WALT & SKEEZIX in the New York Times

Comics Chronicle

The New York Times    |    John Hodgman    |    December 4, 2005

"Do you wanna see a great new comic strip?" Charlie Brown asks Patty, running up with a distinctively oblong sheet of drawing paper. "It's about these two guys in an office, see?" he explains. "One guy offers the other guy this piece of English toffee, see? Then this other guy says, 'Thank you very much. I'll eat this during toffee-break!' Get it?"

But Patty just stares, her mouth one of those Charles Schulzian unadorned lines, the shortest distance between befuddlement and contempt. Charlie Brown walks away, the comic strip over his shoulder. "There's nothing worse than being 50 years ahead of your time," he says. That was in 1957, and even then comic strips got no respect.

While it is true that many older comics are being collected into increasingly glorious and weighty oblong treasuries - that particular strip, in fact, comes from THE COMPLETE PEANUTS 1957-1958 (Fantagraphics, $28.95), the recently published fourth book in a series - it is simultaneously a given among a certain readership, generally of former comics-page addicts, that the current funnies are banal and artless, microscopic in both size and ambition: unfunny, irrelevant and irredeemable. Not even worthy of skimming over toffee break. One popular Web site, "The Comics Curmudgeon" (joshreads.com), formerly known as "I read the comics so you don't have to," regularly ridicules the creaky war horses like "Hagar the Horrible" and "Mary Worth," the opaque woolgathering of "Ziggy," the dull crypto-evangelism of "B.C."

"At this point, it's standard operating procedure to rail against the homogeneity and unnerving jokelessness of the American comics page," Stephen Thompson, a former editor of The Onion, writes in his introduction to Max Cannon's latest collection, RED MEAT GOLD: The Third Collection of Red Meat Cartoons from the Secret Files of Max Cannon (St. Martin's Griffin, paper, $11.95). "Red Meat" has run in The Onion since 1993, and in other alternative weeklies since 1989, and the strip is presented here quite consciously as a bracing, bitter tonic - the antidote to comics-page malaise, albeit one that might kill before it cures.

This is a classic ensemble comic, full of suburban archetypes - the smiling dad, Ted; his long-suffering son; his straight man neighbor. There are also some distinct weirdos: Johnny Lemonhead, who is named with grotesque physical accuracy; the gym teacher who jogs around the supermarket naked to quit smoking; a dead, decomposing clown. The joke is that none of the latter are as deranged as smiling Ted, with his 50's haircut and pipe, blandly drinking cough syrup, indulging his bizarre sexual fetishes and tormenting his family.

Cannon even lampoons the old "Family Circus" gag of having "little Billy" take over the strip for a day, replacing Cannon's almost mechanically precise dark-line drawings with crude sketches. But the outcome in this case is typical of the baroquely dark imaginings that make Cannon's work more than a tiresome anti-comic. "Honney, have you seen my car keyes?" Ted asks his offstage wife. "I hadd them when I took the kids to the lake." His wife asks if he left them in the car. "Maybee," he replies. "But Im not swiming to the botom of the lake to find out."

A far healthier father-son relationship is found in WALT & SKEEZIX 1921 & 1922 (Drawn & Quarterly, $29.95), the beautiful first volume of the projected complete "Gasoline Alley," created by Frank O. King. "Gasoline Alley," which has been published continuously since 1918, is exactly the sort of strip a curmudgeon might curmudge about: long running, on its fourth artist, its real estate safeguarded by nostalgia, not required to amuse but only to reassuringly show up. I recall as a child finding it simply impenetrable, perhaps because I had missed out on the last few decades' worth of the story.

For the uninitiated, the eponymous alley refers to a string of Chicago garages populated by an affable gang of friends who share the then-novel hobby of automobiling. The story did not really pick up until 1921, when the bachelor of the group, Walt Wallet, finds a baby on his doorstep, whom he calls Skeezix - slang for a motherless calf. Walt is instantly besotted, and his adaptation to fatherhood is documented sweetly and slowly. Its decency is marred by one racial caricature, Walt's maid, who is outlined in Sambo contours. Yet even she is a complex human character, fully drawn.

King would become an icon to comic artists like Chris Ware, one of the editors of this volume, for his full page Sunday strips, with their bold experiments in framing and pacing. But the hallmark of his daily strips are their unhurried depiction of quotidian life. King rarely went for a proper punch line, though he seems aware that he is perhaps expected to. When the infant Skeezix topples over in inadvertent imitation of the classic comic strip heels-in-the-air stumble, Walt laughs: "Very good, old top! You know what a comic paper ending should be all right!"

There is a lovely, often wrenching gravity to the strip. King knows how humans as well as cars work, especially toddlers. His unsentimental understanding of their moods and games, matched by Walt's sudden and unquestioned devotion to his adopted son, make this about as affecting a portrait of fatherhood as I've seen, not least because Skeezix grows. This is the great innovation and dark curse of "Gasoline Alley": the characters age.

A few other comics have done this, most notably Lynn Johnston's "For Better or for Worse" and Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury." But both still glow with a kind of bloomer youthfulness. In the current strips, Skeezix is in his 80's, having grown up before our eyes, eventually, inevitably to die. It's hard to tell how much King was aware of what the seeming minor novelty of having Skeezix learn to walk would have on the strip. But while "Gasoline Alley" may seem reassuring today, it is in fact profoundly unnerving.

Two other recent books were never comic strips, but clearly were inspired by them. Daniel Clowes's ICE HAVEN (Pantheon, $18.95) is called "A Comic-Strip Novel" and flips darkly through the pages of a small town's secrets - its broken homes, anguished youths and loathsome amateur poets - through the virtuosic lens of various comic strip styles: the little kid strip, the detective strip, even the funny animal strip.

BLACK HOLE (Pantheon, $24.95), by Charles Burns, was serialized for more than 10 years in comic-book form, but it is invested with all the dudgeon of that often bewildering stalwart of the comics page, the soap opera strip. Burns's intricate, controlled and pulpy penwork (he is an alum of Raw magazine) is one of the most recognizable styles in comics, and "Black Hole" is his masterwork: an uncanny imitation of traditional comics at their most mannered and melodramatic, invigorated by the shock of the deeply human and the deeply weird. It follows Keith, the lovably dumb high school hunk, who pines for his biology lab partner, Chris - though he does not know she's got "the bug," the blatantly metaphoric virus that's going around town.

"The bug" disfigures different teens differently - some shed their skin, others wither into walking corpses, others grow a second, semi-vaginal mouth near their collarbones. Burns's is a world, like that of "Peanuts," without grown-ups, unless you count the older dudes who live with that girl who has a tail - think "Gil Thorp" via David Cronenberg - and the bug forces its victims into selfsufficient, lonely exile in a darkly shadowed magic forest. The bug is the stain of sex and of puberty, of the fear of difference and the dual curse/blessing of adulthood, when we realize we are all deformed.

Like "Red Meat," Tony Millionaire's "Maakies" does not appear on the comics pages of daily newspapers, but lurks darkly instead in our nation's alternative weeklies. Millionaire's new collection is called DER STRUWWELMAAKIES (Fantagraphics, $19.95), "Struwwel" being a reference to the grim German children's book "Struwwelpeter," and "maakies" meaning, well, "Maakies," a word that Millionaire has refused to define, and that would seem to refer to the crew of the ship MAAK, most notably its loutish animal mates: Uncle Gabby, a monkey; and Drinky Crow, an alcoholic crow.

Both are characters of pure, ginned-up id, engaging in high jinks that range from the boobish to the bizarre: making "booze cream" from the milk of drunken cows in one panel, going to prison to have time to read Swinburne in the next. The humor is often so lowbrow as to be subterranean. If "Gasoline Alley" is preoccupied with life's slow unfolding, "Maakies" is fascinated by its swift, violent ends. It is difficult to count the times Gabby or Crow have been mutilated, shot in the head, eaten, burned in hell.

And yet Millionaire, raised by an art-teacher by the sea, can draw the living spit out of a ship or a giant squid. It is just as likely that "Maakies" will feature one character vomiting into another's mouth as it will a wordless, befuddling, beautiful parade of intricately rendered church spires and tall buildings. It sways this way between the very low and the very high; the only applicable adverb here is drunkenly, for as the name might suggest, there is a lot of boozing in Drinky Crow's life. This may offend (or may be the least of the offenses), but I would bet if you counted Crow's tipples against the number of highballs the Lockhorns had consumed, it'd come out even. And in his surrealist impulse and draftsman's brio, Millionaire is the closest thing we have to George Herriman of "Krazy Kat."

But curiously, the most melancholic comic strip that I've encountered emerges neither from the alternative weeklies nor from the distant past, but from perhaps the most celebrated and mainstream of the mainstream comics: "Calvin and Hobbes." Though the strip has been rampantly collected in the past, THE COMPLETE CALVIN AND HOBBES (Andrews McMeel, $150) now arrives in three massive tomes encased in a box. It is so big and dense and beautifully printed and huge that I have real difficulty carrying it from one room to the next. It is worth the work, and worth every penny.

It is hard to understand why "Calvin and Hobbes" has developed so firmly a middlebrow reputation, though I suspect it has something to do with the countless decals of Calvin mischievously urinating on the back windows of S.U.V.'s. (All bootlegs, by the way. To his syndicate's chagrin, the creator Bill Watterson refused to sign off on any merchandising apart from books. "If I'd wanted to sell plush garbage, I'd have gone to work as a carny," he said in a rare interview he gave to Comics Journal in 1989.)

Maybe another reason is that it seemed so effortless. Watterson worked for years trying to develop a strip that a syndicate would buy, and the strip felt fully formed when the anarchic 6-year-old Calvin and his tiger, Hobbes, first started playing in 1985. The art was already skillfully naïve (that is, until it came time to unleash a sweeping and beautiful alien landscape in Calvin's imagination), the characters already real and endearing. It stayed that way, with only two breaks, every day for 10 years, and then ended.

Leafing through this volume, I found it hard to find strips that didn't at least raise a smile, and often something more. Open randomly to Page 131 of Volume 3, and here is a crystalline gag that is sly and poetic and still relevant more than 12 years later.

Hobbes: "Why is this snowman looking at a snowball?"

Calvin: "He's contemplating snowman evolution. Obviously, if he evolved from a snowball, it raises tough theological questions for him."

Hobbes: "Like the morality of throwing one's precursors at someone?"

Calvin: "Sure, and what about shoveling one's genetic material off the walk?"

The strip also had its share of unabashed sentiment, tiger cuddling and cocoa swilling. And like all comics, it relied on a certain number of stock gags. Most notable of these was "the flip," the sudden, jarring switch between Calvin's imagined world and the real world - between Hobbes, his living, tall, scruffy, tiger mentor, and Hobbes the stuffed toy that everyone else saw. Watterson was devoted to maintaining the reality of both of these worlds in the strip, and it could only be done this effectively in comics, with their photographic stillness and temporal elisions. Are those snowmen chasing Calvin in his mind? Or did he spend hours actually building them that way? And how did he tie himself up in that chair?

But reading this volume now, I suddenly got the grand, terrible flip of the entire strip: Calvin is, almost all the time, alone. And in this way, this is a book that not only could kill a cat if improvidently dropped, but break a heart in two.

There was an outcry when Watterson retired the strip in 1995. (In anticipation of this collection, it is being reprinted in a number of newspapers, probably to the curmudgeons' dismay.) Unlike Skeezix, Calvin didn't grow up. Christmas after Christmas passed, and he remained 6 years old. But unlike many comic strip protagonists, he seemed like a real character with a real inner life who could not go on believing in talking tigers forever. Any smart person, Watterson included, would recognize this situation was untenable if the strip was to feel honest.

Toward the last part of his run, Watterson had managed to wrestle from newspapers a full half page to play with on Sundays - creative control of a kind that hadn't been enjoyed since Frank O. King's tenure at "Gasoline Alley." But eventually the end would have to come, and not with a punch line. In the very last strip Calvin and Hobbes face a field of blank snow. "It's like having a big white sheet of paper to draw on," Hobbes says as they hop on their sled, leaving a blank space behind them - an invitation to follow. He knew what a comic paper ending should be all right.

John Hodgman's first book, "The Areas of My Expertise," was published this fall.

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