Something to look out for:

*Have you ever had a dream where you’re listening to a song (or even better, you’re just going about your business as a song plays like you're a character in an exciting MTV original series) and it’s such a great song and once you wake up you realize that the song doesn’t really exist, or rather, it does exist but entirely inside your head? That happened to me the other night, except I wasn’t hearing an original song; it was some sort of remix of “Hey Nineteen” by Steely Dan. Who knows why valuable cells in my brain are devoting themselves to toying around with Steely Dan numbers in their free time. Or maybe I just find the smooth tones of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen to be dreamy...

*I’m not entirely sure how I’ve gotten this far through my life without a copy of “The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics”, that seminal 1977 tome edited by Bill Blackbeard and Martin Williams. I recently managed to score a nice hardcover copy of the 1987 sixth printing for less than ten dollars online, and I urge you to seek out a similar deal.

It’s 336 pages long and the dimensions are 1.5 x 10.5 x 14.4 inches; in other words, it’s a very big book. Blackbeard and Williams provide some historical background and general comments at the top of each of the book’s eight chapters, which trace the history of the American newspaper strip from “The Yellow Kid” up until around the time of the book’s publishing. But the true purpose of the book is revealed right at the start: this is a showcase for the best of newspaper comics art, and strips of every sort fill most of the book’s pages. Several full storylines are presented for selected features, like “Thimble Theater” (aka: the one with Popeye), and samples are taken from so many more; I suspect that only the most devout enthusiast of newspaper comics will have heard of all the artists and characters who grace this book with their ghostly presence. Much of the material is in b&w, but there are quite a lot of color pages as well, a vital presentational aspect of those early comics pages.

I’ve only thoroughly read through some of the earlier strips, and the variety of art styles on display is amazing. I’ve never heard of Charles Forbell’s “Naughty Pete”, its simple lines representing a UPA animated short (only more than a quarter-century early), but merely upon glancing at the 1913 installment reproduced in the book I can see all sorts of advancements being made in color (the little boy protagonist is left in b&w while his parents are bathed entirely in red) lettering (the parents’ words are a stately print, the boy’s musings a flowing cursive) page layout (long diagonal panels accompany a slide down a bannister) and more. An obscure 1916 strip titled “Mama’s Angel Child” by Penny Ross sends a dreaming young girl, Little Nemo style, into a cubist nightmare world as the titular Mama struts around in the sharpest and most lovingly detailed then-contemporary garments I’ve ever seen. A goofy student in a 1909 installment of “School Days” sticks out her tongue and holds up a chalkboard reading “Every time you smile a fairy is born,” which makes me laugh every time through its sheer absurdity, something that wouldn’t seem out of place on Adult Swim, but there it is, before World War One.

It can be a depressing book to read, as it can only remind you of how far the newspaper funny pages has fallen. The editors admit, though, that they’ve deliberately selected the best material they could find, to make the case for newspaper comics as a worthy area of study; even during the most vainglorious months of the newspaper comic art the strips themselves were viewed as purely disposable entertainment, but the bar for disposable entertainment has been set far lower today, lower than in 1977 when this book was written but not so much lower that Blackbeard and William’s point cannot be ascertained. Perhaps it took the hindsight of an era with a lower standard to appreciate the pop amusement of a previous era as something worthy of preservation. I would certainly not prefer going through life believing that the newspaper comics section was always as dire as it is now.

This purchase of mine was prompted, by the way, by news that the Smithsonian is preparing a new book on comics, a similarly huge collection of lots of comic (book) art from the latter half of the 20th century, to be titled “The New Smithsonian Book of Comic Book Stories: From Crumb to Clowes”, which still sounds like a limiting designation. Publishers Weekly’s review (as quoted on Amazon) was not kind:

This new volume is neither precise nor witty, and actually performs a disservice to comics readers and historians... neither a definitive anthology nor a helpful resource, this is a haphazard grab bag of some good comics, numerous dubious achievements and some downright mysteries.”

Not much of a rave, but the review does point me to a third Smithsonian comics compilation, “The Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics”, a 1982 book that gathers up a lot of nice-sounding Golden Age goodies. I might have to look into it...