- - Wednesday, October 16, 2013

PEANUTS, POGO, AND HOBBES: A NEWSPAPER EDITOR’S JOURNEY THROUGH THE WORLD OF COMICS
By George Lockwood
Syracuse University Press, $39.95, 304 pages

The evolution of the comic strip has been seen through the eyes of historians, academics, critics, fans and even the cartoonists themselves. It has helped us to better understand the cartoonist’s role, evolving story lines and the development (and occasional disappearance) of main and supporting characters, among other things.

George J. Lockwood may have just provided us with the most unique perspective of all, however.

A professor of journalism at Marshall University and Louisiana State University, he had an impressive 40-year career as a reporter and editor. Thirty of those years were spent at the Milwaukee Journal. Lockwood oversaw the paper win a Pulitzer Prize and was “responsible for the purchase of all syndicated material, including comics” as senior editor between 1972 and 1986. After a 70-year love affair with the funny pages, this particular duty must have felt like the icing on the cake.

Lockwood died in February. Fortunately, he had already finished his self-described “comic strip memoir,” “Peanuts, Pogo, and Hobbes: A Newspaper Editor’s Journey Through the World of Comics.” His book provides one of the most unique perspectives on comic strips you’ll ever read. It juxtaposes the balancing act that an editor must face between personal tastes and public consumption. Lockwood built a solid reputation for his newspaper’s comics page — and his insights on the comics industry are well worth considering.

In his introduction, Lockwood discusses watching his three grandchildren “grow up in an era of technological achievement, allowing them to peek into every part of the world simply by pressing a button.” Yet he wonders if they’re “missing something that thrilled me as a child every Sunday — the sound of the newspaper landing on the front porch, its comic section lending it weight.” He’s right. The smell and feel of a newspaper, especially those with a Sunday color comics insert, is lost on today’s generation of iPad and Kindle readers.

To give them a taste of what they’re missing, Lockwood discusses his love and admiration of classic comic strips. There are chapters on Chester Gould’s “Dick Tracy” (“the best detective strip in America”), Milt Caniff’s “Steve Canyon” (“the Rembrandt of the Comic Strip”) and Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner” (“some of the funniest figures in all of comicdom have leaped from his drawing board”). Space is also provided for other strips, including Richard F. Outcault’s “The Yellow Kid” (“the little street urchin who palled around with immigrant kids in the rough and tumble neighborhood of New York’s Lower East Side”) and Bill Mauldin’s “Willie and Joe” (“personification of the crusty foot soldier”).

Naturally, Charles M. Schulz’s “Peanuts,” Walt Kelly’s “Pogo” and Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” received top billing in Lockwood’s memoirs.

Schulz is described as “a star of the first magnitude in the comic firmament … the Peanuts characters have penetrated the America consciousness like no others since the exploits of the Katzenjammer Kids entertained our grandparents four generations ago.” Kelly’s “deft strokes turned simple lines and curlicues into delightful cartoon characters, each with an unmistakable personality.” Mr. Watterson’s strip “was philosophical without being preachy. It reminded adults of their own childhoods filled with anxieties, scary things they didn’t understand, and the tensions of everyday family life.”

How did Lockwood choose the best strips? According to the author, “[t]here is no secret formula for picking comics for the daily newspaper.” His theory was to make “darn sure that our eight-page Sunday comics section looked good.” He insisted “strips appear no smaller than one-third of a page in size,” while those “that relied on art in the storytelling — Prince Valiant, for example — got a half page all to itself.” In other words, “the trade-off … was fewer comics, which irritated some readers who valued quantity, not quality.”

Lockwood was a successful “chance-taker” when selecting comic strips. He admitted to selecting “a few clunkers that still inspire a sheepish grin.” It apparently took him “many years to get it through my thick skull that newspaper readers do not fully understand or appreciate parody and satire in comic strips.” He enjoyed meeting syndicate representatives, and noted that cartoonists “were also clever in promoting their artwork … and frequently pitched a new comic strip with their make-believe characters pleading their case.”

“Peanuts, Pogo, and Hobbes” is a fascinating personal examination of Lockwood’s life, editorial vision, and genuine affection for the world of comics. He designed the Journal’s funny pages with the care and attention they truly deserved. Other newspaper editors would be wise to follow his lead.

Michael Taube, a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a contributor to The Washington Times.