December 25, 2019
One in a weekly series of enthusiastic posts, contributed by HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of our favorite comic books, comic strips, and graphic novels.
THE SMITHSONIAN COLLECTION OF NEWSPAPER COMICS
In 1978, I was 19 years old, and preparing to move out of my parents’ house. I had dropped out of college the year before, after one semester, dealing a virtual death blow to my Jewish mom and dad (Mom: “I thought you wanted a Phi Beta Kappa key? How are you going to get one if you’re not in college?” Karen: “If it’s meant to happen, it’ll happen” — hey, it was the ’70s), and was working in a convenience store. A co-worker and I decided to get an apartment together, along with a friend of his, who had just been released from prison for grand theft auto.
It was not a high point in my life.
I was still a member of the Smithsonian Institute, though, getting my monthly magazine, when one day I got a mailer advertising a new publication, The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, edited by Bill Blackbeard. “I like newspaper comics!” I said to myself, and this was true. I was a sucker for the funnies and for New Yorker cartoons. So I sent off for this book, with no real understanding of what I was getting.
When the Very Large Parcel arrived, I opened the box, and opened the book, and opened my mind. I’d never heard of R.F. Outcault or Winsor McCay before. I knew George Herriman only from his archy and mehitabel illustrations (I’d bought a paperback collection in high school), and Krazy Kat only from the unimpressive animated cartoons, which firmly gendered Krazy as female.
I turned page after page. Jimmy Swinnerton! Lyonel Feininger! Frederic Opper! Johnny Gruelle! Bud Fisher when Mutt and Jeff was still funny! The first several pages were riotous Sunday strips from the 1900s and 1910s, and I had never seen anything like them before. It wasn’t just the quaint historicity — although that was a factor; I was already a huge fan of pre-Code Hollywood film — it was the uncontained creativity. Crazed characters, psychedelic colors, inventive panel layouts, not to mention the fight clouds, fer Pete’s sake. Raised on my own newspaper’s Mary Worth and Funky Winkerbean, these strips were a complete revelation. Reading this book from beginning to end was the equivalent of watching the comics medium be invented, right before my eyes.
Over the years, I would pull down this huge volume and consume it again and again, from Hogan’s Alley to Doonesbury. I’d discover old friends: oh, look! The New Yorker’s Rea Irvin is in there! And there’s Peter Newell from The Slant Book! The mind-bending comic art of those early strips prepared me for my next big love affair, with the European cartoonists of Heavy Metal. And when, after I returned to college (getting that Phi Beta Kappa key, Mom), then grad school, then library school, and started to wonder what was happening with comics… well, that brought me to the job I have now.
SERIOCOMIC: Mimi Lipson on LITTLE LULU | Sara Ryan on AMPHIGOREY | Gary Panter on THE NUT BROS./THE SQUIRREL CAGE | Gordon Dahlquist on POGO | Robert Wringham on VIZ | Matthew De Abaitua on CAPTAIN BRITAIN | Jessamyn West on FUN HOME | Bradley Peterson on HELLBOY | Stephanie Burt on KITTY PRYDE RETURNS | Jenny Davidson on OOR WULLIE | Luc Sante on MARSUPILAMI | Susan Roe on BLOOM COUNTY | Marilyn Berlin Snell on CHARLES ADDAMS | Deb Chachra on ARKHAM ASYLUM | Judith Zissman on ERNIE POOK’S COMEEK | Alexandra Lange on BETTY (ARCHIE) | Catherine Newman on VERONICA (ARCHIE) | Josh Glenn on SPIRE CHRISTIAN COMICS | Adam McGovern on THE CREW | William Nericcio on ERRATA STIGMATA | Chelsey Johnson on DYKES TO WATCH OUT FOR | Sherri Wasserman on TANK GIRL | Tom Nealon on MEGATON MAN | Erin M. Routson on THE WEDDING OF SCOTT SUMMERS & JEAN GREY | Douglas Wolk on FRANK IN THE RIVER | Annie Nocenti on DICK TRACY | James Parker on 2000 AD | Adrienne Crew on NUTS | Vanessa Berry on MEAT CAKE | John Holbo on WITZEND | Michael Campochiaro on SPIDER-WOMAN | Miranda Mellis on RED SONJA & BÊLIT | Michael Grasso on THE NEW MUTANTS | Ty Burr on BINKY BROWN | Bishakh Som on AMAR CHITRA KATHA | Mark Kingwell on CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED | Brian Berger on JIMBO | Kenya (Robinson) on AGENT 355 | Seth on THE ETERNALS ANNUAL | Susannah Breslin on SLASHER | Lisa Kahlden on JACK CHICK TRACTS | Mandy Keifetz on KRAZY KAT | Tom Devlin on DUM-DUM POSSE READER | Eric Reynolds on ACTION COMICS #460 | Rick Pinchera on EIGHTBALL #16 | Juan Recondo on DAYTRIPPER | Elizabeth Foy Larsen on ROZ CHAST | J.E. Anckorn on HALO JONES | Deborah Wassertzug on GREAT POP THINGS | Peggy Nelson on MAD MOVIE SATIRES | Holly Interlandi on ANGEL SANCTUARY | Karen Green on THE SMITHSONIAN COLLECTION OF NEWSPAPER COMICS.
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