There’s that line in a Paul Simon song: ”It’s every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.” Yes, and a few comic-strip characters, too. It’s Calvin and Hobbes this year. A decade ago it was Garfield and Opus. Before them? Zonker Harris and Duke. Hagar. Cathy. Miss Peach. Charlie Brown. Pogo. And on back for almost a century. Barney Google. Maggie and Jiggs. Mutt and Jeff. Buster Brown. The Katzenjammers.
Some comic-strip characters stick around a long time, outliving their creators — the Wallets of Gasoline Alley have been in the papers every day since 1918. Others — like Andy Gump and Abie the Agent — are hot for a year, or 10, or 20, then vanish. And when they’re gone, they’re gone.
Well, not quite. You won’t find Rube Goldberg’s Boob McNutt in your funnies this weekend, or Fred Opper’s Happy Hooligan, or Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby, but you can find them all, in the swell company of other rambunctious stars from yesteryear, in The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, a sumptuous treat that provides a full education about our liveliest branch of pop culture. For those after more than a generous sampling, a number of publishers have inaugurated ambitious projects that bring partial or complete runs of America’ca’omic-strip ”classics” back, this time on good paper and in book form. Here are the most interesting:
The Complete Little Nemo in Slumberland
Winsor McCay’s masterpiece about a dark-haired boy’s dream adventures in a surreal metropolis populated by storybook royalty and flying whatthamacallits was published in the New York Herald from 1905 till 1911. A tour de force of design and draftsmanship, though often clunky in dialogue, Little Nemo remains one of the treasures of comic art.
The Komplete Kolor Krazy Kat
Krazy & Ignatz: The Komplete Kat Komics
The premise was as simple as it was mad: dog loves cat, cat loves mouse, mouse loves no one, but he sure does loathe that cat! George Herriman launched Krazy Kat in 1911, and from then till his death in 1944, he turned that simple, loony, unpromising premise into what’s generally regarded as the greatest comic strip ever. Whimsy, poetry, pathos, masochism, and slapstick were all played out against the buttes, cacti, and ever-changing pastel mesas of a surreal Arizona desert.
The Complete Color Polly and Her Pals
Launched in 1913 to appeal to that era’s ”New Woman” (middle class and yearning to breathe free, or at least smoke a cigarette indoors), Cliff Sterrett’s Polly and Her Pals quickly changed into something quite different: a gag strip full of Dickensian screwballs with cubist and Dada visuals borrowed from the Armory Show. In 1935, Sterrett abandoned the daily strip and devoted his energies to this Sunday Polly, which remains one of the most graphically innovative comics ever produced. Yeah, yeah, but is it funny? Very.
The Complete E.C. Segar Popeye
Elzie Crisler Segar’s Thimble Theatre, a send-up of Victorian melodramas, had been running for 10 years in Hearst newspapers when a squinty-eyed sailor with forearms like prrvolones appeared one day in January 1929. Popeye proved such an instant hit with readers that Segar recast his strip, booting out most of the regular characters (except for a strident stringbean named Olive Oyl) and putting his gruff sailor man at the helm. From then until the creator’s death nine years later, Thimble Theatre sizzled with antic invention and introduced a gallery of exuberant oddballs. Peerless.
Little Orphan Annie
The real Orphan Annie wouldn’t have been caught dead trilling “Tomorrow” in FDR’s Oval Office. The dime-eyed ward of a munitions billionaire spent most of the Depression selling apples, riding boxcars, and dodging busybodies from the social welfare agencies — when she wasn’t helping her “Daddy” Warbucks outfox Wall Streeters, swarthy “foreign agents,” and pinko union “racketeers.” Creator Harold Gray used his strip to preach the 19th-century social gospel of American pluck and inde-goldarn-pendence and caught hell for it. He was a writer’s cartoonist and a serious man, and this is a very serious comic strip. The sun never comes out tomorrow — never!
Nancy Eats Food; How Sluggo Survives; Nancy Dreams & Schemes
Art Spiegelman, creator of Maus, claims it’s harder not to read a Nancy strip than it is to read it, and therein lies the peculiar charm of Ernie Bushmiller’s immortal creation. This is cartooning stripped to the basics. Sure, the gags are juvenile, but that was just the point — it was a kid’s first comic strip. Grown-ups can admire the craft.
The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy
Dick Tracy in the Thirties: Tommyguns and Hard Times
On October 16, 1931, something brand-new entered newspaper comic strips: cold- blooded murder. With the slaying of old Pop Truehart on that Friday in the very first week of Dick Tracy, the violence taboo was swept away. Chester Gould did it first, and he always did it grislier. A weird, demented, and (no kidding) outrageously funny American Gothic.
Flash Gordon, Volume 1: Mongo, Planet of Doom
Comparing a Flash Gordon Sunday page to anything that’s been around for the past several decades is like comparing the Andes to a speed bump. Inspired by the great magazine illustrators of the ’20s, Alex Raymond aimed to boggle the eye — and succeeded. His science fiction, though, often tended to be stodgy and his characterizations as flat as, well, paper. For 50 years, comic-book artists have been swiping compositions from Flash Gordon. It set the standard.
Li’l Abner, Volumes 1-10
When Al Capp retired Li’l Abner in 1977, after 43 years, he was better known as a strident misanthrope than as the man who’d created Dogpatch and Lower Slobovia, the Shmoos, the Kigmies, Fearless Fosdick, and Sadie Hawkins Day, and who’d once been called — by John Steinbeck, no less — the greatest satirist since Jonathan Swift. It was a sad end to one of the most brilliant careers in American cartooning. Kitchen Sink’s gorgeously produced series should reestablish the Capp reputation. Maybe not Swift, but surely as good as Mark Twain.
The Phantom Sundays, Volumes 1-8
The first masked adventurer in comics, Lee Falk’s Phantom has been waging war against jungle pirates, poachers, and corrupt potentates since February 17, 1936. Pioneer’s collections of Sunday episodes begin in March 1946 and continue chronologically, featuring the last several months of artist Ray Moore’s work on the feature and the first few years of Wilson McCoy’s. Slam- bang Saturday serial stuff — predictable, maybe, but fun. The Phantom vs. The Sky Maidens is a sampling of daily strips from the earlier, darker, pulpier days of the its run.
The Complete Terry and the Pirates
Terry and the Pirates
Some comic strips are born great; others have greatness thrust upon them. Here was young Milton Caniff back in the late 1930s, turning out a solid adventure strip about a storybook China, when current events suddenly threw him one heck of a curve. When the Japanese invaded Manchuria, Caniff had to decide whether to ignore the news or incorporate it into his plots. To his everlasting credit, he threw out the river pirates and brought in the “invader,” and Terry and the Pirates became the great strip of World War II. The Casablanca of comics.
Pogo, Volume 1
Pogo & Albert: The Complete Pogo Comics
Though Simon & Schuster regularly publishes Pogo collections, fans of Walt Kelly’s Okefenokee menagerie have never had the chance — till now — to see this bona fide classic develop in sequence. Fantagraphics aims to reprint the complete Pogo comic strip, beginning with 1948, when it ran in only one newspaper, the short-lived New York Star, and continuing through 1973. Meanwhile, Eclipse has been reprinting the original Pogo (be warned, folks: He looks like a rat!) that Kelly created for comic books shortly after leaving the Disney studio in 1942.
Now that public libraries, and — to a degree — chain bookstores have shown some interest, the future of classic-comics reprinting looks good. The Yellow Kid, created by Richard Outcault in 1895 and considered the first real comic strip, is being published by Eclipse in time for Christmas. Also coming: Alley Oop, Frank Frazetta’s Johnny Comet, several more full-color volumes of Harold Foster’s majestic Prince Valiant, and — just maybe — Frank King’s great Gasoline Alley.
We’re not likely to see these kinds of strips again in our Sunday papers, but it’s nice to know that what used to be hasn’t been lost forever. And it’s even nicer to lay on the floor with your ankles crossed and read ’em.