It’s all too easy for ardent bibliophiles (lovers of books) like myself to get burnt out, especially when it comes to comics. There’s so much published each month that your eyes will fall out of their sockets just trying to keep up with Marvel and DC, and the strain is greater when you dig into Dark Horse and Vertigo. Worse, there’s always the chance of falling back and saying there’s nothing new under the sun. That’s often how I feel after reading a comic written by Grant Morrison, or looking at the art of J.H. Williams or Frank Quitely; I say to myself, “Well, there’s nothing better out there. That’s as good as it gets…” Only recently did I realize that some of the freshest, most exciting and original comics out there are more than five decades old!
Maybe “life changing” is too great a hyperbole, but discovering old comics did indeed change me. For one, I found myself laughing while reading, and not the silent, cerabral laugh that accompanies reading something witty and sophisticated like Pride and Prejudice or The Taming of the Shrew, but the caught-off-guard, loud chuckle that books rarely inspire.
For another, old comics inspired me artistically. As I mentioned before, some art in today’s comics is so impressive it causes a backlash; in my case, I have a hard time drawing at all without thinking “Well I’ll never be better than J. H. Williams III…” Part of that feeling comes from seeing how much of contemporary comic art is done on the computer using expensive software–even inking is frequently digital now. With classic comics, what you see is largely done by hand, except for the coloring which was usually added by the printers (for more on that, click here). The thing is, although the art is “simpler” than today’s comics, it’s often quite beautiful and arresting in its own right.
So, from my own reading, I’d like to share with you just some highlights from the world of classic comics. Many of these can likely be found at your local library. I’ll go ahead and keep this brief for now, and sometime in the future I’ll write up more detailed reviews.
Whether you have seen the new Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson adaptation or not, you should check out the comic. Tintin was the life’s work of Georges Prosper Remi, better known as his alias Herge. The series is often cited as the essential example of the “ligne claire” approach, or the clean line (sometimes translated as ‘clear line’). This is a style of drawing that revolves around a very spare use of lines. There’s no cross-hatching and lines are smooth rather than jagged or rough. Take it from me, this is harder than it looks. It requires a very steady and calm hand that most people couldn’t imitate if they wanted to. Beyond the delightful art, Tintin is fun for its use of adventure and whimsical wordplay. The character Braddock has some of the zaniest dialogue you’ll find anywhere. “Billions of blistering barnacles!” Indeed.
The artistic style of Krazy Kat is in some ways the opposite of Tintin. George Herriman, who drew the comic for decades, starting around 1913, created a masterful style that looked so simple a child could draw it. To my mind, that’s the mark of a fine artist who works in comics for kids–the reader should be able to have some fun drawing the characters themselves. Krazy Kat wasn’t just for kids, in fact, it delighted a wide audience, as it ran in William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers for years across the country. The humor in Krazy Kat isn’t what you’re used to. Unlike most newspaper comics, it doesn’t insist on putting the joke at the end. Sometimes, it’s the middle of the strip that’s funny, and then it will end on a curious note (I’m definitely frequently boggled by the comic). It also helped inspire Bill Watterson to make Calvin and Hobbes and influenced the visual style of the comic Mutts.
Sure, everyone knows Peanuts (although many people refer to it as “Charlie Brown”). The Peanuts gang have entered the American collective unconscious. Even people who scorn comic books can easily pick Snoopy out of a lineup of cartoon pets, and will smile while doing so. What people seem to forget is that Peanuts is a comic that started way back in the 50s. Luckily, the good folks at Fantagraphics have set out to reprint ALL of Charles Schultz’ Peanuts work, starting chronologically. I’d recommend checking out the early work to see how different the beloved characters looked in the early years. Schultz’s style involved a thicker line back then, and combined the clean line and the jagged line in an interesting way. In later years he went for a cleaner approach. One thing’s for sure, there’s enough Peanuts comics out there to entertain fans for their entire lives.
Carl Barks’ Donald Duck:
I’ll admit, I haven’t gotten around to reading this yet, but just skimming through the pages is enough to convince me this deserves to be called a classic. Carl Barks is yet another practitioner of the clean line approach, but he switches things up by using a brush and ink that allows him to vary the thickness of the lines, which is something you don’t see much of in Tintin. For years, his work has been hard to find except by devoted collectors with a lot of money to spare, but thankfully, the folks of Fantagraphics have set out to reprint his stellar work (why the people at Disney didn’t go too far out of their way to do this, I’ll never understand). The use of solid, bright colors is also exceptional. As far as kids’ books go, this is as good as it gets. Adults in touch with their lighter sides will like this too. Jeff Smith spent a long time studying the work of Carl Barks, which is pretty clearly evident when you look at his own masterpiece Bone.
Moomin is one of the two most amusing yet bizarre comics I’ve ever found (the other one is Jim Woodring‘s Frank series). It was written and drawn by the Swedish artist Tove Jansson with help from her brother Lars Jansson. It began in the mid 1940s and continued for several decades, inspiring work in different media, including a cartoon series I’d love to find. So far, I’ve only read one volume of Moomin, but I hope to one day read the entirety of the series. The humor is very odd and very dry, and is sure to amuse fans of Rocky and Bullwinkle. I was amazed by how original it was. For example, in the story “Moomin Goes to the Wild West” the character Moominpapa accidentally mixes up the parts of a clock and a sewing machine and ends up assembling a time machine. The artwork of Moomin is wonderful because it’s always surprising. Oftentimes, panels will look simple, with little more going on than the characters talking in front of a blank backdrop, but then in the next panel there’ll be a sumptuous amount of detail. Unlike many classic comic artists, Tove Jansson had some college training in classical art, and it shows.
As surprising as it may sound, out of all of the comics I’ve read, I think I’ll have to go ahead and say Little Lulu is the funniest. The series began in 1935 as a single-panel series (like Ziggy, Family Circus, and Far-Side) by Marge Buell. After achieving popularity in the Saturday Evening Post, Marge lent her character to John Stanley and Irving Tripp, who turned it into a comic where each story spanned several pages. In honor of its creator, the series continued to be printed as “Marge’s Little Lulu,” shortened to Little Lulu only on book covers. I haven’t yet read Marge Buell’s work, but the comic by John Stanley and Irving Tripp is wonderful. The volume I’m reading even has a blurb from Harvey Pekar (American Splendor). He says “Little Lulu was one of my favorite comics as a kid. Simple enough for kids to enjoy but hip enough to make grownups laugh–it’s one of the great unsung comics.” That sums it up nicely!
So if you’ve grown weary of flashy superhero books, or are simply looking for a good laugh and a fun read, do yourself a favor and check out Tintin, Peanuts, Krazy Kat, Moomin, and Little Lulu.
Are there any classic comics you’d recommend?