Friday, September 18, 2009


Strip Teasers: Capsule Reviews

Looking for Calvin and Hobbes
by Nevin Martell
Continuum, 256 pages, hardcover, $24.95
ISBN 9780826429841

What can a comic strip fan do for light summer beach reading? You're certainly not going to risk getting sand in your expensive reprint books, and reading a stack of old tearsheets out by the pool seems ill-advised. Nevin Martell offers the perfect solution in Looking for Calvin and Hobbes.

Martell writes about pop music for magazines, and he's the author of some fluffy rock star bios, so this book is a bit of a departure for him. Seeing those credits I wondered what he could possibly bring to the table in a book about comic strips. The answer is that he brings very little in the way of comic strip expertise (no Nevin, Ignatz does not throw stones at Krazy Kat) but that turns out to be a good thing. If this had been 250 pages of navel-gazing analysis of the comic strip it would have been insufferable. Rather, Martell tells the story of his adventures trying to wheedle an interview out of the famously reclusive Watterson. It's a Don Quixote story that is humorous, well-written and (if I may borrow that tired summer-reading platitude ) a real page-turner.

Martell skillfully interlaces the main narrative with bits of Watterson biography, musings about the comic strip, and interviews with Watterson's fellow cartoonists. In true summer-reading style, no subject sticks around long enough to become tiresome. If you're looking for a 'serious' Watterson bio, a la Schulz and Peanuts, you're not going to get it -- thank goodness. But Martell does a fine job of picking up the crumbs of Watterson's public appearances and infrequent writings, doing a surprisingly thorough job of pulling Watterson out of that hermit crab shell of his.

I have only a few criticisms of the book. When Martell discusses comic strip history he shows himself to be a rank minor leaguer. The author should have shown the book to someone with the chops in that department to squash embarrassing little mistakes like the aforementioned Krazy Kat clunker. The other criticism may not be valid (I read an advance copy of the book) but I wondered why we don't get a single illustration. I realize that the book could not reproduce any Calvin & Hobbes strips, but why no photo of Watterson, no example of his college or Cincinnati Post cartoons? Surely the publisher could have gotten permission to reproduce a few items that lay outside of Watterson's control freak zone of influence.

The Complete New York World Comic Sections: 1905

Compiled by Jonathan Barli
Digital Funnies, 2 CDs or 1 DVD, $25
Available from

Jonathan Barli's Digital Funnies image collections have been advertised on the web for quite a few years now, but it took me a long while to get on the bandwagon. I'm glad I finally did, though, because the first collection I tried, a complete set of images of the New York World's 1905 comics sections, is absolutely fabulous. What could be more pleasant for an old funnies lover than an afternoon clicking away on image after image of rare material by McManus, Kahles, Carr and Follett (a forgotten cartoonist, but one of my faves). Barli's source material is a beautiful run of tearsheets. I saw only a few minor chipped corners and brown center creases. The scans are only at screen resolution (72 dpi) but the images are nice and large so that you can zoom in to see even the finest details. Barli wisely didn't go overboard trying to tweak these images in Photoshop. It looks to me as if he probably upped the contrast and lightened just a tad, enough to take away that tan haze that scanners love to cast over old Sunday pages.

My only criticism of the collection is that the image names are simply 001.jpg, 002.jpg, and so on. Though this does gives us the correct order in which to view the sections, Barli could have made the package a lot more user friendly by including the date of the sections in the file names, or even better, the date plus the titles of the strips on that page. Then I could easily navigate through the files to find all of the Panhandle Pete or Terrible Twins strips in one fell swoop.

By the way, there's no image viewer application included with these collections. That's fine by me because that sort of thing often gets in the way of the user viewing the images in the app of their choice. However, if you are computer illiterate just be aware that you simply double-click on any file name and the image will automatically be displayed by your system's default viewer application.

Big Funny
Cartoonist Conspiracy, broadsheet, 48 pages, $5
Available from

Hoo boy. Someone's going to have to explain to this clueless neophyte how you're supposed to deal with items like this. Steven Stwalley, a friend of Stripper's Guide, sent this item to me for a little blog-flogging. So I want to be positive, but my churlish need to be objective leads me down another path. So let's start with the positive -- this is one VERY cool format. I don't know how this group managed to find a printer who would tackle the job, but what we have here is a giant newspaper broadsheet 'comic section', filled with (mostly) full page comic strips. How cool is that? When it arrived my heart skipped a few beats -- I'm just not used to seeing any comics printed this large that aren't yellowed and musty.

The idea is inspired. Offer a group of cartoonists the opportunity to draw a giant full page strip just like the fabled newspaper cartoonists of the good old days. The problem is that most of the creators represented here squandered what may be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to spread their wings, or are simply not up to the task. A few did rise to the bait, like Diane Nock who offers us a beautifully designed page that riffs on classic comic strip format and conventions. There is plenty of excellent cartooning in the book, but darn few pages that make any real use of the vast acreage of newsprint that they had to work with. Many, in fact, give the impression of being blown-up comic book pages.

What was really disappointing, though, was the writing. Most of these strips reminded me of the kind of narcissistic claptrap that I remember from the lesser underground comics of the 1970s. You know, the stuff that cartoonists drew after downing a couple hits of acid with a chaser of Wild Turkey. I'm sure the creators (then and now) think they're producing amazing avant-garde works of art, but I have no patience with such self-absorbed gobbledegook. That's not to say I can't appreciate artsy comics. I'm not a troglodyte in these matters -- I read all 300 issues of Cerebus and most everything Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman have ever produced -- but most of this material is art for art's sake, and not in a good way.

I do hope that the Cartoonist Conspiracy will try this experiment again. Perhaps after seeing the first issue, these cartoonists and others will better understand the potential inherent in this classic format and rise to the occasion.


Allan, I'm sure you're aware of the "Wednesday" broadsheet publication that DC Comics has been publishing for the last three months. As with "Big Funny," there seems to be the tendency to either not understand the potential of the larger format, or the artists treat it simply as a large comic book page. The "Wonder Woman" feature even seems to be trying to fit five or six comic book pages onto one sheet, which I find just unreadable. "Kamandi" (done in a gorgeous "Prince Valiant" style) and "Strange Adventures" (which reminds me of both the early "Buck Rogers" Sunday pages and the European "Valerian" series) are, to me, the standouts in that effort.
Thanks for the review, Allan! I too hope we get around to another issue of BIG FUNNY someday. I, of course, like all the comics in the publication... but I totally agree with your criticism that a lot of the cartoonists did not take advantage of the unique format. Hopefully this will be less the case if we do it again. I was hoping to get more submissions from poster and print artists (which we have a lot of in Minneapolis), who are naturally thinking more about the design of a page as a piece of free standing art. I'm going to pursue this more aggressively if we do it again. Lonny Unitus and Jenny Schmid both have this background, and have two of the best designed pages in the publication, I think.
Hi Hugo --
I saw a sample of that DC publication online but didn't realize it was broadsheet -- just assumed it was tabloid. It's a comic book store item, right, not a newspaper insert?

Hi Steven --
Thanks for taking a less than positive review with good grace. I hope to do a rave on issue #2!

Hi Allan,

No, the DC Comics pub is not a newspaper insert, but it HAS been a weekly 12-page stand alone broadsheet publication on good ol' newsprint. The series ends next week, I believe. I hope this has been popular enough for them to continue in some form.
The first week of the Superman feature was printed in USA Today and now they are posting each new week's strip online.
Tom mentioned that USA Today was featuring the Wednesday Comics "Superman" story online - something I'd forgotten about. To me, it's one of the weakest strips in the anthology (Superman figures out that aliens are making him feel depressed). Anyhoo, here's a link to the most recent installment:
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