WALT & SKEEZIX in the Austin American Statesman

You're a good brand, Charlie Brown

Austin American Statesman    |    Jeff Salamon    |    December 4, 2005

The 'Peanuts' revival inspires publishers to look back at other classic newspaper strips

There's probably no pop-culture character more universally beloved than Charlie Brown. So it's an oddity of the publishing marketplace that until last year no one had ever bothered — no one had, apparently, even thought — to put together a complete and chronological collection of the "Peanuts" gang's decades-long perambulations.

Last year, the independent comic book and graphic novel publisher Fantagraphics finally got around to doing so, launching its multivolume hardcover "Peanuts" series with a fat, bricklike tome devoted to the strip's first three years. The result — 100,000 copies sold and counting — has drawn attention to other classic strips that are getting the same treatment. Fantagraphics has just launched a "Dennis the Menace" series, Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly has done the same with "Gasoline Alley" and Andrews McMeel found its original sales projections far outstripped by the quick success of its massive "Calvin and Hobbes" collection.

Why this sudden upsurge after decades of benign neglect? "I think part of it is simply that, for publishers like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly, only in the past few years have we had proper distribution in book stores," says Fantagraphics publicist Eric Reynolds. "Prior to that it was just comic shops, really, and the old-fashioned comic book shop isn't a real strong ground for comic strip reprints. For years we were publishing things like "Thimble Theater" and "Little Nemo" and we were only able to get them under the nose of superhero fans, and I just don't think there was enough of an interest from that audience."

It's not just methods of distribution that have changed in the past few years. "There's also been an upsurge in bookstores embracing comics," Reynolds says. Part of it is the attention that Hollywood adaptations of comics, ranging from "Ghost World" to "Spider-Man," have drawn to the form; part of it is the increasing critical respect given to ambitious works like Chris Ware's "Jimmy Corrigan"; and part of it is the exploding popularity of Japanese manga comics among teenagers.

"The comics market has just opened up so wide and far from where it was 10 years ago," says Reynolds. "Book buyers for major chains and independent stores are at least making a good effort to stock a wide variety of material."

As a result, the second and third volumes of Fantagraphics' "Peanuts" series have sold about 40,000 to 50,000 apiece, and its "Krazy Kat" reprints a more modest but still profitable 10,000. "That's huge, that's a great number for us," Reynolds says, recalling the company's earlier forays into comic strip reprints. "Something like 'Popeye' or 'Little Orphan Annie,' we were probably printing 4,000 each. And some of them are still in our warehouse 15 years later."

One big difference is packaging. Fantagraphics' "Popeye" and "Little Orphan Annie" books were big, floppy paperbacks designed with minimal artfulness. The new books are nicely bound, hardcover volumes smartly wrought by such alt-comic auteurs as Chris Ware and Seth. The packaging has made such a difference in sales and critical attention that Fantagraphics plans to reissue its "Pogo" and "Popeye" reprints in hardcover format.

Incidentally, it's not just readers and critics who appreciate these books. The estates of the various creators seem moved that, finally, the works of these golden age cartoonists are getting the respect they deserve. "Charles Schulz's people are really concerned with keeping the integrity of the property alive," says Reynolds. "They see us as a feather in the cap in a way I don't think they feel about, say, a Snoopy beach ball."

Walt & Skeezix: 1921 & 1922 (Vol. 1)
Frank O. King
Drawn & Quarterly, $29.95

Presumably, the reason this series is called "Walt & Skeezix" rather than "Gasoline Alley" is because it doesn't start in 1918, when Gasoline Alley debuted as a strip about a bunch of car buffs. Instead, it picks up three years later, just before Walt, a bachelor, finds a baby named Skeezix on his doorstep, turning a man-child obsessed with carburetors and pistons into a nurturing, if somewhat absent-minded, adult.

Actually, publisher Drawn & Quarterly intends, somewhere down the line, to reprint those early strips. But devoting their first volume to father and son seems like a wise move; those car gags wear pretty thin pretty quickly, and it's tough to imagine anyone plunking down $30 for more of Walt's adventures after suffering through his umpteenth travail with a wheezy transmission.

Once Skeezix showed up, King began to de-emphasize his sometimes less than stellar punch lines in favor of character development. More and more, the last panel of each strip evokes a sigh of recognition rather than a laugh. (Or sometimes a wince of recognition: The one truly jarring aspect of the strip is the portrayal of Walt's housekeeper, Rachel, which partakes of too many of the racial stereotypes of the era for modern readers to be comfortable with.)

King's great innovation was to create a daily strip where the characters age in real time. In the course of this first volume, Skeezix goes from infant to toddler and Walt undergoes his own, more subtle evolution. Even today, this is a rare choice; Garry Trudeau, though a very different cartoonist in countless ways, is in this sense a descendant of King.

Speaking of descendants, one of the more notable things about this collection is the realization that King's work must have been — speaking of very different cartoonists — a profound influence on Robert Crumb. "Gasoline Alley," like its predecessors "The Gumps" and "Mutt and Jeff," is drawn with what, today, looks like an excess of fine lines and busy cross-hatching. It's a style that Crumb — as much a nostalgist as a revolutionary — brought to his stories of acid trips and hippie orgies.

But in King's work the resemblance is occasionally astonishing. The slouching, bandy-legged figures, the prickly overcoats drawn as thickly as flesh and those Pinocchio noses could have come straight out of Crumb's early work. In one 1922 strip, Walt's gait looks like the model for Crumb's famous "Keep on Truckin' " pose.

"Gasoline Alley" was, by some accounts, the first soap opera, though it never went in for the over-the-top melodrama that characterizes televised soaps. King was too true to his characters to ever treat them like that; he simply kept his story-telling vehicle well-oiled and his hand on the wheel as it puttered on down the road.

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