The Comics: The Complete Collection HC
Publisher: Abrams ComicArts
Release Date: April 2011
Price: $40.00
Creator: Brian Walker
Format: 672 pgs.; Black & White/Color; 12.7” x 9.5”; Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-8109-9595-6
Age Rating: All Ages
ICv2 Rating: 4.5 Stars Out of 5

This volume contains both of Brian Walker’s guides to the history of American comic strips, The Comics Before 1945 and The Comics Since 1945, and basically covers newspaper comics from their gestation in the 1890s to 2000.  21st Century masters like Aaron McGruder and Darby Conley get about one panel each and there is no discussion of Webcomics, but that’s another medium and another book entirely.  Walker, who is the son of cartoonist Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey) and who currently works on both the Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois strips, provides an insider’s view of the traditional newspaper strip medium.  The book is well organized by decades.  Walker provides an overview of each ten-year period followed by individual sections on the artists who emerged in that decade.  The individual write-ups include short biographical essays accompanied by examples of their work.  Obviously some creators like Winsor McKay (Little Nemo), George Harriman (Krazy Kat), Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates), Al Capp (Li’l Abner), Walt Kelly (Pogo), and Charles Schulz (Peanuts) get larger sections devoted to their work, but this volume provides an overview of the medium rather than a definitive look at any of its greatest practitioners.

Walker does an excellent job of pointing out the ways in which the medium changed.  How humor strips evolved from single-panel gags to longer form narratives with much of their humor derived from character rather than situation or slapstick.  The popularity in the late 1920s of dramatic strips like Buck Rogers and Tarzan set the comic strips off in the direction of serial narratives and paved the way for the comic book medium, which arose in the mid-1930s.  Walker does a good job of tying trends in comic strips to the overall mood of the country at the time, while exposing the reader to at least a taste of many long forgotten cartoonists of great skill.  It’s hard to pick out the high point of this particularly American mass medium of entertainment.  Was is the first decade of the 20th Century, the first flowering of the new medium with the fantastic visions of Winsor McKay, the participation of noted fine artists like Lyonel Feininger, and the subtle surrealism of a Harry Grant?  Or was it the teens with the emergence of Bud Fisher, Rube Goldberg, George Herriman, and George McManus?  Perhaps it was the 20s, which saw women take center stage in a number of strips as wells as the first flowering of serial adventure strips that began with Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs in 1924, or the 1930s, which saw the full flowering of the serial adventure genre?  Walker and his more than 1,300 examples of comic strip art make the case for every decade.  Just a cursory reading of this volume demonstrates how deeply the comic strips have invaded our consciousness and our vocabulary—“Mutt and Jeff,” “Gloomy Gus,” “Alphonse and Gaston”—these are references to specific character types are constants in the movies and novels of the first half of the 20th Century, references our grandparents were intimately familiar with thanks to the medium of the comics, and more than enough reasons to sample this rich history of the American comic strip.

--Tom Flinn: ICv2 VP-Content