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)


Oliver said...

Cool to see the Floyd Gottfredson run on Mickey Mouse included.
No "Sam and Silo"? I guess you can't include them all

Oliver said...

Or did we mean the earlier incarnation of "Sam and Silo" called "Sam's Strip". Well, maybe we did:)

Ed Howard said...

I've seen just a few examples of Sam's Strip, but no Sam and Silo, which I've heard was much more conventional. The original looks great, and may be deserving of a place here. Thanks for bringing it up, too, since it brought to my attention that Fantagraphics is going to be publishing a new collection of the strip, possibly later this year.

Eddie Campbell said...

"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."

Not so. I also said you can widen your definition to include anything you like, but you wouldn't be adding much that is worth reading. And do remember that I said it in response to editors who had already annoyed me, and not just because of their title: '500 Essential graphic novels'. So if anything it was flavored only by annoyance. I have no use for the term 'graphic novel' or for such a wonky notion of 'essential'

best to you,

Eddie Campbell said...

ps. I know you're not talking about 'graphic novel' in the rest of your post. Good list though my own would be somewhat diifferent.

The Metabunker said...

Hey, great list! I would probably venture further back into the 19th century and integrate some of Nadar's strips for the Journal pour rire and Wilhelm Busch's Max und Moritz, at least. On the other end, any list that doesn't have Maakies amongst the best modern strips is incomplete to me :)

I'd also look abroad for great non-American 20th-century strips. The one that I immediately think of is Quino's Mafalda.

By the way, if anyone's interested, the discussion of the graphic novel tradition continued here:

Great site -- and I also dig your film site. lots of interesting stuff to read!

The Comic Book Haters said...

Great list, and great news about the Sam's Strip reprint. They printed a few in an old issue of Nemo, and they were all pretty cool.

Brubaker said...

I'd include "Conchy" by James Childress. Ran 1970-1977

Fantagraphics should look through that strip.