Sunday, April 25, 2010

Strip for Murder, or when did comic strips turn crap?

Max Allan Collins's 2008 novel Strip for Murder was inspired by a real-life feud between cartoonists Al Capp (Li'l Abner) and Ham Fisher (Joe Palooka).

It's a genial tale of 1950s New York, where Broadway is big, and boxing and music rub shoulders in the Brill Building. It's a world where artists and writers of daily-newspaper comic strips live in penthouses and inspire bidding wars for their services and arguably deserve it because their art rises to the level of art:

"I gestured to a Crash Landon Sunday-page original that leaned against the wall next to the drawing board—a beautifully rendered page with swooping spaceships and bold men and beautiful women, done in Alexander's distinctive style known as dry brush and more appealing, to me at least, than the museum's worth of paintings in his living room."
That's a touching tribute from Collins to an art form he loves, and it reminds me of the gorgeous Sunday panels of George McManus, creator of Bringing Up Father, featuring Maggie and Jiggs.

The association of comic strips with high artistic quality may seem bizarre to readers of today's blandly written, indifferently drawn, relentlessly unfunny, demographically-driven newspaper strips, and that leads to today's question:

When did daily-newspaper comic strips turn crap, and why? Which went to the dogs first, the writing, or the art?

P.S. Read about the early history of U.S. newspaper comic strips at Lambiek.net.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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10 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

When they dropped Mark Trail, Mary Worth, Apartment 3-G, Rex Morgan, Steve Canyon and Terry & the Pirates.

Okay, probably not, although the artwork in those was one heck of a lot better than that found these days, even in strips I like, like Pearls Before Swine and Frazz.

April 24, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Funny you should say that. I was talking with a friend after I made the post, and Mary Worth and Rex Morgan came up. I said that even though I didn't read those soap-strips much, I recalled that they were well drawn -- far better, as you say, than even the strips I like today.

April 24, 2010  
Blogger Bill Crider said...

The strips went to crap when the newspapers started shrinking them. Why bother creating art that's shrunk so small on the page that it has to be read with a magnifying glass?

April 24, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, and the larger, color Sunday strips were not enough for artists and the people who paid them?

When did newspapers start shrinking the strips?

April 24, 2010  
Blogger Bill Crider said...

I don't know exactly when the strips started to shrink. Even the Sunday strips have shrunk considerably. I believe some of the artists insisted on getting a larger section of the page on Sundays, but that didn't always work out. There's a good bit of info on this in the Wikipedia article on "Calvin & Hobbes." Here's a sample: "Watterson also grew increasingly frustrated by the gradual shrinking of available space for comics in the newspapers. He lamented that without space for anything more than simple dialogue or spare artwork, comics as an art form were becoming dilute, bland, and unoriginal.[13][14] Watterson strove for a full-page version of his strip, in contrast to the few cells allocated for most strips."

April 25, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Bill, the excellent lambiek.net Web site sheds some light on the incredible shrinking comics page.

Good for Watterson; most within the media are afraid to acknowledge those media's creeping mediocrity. I seem to recall another well-known cartoonist rebelling against shrinkage. Garry Trudeau, perhaps?

It has occurred to me that such current comic-strip art as I do enjoy may be clever or imaginative, but it sure as hell is not skillfully drawn. I love the recurring sight gag of the pirates drinking cofee in "Overboard," for example, but one would not call that strip artfully illustrated. Oh, well; at least it's not as bad as "Cathy" or "Sally Forth."

April 25, 2010  
Blogger Bill Crider said...

The other rebel (or one of them) was Berkeley Breathed, as I recall. He finally quit completely, like Watterson.

April 26, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I knew that Breathed left (though he eventually came back). I didn't know why. I also don't know the circumstances of Watterson's departure.

April 26, 2010  
Blogger Bill Crider said...

Breathed left, came back, then left again. I think he's gone for good this time.

April 26, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I remember he came back with a successor strip to "Bloom County," but I haven't seen it for a few years. I wonder what he and Watterson and Gary Larson are doing these days.

April 26, 2010  

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