Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Comics: The Complete Collection

Words: Christopher Irving

When I was a kid, my public library had a copy of Bill Blackbeard's Smithsonian Book of Comic Strips, a hefty tome with matte paper between yellow covers. I toted that thing around with me for a week, gorging myself on the classic comic strips reprinted; it was my first exposure to Little Nemo in Slumberland, Dick Tracy, and Terry and the Pirates.

Historian and cartoonist Brian Walker's The Comics: The Complete Collection combines both his earlier books on the comic strip, The Comics Before 1945 and The Comics After 1945, and is a hefty book that seems to outweigh Blackbeard's book from decades before. Where Walker's book succeeds is in the author's intelligent and accessible essays, written in a tone that isn't so academic to be snotty, but informative to even a casual reader. Editorially, the book is broken up into sections by decade, with page biographies on some of the more pertinent cartoonists.

Now, where Walker falls short is in the assembly of some of these essays: why put Milton Caniff, Harold Gray, and Alex Raymond in the 1940s, when their strips (Terry and the Pirates, Little Orphan Annie, and Flash Gordon) are all iconic staples of 1930s culture, particularly Gray's socially conscious and politically conservative orphan girl. Also, there are few examples of straight strip continuities for the reader to first-hand witness the serialized nature of the great, classic strips; chances are there may have been a rights issue with all of the strip reprint licenses being gobbled up by other publishers than Abrams, but it does impact the experience of reading these strips.

Also lacking is Walker's focus on digital and web comic strips, given in the form of a short one-page post-script at the end of the book, when there is already an opportunity to mention or feature successful webstrips like Penny Arcade or even PvP.

But at the end of the day, The Comics works well as an additional resource, with its strengths in both Walker's historical essays as well as the high quality reproduction of so many classic comic strips. If you want to get the experience of reading the serialized classic strips like Gasoline Alley or Dick Tracy as such, your best bet is to find an old used copy of Smithsonian, or to pick up the specific reprint series that are out en masse. But if you're new to comic strip history, this book is a great place to start.