THE LIBRARY OF AMERICAN COMICS ESSENTIALS 1: BARON BEAN
By George Herriman
LOAC/IDW Publishing, $19.99, 328 pages
THE LIBRARY OF AMERICAN COMICS ESSENTIALS 2: THE GUMPS — THE SAGA OF MARY GOLD
By Sidney Smith
LOAC/IDW Publishing, $19.99, 336 pages
While I've never put together a collection of a particular comic strip, it would appear to be an enjoyable, albeit arduous, project. Everything, from the cover art to original illustrations to various interviews and book chapters, has to be meticulously edited, fact-checked and measured to scale.
Yet this must pale in comparison to the painstaking task of getting the daily and weekend comic strips into chronological order.
Today's cartoonists save their work on multiple devices, and publications tend to have generous amounts of bandwidth to archive materials. That's not always the case with older comic strips, however. You often have to pray to the comic-strip gods that a publication, collector, historian or library has all the back issues in either paper, microfilm, microfiche or CD-ROM. If not, you have to keep moving on from source to source, city to city, and perhaps even town to town to find the proper materials.
In rarer cases, a cartoonist will refuse to release an entire strip's run for personal reasons and preferences. Until Fantagraphics Books started releasing its multivolume set "The Complete Peanuts," roughly 2,000 strips (out of 17,897) had never seen the light of day in a U.S. book collection. Why? Charles M. Schulz, the creator of "Peanuts," didn't like the quality of some of his earlier work and balked at this suggestion for decades.
That's what makes a new project produced by the Library of American Comics and IDW Publishing so intriguing and refreshing. They recently started releasing the "Library of American Comics Essentials," which reproduces an entire year of a classic comic strip in book form. There is one daily black-and-white strip per page, which produces a unique shape and design for each 4" x 11" hardcover volume. As Dean Mullaney, the series editor, put it, "[t]he result, we believe, allows us at least in some small way to have an experience similar to what newspaper buyers had fifty to a hundred years ago — reading the comics one day at a time."
Volume 1 examines George Herriman's "Baron Bean." This comic strip, which ran from 1916 to 1919, was about the hilarious adventures of a "bogus baron," in the words of Jared Gardner. It quickly "developed into one of Herriman's richest and funniest creations, second only to 'Krazy Kat,'" his most well-known strip. Baron Bean and his sidekick, Grimes, shared similar traits to Bud Fisher's "Mutt & Jeff" in terms of mannerisms and quirky personalities. There were even mild physical similarities between Baron Bean and Charlie Chaplin's Tramp, but "Herriman's own tramp ... is something of an inverse of the big-hearted and generous Tramp ... the 'Baron' counts on his fictional title to serve as credit for a nobility he rarely displays."
Volume 2 examines Sidney Smith's "The Gumps." After one of the most unique switches in comic-strip history — the Gumps moved into the house abandoned by Smith's talking-animal strip, "Old Doc Yak," in 1917 — this middle-class family quickly took off in popularity. Gardner wrote that it "would pioneer the open-ended serial" as the "trials and tribulations of its family and friends were front-page news and breakfast table conversation in households across the country." This volume primarily focuses on the brilliant 1928-29 story, "The Saga of Mary Gold," which is "most famous for being the first time a beloved comics character would die." Readers will be astonished how well this engaging and tragic tale still holds up after nearly 85 years.
In many ways, Mr. Mullaney's "Library of American Comics Essentials" is a wonderful tribute to one of his inspirations: Bill Blackbeard's "The Hyperion Library of Classic American Comic Strips." This legendary and like-minded 1970s series reintroduced audiences to older comics (including "Skippy," "A. Mutt," "Dream Days," "Abie the Agent," "Sherlocko the Monk" and even "Baron Bean") in volumes encompassing one to two years of daily strips. Alas, Blackbeard's books have long been out of print, are hard to find, and expensive to purchase. "Library of American Comics Essentials" picks up where "The Hyperion Library" left off by spotlighting a classic comic strip over one full calendar year, complete with a short essay and at an affordable price.
"Library of American Comics Essentials" volumes of "Baron Bean" and "The Gumps" are just the beginning for this book series. The third volume will examine Cliff Sterrett's "Polly and Her Pals," and the two remaining years of "Baron Bean" will follow in due course. Hence, when it comes to the old classic comic strips, the future looks very bright in terms of gaining many new readers and followers.
Michael Taube, a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is a contributor to The Washington Times.