Thursday, September 25, 2008

Essential Comic Strips: Amy and Jordan

Mark Beyer's Amy and Jordan is a pure expression of nihilism, despair, and misfortune, each individual strip a haiku of suffering starring the luckless, pitiable title characters. It's no coincidence that Beyer's standalone book starring the same duo was titled Agony. This relentlessness makes Amy and Jordan a perfect comic strip to be read as a comic strip; other strips survive or even improve with the transition to book collections, but Beyer's malicious masterwork is best read in small doses. Read too many in one sitting and you risk being overwhelmed by Beyer's outlook, which is so stringently negative it verges on self-parody. Each strip is an utterly self-contained examination of the suffering of Amy and Jordan, a pair of sometimes-lovers who seem forced by cruel destiny to cohabit together despite their mutual antagonism and lack of affection. The horrors that befall this unlikely couple are sometimes perpetrated on each other, but more often it seems as though the world itself is conspiring against them. They are attacked by "demons carrying carving knives," they're poisoned by food gathered in the sewers, they inexplicably lose limbs or are shot, stabbed, and drowned, they're thrown away as trash; just to list a few of the nasty adventures they're put through week after week.

Sometimes Beyer's miniature tragedies have the sting of social and political commentary: the duo are poor, perpetually unable to get jobs, and Amy's degree from "Nothing School" turns out not to be much help, go figure. In one of the most horrifying episodes, Jordan walks down the street, stumbling across an injured bird, an abandoned baby lying in the gutter, and a severed human head, but he can't find the one thing he's looking for: some money to put food on the table for Amy and himself. The strip is a chilling portrait of disconnection, urban blight, drugs, and rampant crime, all of it adding up to the creation of a generation who feel constantly assaulted from all sides, unable to connect with one another. The willful absurdity of the situations is Beyer's warped version of political cartooning or caricature: through all the horrifying imagery, one can recognize the society Beyer is critiquing.

And yet, despite everything, there's a streak of cruel, bitter humor running through Amy and Jordan, and this saves the strip from being just another run-of-the-mill atrocity showcase. Beyer's humor is hard to explain, mostly because nothing about his strips seems all that funny when they're merely described. The humor is there anyway, though, in Amy and Jordan's blunt acceptance of the unspeakable tragedies that befall them, and especially in the odd, distancing way that Beyer presents these vignettes of woe. Indeed, each installment of the strip is an exercise in inventing the most illogical, ludicrous, and distracting ways of telling the supposedly central story. Beyer takes the art of the panel border to such extremes that the borders frequently overpower the actual panels. In one installment, the joke is that the borders have become so big that there is no longer space for the main characters — confined to a tall, thin rectangle where she is barely recognizable, Amy bemoans her fate and then disappears from the strip, leaving the last of these thin rectangles completely white, surrounded by the busy design of the supposed "borders." Even when things aren't quite this extreme, the strip often gives equal space to the non-narrative imagery, and in many strips the story panels alternate with equal-sized panels taken up by design elements and dividers. Sometimes, the story zigzags across the strip, forcing the reader's eye to dart snake-like across the page, as though following Amy and Jordan through a maze. In other strips, the panels are being eaten by fish, or else spiraling downward while shrinking into unreadability, the narrative collapsing into a pit. In one particularly dazzling strip, the panels are jagged vertical wisps that form wings extending from the back of an insect, who actually takes up most of the space that week. Beyer's deconstruction of his own storytelling turns each weekly strip into a dense, torturously constructed poem in which the free-ranging despair of the story sits uneasily within a framework of formal ingenuity and imagination.

Amy and Jordan is not an easy comic to get into. After all, this is a strip that ends one episode with the dubious punchline: "Someday I'll be down there under the ground. Just another piece of rotting meat helping to keep the air pure and the landscape beautiful... I can't wait." Calling Beyer's wit "gallows humor" would perhaps be understating the case. His crude, purposefully ugly drawings also take some getting used to, but his art is perfectly suited to the urban bleakness he portrays. These lumpen, misshapen characters, their heads like deformed potatoes with the orifices sloppily carved out, reflect on the outside what they must feel like inside. Moreover, their simplified, designy appearance — especially Amy's checkered dress and matching checkered hair — aligns them with the outrageous flights of fancy going on outside the panel borders. It's all part of the same ludicrous, horrifying, fascinating vision, the monstrous world flowing from Beyer's pen.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Essential Comic Strips: Krazy Kat

When I was younger, I read the comics pages of the newspaper voraciously, at any opportunity I had — good, bad, funny, unfunny, dramatic, whatever, I didn't care. I was, I'll admit, fairly indiscriminate in reading it all, though there were of course some strips I liked more than others. And there was one strip that, though I barely understood it, I felt strangely drawn to and intrigued by. That strip, of course, was George Herriman's Krazy Kat, which appeared sporadically in the local paper despite the fact that it had ceased publication with its creator's death some thirty-five years before I was even born. I didn't know that at the time, though, and its occasional appearances seemed to emanate, not from another era, but from another planet altogether. Some vagaries of syndication had doubtless brought the strip back as a space filler, and I imagine it showed up whenever the paper's editors had a little extra room for one reason or another, but it was a very odd choice for a fill-in. Its unpredictable scheduling, there one day, gone the next, only contributed to the weirdness and mystery surrounding Herriman's creation: I could expect the resolutely dull Cathy to be there anytime I picked up a paper, but Krazy Kat would only show up unexpectedly, tucked off in a corner, a self-contained little island of surreality warping my young mind before I'd ever even heard the word "surreal."

At the time, I didn't quite get the strip and chalked it up to my age. I read every word of Krazy Kat every time I stumbled upon it, and loved its nonsense language, stylized art, and weird non-plot, but it always seemed like it was going over my head; I figured it was one of those things that, as parents love to say when a conversation gets uncomfortable, I'd understand once I got older. In the consistently juvenile funny pages of the late 80s and early 90s, Krazy Kat's sporadic resyndication was an icon of adulthood for me, probably the first hint I ever got that there were comics that were not exactly intended for little kids to read. In some ways, I was right, and rediscovering Krazy Kat as an adult is one of the great joys of comics. And yet, in many other ways, my reaction to the strip hasn't changed as much as I would've guessed as a kid: it still seems weird and utterly sui generis, its nonsense language still occasionally puzzles me, and possibly the most important thing I understand about Krazy now is that it is really not meant to be completely understood at all. Surrealism is its essential character, a surrealism rooted in every aspect of the strip, from its anthropomorphic characters to its shifting backgrounds that destabilize the sense of location to its periodic breaking of the fourth wall to its punning, multilingual dialogue and narration, which return language to its roots in Babel.

I won't bother to summarize Krazy Kat in too much depth. By now, every comic fan should know that the strip centers around an unrequited love triangle featuring an androgynous cat (Krazy) who loves the mouse (Ignatz) who continually beans him with bricks. Krazy takes these bricks, with great delight, as love tokens, while the third figure of the triangle, the dog Officer Pupp, has his own affection for Krazy and protects him/her from Ignatz by chasing and jailing the angry, violent rodent. All of this takes place, in one strip after another, in an amorphous Southwestern desert where the scenery, and even the time of day, changes unpredictably from one panel to the next. Herriman wrung an endless variety and depth from his basic scenario, which changes in its particulars from one strip to the next but always maintained the same dynamic: cat loves mouse, dog loves cat, mouse hates everyone. The setup has allowed for endless interpretations, some centering around Krazy's androgynous sexuality, some on the ethnic and racial flavor of the strip's babbling language, some on the emotional undercurrents in the love story, some on the surrealism of the art and narrative: all are valid, because Krazy Kat's iconic simplicity and ambiguousness allow for a virtually unlimited array of ideas to graft themselves onto it.

Analyzing the strip in this way can be interesting, but the real appeal of Krazy Kat lies not necessarily in its social, racial, or sexual shadings, but in its pure, undiluted artistry. Herriman's design sense was unparalleled, especially in his Sunday pages, where — except for a period of syndicate-mandated formats in the mid-1920s — his style was totally unfettered and unconstrained by any rules. Herriman was a stylist before anything else: whenever he was let free from restrictions, as he was in the daily strips at several points in the 1920s, his formats evolved away from the staid panel-by-panel layouts of his contemporaries, towards inventive layouts that made use of the space he was given as a whole design unit. The "panoramic" dailies collected in Fantagraphics' The Kat Who Walked In Beauty are evidence of Herriman's keen eye for design, turning each daily strip into a mini-Sunday where the panel borders disappear or are reconfigured into unusual designs. Whenever he was able to, he thought of the space he had not in terms of panels that could divide images from one another, but in terms of the totality of the page, the way a whole strip or page could work together, combining individual images into a unified design. During the mid-1920s, edicts from Hearst forced Herriman to draw his Sunday pages in relatively conventional layouts of rectangular panels, but as soon as these restrictions were lifted, he immediately returned to the idiosyncratic design of his earlier and later work. His style evolved over time, too, from the wordy early pages with their many tiny panels and bursts of effusive, heavily stylized narration, to a more streamlined approach in the later pre-color years, gradually moving towards a more laconic style when the Sunday pages were finally printed in color, Herriman seeming to realize that the bold primary colors of the Hearst printing presses were best suited to large, dramatic images and minimal text.

Herriman's stylistic evolution over the years indicates his primary concern with the formal properties of his chosen artform. In his hands, the eternal story of Krazy, Ignatz, and Officer Pupp became an excuse for endless riffs and inspired flights of imagination flowing from his pen, a process that was sometimes literalized in strips where pens, ink, and references to the cartoonist entered the strip in a meta-commentary on the art. My young self thought he didn't really get Krazy Kat, that he'd understand more of it when he "grew up," but actually he got more than he realized about what really mattered with Herriman's art: the pure joy of the energetic drawing, the striking designs, the improvisatory beauty devised from the continually recycled plot and its many variations, so often compared to jazz.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Essential Comic Strips: Revisions and Discussion

You may notice that the list of "essential" comic strips, seen in the side panel or in the original post, has been updated following input from commenters at several places, most notably on the message board for The Comics Journal and the Cerebus Yahoo group. The list still does not include every strip that could arguably be called classic or essential by strip fans, but I hope it does provide an interesting overview of the medium's hundred-year history and broad potential. The discussion surrounding the initial list has prompted me to make a few clarifications, as follows:

- I liked Andrew Mansell's defense of the idea of canons so much that I should certainly quote it here: "Why a canon? This could go back and forth forever, but the best reason for a canon is so it can be used as a basis for quality going forward. Argue all you want about the Fantagraphics Top 100; nearly 10 years later, it holds up pretty well and it has established a benchmark... Without a canon, there is just too much material and not enough time. A canon can be a guideline that can be reviewed and updated and argued about!" I couldn't have said it better myself, and Andrew succinctly captures the intent of this project: to provide a list that, while not definitive in itself, will provide a basis for debate and learning and, of course, reading!

- The list now includes single-panel cartoons along with multi-panel strips. I was initially indecisive about this. However, I decided it made more sense to include them than not, since both single panels and strips were designed for the same medium and share real estate with one another in the newspaper comic pages. The difference between the single panel and the daily strip is akin to the difference between a daily and a Sunday strip: primarily one of breadth and space rather than a fundamental distinction that should cause separation. Moreover, the fluidity of the format often allowed daily strips to morph into panels or vice versa, either for sporadic single installments or as a more permanent switch. Gasoline Alley, for one, started its life as a panel and sporadically returned to the format in its daily installments before becoming a multi-panel strip for good.

- I have also decided to include alternative strips within the purview of this list. The presence of Jules Feiffer's eponymous Village Voice strip in the original list already opened the door to letting in other cartoonists whose work might appear in alt-weeklies or other oddball venues rather than in large newspapers. There is no fundamental difference in format between Feiffer or Zippy the Pinhead and, say, Cathy: only a difference in mass appeal and target audiences. For this reason, it makes sense to include several of the great alternative strips in this list alongside their more widely read newspaper brethren. In particular, I'd be remiss in not singling out Mark Beyer's remarkable Amy and Jordan, which makes the most inventive and original use of the comic strip format I've ever seen.

- The initial inclusion of The Spirit in this list was, upon reflection, a mistake. Eisner's Spirit, good as it was, was also quite different in format from anything else appearing in newspapers. The multi-page stories certainly belong more obviously with the then-developing comic book medium, rather than the newspaper strips, which were always confined to a single page at most. Eisner's work arguably straddled both worlds, but his superhero-influenced main character and longer page counts move him much closer to the burgeoning comic book medium. The Spirit definitely belongs on a different list.

- In addition to these theoretical adjustments, I have also simply added some strips that originally fell through the cracks more from personal taste than any fundamental criteria of the list. My own taste for early humor strips is fairly limited, which is perhaps why I needed other voices urging me to include Barney Google and Bringing Up Father, two strips for which I can say I appreciate their importance and artistry, but have no real personal fondness for them. They're added now anyway, as are several other strips which missed the cut only from unforgivable ignorance, now remedied (Sam's Strip, King Aroo).

- Finally, so many people have questioned the inclusion of Boondocks that I feel I have to specially defend its presence now, before going into more detail when it gets its own post. Nobody would contend that Aaron McGruder has the draftsmanship or artistic verve of a Herriman or Segar: simply put, he doesn't, not even close. But then again, in the newspaper pages of the last few decades, I'd be hard-pressed to identity any artists who do come close. What McGruder does have is a caustic, inventive wit and a blunt sense of social commentary that, combined, briefly made Boondocks the most refreshing, exciting, and enjoyable piece of real estate on the comics pages. I can still remember my first encounters with his angry, virulently political strip standing out on pages cramped with dull, repetitive, unfunny variations on familiar formulas. And his post-9/11 strips managed to respond intelligently and fearlessly to the growing jingoism, blind patriotism, and censorious impulses already swirling around in that time period, and which would soon after reach full flower. Those strips were bracing then, and now seem perceptive and prophetic of the ways in which 9/11 would be exploited in the following years.

Anyway, the list is now more or less in its final form, though I reserve the right to return with further modifications. Posts on the individual entries will begin appearing soon.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Essential Comic Strips: Introduction

The idea of a comics canon has continued to be a recurring topic for many fans of the artform. Comics are just over 100 years old now, but for such a young art there seems to be strikingly little agreement about the key works of comics. According to Eddie Campbell, there are only "a few dozen so-called 'graphic novels' worth reading," though this pronouncement is surely flavored by Campbell's well-known preciseness about what constitutes a "graphic novel" in the first place. Countering him, Alan David Doane presents a list of "100 must-read graphic novels," but his list is marred by an imprecise definition of the graphic novel that includes things that would be excluded by even the most inclusive definition: collected newspaper strips and multi-creator anthologies, for example. Matthias Wivel is more exact in his definition, as well as more catholic in the types of comics he considers, and the result is a list that makes sense as a consideration of one particular trend in comics history: the long-form, finite story or self-contained short story collection.

These lists, and the discussion surrounding them, made me think about the idea of assembling a comics canon in a more meticulous, inclusive way. Lists of comics make little sense when newspaper strips sit up against modern independent graphic novels and serialized superhero stories. How to compare Mark Newgarden's short story "Love's Savage Fury" to a run on Amazing Spider-Man or Chris Ware's massive Jimmy Corrigan graphic novel? How to rank Charles Schulz's 50-year endeavor on Peanuts in comparison to an issue of a comic series or an anthology of gag panels? The artform of comics permits a fairly wide variety of expression, and comics of varying lengths and formal properties have been collected in an equally large range of media, from newspapers to comic pamphlets to bound books to the Internet. This heterogeneity in publication format makes it difficult to come up with a broad comics canon that makes sense of the full range of potential that the artform can contain. This is one reason why my previous effort at assembling a comics canon at this site was short-lived and abortive.

As a result, I've come to the conclusion that we can only make sense of the comics canon by considering like works in relation to one another, rather than to the entirety of the comics artform. It seems to me that, instead of there being one monolithic comics canon that encompasses everything, there are in fact many smaller canons: of newspaper strips, underground comics, superhero comics, genre comics (war, horror, sci-fi), modern independent comics. This is the genesis of my current project, which will attempt to form the outlines for some of these miniature canons, starting with a list of essential newspaper strips, from the dawn of the artform up to the present day. The list below is my own impression of what the canon might look like for comic strips, starting with a list of 30 works that can be considered absolutely essential to an understanding of this subset of comics. In assembling this list, I did not consider historical importance as a particularly heavy weight if the comic itself has not held up so well over time — thus, no Yellow Kid — and I realize that to some extent this list is inevitably flavored by my own personal tastes. There is perhaps a bias towards graphically striking artistry and inventive design rather than strips in which the writing is the focus, though this tendency is reversed in the few strips included from the latter half of the 20th Century.

This is not intended, as it stands, to be a definitive list, and I encourage input from readers as to what is missing. It is highly likely that I will be adding more entries to the list at some point, and I hope there will be some discussion in the comments section about what constitutes an essential newspaper strip. In the coming months, I will be writing about the individual strips included on this list, not necessarily in any order, though eventually I hope to have a post up about each strip. I will also be developing some of the other specific canons I mentioned above, leading towards a meta-canon that will truly encompass the broad boundaries of the comics artform without pretending that all comics are the same. In the meantime, here is the first draft of my comic strip canon.

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend (Winsor McCay, 1904-13)
Little Nemo In Slumberland (Winsor McCay, 1905-13, 1924-27)
The Kin-der Kids/Wee Willie Winkie's World (Lyonel Feininger, 1906-07)
Polly and Her Pals (Cliff Sterrett, 1912-58)
Krazy Kat (George Herriman, 1913-44)
Bringing Up Father (George McManus, 1913-54)
Gasoline Alley (Frank King, 1918-69)
Thimble Theater (E.C. Segar, 1919-38)
Barney Google (Billy de Beck, 1919-42)
Little Orphan Annie (Harold Gray, 1924-68)
Wash Tubbs/Captain Easy (Roy Crane, 1924-43)
Fritzi Ritz/Nancy (Ernie Bushmiller, 1925-82)
Mickey Mouse (Floyd Gottfredson, 1930-76)
Dick Tracy (Chester Gould, 1931-77)
White Boy/Skull Valley (Garrett Price, 1933-36)
Little Joe (Ed Leffingwell, 1933-72)
Silly Symphony/Donald Duck (Al Taliaferro, 1934-69)
Flash Gordon/Jungle Jim (Alex Raymond, 1934-43)
Terry and the Pirates (Milton Caniff, 1934-46)
The Ambassador/The Little King (Otto Soglow, 1934-75)
Prince Valiant (Hal Foster, 1937-71)
Up Front (Bill Maudlin, 1940-45)
Gordo (Gus Arriola, 1941-85)
Barnaby (Crockett Johnson, 1942-52)
Buz Sawyer (Roy Crane, 1943-89)
Steve Canyon (Milton Caniff, 1947-88)
Pogo (Walt Kelly, 1948-75)
King Aroo (Jack Kent, 1950-65)
Peanuts (Charles Schulz, 1950-2000)
Dennis the Menace (Hank Ketcham, 1951-2001)
Feiffer (Jules Feiffer, 1956-2000)
Sam's Strip (Jerry Dumas, 1961-63)
Doonesbury (Garry Trudeau, 1970-present)
Zippy the Pinhead (Bill Griffith, 1976-present)
Bloom County (Berkeley Breathed, 1980-89)
The Far Side (Gary Larson, 1980-95)
Calvin & Hobbes (Bill Watterson, 1985-95)
Amy and Jordan (Mark Beyer, 1988-96)
Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer (Ben Katchor, 1988-present)
Leviathan (Peter Blegvad, 1991-99)
Boondocks (Aaron McGruder, 1999-2006)