By Tom Batten
Once upon a time, fans of all ages held their breath waiting to see how Dick Tracy would get out of the latest fix and rooted for a young Dagwood Bumstead to settle down and marry Blondie Boopadoop. Tough to imagine today, as newspapers continue to falter and other types of entertainment take precedence over the newspaper comic strip. Luckily, a slew of reprint collections grant 21st-century readers the opportunity to enjoy a 20th-century art form.
Terry and the Pirates. Vol. 1: 1934‚ 1936 (Idea & Design Works. 2007. ISBN 9781600101007. $49.99) begins one of the most sprawling, exciting adventure serials of all time. In this volume, young Terry Lee accompanies adventurer Pat Ryan on an apparently routine treasure hunt to China, which quickly becomes complicated by pirates, femmes fatales, and a host of twists. Creator Milton Caniff’s cruder early illustrations are made up for by his breakneck plotting, and later volumes (there are six in all) show Caniff developing into a master draftsman. By the time Terry joins the U.S. Air Force at the outset of World War II, Caniff is capable of moving the story along with a full arsenal of visual storytelling techniques that rival the greatest filmmakers of any era.
While never quite reaching Caniff’s technical highs as a draftsman, Chester Gould exhibited a bold, bombastic style that was perfectly suited to the stark, uncompromising tales of morality and prevailing justice that he told in the panels of his legendary strip, Dick Tracy. The Complete Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy. Vol. 1: 1931‚ 1933 (Idea & Design Works. 2006. ISBN 9781600100369. $29.99; out of stock but still available) introduces the strip that Gould would write and draw daily until 1977. While the titular detective’s early adventures only hint at the truly bizarre highs that later strips would reach, Tracy here is already relentless in his quest to deliver justice unto a cast of colorful villains, who are often the real stars.
Better known from his long-running animated TV series, the spinach-loving sailor introduced in Popeye. Vol. 1: I Yam What I Yam (Fantagraphics. 2006. ISBN 9781560977797. $29.95) will be instantly recognizable to fans. Creator E.C. Segar was a decade into his Thimble Theater strip when he introduced Popeye as an escort hired to bring his main cast to a mysterious island. From the moment that Popeye appears it’s clear that Segar is as enraptured with the two-fisted sailor as the rest of the world soon would be. Incredibly inventive slapstick, epic adventure, and Samuel Beckett‚ like dialog ensue. This volume includes daily black-and-white strips, which progress the adventures of Popeye and friends, as well as full-color Sunday strips, which depict the highs and lows of Popeye’s time as a professional boxer.
While generations of fans recognize Mickey Mouse as the smiling, sanitized face of the Disney corporation, few know him as the unstoppable, unflappable, epic adventurer shown in Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse. Vol. 1: Race to Death Valley (Fantagraphics. 2011. ISBN 9781606994412. $29.99). This version, written and illustrated by Floyd Gottfredson in the 1930s, depicts the famous Mouse as a restless, self-determined character set loose in a charming cartoon world. Gottfredson is so successful that his portrayal of Mickey remains vital and fresh in these strips.
When it first appeared in 1980, Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County: The Complete Collection. Vol. 1: 1980‚ 1982 (Idea & Design Works. 2009. ISBN 9781600105319. $39.99) was often dismissed as nothing more than a Doonesbury clone. It didn’t take long, however, for fans to recognize its originality. Initially focusing on a group of neurotic children and their suffering parents, Breathed’s stories soon developed an enormous cast of characters‚ both human and otherwise‚ as he shifted his focus to satirizing every element of American life in the 1980s. While Breathed’s satire is sharp (handy annotations explain the Reagan-era commentary), this is a truly joyous strip,
Over the last four decades, Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury has grown from a strip lampooning life on the campus of Yale University (where Trudeau was an undergrad) to a complicated, expansive narrative best known for its unflinching satirical view of modern life and politics. Trudeau has repeatedly courted controversy, but what stands out in 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective (Andrews McMeel. 2010. ISBN 9780740797354. $100) is the care that Trudeau puts into crafting his characters’ lives. By allowing them to change and develop, Trudeau has created a body of work that allows readers to dip back into recent U.S. history and actually come away with an intricate sense of American life over 40 years. This massive volume ends with a celebrated story in which series character B.D. joins the army and faces life as a disabled veteran after losing a leg while fighting in Iraq.
This column was contributed by Tom Batten, who is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond