Sunday, June 29, 2008
Comic books and strips are too numerous and diverse to make their history easy to write. Les Daniels, James Steranko, and Mike Benton have emphasized the comic book, but Robert C. Harvey has given us a comprehensive view in Art of the Funnies (1994) and Art of the Comic Book (1990). Both are published by the University press of Mississippi and subtitled An Aesthetic History. Cost: $19.95 each.
Harvey is a working cartoonist and an academic with excellent style. His books are jargon-free and can be read for pleasure as well as for research. Some material appeared in magazines including Comics Journal and Journal of Popular Culture, but there is no choppiness.
His illustrations are well chosen and often generous. Reprints from colored comics do not work well reproduced in black and white, but Harvey is unique in telling what important details are obscured by the loss of color. (Warning: the drawings by Robert Crumb and other underground artists in Art of the Comic Book are still shocking.)
Both books are chronological, but Harvey never hesitates to juxtapose examples from different eras to show an artist's development or influence on later artists. I am particularly impressed by his willingness to criticize early work from such comic strip icons as artist Hal Foster (Tarzan, Prince Valiant) or of modern favorites.
His distinction between "simple" and "poor" drawing is sure to evoke disagreement, but he is careful to note that seemingly poor drawing can be a powerful tool, as in Garry Trudeau's early Doonesbury comic strips.
Harvey's coverage is timely, but there are gaps: publisher DC's recent Milestone series is well-covered, but Dark Horse Comics is mentioned once. Publishers Malibu, Topps, and Valiant are not mentioned. In fact, there is no reference in the index to editor, writer and publisher Jim Shooter.
The discussions of such artists as Gil Kane, Will Eisner, and Bill Watterson are perceptive, leaving the reader wanting for more from this scholar-enthusiast.
These books are worth a trip to your library.
-- Review by Dr Jon Suter