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Comics: The art of making families laugh

By Dick Kreck, Special to The Denver Post

In the glory days of radio, who among us didn’t lie on the living-room rug, tune in and listen raptly as a disembodied voice read us the Sunday funnies?
That bit of gone and long ago would not be news to Brian Walker, son of Mort Walker, the cartoonist who created “Beetle Bailey” and “Hi and Lois.” What he doesn’t know about newspaper comics and their creators isn’t worth knowing. Since childhood, Walker the Younger has been up to his elbows in pen and ink and is the author of the newly released, massive volume “The Comics: The Complete Collection” (Abrams, $40).
In a bit of publishing sleight of hand, “The Comics” is actually a combination of two books previously authored by Walker that chronicled the history of newspaper comics before and after 1945. It’s a mammoth undertaking, running 659 pages in a large format with copious reproductions of comic strips from “The Yellow Kid” to “Doonesbury,” beautifully printed on slick paper.

Newspaper comic strips have been around in this country at least since the 1890s and probably longer. Most historians of the art credit “The Yellow Kid,” which made its first appearance in Truth magazine on June 2, 1894, as the progenitor of all that followed. Not so, says Walker. The Chicago Inter-Ocean began running a regular color strip called “The Ting Ling Kids” in 1893.

But comic art began well before that, even to primitives who classed up their caves with wall drawings. Blessed by the arrival of mass color reproduction, “The Yellow Kid” — whose creator, Richard F. Outcault, later turned down a $10,000 offer to draw “Buster Brown” for The Denver Post — gained its fame when it made its color debut in the New York Journal on Oct. 18, 1896. Circulation jumped to 375,000 copies. “Color comics on Sundays were a circulation builder,” Walker points out. “Back in those days there was no radio or television; comics were huge.”

The comics were not always child’s play. Early on, they included violence, crude language and prejudice against women. They were rife with stereotypes. “The Katzenjammer Kids” used pidgin German to mock its participants. “My,” exclaims Mama in one episode. “Vot a bummer! Und I chust cleaned der house mit der vachym cleaner!” Cops were fat and Irish. Blacks were maids or chauffeurs.

“It took a lot longer for racial stereotypes to evolve,” says Walker. “Even in the ’20s, black characters were still maids and jockeys.”

Today, characters of all racial stripes inhabit the funny pages. “Jump Start” is about a black family; “Baldo” documents the lives of a Latino family; and “Scary Gary” is all about, well, who knows?

Walker is often asked whether there was a golden age for the comics. “I think the 1920s was actually the golden age. Look back to the ’20s. Comics are distributed all over the world. Cartoonists are superstars.”

Nevertheless, as he does in “The Comics,” Walker, interviewed by phone from his home in Connecticut, sees a shining light in many periods.
Adventure strips in the 1930s gave Americans left reeling by the Great Depression characters that laughed in the face of danger, took on risks and triumphed. They were, writes Walker, “reassuring to Depression readers.” The bigger-than-life heroes of “Joe Palooka,” “Tarzan of the Apes,” “Prince Valiant,” “Buck Rogers” and “Terry and the Pirates” invaded the comics pages.

He defends the importance of the ’20s. “You go back through the 1920s, particularly the Sunday comics, most features ran full page,” says Walker, who co-founded the International Museum of Cartoon Art and has written and edited more than a dozen books on cartoons. “Beautiful colors. I document how that change happened. The truth of it is it started to change in the 1930s when they started putting advertising into the sections. They started doing different formats.”

Strips outlive artists
Some cartoons have remarkably long lives. “Beetle Bailey,” which Brian and his brother Greg help their father produce, just turned 61 years old. “Blondie” has been around since 1930. Younger cartoonists sometimes scoff at the old-timers. Wiley Miller, the creator of “Non Sequitur,” complained, “Too many newspapers are running too many cartoons by dead guys. The guys who created ‘Blondie’ and ‘Dick Tracy’ have been dead for years and so are the strips.”
“Peanuts” has maintained its popularity in reruns even though Charles Schulz, the man who first drew Charlie Brown and his little friends in 1950, died in 2000. And there are some, like “Fred Basset,” whose extended popularity is unexplainable.

Hundreds of comics have died an early death. Three, in particular, lived lives that were too short and, interestingly, all three were born about the same time in the 1980s. “The Far Side,” “Bloom County” and “Calvin and Hobbes” brought a new, more irreverent look to the funnies. “The Far Side” was the work of Gary Larson, who cleverly melded the worlds of humans and animals; “Bloom County,” by Berke Breathed, featured Opus the Penguin and Bill the Cat in an often-bizarre fantasy world, and Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” chronicled a boy and his stuffed tiger, real only to him.

All three were huge hits. “The Far Side” sold 6 million book collections and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987. Breathed’s “Loose Rules” was on The New York Times best-seller list for 32 weeks in 1983 and appeared in more than 1,000 papers. “Calvin and Hobbes” did even better, appearing in more than 1,800 papers at its peak.

Then, in quick succession, all three artists pulled the plug in 1995, citing creative burnout. Walker has a simple explanation: “It is kind of a grind to do a comic day in and day out. You have to reach pretty deep for inspiration.”

Walker doesn’t love all comics. “I did a book on ‘Nancy.’ I said, ‘I hate this strip. It’s the same every day.’ But I went on an intellectual journey. I just realized it taught me an important lesson: You can be simple and be brilliant at what you do. Ernie Bushmiller (who created the round-faced girl with the spiky hair in 1948) was a very erudite guy. He said, ‘My strip is for the gum chewers of the world.’ A lot of modern cartoonists think it’s the Zen of comics. The ultimate realization after finishing these two books on comics history is that it is so rich and rewarding, even to someone like myself who’s been in it my whole life.”

Universal themes
This newspaper runs 46 comic strips daily. Most deal with family situations, whether it’s the young parents in “Baby Blues,” teenage angst in “Zits” or the changing day-to-day worries in “For Better or Worse.” Most can trace their ancestry to “Bringing Up Father,” a domestic comedy about a social-climbing family whose father, Jiggs, won’t go along with their shenanigans. It debuted in 1913 and became immensely popular, garnering 80 million readers in 500 newspapers and translation into 16 languages in 46 countries.

“There are certain universal themes,” says Walker. “Comics come in daily doses and they function best when they deal with daily life, doing the basic things of life. Cartoonists create friends for people. People get very attached. They are characters that people really care about.”

Like many other newspaper features, the comics have taken a hit as circulation and advertising have declined. An alert reader will notice that the strips are smaller, characters have become more simply drawn and words are fewer and far between as the comics have shrunk.

“Shrinking column widths in daily strips started in World War II. Papers were cutting back, eliminating strips,” says Walker. “There’s always challenge and accommodation. There was a major size reduction in the 1980s, when they adopted new standards.”

Nevertheless, Walker, an unreconstructed fan of the art form, is mildly optimistic about the comics’ future in printed newspapers. “The graphics don’t look the same on a computer screen as they do in newspapers,” he writes. “Perhaps someday, in the not- too-distant future, an enterprising newspaper editor will experiment with enlarging the comics and printing them on higher-quality paper. The newspaper’s circulation might take off.”

And, he says, “I would hope, in my dreams, that newspapers would think, ‘We’re losing advertising to Craigslist. One thing we have is comics.’ They should be putting them on the front page or printing them in color.”


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