If there is one thing I enjoy collecting more than toys, it has to be books. I like books in all shapes and sizes, but mostly concentrate on biographies, books on history, art, and films. But one genre is the most near and dear to my heart: compilations of classic comic strips.
I think my love affair with the art and stories of yesteryear was first kindled when my parents gave me The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics one year for Christmas. I think it was 1980, because the previous year they had given me the Abbeville Press book of Mickey Mouse strip reprints. I guess because I wore out the poor Mickey Mouse book they figured that I liked the old comic strips…and I did! In fact, I started collecting comics after looking for new comic strip collections led me to the then new phenomenon of comic shops. I eventually found all of the Disney “Best Comics” books, but the Smithsonian volume had turned me on to much more than just Disney; there was the non-stop adventure of Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs and Cap’n Easy, the hard boiled detective work of Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, the dogged determination of Harold Gray’s Annie and Sandy, the everyday living adventures of Frank King’s Gasoline Alley, Billy DeBeck’s Barney Google, and Frank Willard’s Moon Mullins and the surreal and mesmorizing artwork of Cliff Sterrett, Milt Gross, George Herriman, and Windsor McKay.
But the one strip that really grabbed me (outside of Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey and Carl Bark’s Duck stories) was the absurdist fantasy world of E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre, aka Popeye (At one point, I thought I would even make the ‘definitive’ Popeye website!). Now, growing up with classic cartoons on tv every afternoon in the 70s had given me an already healthy appreciation of the spinach-eating sailor. But that Popeye was nowhere near as rich a character as the one to be found in the original run of comic strips. Sadly, what passed for Popeye in the comic pages of the day was a pale imitation of ‘gag-a-day’ strips done by Segar’s old assistant, Bud Sagendorf. And Popeye was by no means alone in this regard: Mickey, Moon Mullins, Barney Google (now Snuffy Smith) and others had all been reduced to simple comedy, eschewing more complicated continuities and abdication almost all storytelling to comic books and TV. Even those strips like Dick Tracy and Mary Worth that still continued to run longer storylines couldn’t hold a candle to their glory days. And don’t even get me started on the newspaper version of Spider-Man, where sometimes it took weeks for Peter Parker to walk out of his apartment door!
But it turned out that I was in luck! I was growing up at just the right time, as numerous publishers had seen fit to reprint selected titles from the Golden age of newspaper strips, most likely in response to Bill Blackbeard’s Smithsonian volume. Shel Dorf was reprinting numerous title with his Blackthorne label, Bill Blackbeard was covering Wash Tubbs & Easy (and an ill-fated attempt at reprinting the Gottfredson’s Mickeys), Another Rainbow was publishing a massive B&W Carl Bark’s Library, and Kitchen Sink was undertaking the first comprehensive reprinting of Li’l Abner, from 1934 to 1977! Even better, Fantagraphics begin publishing a magazine devoted to comics strips, Nemo, a selection of Little Orphan Annie books, and the jewel in the crown: The Complete E.C. Segar Popeye.
I gobbled up all of these books and devoured them time and again. The intricacy of the art and the cinematic nature of the storytelling all left me lamenting the state of the modern comics page. But at least I had the reprints…for a time. By the early 90s a shift had taken place. Video games and “grim ‘n gritty’ comics were crowding out simpler fare, and by the middle of the decade even the last of the reprints had died out. Collections of classic strips would be all but forgotten. But there were a few signs of life: DC Comics had been publishing archives of Will Eisner’s Spirit since the late 90s, and in recent years both Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side debuted single volume collections that contained EVERY strips from each’s respective runs. But classic strips still had not gotten their due. Until 2004, that is. That’s when our old friends at Fantagraphics were able to fulfill a lifelong dream of theirs: comprehensively reprinting Charles Shultz’s Peanuts in chronological order (which amazingly had never been done). The sales of these initial volumes far exceeded expectations, leading to a new boom in reprints- not only are the old strips being rediscovered, but this time around (unlike in the 80s) they are being given the upscale designer treatment with heavy stock, handsome covers, and in some cases full color Sundays at the original publication sizes.
In the past year we’ve seen new editions of Buz Sawyer, Peanuts, Gasoline Alley, Dennis the Menace, Dick Tracy, Mary Perkins, Li’l Abner, Steve Canyon, and yes, Popeye, finally printed in a huge edition complete with color Sunday pages. And even more are coming in the future? Who knows. Even though I really would like to see someone tackle Annie and Moon Mullins, my biggest wish would be for Disney to recognize the market out there for a quality B&W reprinting of the Mickey Mouse strips in chronological order. They’ve never been reprinting unedited since publication. But with sequences like this they probably will never have the guts to release it. Which is why I blew a few hundred bucks last year on decent quality xeroxes of the fabled Comic Buch Club Germany portfolio. Still, I’d much rather have a nice clean official version. If these compilations continue to do well in the marketplace, I may yet get my wish someday. And they we might even see toys based on the classic Gottfredson Mouse and Barks Ducks! Oh, and if you really want a good look at the sorry state of today’s comic strips, why not give The Comics Curmudgeon a read?