fredag 7 januari 2011

Judith O'Sullivan: "The Great American Comic Strip"

Finished Judith O'Sullivan's "The Great American Comic Strip", a review of US (not entirely excusively) newspaper comics from the 1890s onwards.

Unfortunately, O'Sullivan starts off the book with a big whopper, namely that the medium of comics was invented in US newspapers, which sort of ignores not just Töpffer but a bunch of other folks, but the book gets better after that. She discusses how the early comics business evolved, delver extra deep into a few of the early strips like "Little Nemo" and "Krazy Kat", looks at how various genres developed, and also looks at how the changes that American society has gone through have impacted the comics. I appreciate that O'Sullivan makes the effort to analyse strips, as that makes the book more interesting to read, even if I don't always agree entirely with her. I won't go into big detail here, just bring up a few points she makes that I found interesting (from my notes; largely quoting O'Sullivan directly):

• Although weekly illustrated newspapers such as Gleason’s (1852), Leslie’s (1855), and Harper’s (1857) achieved immediate popularity, it was the invention of photoengraving in 1873 that made possible for the first time inexpensive newspaper reproduction. American newspapers became at once more pictorial and more plentiful.

• The young Windsor McCay had jobs like sign painter, scenic artist for a freak show in Cincinnati, poster painter, and a traveling performer on the vaudeville stage. His decade of close contact with the bizarre left an imprint on McCay, whose later work is replete with carnival motifs, including distortions based on trick mirrors, exotic animals, clowns, and dancers. Much of the imagery in “Little Nemo” is borrowed from the art nouveau vocabulary – peacocks, lilies, swans, and water flora abound. Added to this vocabulary is his own carnival experience –exotic animals etc. Presaging Surrealism, appearances are unstable, nature is hostile, objects come together in irrational conjunctions, mechanical devices are frequently threatening.
• Herriman’s mature style, achieved from 1913 to 1925, is characterized by vast vistas through which miniscule characters pass, and by low horizon lines, spatial plenitude, infinite regression, calligraphic pen strokes, and literary whimsicality. His later style, 1925-1944, is marked by full frames of standard size, high horizon lines, limited spatial recession, formulaic and repetitive landscapes dominated by large figures seen close up. The diminished artistic interest is compensated for by its vigorously virile poetic power, incorporating African-American folk idiom.

• In 1896, he was moved by “The Rising Generation”, a drama featuring Irish actor Bill Barry, and felt that a knockout strip could be created using the idea behind the play, the experiences of a laborer’s family suddenly becoming wealthy.  After “The Newlyweds” (1904), McManus created “Bringing Up Father” in 1913, about the Irish former hod carrier Jiggs and his wife, former washerwoman Maggie. The style would later be termed art deco. Jiggs’s ebony tuxedo symbolized the confinement of his upper-crust lifestyle, which he constantly tried to escape.

• In “Blondie”, Chic Young established a triangle similar to that of Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, “Death of a Salesman”: the capricious boss, the wage-slave husband, and the family whose financial demands forever yoke husband to boss.

• The domestic strips were originally intended to attract an audience of the increasing numbers of young women entering the work force – Cliff Sterrett’s 1912 “Polly and Her Pals”, Martin Branner’s 1920 “Winnie Winkle, the Breadwinner”, and Russ Westover’s 1921 “Tillie the Toiler”. As time passed, their fashion-plate protagonists became flappers, matured, married, and followed the same life cycle as their readers – except that in the papers’ self-censorship, the depiction of birth and death was forbidden.

• Harold Gray, Chester Gould and Al Capp, the big right-wing trio, created a dark vision of America, where the urban hells and rural retreats of their strips reflected the broken dreams of a generation. Common themes of "Little Orphan Annie" were the demise of the small businessman, the loss of the family farm, and the triumph of the international financier; and "Dick Tracy" and "Li'l Abner" depicted the breakdown of law and order and many aspects of class and gender warfare. (Still, let's not forget that for all his conservatism, Gray showed a strong young woman in his strip – something that contrasts favorably with the often misogynistic underground comics that are sometimes seen as more "progressive"...)

I won't recap the whole book, so I'll just wrap up with recommending it. This is a good book, even if 150 pages is a bit short for the subject. I still hold Brian Walker to have written the so far best book on the American newspaper comics, but this is well worth reading. Recommended.

Addendum: Many of those early comic strips are just terrible storytelling. Thank goodness for the true storytelling artists who would emerge – and I'll quote Milt Caniff on how he did it, because he was one of the greats: "Use motion picture techni(que) in the execution. First panel: Long shot with the speaking characters in the middle foreground. Second panel: Medium shot with dialogue to move the plot along. Third panel: Semi-closeup to set reader for significant last speech. Fourth panel: Full closeup of speaking character with socko line."

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