If you're sick of Garfield and Mary Worth
January 19, 2014 4:57 AM   Subscribe

If the funnies in your local paper have gotten you down, with their limited space and xeroxed gags, why not take the wayback machine to the Golden Age of newspaper strips, courtesy of Gocomics' Origins of the Sunday comics? Started July last year and curated by Peter Maresca, it shows off how sophisticated and beautiful the American comic strip was almost from its birth in the 1890ties .
posted by MartinWisse (15 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Ah, broadsheets.
posted by ZeusHumms at 6:21 AM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I find myself asking why, given this kind of start, mainstream comics aren't better than they currently are.
posted by Segundus at 6:51 AM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

The extent that the newspaper comics industry has gone to commit suicide is amazing. The absurdly reduced size, the lame zombie stripts that weren't funny or interesting fifty years ago that just keep running, not nurturing new talent, aiming everything at the lowest common denominator and dropping interesting strips just because a couple of yahoos wrote angry letters to the editor, all chased away this funny pages fan.
posted by octothorpe at 7:05 AM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't think the newspaper comics industry has "commit suicide," but rather has transitioned from being a major paper seller to an expensive page-filler over the decades. Additionally, comics have been firmly relegated to "kids stuff," excluding political and public events comics and the dramatic Mary Worths and such.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:36 AM on January 19, 2014

I wish the images were larger. I find some of the small print pretty hard to read.

By the way, can anyone explain the narrative in the comic linked under "July last year"? I just can't figure out what is happening in panels 11 and 12.
posted by yoink at 7:41 AM on January 19, 2014

comics have been firmly relegated to "kids stuff," excluding political and public events

Not in my daily paper. The comics page includes Doonesbury, La Cucharacha, Candorville and Prickly City, which are all explicitly political much of the time.
posted by yoink at 7:44 AM on January 19, 2014

Segundus - I wonder the same thing, often. As a medium, comics should be the highest art: pictures plus words, what can't it do? Yet again and again huge potential has come to nothing. I'm thinking of Marvel comics in the 1960s (back when they inspired people and had new ideas), or the best French stuff.

All I can conclude is that creating great comics is very creative hard work, and takes a long time for everyone to notice. It might take ten years to get to the mainstream, an by that time the original creators have burned out, sold out, or left in frustration at employers who do not get it. (Think Kirby, Don Lawrence, etc.)

Another issue I think is pricing. There are hundreds of classic comics out there, but they are very hard to get hold of. The very few that are easy to find are eye wateringly expensive. If you want to track down classic Carl Banks or Don Lawrence or EC comics it ain't cheap (when compared with books and DVDs). And attempts at new comics are similarly eye watering. I forget the name of the British anthology that folded recently, but price must have played a part. Then we have the excellent Spaceship Away, a superb title, but few people can justify 8 quid (12 dollars) per issue.

I think one day somebody will get it right and comics will rule the world, but apparently it isn't easy.
posted by EnterTheStory at 7:44 AM on January 19, 2014

The newspaper comics get censored, but it was more like Barbara Streisand effect even before the Internet.

I read 4 webcomics a day, and it makes me laugh.
posted by saber_taylor at 7:44 AM on January 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

posted by Knappster at 8:49 AM on January 19, 2014

On the plus side, genuinely adult comics work is thriving in graphic novels. I don't mean the superhero and fantasy stuff here, but the likes of Joe Sacco, the Hernandez Brothers, Jason Lutes and Rick Geary.

We're in a real golden age for classic strip reprints too, many of which are now being collected in meticulous chronological order with no gaps, and given the highest production values imaginable. Fantagraphics alone have produced volumes like this for Peanuts, Popeye, Prince Valiant, Gasoline Alley, Krazy Kat, Pogo and many more.
posted by Paul Slade at 9:00 AM on January 19, 2014

Thanks for posting this. The comic page that greeted me was January 18's: Prof. Otto and His Auto, which is George "Krazy Kat" Herriman's first (or second) strip. I'd not heard of it, despite being a fan of the Kat and some of Herriman's other works, but I don't think I'd have identified it as being GH's. The style is almost Winsor "Little Nemo in Slumberland" McCay-ish, at the same time more delicate and kinetic than KK or The Family Upstairs. [Herriman, I now see, went through a lot more strips before hitting his masterwork than I'd realized.] So, this site has already won my gratitude.

But, yes, the parlous state of newspaper comics nowadays. I used to read the Washington Post, which boasted three or four full pages of squinchy little comics. Of which, maybe three were palatable? So, on the one hand, the early 20th-c. elbow room afforded the Herrimans, McCays, Segars, et al., def. gave them room to express their vision. On the other hand, for most of the strips in the WaPo, their squinchy slot is really more than they've earned by dint of wit or visual inventiveness.
posted by the sobsister at 9:16 AM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I love the Sunday comics. I don't even care how far they've fallen since the Calvin and Hobbes days of my youth, when my brother and I would fight over who got to read them first on the way home from church. I love the idea of Sunday comics at all.

One of the first things I missed after moving to Europe from the US was the comics page. My mom started clipping the best strips and mailing me an envelope full every few weeks, and many years later I still get them in the mail.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 9:35 AM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I can't help with Don Lawrence but, unless you're looking for the original issues, tracking down classic Carl Banks or EC comics it isn't hard. As Paul Slade mentioned, Fantagraphics, IDW and other publishers are reprinting everything they can get their hands on these days. The Sunday Press books are some of my favorites.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 10:15 AM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

"transitioned from being a major paper seller to an expensive page-filler"... that sounds like a slow-motion commercial suicide to me. Newspapers are also laying off op-ed cartoonists at an even more frightening pace. But now there really are webcomics to satisfy every taste, but the problems are (a) finding the good ones (Sturgeon's Law applies bigtime here - one out of a few dozen are really good) and (b) the lower return-on-investment (you CAN make money but it requires a lot more DIY work) often make them into part-time, when-I-get-around-to-it projects (there will be hiatuses).

Of course, for the best possible overview of the history of the comic strip biz, I recommend the still-yet-to-be-released documentary "Stripped", which ironically has taken most of the time of one of the better webcomickers ("Sheldon's" Dave Kellett) for the last two years.
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:00 PM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

It isn't immediately obvious to a modern reader what these comics represented in their day. Most people would have had a real poverty of new printed material or even any kind of vicarious experience in their lives. Absent television, films or radio, a fun evening at home might consist of going through a picture album, and obviously not for the first time. The arrival of a magazine or even a catalog was a source of genuine excitement.

In this context, these huge comics were a very big deal. We look at them now, these century-old ones in particular and often we don't see the joke... some little of that is because the humor has changed, but it's important to realize that they weren't just vehicles for a punch line; you would really look at every frame. In many of them the story, such as it is, is basically an excuse for the details it contains; a kind of escapism that a few decades later was available in more vivid form at the movies.

The shrinking of comics in some sense simply reflects its diminished role. Looked at that way it's kind of nice to realize they held up as well and as long as they did. To my mind, Calvin and Hobbes was probably the last of the classic strips in that sense, the kind where you're really meant to enjoy every single panel.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:19 PM on January 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

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