The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art, 1895–2010
illustrated by Walt Kelly, Winsor McCay, Hal Foster and Milton Caniff
edited by Jerry Robinson
Comics histories are often difficult books to assess because, in part and unintentionally, they are servicing too many masters and potential audiences. Self-professed comic "scholars" as well as some professionals with proper academic credentials lament the absence of historical or social context while ignoring the critical fact that the book under inquiry was not published by a university press or written by a college professor for her graduate school peers. Elitist critics often shelve objectivity and pontificate on what the book could or should have been without sufficiently judging and gauging its intended audience, purpose, and scope. At the other spectrum, fan reviewers don horse blinders when evaluating the merits of any comic studies text, as they have little knowledge outside of the medium itself against which to produce a balanced and insightful critique. With Dark Horse's reprinting of Jerry Robinson's classic The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art 1895–2010, readers can expect an insider perspective on the industry as well as selection of topics and cartoonists presented in the only feasible and viable format afforded an illustrated history text—chronological and encyclopedic.
Divided into eight chapters with an additional epilogue, Robinson’s book utilizes arbitrary decade bookends to organize his survey. While the decades give a nice, compact feel to the text, some readers may wish that Robinson had used advances in printing technology, the appearance of a new and seminal artist or strip, or some other signifier to guide his monograph. Within each of these chapters, Robinson begins with short, often limited insight into the cultural or social context of the era as a sort of semi-historical foundation for the discussion of the strips and artists. Again, this approach can be largely forgiven as historical context is not Robinson's forte or what audiences are expecting. More than likely, the serious student and researcher will already know this material or supplement it accordingly. Following this brief segment, Robinson's chapters are mainly capsule biographies of strip artists such as R.F. Outcault, Winsor McCay, and Jimmy Swinnerton, to name but a few. Although the times change, the approach does not, and subsequent chapters follow this format, shifting attention to individuals like George Herriman, Frank King, Hal Foster, and a host of others. Intermixed with these chapters are observations on the medium by figures such as Milton Caniff, Johnny Hart, Mort Walker, Charles Schulz, and many more. These are invaluable insights and remembrances, and having them packaged here, alongside Robinson's study, gives the book an extra value. Lastly, the high quality reprints of single pages or strips on the heavy bonded paper makes The Comics an investment worth owning if for nothing else than preservation and appreciation.
Even at 400 pages, there is simply no way Robinson can account for all the artists or strips. Other reviews have already highlighted some factual controversies with Robinson's narrative, including the presumed connection between the Yellow Kid and the term yellow journalism. Although Robinson never directly claims that the character gave birth to the term itself, such myths and legends have become industry dogma or canon in something akin to the infamous quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Regardless, this should have been addressed by either Robinson or a keen editorial eye. Despite some errors in the discussion of the infancy period of the medium and a very general and hasty overview of key events in the specific decade under examination, Robinson's book still holds great value as an introduction for scholars and a reference for librarians and special collections or archivists working with comics and sequential art.
Audiences wanting Robinson to engage the scholarly literature on comics and strip art or move beyond popular history insight into the medium will be sorely disappointed. Readers would be wise to remember that this was never the author or publisher's intention. Although focusing on a specialized topic, The Comics' breadth and chronology, much like Paul Levitz's 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Mythmaking, does not allow for specialization within the medium. An excellent introduction for general readers with an interest in the industry or those with only a tangential appreciation for its vivid history, The Comics is a welcome update to a classic study.-- Nathan Wilson