Masters of American Comics

Masters of American Comics

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by John Carlin, Paul Karasik, Brian Walker, Tom De Haven

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The first comprehensive history of 20th-century American comics to examine the genre's significant and varied contributions to art and culture

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The first comprehensive history of 20th-century American comics to examine the genre's significant and varied contributions to art and culture

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
In 1906, a group of newspaper executives attended a talk entitled “Is the Comic Supplement a Desirable Feature?,” which charged that “crude coloring, slapdash drawing, and very cheap and obvious funniness” would numb people to “the finer forms of art.” By contrast, the cultural prestige that comics currently enjoy is exemplified by this book, which features appreciations of a familiar canon—from George Herriman to Chris Ware—by a starry list of contributors, such as Dave Eggers and Jules Feiffer. Not all the contributions are equally valuable. Raymond Pettibon’s appreciation of Will Eisner turns into a free-associative rant about the editorial pages of the Times. But an essay on Lyonel Feininger, who eventually abandoned comics for a high-art career, and taught at the Bauhaus for several years, is illuminating. Hundreds of color reproductions allow the ingenuity of the artists’ work to speak for itself.
Publishers Weekly
This ambitious new book from Yale accompanies an exhibition of the same title debuting this fall at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Both focus on the 15 "Masters" of American comics, including George Herriman, Jack Kirby and R. Crumb. Well known figure like Jules Feiffer, Pete Hamill and Matt Groening, among others, contribute essays on each of the artists. These are complemented by a 175-page essay by Carlin, "Art History of 20th Century American Comics." Unfortunately, this essay is a disorganized and overly academic attempt to tell the story of comics through just these 15 artists, with little context for their achievements, thus failing to elucidate what makes them so special. Going too far the other way, the individual essays vary wildly in depth and intent. Jonathan Safran Foer's piece is little more than a memory of his friendship with Art Spiegelman, while Brian Walker casts much needed light on Lyonel Feininger's little known cartooning career. If the book is an uneven example of scholarship, it will still deserve a place on the comics reference table for the lavish number of full-color pages celebrating the glorious achievements of the cartoonists profiled. They show what the text sometimes doesn't: the vital impact these artists have had on the form. (Nov.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

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Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
12.78(w) x 9.36(h) x 1.22(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

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Masters of American Comics

By John Carlin

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2005 The Regents of University of California and The Museum of Contemporary Art
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-11317-X

Chapter One


American comics were born in newspapers more than 100 years ago. Originally printed in Sunday supplements, comics became immensely successful and provided a way for artists to reach a larger audience than any other medium at the time.

Along the way a few artists made comics one of the great forms of personal expression in twentieth-century America. The first of these was Winsor McCay, who developed a creative language that set the foundation for the medium. He did for comics what D. W. Griffith did for movies and Louis Armstrong did for music-he transformed mechanical reproduction into a creative medium for self-expression.

McCay's Dream of the Rarebit Fiend (1904) and Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905) stretched the boundaries of one-page, illustrated newspaper comics further than seemed possible. His work made comics a magnet for such creative forces as George Herriman, E. C. Segar, Harvey Kurtzman, R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Chris Ware, artists who drew some of the most popular, experimental, and revealing images ever made.

The history of American comics falls into four distinct periods. The first ran from the mid-1900s to the mid-1920s and was in some ways the period of greatest experimentation and achievement. Artists such as McCay and Herriman took a disposable popular medium and raised it to unexpected heights. McCay did so by taking the graphic potential as far as it could go in purely formal terms. He worked out variations on how one could display, distort, and relate visual imagery on a printed color page? And he did so in a way that has defined artistic comics ever since-a graphic medium made of harmonious abstract shapes and forms that also tell amusing stories.

Herriman took those experiments even further, particularly in terms of poetic language and playful design. He also perfected the drawing style upon which the entire history of comics rests-simple, jazzy lines that convey an incredible amount of emotion for whimsical characters and strange backgrounds. Artists and intellectuals at the time knew immediately that the sophisticated and innovative Krazy Kat was not throwaway amusement for kids. It was as sophisticated and important as any art being made in America at the time.

In the second period, the comics' success almost became their undoing. The format became standardized, and massive popularity gave rise to middlebrow comics that regressed from the antic fun of Krazy Kat and its peers. At the same time, this period brought better storytelling and even more memorable characters into American culture. Popeye joined the cast of Segar's Thimble Theatre in 1929, the same year as Buck Rogers and Tarzan brought exotic adventures to the comics. By the mid-1920s, Frank King developed the domestic comic strip into a living work of art. His Gasoline Alley told the story of a family that aged in real time. And on some Sundays, the color pages broke loose from drama to portray wild graphic fantasies that displayed McCay's ongoing influence.

By the mid-1930s, Chester Gould developed both a sensational new form of storytelling in which violence was anything but comic, and a visual style that was as brutal as the trouble Dick Tracy got in and out o f every week. At the same time, Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates transformed kids' adventures into gripping adult stories that perfected the balance between realism and graphic design that is the hallmark of all great comics.

In the third period, comic books began to compete with newspaper strips in terms of both popularity and creativity. Fueled by the success of Superman, comics started to emphasize superheroes whose stories were sold as books rather than included in daily newspapers. Two very different artists-Jack Kirby and Harvey Kurtzman-dominated this period. Kirby co-created Captain America at the height of the Superman boom during the 1940s and then made Marvel Comics the most important comic publisher in the 1960s. Kurtzman made EC the most important publisher in the 1950s, first through evocative war and horror comics, then in MAD, which brought graphic and verbal wit back into the comics in the guise of gross-out parody.

The fourth period began with the publication of independent comics by R. Crumb in the mid-1960s and continues into the present, notably in the work of Art Spiegelman, Gary Panter, and Chris Ware. These four artists brought formal innovation and psychological expression back into the comics in a truly personal way, unencumbered by the censorship and commercial restrictions of mass media. These artists and their peers are still creating comics that reflect the complex reality of America at the turn of the twenty-first century as well as words and pictures can.



The Origin of American Comics

Comics came into being after the invention of the printing press and the rise of mass culture. William Hogarth (1697-1764) was the first important artist to transform the nascent print medium into one that balanced creative and popular expression. His breakthrough work was A Harlot's Progress (1732), which embodied the hallmark of what was to become the comics medium-a story told in a series of related pictures with continuing characters? One scholar cited an 1828 copy of A Harlot's Progress, simplified and printed in two vertical rows in Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle as "arguably the first ever newspaper strip."

Hogarth's work and that of nineteenth-century British caricaturists who followed him, such as Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray, introduced the individual elements of the comic strip: word balloons, panels, and illustrated stories. However, a Swiss teacher of rhetoric, Rudolph Topffer (1799-1846), is credited with the ultimate consolidation of those elements. Topffer transformed Hogarth's picture-stories into a new form that directly integrated text and image as well as showing continuous action from one panel to the next. By the middle of the nineteenth century, picture-stories had become popular throughout Europe. The most influential European cartoonist in terms of American comics was Wilhelm Busch (1832-1908). His illustrated antics of Max und Moritz were the model for Rudolph Dirks's The Katzenjammer Kids, one of the first and most successful early American comic strips.

American cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902) used cross-hatching to create complex compositions in print that impacted the style of comics from George Herriman through R. Crumb. Nast also proved the power of cartoon iconography by creating and popularizing images that remain part of American culture, such as the Republican elephant, the Democratic donkey, Santa Claus, and Uncle Sam, though he rarely told stories in sequential panels. American illustrator A. B. Frost (1851-1928) developed a fluid and natural sense of action in successive drawings that paved the way for McCay's motion drawings in comics and animated cartoons.

These formal and stylistic antecedents do not fully explain how comics grew to be such an important medium for personal expression in twentieth-century America. Other artists such as William Blake and Francisco Goya developed ways to make printed drawings and words capable of representing more than humorous scenes and political satire. The French poet Charles Baudelaire, writing in 1855 about French caricaturists such as Honore Daumier, Grandville, and Gustave Dore defined this characteristic as "mysterious" rather than "factual" to show how printed drawings could create atmosphere and emotion as much as specific ideas or stories. The blend of the "mysterious" innovative aspect of comics along with mastery of craft is what defines the fifteen artists in this exhibition and makes them exemplary of the lasting quality of American comics.


The First American Comic Strips

Comics emerged as a new medium when American newspapers started publishing them in the early 1890s and became an indelible part of popular culture when Richard F. Outcault (1863-1928) created The Yellow Kid, a single panel cartoon about a young street urchin who wore a yellow nightshirt and lived in a slum called Hogans Alley, for Joseph Pulitzer's New York World in 1895. The Yellow Kid was so successful that William Randolph Hearst hired Outcault away from Pulitzer, giving rise to the term "yellow journalism." Pulitzer then hired a young artist named George Luks to continue another version of the feature for the World.

The war over The Yellow Kid demonstrated that comics were big business and had a dramatic impact upon circulation and revenues, so much so that Hearst established his own color comics section in 1896. He described The American Humorist as "Eight pages of iridescent polychromous effulgence that makes the rainbow look like a lead pipe." Hearst's editor, Rudolph Block, also started another milestone comics feature, The Katzenjammer Kids, drawn by Rudolph Dirks (1877-1968), who pioneered many graphic symbols such as speed lines and sweat drops. Frederick Burr Opper (1857-1937) was a first-generation cartoonist who combined world-class drawing skills with innovative depiction of physical action. He was already one of the most respected illustrators and panel cartoonists in America when his most famous character, Happy Hooligan, first appeared in 1900.

It is hard to imagine the initial impact of these first comic strips. In 1900, media was static, text-based, and almost exclusively black and white. Movies did not exist, much less television or the Internet, and newspapers were dominant in a way that no single form of media is today. They were not only the sole source of news but also the place where the lifestyle of modern America was being represented and shared by millions of people. In that context, large, beautifully printed color comics jumped out at newspaper readers in a truly revolutionary fashion.

3 Winsor McCay-The First American Master of Comic Art

One hundred years ago comics also became an artistic medium with the publication of Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905). McCay (1869-1934) began his career in the Midwest drawing posters for carnivals and illustrations for local newspapers. He moved to New York in 1903 to be part of the most dynamic and lucrative media business in the world. Publisher's Row in Lower Manhattan was a pressure cooker where creative and commercial people did more than represent the news, they made it.

By 1904 McCay was publishing an interesting half-page Sunday feature in the New York Herald called Little Sammy Sneeze, a beautifully drawn comic strip about a little boy whose weekly sneeze disrupted the world around him. This absurd device allowed McCay to showcase his ability to create explosions and movement in static drawings. In one notable example, Sammy's "KAH CHOW" breaks the frame of his own comic strip (fig. 1).

By the end of the decade Little Nemo had taken over the front of the comics supplement, pushing Buster Brown to the back. McCay was already one of the most accomplished cartoonists in America. His formal sophistication rivaled the work of artists of the preeminent fine art movement at the time-the Ash Can School. In 1905 artists associated with the Ash Can School graduated from working as illustrators for Philadelphia newspapers, moved to New York, and started painting the new urban environment around them. Unlike other American artists of their time, they strived to paint everyday people and places in a realistic way, including their surrounding poverty. This was the same world depicted in Outcault's Yellow Kid-urban slums teeming with poor people. McCay comics also showed urban New York, even shantytowns. But instead of focusing on individuals, McCay drew people in relation to the new urban landscape in a way that expressed a more modern sense of alienation and abstraction than the Ash Can artists.

Though most Americans were not fully aware of modern art until the Armory Show in 1913, they had already seen the essence of modernism in McCay's comics without knowing it. McCay utilized many of the hallmarks of modernism-figures in motion, twentieth-century machines, and modern urban architecture-in much the same way as later Cubist and Futurist painters. The use of paint to convey the immediacy of the human touch was, of course, not possible in comics, nor was the complete abstraction of individual scenes, but McCay compensated for these restrictions by creating complex overall graphic design made up of multiple layers of meaning.

He devised a way to create a balance between the flat printed page as an arrangement of abstract forms on one hand, and as recognizable pictures in which characters did things on the other. The realism of McCay's drawings and their shifting perspectives do not just show off the artist's virtuosity, they force the reader to think about visual perceptions. In other words, he brought an abstract formal dimension to comics, which added to the theatrical action that one saw through the panels. This technique allowed the page to be read both as a story told over time and as a relation of design elements printed on the page. The combination of temporal spatial relations helped Little Nemo become a significant and innovative form of American art and transcend the disposable nature of the newspapers it was printed in.


Excerpted from Masters of American Comics by John Carlin Copyright © 2005 by The Regents of University of California and The Museum of Contemporary Art. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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