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.

1 comment:

Oliver said...

I for one am glad to see Boondocks on the list -a great strip!