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BOOK REVIEW: Celebrating Skippy

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SKIPPY, VOLUME 2: COMPLETE DAILIES: 1928-1930
By Percy Crosby
Edited by Jared Gardner and Dean Mullaney
IDW Publishing, $49.99, 328 pages

In October 2012, I reviewed the first volume of "Skippy" for The Washington Times. I would be lying if I didn't admit that I was looking forward to the next installment.

Skippy Skinner first appeared in the pages of Life magazine in March 1923. Created by Percy Crosby, the lovable main character and his merry gang of young scamps quickly became a wildly popular feature. A June 7, 1924, Life profile included this impressive quote from The New York Sun's James K. McGuinness: "It is well to note now that Percy Crosby's Skippy series is the funniest in the country."

Skippy's early success led to a syndicated comic strip in 1925. Aided by Crosby's artistic talent and folksy language, the precocious nature of Skippy and his pals immediately caught people's interests — and had them craving more. Meanwhile, the startling bird's-eye view of Middle America through the lens of a child created the ultimate fantasyland of friendship, rivalry, roughhousing and plenty of mischief.

That's just a small taste of what readers will find in Percy Crosby's "Skippy: Vol. 2: Complete Dailies: 1928-1930." IDW Publishing, through its popular Library of American Comics imprint, has produced another scintillating collection of what I previously called "the greatest children's comic strip ever." While the main characters haven't aged a day (and never will), Crosby continued to develop his cast of characters into a well-oiled machine. "Skippy" may have been a true symbol of an era from yesteryear, but it will still entertain readers of all ages now and in the future.

The second chapter of Crosby's life and work, much like the first chapter, was written by co-editor Jared Gardner. He noted that the strip was "built on all his [Crosby's] previous work," including "Beany," "The Clancy Kids" and "Always Belittlin'." At the same time, the cartoonist "channeled Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, his growing nostalgia for his own childhood, and his dawning conviction that modern America was heading in the wrong direction, from which it might be saved by perhaps "Skippy" (or even Crosby himself)."

During this time, Crosby was part of three smaller syndicates, which were intertwined: Johnson Features, Central Press Association and Editors Features Service. Mr. Gardner points out that this situation created "more confusion in terms of the distribution of the strip, which now appeared under various syndication credits." The cartoonist, who wanted to "fiercely safeguard his intellectual-property rights to Skippy," was probably relieved when King Features Syndicates, owned by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, took control in 1930. Crosby finally had "a reliable distributor and a steady readership with which to begin to explore new ambitions for the strip."

Crosby would also write a "darkly comic" "Skippy" novel, which was "warmly received" by critics. He followed this up with a "second prose book," "Dear Sooky." As well, "the showbiz world was abuzz with plans for an upcoming Skippy movie." Jackie Cooper would star in that memorable 1931 film, and director Norman Taurog would win an Academy Award.

Meanwhile, Crosby was beginning to leave his past behind. He had once worked at the socialist newspaper The Call, although he didn't identify with that political persuasion. He would eventually become a conservative, although that was still years away. Mr. Gardner writes that Crosby "was growing more emotionally intense and driven," and Skippy therefore became "his antidote — the 'child of my soul.'"

You can see early signs of this gradual transformation in "Skippy, Vol. 2." Whereas the period of 1928-29 maintained the strip's original format of quick gags, this changed for part of 1930. In particular, the cartoonist's writing style became more direct and pronounced. There was an extended storyline that dealt with politics ("Revokalution Party"), mob rule ("Jacketeers") and the business world. Skippy even went missing for a few weeks — an unusual occurrence for any comic strip's main protagonist.

After Skippy's triumphant return, the "gag-a-day formula returns for the remainder of the year." Yet I would argue that traces of the pen-and-ink magic found in "Little Orphan Annie," "The Yellow Kid" and "The Gumps" continued to exist in Skippy's daily run — not as a means of copying existing techniques, but rather as a way to enhance the strip's viability and stature. "Skippy," like all great comic strips, would go through necessary periods of maturity and development.

There would be difficult times to come for Crosby, including alcoholism and his terrible end in Bellevue Hospital's psychiatric ward. However, between 1928 and 1930, "Skippy" maintained its brilliance — and shined even brighter.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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