Art of the strip
If only they’d had crystal balls, the juvenile delinquents who read MAD Magazine in the 1950s could have blown the ever-lovin’ minds of the moms who begged them to stop: “Ma,” they’d taunt, “Someday this stuff is gonna be bound up in hardback and shelved in college libraries!”
It’s true: As their readers have aged into influential adults, respectability—veneration, even—has found the gang of idiots who drew that rag. Not only has the magazine itself been canonized (Vol. 2 of DC’s Mad Archives arrives this week), but the individual cartoonists now get the art-star treatment.
How else to describe MAD’s Greatest Artists: The Completely MAD Don Martin, a slipcased set of two clothbound tomes heavy enough to kill a cat? Such lavish care given to the peddler of the “One Afternoon At …” series of wordless slapstick must be wreaking cognitive dissonance across the country. At least this epic compendium of the man’s work gets an introduction not from a highfalutin’ critic (does R. Crumb need Robert Hughes’ validation?) but from Far Side scribe Gary Larson, who makes the link between absurdity and intellect easier to buy.
Martin’s style defined MAD during my ’70s childhood, but these days I’m more partial to the under-praised subject of The Original Art of Basil Wolverton, whom I discovered through reprints of his brilliant Powerhouse Pepper strips. Pepper plays a perky part here, popping up in pairings of finished comic pages with their sketched-out prelims, but the book spends more time drooling over his lavishly weird stand-alone illustrations—the missing-link beauties whose rotting teeth threaten to escape from their mouths, the droopy Dans whose brows hang down beyond their noses.
Next we come to Genevan artist Rudolphe Töpffer, credited by many as the father of the comic strip. In The Complete Comic Strips, scholar David Kunzle gathers and translates (for the first time) work most comics fans have never heard of—hastily lined pages of two or four panels that he thought of as “little follies” and was reluctant to publish at all. Now, they’re not only published for posterity but accompanied by a second volume, Father of the Comic Strip, in which Kunzle places the artist in context and describes his impact.
Some of Töpffer’s work tilted toward the kind social-critic caricature practiced by his younger contemporary, Honoré Daumier, part of a stream of cartooning that led to the work we now enjoy on the editorial page. A slim but rambunctious new volume by Donald Dewey called The Art of Ill Will traces the American part of the story they started, compiling political cartoons from the Republic’s infancy through the Clinton era, describing how cartoonists help change the way readers view the day’s pressing public debates.
Leaving behind the 16th, 19th, and even early 20th century, but not the influence of highbrow culture, we come to Neil Gaiman, whose Absolute Sandman, Volume Two has been reprinted in splendor befitting Gaiman’s myth-making ambitions. Compiled in hardback issues 21-39 of the groundbreaking series along with assorted ephemera and two stories that haven’t been reprinted before, the set marks the halfway point in DC’s presentation of perhaps the ’90s most impressive mainstream comic. Coincidentally, Gaiman’s post-Sandman effort with Dave McKean, the more formally ambitious Signal to Noise, was also just dressed up by Dark Horse.
Gaiman and McKean have been working in the movies lately, with mixed results. I’m sure the money’s great, but maybe somebody should tell them that they don’t need to pen would-be blockbusters like Beowulf to earn a place in the pantheon.