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Essentially a chronological history of comic-strip art in America since the turn of the century, this lavishly illustrated volume also considers--with less success--alternative cartoons and comic books produced since the Sixties. Comics as entertainment, as art, as storytelling, and as social history: O'Sullivan (The Art of the Comic Strip--not reviewed) balances these concerns in her splendid chapters on Winsor McCay and his ""proto-Surrealist"" dreamscapes in Little Nemo in Slumberland, and in those on George Harriman and his equally inventive Krazy Kat, the visually and linguistically adventurous tales of a magnificent obsession. She also brings a welcome level of interpretive criticism to bear upon the kid strips and domestic comedies that dominated the early funny pages, from R.F. Outcault's Yellow Kid (""the idiot savant as social commentator"") to George McManus's art deco Bringing Up Father, the class-conscious antics of a nouveau riche Irish-American family. The Depression inspired the tight-wing triumvirate of Harold Gray, Chester Gould, and Al Capp, who together sketched a darker vision of America. While Gray mocked the New Deal in his tales of the pupil-less Orphan Annie and her beneficent capitalist guardian, Gould's upstanding lawman Dick Tracy brought law and order to a city peopled with grotesque evildoers, and Capp's Lil Abner would eventually become a vehicle to rail against the Sixties. Before newspapers shrank in number and size in the late Forties, the funny pages also gave space to the remarkable adventure stories of more classically illustrated strips, among them Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon, Hal Fostet's Prince Valiant, and Burne Hogarth's adaptation of Tarzan. O'Sullivan's coherent historical narrative breaks down in the later chapters, a hodge-podge of essays on such subjects as women in the comics and a profile of underground comic book genius R. Crumb. Despite some conceptual flaws and patches of bland, academic prose: the best and most up-to-date single-volume introduction to comics and their creators.

Pub Date: Oct. 11th, 1990
Publisher: Little, Brown