk a.k.a. Zach said...

Applause for Andy shining some light on Terry & the Pirates.

On a somewhat related note: When the hell is Fantagraphics going to start putting out the Complete Pogo?

Rusty Baily said...

I have got to read Terry and the Pirates!
Zach-good call on the Pogo. Classic!
But Andy, in my opinion, it gets NO BETTER THAN CALVIN AND HOBBES! Genius!
Thanks Andy!
R-

Eric said...

I'm late to this game, but two things:

1. I'm probably the only person in comics fandom who prefers Steve Canyon. I can't explain it. I just think it's better.

2. Might I toss in Scorchy Smith as a suggestion too? There's an awesome book on Noel Sickles that came out this year that showcases his art on the strip as well as other endeavors.

Andy Mansell said...

Eric!!

My three favorite adventure strips of all time (as opposed to the best or most influential or most accessible for first time readers)are Johnny Hazard by Frank Robbins, Steve Canyon by Caniff and Wash Tubbs by Roy Crane

Two problems with Steve Canyon--
1. the reprints from Checker are just too darn small to handle all that art and all that dialog. But agreed-- the first 10 years available from Heroes are fantastic-- maybe just a bit over written for the newbies!!
and
2. Poteet Canyon who will rear her not-so-ugly head in the next Checker volume. Caniff felt he needed to bring in younger readers with this character-- a spunky female ward for our Colonel Canyon-- and quite frankly I hated the character until the mid-sixties when they made her a reporter- then her stories got interesting...

PS-- if you are enjoying the Checker reprints, I highly, HIGHLY recommend Comics Revue!!
You get Modesty Blaise, Canyon from the late 60s-- an interesting era as Caniff works desperately to keep the story-lines topical but, at the same time, avoiding Vietnam like the plague. Plus, Flash Gordon by Dan Barry and Harry Harrison, Little Orphan Annie from 1939, Alley Oop from 1934, Rick O'Shea from the 1960s and finally Buz Sawyer from the late 50s.
Granted the repro is mediocre-- shot from newpaper clippings, but it is the best read on the stands for 7.00!!

The Scorchy Smith book belongs in EVERY comic collection, but I would argue that newcomers are better served by delving into Terry before they can relish in Noel Sickels ground-breaking masterpiece

Thanks for listening!!

d. morris said...

No love for Amy Jordan by Mark Beyer or is he too out there for people?