…not just as a vessel for comics, but also in terms of my own history in comics (my early “real” comics where I worked hard to create stuff were strips and influenced heavily by paper and web strips).
This is BABY BLUES by Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott, from January 15th, 1995;
This was a Sunday strip when it premiered, so it’d have had more space in the papers, but even at the reduced size of my laptop screen, it still works. There’s almost no dialogue besides the last panel, a sub-panel practically. The whole thing relies on a visual gag that’s a physical gag, basically. Wanda is (very visibly) pregnant with second child Hammie (this is really early in BABY BLUES), and the makeshift catapult gag to get her sunglasses without having to get help or to bend down is a funny gag.
Here’s the thing about this strip. Kirkman and Scott get this to work by embracing the McCloud-esque time-manipulation of comics, controlling the beats of reading through the smaller four panels mid-strip to pace out with size and steps what Wanda is doing. It’s so simple but so brilliant at the same time.
The sad thing? I don’t think people really recognize that about comic strips. In a world where “strips” tend to be more and more popular online and aren’t limited by space and time, the amount of space and time a cartoonist has to fine-tune stuff is far greater. Also, the longevity of newspaper cartoonists (PEANUTS ran from 1950 to 2000 and is in-demand enough to keep circulating in reruns, HI AND LOIS has been running since 1954, for example) compared to the “new blood” and high-turnover attitude of indie comics, superhero comics, etc, definitely makes for not just a difference in generations, but also a difference in cultures (this despite early comics pioneers’ dreams of getting out of funnybooks and into newspapers).
But think about that set of restrictions. You have nonstop deadlines and limited space, which means that writing and art needs to be adapted to meet those demands. I was talking with writer and online buddy Jack Feerick online a few days ago, and we were marveling at how those sets of limitations can really hone your writing as well as your art skills. Imagine having to work to figure out how to effectively draw and write humor (alas, crime/mystery/adventure/romance strips in papers are mostly a thing of the past these days) on an almost daily deadline. You’ve got to maintain a level of continuity, a level of humor that won’t get you fired, a level of art that you can replicate day after day, and be able to write fresh material every day.
Strips are the ultimate comic boot camp in terms of writing and art, they force you to learn and to try and re-try and re-re-try to make stuff work, and that, along with reading and a willingness to never be complacent, is what helps make great cartoonists.
It’s how I learned.
I started making comics first as a writer. I’d been a writer as a kid and teenager, working on prose through college, as well as nonfiction zines, blogs, journalism, etc.
I wrote my first comic script sometime in the early 2000’s, I think 2005? My first attempt at making comics, with no money, no idea what a script looks like, and no art lined up, was a 100 page-plus action/adventure/spy graphic novel. It never happened even though I did eventually hook up with an artist, but it just didn’t pan out.
As a kid, I never really drew. I was terrible at it, like really terrible. I had no sense of anatomy, of motion (I still don’t think I do), and never had an urge to draw. A a teenager, I’d re-draw the covers of my favorite comics and punk albums and admit they looked terrible, I’d copy comic book pages but to me, they always looked awful.
I realized that I was far better as a writer than an artist, even though in hindsight I realize I was the kid who constantly doodled in the margins of my binder pages and folders and on the covers of my notebooks. I don’t think it was well after I’d started writing comics that I even thought about drawing them, and that was at the prompting of a girlfriend who thought my little doodles to her as love notes were cute, and we’d seen Wes Molebash’s webcomic YOU’LL HAVE THAT and comic book artist Chris Samnee’s LUNCH NOTES project for his wife (little doodles).
So, why not do that?
My first comics were really bad. Like, really bad, just Sharpie drawing more or less, I didn’t pencil first, lettering sucked, just…so bad.
But I kept at it. I threw myself into reading all sorts of comics, from webcomics to newspaper strips to comic books. I practiced, and came to realized I wanted to do strips.
Working hard helped me, a lot. It helped me work smart, it helped me learn to write and draw better, how to focus, how to edit, how to be funny, and how to really make comics. I ended up doing a weekly strip called OVERWHELMED for a year that was a definite trial-by-fire, learning how to how smart to constantly churn out comics, how to maintain a flow through two to four panels a the most, how to do punchlines, how to effectively cut corners and cheat so I’m not killing myself, how to do practical stuff like letter better, ink better, crosshatch, just cartoon better. I’m still not great, but I’m a lot better now than my older work.
Now as I do more page-oriented stuff instead of strips, it’s easier. It’s a lot easier to do certain things and to approach them, and to me, working on strips and appreciating the workman ethic of daily newspaper comic strips made me a better cartoonist, comic book writer, and artist.
It is changing for the better, and it’s not all a gloomy forgotten wasteland. Podcaster Tom Racine has been interviewing newspaper cartoonists (mostly, including illustrators, writers, comic book artists…even me!) for a while now, doing work with newspaper strip distributor GoComics, just contenting to treat the field like the legitimate artform it is. I love his show, and even though he doesn’t do it as much, it’s still one of my all-time favorite podcasts and I can go back to listen to older episodes and interviews all the time. Syndicate sites like King Comics and GoComics offer the opportunity to read newspaper comics for free (a contentious issue, I know GoComics counters this by making all their comics a week behind).
One of my favorite comics, LOVE AND ROCKETS, has usually be described as punk rock meets ARCHIE meets PEANUTS, and the Hernandez brothers have been really open about how comic strips influenced them. A lot of comic book publishers like Fantagraphics and IDW are putting out collections of old strips and comics that are clearly influenced by them…
Clearly, there’s an appreciation there.
Is it enough? Not to me, necessarily. But it’s interesting to see the divide in comics between newspaper comics, webcomics, arty graphic novels, and superhero stuff/single-issue stuff. It’s massive, with weird biases. And while there’s definitely reverence for CALVIN AND HOBBES, for PEANUTS, for BLOOM COUNTY (all amazing comics), what about MARY WORTH and APARTMENT 3-G and PRINCE VALIANT and FUNKY WINKERBEAN?
STONE SOUP by Jan Eliot has been running for about 20 years. BABY BLUES has been going for longer. Both of those have been done by the same person the whole time (Eliot has a colorist, I think), and in an age when comics are constantly restarting or rebooting with new creative teams, where large creative teams ensures debates over credit and contribution and canonical change, I feel like it’s cool and interesting that someone works in their studio or home office and just day in, day out, works on their craft of this one (or two) things, getting better and better and honing it and making it sharper and easier.
It’s the craftsmanship aspect of art and comics and writing that I love, treating it less like an “Art” (with a capital A) and more like the craft of art (with a lower-case A).
In some sort of weird corner of my brain, I think I prefer craftsmen to artists.