Friday, October 19, 2012
News of Yore: The First Serious Newspaper Strip Collector?
On Collecting Comicsby August Derleth
I began collecting comic sections longer ago than I can remember, before I was in my teens. But collecting did not amount to a serious mania until a dozen years or so ago, when I had my first volume bound. That first volume was a departure from most of those that came after, for it was put together page by page, the strips carefully pasted to book-size sheets, and then sent to the bindery. That collection, Everett True, is still one of my favorites, not alone because of the character's asperity in social comment, but because I have seldom encountered so sensible a comic. A.D. Condo died in 1926 [sic], and Everett True died with him. He began some twenty years before, initially The Outbursts of Everett True, and was, in all his long life, bested by no one with the single exception of his wife. The man who mistreated animals, the know-it-all who decided criminal trials by what he read in the newspapers, the horn-blowing nuisance who comes to call, the careless motorist or pedestrian, and many another suffered Everett True's righteous wrath; it sometimes seemed strange to me that this wrathful gentleman could be as irascible as he was in his home and thus bring himself to merit from his wife the treatment he accorded others. His common sense is memorable, and there is no comic character today who so consistently gives voice to acidulous truisms such as "The best minds in the country are those who mind their own business!" and "Put the punch into your talk, not into my ribs!" Of A.D. Condo I know nothing, save that in appearance he was mild, and probably short, a slight man; I have not the least doubt but that Everett True's opinions represented his own. Comics of far less importance were continued by other hands, but Everett, alas! was left to pass on with his creator.
Only three other comics on my shelves are bound in this particular fashion, and all three are excellent examples of what a comic artist can do in the way of portraying human nature. They are Fontaine Fox's Toonerville Folks, and J.R. William's Out Our Way, all of which are familiar to even the most casual reader of comics. But the casual reader misses in most cases the scope of these comics, he is not aware of the artist's growth, the increasing depth of his insight into human nature, he fails to understand that he may often be reading about himself, that the characters of Ahern, Williams and Fox can be picked out of any walk of life. The distinction between the larger volumes and these smaller books by Condo, Fox, Ahern, and Williams is that they are black and white comics, usually in one or two small cartoons.
A glance at this list of favorites will suffice to enable the reader of comic supplements to divide them into small defined groups:
1. comics of small town folk, pure and simple, such as Just Boy, Toonerville Folks, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn (to these I have added from time to time Armstrong's Slim Jim and the Force, Dwiggins' Nipper and Gene Byrnes' Reg'lar Fellers)
2. comics revealing a deep insight into human nature such as Out Our Way, Skippy, The Bungle Family, Our Boarding House, Tippie (to this group I have added many installments of Blosser's Freckles and His Friends, Berndt's Smitty, Cliff McBride's Napoleon and Uncle Elby, Chick [sic] Young's Blondie, Jack Callahan's Home Sweet Home, Briggs' Mr. and Mrs.)
3. pure nonsense comics, such as The Katzenjammer Kids, Bringing Up Father, Barney Google (in this category belong also the late F. Opper's Happy Hooligan and the late Segar's Popeye)
4. and finally comics in which imagination is combined not only with fantasy but with one or more of the above classifications; such comics are Little Nemo in Slumberland, Polly and Her Pals, and Krazy Kat, in all of which there is manifest not only a delightful fantasy and an excellent artistry, but often a penetrating commentary upon our times, a feature that is especially true of Krazy Kat.
Frankly, nothing that can even approach Winsor McCay's imagination and technical ability has appeared among American comics since McCay's death and the end of the Nemo series. The kingdom of Morpheus to which Litlle Nemo nightly went to sojourn for eight to fourteen cartoons is absolutely unique for its wealth of artistic detail, for the breathless scope of McCay's imagination. The cartoons had about them, too, a very special dreamlike quality, a perspective and depth inherent in powerfully imaginative drawings of buildings and scenes in the Slumberland kingdom, a quality which set them far above present-day bidders for the glory that was Little Nemo's—Davis and Falk's Mandrake the Magician, Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon, and Dick Calkins' Buck Rogers. Of these three, Raymond's Flash Gordon betrays the best imaginative power, but is still far below McCay's Little Nemo. Likewise there is no other artist in the game who can top Cliff Sterrett's curious manner, his livid colors, his strange leaning houses, his modernistic trees, nor is there anything in print to equal Herriman's Krazy Kat.
It is interesting quite apart from the collecting habit, to watch the development of comics. Few People know, for instance, that when Russ Westover started Tillie the Toiler, Mac was as tall as, if not taller than Wally, that when the late Sidney Smith gave up Old Doc Yak, he could not bear to part with Doc's old car, his 348; so he gave it to The Gumps; that several artists have drawn The Katzenjammer Kids, and that the comics running under the name of the originator, Dirks, The Captain and the Kids, are inferior to those by Knerr; that the entire group of present-day crime hunters in the comics, from Dan Dunn to Jane Arden, from Dick Tracy to Don Winslow are not nearly up to the earlier, more crudely drawn Hawkshaw the Detective. Likewise, the original Hairbreadth Harry by C.W. Kahles had it all over the present comic by that name. Few people remember King's Bobby Make-Believe, a very human comic about a boy who lived in day-dreams, but King is now well known for his Gasoline Alley, and particularly because he is one of the few comic artists who has permitted his child characters to grow older with time.
Over a period of time, many comic artists repeat themselves. On November 12, 1916 Sidney Smith's Old Doc Yak concerned itself with Doc's being startled by a great hullaballoo of people running in terror; investigation showed that they were running from Doc Yak's little son, who was pursuing them with an armful of bricks. Last year, the identical occurrence took place in The Gumps. But few, very few comics, repeat themselves with the utterly boring monotony of the two worse space-takers in the comic supplements: Jimmy Murphy's Toots and Casper, and the Buck-Stevenson Ted Towers. Even the annoying advertisements stealing space from comics are preferable to these two fillers.
The world of the comic supplements is a world in which few things change, a dream-world in which few characters ever age. The Captain, the Inspector, the Katzenjammer Kids, Jiggs, Maggie, Paw Perkins, Elmer, Pa and Cedric, Little Jimmy, Hairbreadth Harry and Belinda—all are substantially the same as they were decades ago when first they appeared. For this reason it is common in psychological parlance to think of a liking for the comics as an escape from change and life, a retreat to stable, unchanging things from the mad clamor of the world of today. This is consistent with the contemporary cloaking of simplicity with complexity; while there is a modicum of truth about it, there is little to show that a liking for comics is anything more than the manifestation of a healthy desire to laugh at the foibles of mankind, as a healthy man derides his own beliefs.
But there is more to the comics than just the comedy. Thirty-five years of comic supplements reveal in miniature the social history of our country: styles, fads, the periods' slang, history (the War comics especially), political life; but particularly and most clearly life in small towns, in city neighborhoods, in typical families of those years, revealing such life with a fidelity not found even in the histories of our time.
Labels: News of Yore
While I'm at it, I'll add that my Mom clipped and saved (in scrapbooks) many years of Terry and The Pirates, in Caniff's greatest period. I have those scrapbooks now. So if Derleth was the first comics collector, maybe my Mom was second! (She also discovered Barks in the early 50s, and introduced her kids to him. She would let us read her comics if we were careful.)