For Those Who Came in Late …

Knowing that persons everywhere are looking for new diversions during the current global circumstances, it occurred to us that we may be getting casual browsers stopping by this space for only the first or second time. They may find themselves wondering, “What’s this whole Library of American Comics thing about, anyway?”

This entry is a very compressed primer on things a newcomer might want to know about our books, and the source material for them …

The Library of American Comics (or LOAC, because one can never have too many acronyms in one’s life) has been publishing since the summer of 2007. Its mission: to collect classic newspaper comics strips in quality hardcover editions. We believe in “art, not artifacts,” so the cartoons displayed on our pages are not muddy images captured from moldering piles of decades-old newsprint. Instead they are reprinted from the best-available source material — sometimes from the original artwork itself, sometimes from crisp “proof” copies created by the syndicate companies that distributed the comic strips to newspapers all across America, sometimes digitally remastered from newspaper pages that were often lovingly clipped or saved by fans of the medium. Many of the stories in our books are as fresh and lively — if not always as topical — as they were when they were originally published, and we want the appearance of the artwork to be equal to the quality of the stories.

A newcomer might ask, “What’s so special about newspaper comics, anyway? Why would anyone want to read whole books of this stuff?” A fair question, but one with as many answers as there are readers to respond to it. Those interested in the lively arts do not agree on the exact number of artforms that are native to America, but it is commonly held that the number is small, and that comics as we know them today — words and pictures combined on a page to form a narrative — is one of them. So comics are an important part of our culture.

Some folks are looking for solid all-ages reading material — the comics strips represent that in abundance. From the wholesome small-town antics of “Cap” Stubbs and Tippie to the straight-shooting self-reliance of Little Orphan Annie (and Sandy!), newspaper comics are truly fun for all ages.

There are those who are attracted by the stories. They may enjoy soap operas with appealing characters (The Heart of Juliet Jones, Apartment 3-G, Mary Worth, and many others), or comedies that roam across history’s eras, from stone age B.C. to the Viking days of Hagar the Horrible to Western spoofs such as Tumbleweeds and Redeye to the mix of suburban domestic bliss-and-chaos that is Hi and Lois. Their tastes may run to science fiction — venerable Flash Gordon to the more contemporary Star Hawks — or to superheroes (Superman, Spider-Man, Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman).  Familiar faces from other media made their way into the comic strips (Hopalong Cassidy. Charlie Chan, Mickey Mouse, Tarzan, Betty Boop, and more), and characters from the comics ventured into other media (among others Popeye, Blondie and Dagwood Bumstead, Dick Tracy). There were many rip-roaring adventure series that featured thrills and excitement day after day, month after month, year after year: the swords and deviltry milieu of Prince Valiant, the Far East exotica of Terry and the Pirates, and Red Barry‘s hard-bitten crime saga represent only the tip of the newspaper strip’s action-packed heritage.

Art lovers are attracted to the comics, as well. Krazy Kat and Polly and Her Pals offer regular doses of comedic surrealism; Bringing Up Father showcases elaborate deco flourishes. From the lush chiaroscuro techniques Noel Sickles brought to Scorchy Smith to the minimalist pen-and-ink beauty of Percy Crosby’s Skippy, newspaper comics offered something that appealed to almost every discerning eye.

All this might lead to the question, “If newspaper comics are so great, what happened to them?” They’re still out there, of course, though they occupy a far more humble place in the public perception and on the printed page than they did in their prime. In the glory days of the 1930s newspapers like the New York Daily News ran a single comic, such as Dick Tracy, bannered all the way across new newspaper page, with stories, ads, and photos running beneath it …

A half-century later — squeezed by economic pressures that began with 1940s Wartime newsprint shortages, expanded during the 1950s-70s with the growing pressure of television on newspaper revenues, and exacerbated in the 1980s and beyond as new forms of entertainment took root in the popular culture — Dick Tracy was crowded onto only a small fraction of a single page, ghettoized with his comic strip brethren:

And nowadays many modern-day comics are read on a computer or phone screen, not on paper at all.

If comics have passed their peak, LOAC has done its part to capture and preserve a sizable portion of this vital and compelling heyday so it can be enjoyed again and again. There is a certain comfort in looking back on earlier days and being reminded that Americans have always found ways to laugh, even when the going is toughest, and that we still enjoy a tale in which the good guys may take it in the neck, but they persevere and ultimately prevail through the use of cool heads and stout hearts.

Not a bad lesson to take ahead with us, in these uncertain times.

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