We all have elderly relatives who will, at the drop of Fred Astaire's top hat, regale us with reasons why the old days and their antiquated ways were better than all things newfangled or modern. While this old saw can get pretty rusty, in the case of the comic strip what those old geezers say is demonstrably true. Not opinion, but fact.
Take Frank O. King's "Gasoline Alley," the strip that began tentatively in 1918 and became by the 1920s the most popular daily cartoon in the country. Or take George Herriman's "Krazy Kat," the strip that ran daily and Sundays from 1914 to 1944, pitting Ignatz the Mouse against the lovestruck feline who worshiped him and completely redefined the comic art genre. Without King or Herriman or their contemporary Winsor McCay -- creator of the equally mind-altering and long-running "Little Nemo in Slumberland" -- everything from "Mutts" and "Far Side" to "The Boondocks" and "Zippy the Pinhead" would be unthinkable, if not impossible.
So, if you're looking for a project to ward off the summer doldrums, two of the finest comic art publishers in the world, Montreal-based Drawn & Quarterly and Seattle-based Fantagraphics, have provided the perfect way to rediscover these classic strips. Drawn & Quarterly has begun a monumental task with the first volume of the collected works of King. Entitled Walt & Skeezix , it picks up "Gasoline Alley" in 1921 and carries it through to the end of 1922. This handsome hardcover, sumptuously designed by Chris "Jimmy Corrigan" Ware, is an obsessive's delight and a must-have for any public library's reference shelf. In 424 lavish pages, it contains every single strip, in sequence, as well as a detailed biographical sketch of King by Jeet Heer, archival photographs and appendices that supply the context by which to judge King's achievement.
King's strip began as a gentle satire on the car craze that swept America after World War I and became, in Ware's words, "the longest story ever told in comics." These early strips chronicle the life of Walt, a pudgy unmarried nerd and cheapskate whose car (named Peggy) is always breaking down. Walt has taken it in his head to raise Skeezix, a baby he found on his doorstep one morning. Though the strip is a paean to King's own small-town Wisconsin boyhood, the nostalgia is tempered with a creepy darkness: Walt is terrified of losing Skeezix, the foundling, who has given his otherwise pathetic life meaning. As Ware notes, this is the first strip to show characters aging, a "horrible fact of life" that gives it the power of a literary saga. It also offers a glimpse of the soul of America "as it slowly, inextricably, and hopelessly" passes into the ether of history.
Fantagraphics has undertaken the same sort of project with Krazy & Ignatz, 1935-1936: A Wild Warmth of Chromatic Gravy , reprinting Herriman's complete full-page "Krazy & Ignatz" comic strips, from start to finish. Theirs is a less sumptuous but equally exhaustive undertaking, and the oversized paperbound volumes are also designed by the ubiquitous Ware, arguably the finest American contemporary comic artist. The series, which began with Herriman's first Krazy Kat strips in 1925, is now on its sixth volume, taking it up to 1936. The "chromatic gravy" of the subtitle refers to the fact that Krazy Kat didn't begin its color Sunday strips until June 1935. The volume also contains an essay by Heer and archival material from the life of Herriman, a complex man who channeled his anxieties into his wild feline fantasies.
The "gravy" of the subtitle could also refer to the unpredictable surrealism that spewed daily from Herriman's ink bottle. While King was a journeyman artist, comfortable within his set boundaries, Herriman was a true original, even a visionary. In the words of Michael Chabon, "One of the very great artists, in any medium, of the 20th century."
Walt & Skeezix, 1921 & 1922 , by Frank O. King; designed by Chris Ware; Drawn & Quarterly Books, $29.95
Krazy & Ignatz, 1935-1936: A Wild Warmth of Chromatic Gravy , by George Herriman; designed by Chris Ware; Fantagraphics, $19.95.