Life as a comic strip

In the '30s, every second boy aspired to be a comic book artist.

comic strip art 298 (photo credit: )
comic strip art 298
(photo credit: )
An exhibition split between the Newark Museum and an uptown Manhattan venue, Masters of American Comics, is now at New York's Jewish Museum, where it is on view together with a smaller show of strips by mostly Jewish writers and artists including the creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Both shows are reminders of the large number of young Jewish writers and artists who gave birth to this extraordinary medium, which took America and then the rest of the world by storm. In the '30s, every second boy aspired to be a comic book artist. I was one of them, and this catalogue took me back to the favorites of my childhood: George Herriman's masterly Krazy Kat and Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates, two strips as different in text and style as chalk and cheese. The Masters show comprises the pioneers of America's best comics: Winsor McCay's Little Nemo, Lyonel Feininger's WeeWillie Winkie, E.C. Seegar's Popeye, Frank King's Gasoline Alley and Chester Gould's Dick Tracy. We soon get to the initially poorly drawn Peanuts strip and the later masterful refining of Lucy, Snoopy, Linus and Charlie Brown, before getting to the underground crudities of the inspired Robert Crumb. Art Spigelman pulled out of the show because it was split between two venues. I loved all the cartoon dramas but none more than Herriman's Krazy Kat, a surreal tale of a policeman, Offisa Pupp, who is in love with a dumb cat who is in love with Ignaz, a mouse whose compulsion is to bean the cat with a brick and who Pupp always tries to jail. Out of this simple scenario, Herriman choreographs a ballet that chronicles all our failures and fixations. What delights, however, is the marvelous drawing, inventive panel design, composition and fascinating color of this extraordinary strip. The cat, by the way, speaks a fabulous patois that might be relevant; Herriman, it is now revealed, was a light-skinned Creole who managed to "pass" back in the days when the United States was totally segregated. Had his skin been darker, Krazy Kat might never have seen the light of day. Crumb rightly calls Herriman the Leonardo da Vinci of comics. Seven decades ago, at age 10, I was fascinated with Kat's surreal desert landscape backgrounds that changed with each panel, no matter how the narrative proceeded. The delineation of the characters themselves and the light and shade of their bodies and of the environment itself was endlessly inventive. Kat remains the masterpiece of all time, and as relevant and entertaining today as ever. The style of Milton Caniff's Terry spawned the imitators that inspired the late painter Roy Lichtenstein to create paintings complete with the dots of color screens. Back in the days when I was briefly employed as a cartoon "inker" (the person who did the final drawing of the pencilled image provided by the writer-director), I learned from an inspired Aussie cartoonist who could not draw that an action strip had to be handled like a movie, dramatizing scenes with a mix of long shots, close-ups and overheads. Caniff was the original master of this way of lending drama to a situation (the catalogue also reminds us that strip artists also employ expert letterers whose ability to give the texts impeccable readability is indispensable). Not incidentally, great movies like David Selznick's Gone with the Wind were planned in advance with comic strip storyboards and camera angles that the director and camera crews only had to copy. Manhattan bookshops still sell books of Krazy Kat and Peanuts and another favorite of mine not in this show, Calvin and Hobbes, a strip polished by an expert inker. Dagwood Bumstead's perennial Blondie strip (not in this show) was also drawn by an inker who eventually took over the strip when the original owner-writer-penciller died. The Dagwood sandwich has long been part of American folklore. Amazingly, Bumstead never put on weight, but his children are now teenagers; his daughter, like Blondie, is a wholesome knockout. Calvin's creator has retired, so we now get re-runs. Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts (a name he hated), has died, so we are getting re-runs of Peanuts, too. And Lyonel Feininger? Oh yes, he went to visit Germany, where he became a famous Weimar period modernist painter. His oils bring a fortune at New York auctions. Many were on offer this week. A word about the Jewish comic strip pioneer Will Eisner (1917-2005). Norton of New York has just published Will Eisner's New York - Life in the Big City, a collection of his cautionary, sometimes mawkish tales taken from three of his books, plus a few examples of strips he decided not to publish. Eisner could draw in any style, but his own was based on a dated, formalized realism. His early success, The Spirit, represented in this exhibition, is currently being made into a movie.