Monday, January 30, 2012
When it's considered on the individual level and not as a component part of a much larger tapestry, the daily comic strip occupies a place that's just about unique in the arts. Most of the forms comics have taken over their decades of history can be slotted fairly conveniently next to the popular idioms of other artistic practices. A great anthology short or single issue of a comic works along the same lines as a great pop song or TV show episode or short story. A great graphic novel holds an amount of inspired work commensurate to a great film, or a great LP, or a great book. Even the great Sunday pages of yore (and the great broadsheet pages we're seeing in larger and larger numbers today) stand well enough alongside great paintings, great photographs, great poems.
The daily strip, though, thwarts cross-media comparison. Perhaps it carries similarities to haiku, or viral videos, or sketches, but really it is something that doesn't have much of an equivalent in other art forms. This fact both makes it a little surprising and goes a long way toward explaining why it's been around longest as a consistently popular and available mode of presentation for the comics medium. It's a test of skill unique to comics, and no mean one, forcing artists to maintain the form's pictorial consistency while also putting across an acceptably substantial bit of story in a few squares. Difficult, to say the least; maybe too difficult in a comics landscape that gets more friendly to long-form, "epic" works every day. The story of the newspaper daily strip's fade from glory runs right alongside the "rise of the graphic novel" narrative that's so popular in more self-congratulatory comics circles. A bit of consternation arises when anyone comes right out and mentions the daily's flagging fortunes, but it doesn't seem to be a pressing concern for just about anyone beside the artists making the things.
It's hard to do much more than guess at the reason for the lack of interest the daily strip receives these days, so let me do just that: in the current climate of thick, archival reprint books and recastings of daily-strip artists as proto-graphic novelists, it can be difficult to find much material that really gets everything out of the form as what it is. Consider: Frank King and Milt Caniff and many more besides reached dizzying heights via both the fantastic and mundane in daily strips, but both used the format as a mere building block, tailoring their stories to fit within it but more importantly to expand far beyond it, much the same way great novelists use single sentences. Charles Schulz and Doug Wright crafted individual strips that relied on readers' familiarity with character dynamics and stock situations established previously to make their points. When one looks at the format critically, it gets tough to find work done in it that doesn't work better some way else.
For dailies that function best as what they are, the greatest cartoonist of all is as good a place as any to start. Even the daily strips of George Herriman's magnum opus Krazy Kat, however, seem a bit undervalued by the current market. While his undoubtedly glorious Sundays are lavished with beautifully designed, lovingly researched complete collections, his dailies exist piecemeal at best; a handful in Patrick McDonnell's biographical art book, a lovely though frustratingly brief sample in a deluxe Fantagraphics compilation, and a book that collects a sequence of strips from the 1930s while emphasizing the fact that they share a continuous narrative, a relative rarity among Krazy Kat's decades of single daily strips. And yet Herriman worked on Krazy Kat every day for more than 30 years, which as a sentence packs something incredibly grand into something that sounds incredibly matter-of-fact. Think about it: one of comics' most talented practitioners creating a strip every day for thirty years. I mean, how old are you? Herriman's work laps my entire life by half a decade on either side, and he did it all in three or four or five panels a day, rarely connecting one to any other, using a peculiar little format unique to his peculiar little medium.
Herriman worked the broadsheet page on Sundays like any other successful cartoonist, and it's for those broadsheets that he's best remembered. But the volume of his dailies far outweighs his Sundays. It took three years for Krazy Kat to make the move from strip to full page, and Herriman died with a daily half-completed on his table, not a Sunday. We remember Herriman as a broadsheet artist, but he lived his life as a daily man. And the broadsheet page always seemed to dwarf Krazy Kat and his ragtag cast of anthropomorphic "pixies": the size of the characters remains the same no matter the format they find themselves in. While Herriman's boundless Sundays let him stretch out and tell stories of the mystical, surreal world he set his stories in, or prove just how much was possible to accomplish with a single sheet of paper in comics, his daily strips were where he zeroed in to work on the characters, the personalities and peculiarities he spent more of his life living with than anyone else.
If anyone recognized the challenge of the daily strip, it was Herriman: where his Sundays spread with an epic ramble, the dailies are intensely concentrated, undeniable in the speed and energy with which they put their information across. Crowded into the tight boxes of the smaller strips, Herriman's loose, electric pen line often seems in danger of exploding, bunching up into tight oils of ink around the corners and inside the characters whose spastic, unpredictable antics drive the little bursts of action forward. Though it was standard to treat the long, flat expanse of page space the daily strip allows as a vaudeville stage in Herriman's day, no one moved action through that space quite like he did. Rarely is a character in motion without a bramble of ink marks behind him, pushing forward; rarely does an object make contact with another (whether it's knuckles to door or mouth to trumpet or Herriman's famous brick to his kat's head) without an accompanying flurry of impact lines. The art of Krazy Kat dailies feels less abridged than condensed, as though Herriman was cramming comics' liveliest jack-in-the-box into proportions as manageable as possible during the week before letting it expand to its full size on Sundays.
However, the stories (or jokes, or dialogues, or puns, or double entendres, or koans, or just plain nonsenses), are fully formed, maybe the purest examples of Herriman the writer. In daily strips especially, cartoonists of Herriman's ilk were expected first and foremost to be comedians, and for thirty years the artist threw out bit after bit after brilliant bit, effervescent, gorgeous fragments of a single epic poem that means absolutely nothing when taken as a whole. Here, it's in the bits that the genius abides. (Precious few places accommodate that truth as well as the comics form.) The dailies were the arena Herriman's monumental wit was given its most rigorous workouts in: five frames at most to put the joke across, and nothing outside of those. Where Krazy Kat Sundays delay or outright interrupt the path to a punchline with pastoral asides, layout tricks, or dense blocks of Joycean language, Herriman gets right to the point in his dailies. The free-associative wordplay is refined down to absolutely dizzying little balloons of pure dreamlike verbiage, the more on-the-nose comedy comes rapid fire, the non sequiturs happen with only thin single panel borders separating them, and the wonderful craft of Herriman's processional, step-by-step approach to humor is laid bare. Setup in the first panel, expansion in the next, cliffhanger, punchline, and that's all there is to it. And of course, when there isn't a clever inscrutability to end a strip on, slapstick enters the picture, Krazy Kat gets a brick to the head, and we all go home happy.
Herriman's most interesting daily strips, however, come when it feels like he was reaching the furthest, truly without a joke for the day and uncertain of what to do about it. It's in these strips that Herriman created "punchlines", if they can really be tagged as such, that related to the mysterious immediacy of art, the trompe l'oeil nature of the comics form, or even his own identity as the hand behind the artwork. At the climax of one daily, Ignatz Mouse, the perennial jailbird, is surprised to see a portrait of himself behind bars drawn onto the jailhouse's wall; and we, the readers, are surprised as well, because this is the same exact drawing Herriman has used innumerable times before to show us the real thing, Ignatz locked up -- yet there he is, looking up at himself, one no more "drawn" than the other. In another strip, Ignatz draws one of the bricks he so often clobbers Krazy with (again, one identical to the "real" bricks Herriman has drawn so many times before), and protests when the voice of the law, Officer Pupp, chastises him for his proximity to something as innocuous as a drawing. It takes further reflection to come across the thought that everything in the comic is a drawing. The strip following leads off with Krazy Kat getting pasted by a brick that Officer Pupp insists must be real, because "drawings simply cannot do that." Ignatz's simple response, an advertisement for the wonders of the comics form if there ever was one: "Animated drawings can."
Herriman's dailies brim with just as much life and magic as his Sunday strips, but it's more than just that. By managing to reduce his strip down to the smallest possible size something called a "comic" can take without losing any of what made it so special, Herriman proved that his particular brand of genius was beyond format. It touched anything his hands did. These strips are minimalism, yes, but they also incorporate as much maximalism as any broadsheet; they are a great deal somehow stated in a small space, little and much in single strokes. And the Krazy Kat dailies are also a reminder for the modern era: the medium is capable of wonders even when it's whittled right down to the core.
Read a bunch of great Herriman dailies here.