by Matthew Peckham
This week Matt takes a look at fellow SF Site writer and comic strip luminary Rick Norwood's Comics Revue #217,
a monthly periodical collecting such classic comic strips as Flash Gordon, Tarzan,
Gasoline Alley, Krazy Kat, and many more.
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I have to admit, that after reading SF Site for several years, often with my busy schedule just for Rick's movie and television reviews -- and noting his affinity for classic comic strips in his bio -- this is embarrassingly my first issue of Comics Revue. Suffice to say it won't be my last, and if you count yourself a comics enthusiast, or a connoisseur of comics history, Norwood's loving assemblage of decades of sequential art is, to exercise an overused phrase, "essential reading."
A child of the 80s, of course all I worried about in the dailies and Sunday funnies growing up was why Spider-Man wasn't carried by the local paper. Blondie, Garfield, For Better or Worse, Prince Valiant, Marmaduke, and Family Circus were my mainstays, with occasional scans of Gasoline Alley, Andy Cap, Hagar the Horrible, and any number of others not percolating up at the moment from my already doddering thirty-something memory. I just remember craving -- like so many youngsters since the birth of the syndicated strip in the 1890s (The Yellow Kid, Katzenjammer Kids, Mutt and Jeff) -- the escapist pulp joy and neat little morality lessons tucked into those three to six panel installments; comic strips, whether tickling the imaginations of children or distracting overworked adults, distilled the world into a manageable number of hues, and in most cases, the two most basic colors of all.
Comics, primitive or profound, have an immediacy about them that -- escaping in part from the monolithic abstractions of the written word -- pretends to simplicity, and in most cases, comic strips were simple affairs, cavorting with orientalist pulp adventurism and playing to adolescent boy fantasies. On occasion something inventive, perhaps even visionary, threaded itself into the medium - call it "stealth art" if you will -- and it is bearing this mix in mind that I turn to Rick Norwood's tribute to the comic strip.
Comics Revue, edited by Mr. Norwood and the only monthly magazine in the United States devoted entirely to comic strips, is a collage of pulp stories, historical nostalgia, and occasionally startling work, such as this issue's Modesty Blaise by Peter O'Donnell and Jim Holdaway who, for instance, seem in their hard-boiled 20s strips to have anticipated the sort of gritty postmodern line work of Michael Gaydos (Inferno, Alias) or Eddie Campbell (From Hell, Bacchus). I don't want to over-emphasize the connections, but experiencing Holdaway's art for the first time, I'm struck by its contemporaneous dissimilarity and relative artistic maturity, in stark, almost reverse contrast to the tough, rugged Ditko-esque style apparent in Dan Barry's Flash Gordon later in the issue. It's these sorts of unexpected on-reflection surprises that make even a quick thumb through Comics Revue asynchronously fascinating.
The color cover of issue #217, by artist Romero, is representative of the titillating skin-tight sketches that attracted so many young boys to the form, and is the second of a two-piece set (the first was apparently on the cover of Comics Revue #208) framing Peter O'Donnell's last Modesty Blaise story. Norwood opens the issue with a brief letter highlighting the issue's contents, a little history, and a guide and checklist to the Little Orphan Annie series.
In addition to sixty-plus pages of black and white arrangements of strips (in this issue including Modesty Blaise, Gasoline Alley, Steve Canyon, Krazy Kat, Little Orphan Annie, Mandrake the Magician, Alley Oop, and Buz Sawyer), Norwood bookends the issue with Tarzan and Casey Ruggles in glossy full color. The quality of the reproductions is generally very good, though the durability of the interior paper is somewhere between magazine and newsprint and thus more susceptible to humidity (as I discovered to my dismay after a rainy weekend with open windows). I'm guessing these are cut and paste jobs, copied and reproduced en masse, which does mar (somewhat) the presentation of what appear to be formerly heavily shaded color strips, like Steve Canyon, otherwise the black and white strips look excellent, with crisp lines, stark text, and detail minutia preserved (the unhappy exception here being one strip in particular of Little Orphan Annie, which seems to have captured in still-frame the sort of blemished and marred look one associates with old film strips).
There has been for years now a sort of cult intellectual renaissance related to the history of pulp and political comics of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the case of a few, such as George Herriman, thanks both to publications like Norwood's Comics Revue and publisher Fantagraphics' chronological reprinting (still ongoing) of George Herriman's Krazy Kat, the re-visitation borders on a kind of academic veneration that is anything but cultish. Truly, says a new crop of scholars boldly cutting through the fog of cultural ignorance, these few are in fact worthy of comparison to Faulkner and Twain, Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields, not to be dismissed as commercial scribblers just because a clear public majority erroneously associates the medium itself with, at best, the lowest form of art.
Perhaps I'm overestimating the underestimated considering much of the non-Herriman material in Norwood's magazine is sentimental pulp, but there's something about revisiting the strips I grew up with, as well as many long before my time (and happily recollected in history books such as Bradford W. Wright's Comic Book Nation, or more recently, Steve Duin and Mike Richardson's Comics: Between the Panels) that is inestimably charming, historically valuable, and often just plain fun.
Comics Revue isn't for everyone, of course. At $6.95 per issue ($45 for twelve, or $90 for 25), it's also not cheap, but Norwood is a professional, presenting over the course of multiple issues the complete history of various strips with a serious eye and a preservationist's fastidiousness. If you've been looking for a reasonably priced vehicle for access to the past, or just want to have a look at a sampling of comic strips in their various stages of twentieth century glory, Norwood's publication is top notch, and highly recommended.
You can learn more about Comics Revue, including current issue contents, subscription rates, and back issues by going to:
Matt Peckham lives in Nebraska and Iowa. His first book, a guide to Mike's Carey's Lucifer, will be published by Wildside Press. For more about Matt, check out mattpeckham.com
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