SUNDAY FUNNIES #1
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Taken as a comics anthology to be read, The Sunday Funnies isn’t worth your $39; as a stealth portfolio of frame-worthy classic comics art, it would still be almost obscenely cheap at twice the price.
Russ Cochran is back with a quarterly newspaper-style anthology of classic Sunday comic strips, selected from the late Bill Blackbeard’s massive, world-class archive: Ninety-six 16×22″ pages of Gasoline Alley, Alley Oop, Krazy Kat, Stumble Inn, Wee Willie Winkie’s World, and other pre-WWII-ish Sunday pages in full color on archival paperstock. What’s not to love? That depends entirely on how much of a hater/nitpicker you are; I am both, but I’m delighted that Funnies exists despite some unfortunate editorial choices. Think of it as an issue of Comics Revue with much better production values.
Funnies suffers from the same fundamental problem that plagues Revue; by choosing to jump around chronologically to select material, Cochran saps the power of seeing these strips in their original newspaper context, as they were obviously created to be read once a week alongside a mix of other features in the actual Sunday funnies. But these reprint anthologies rarely have the room to run a complete story or two, which single-strip collections can easily accommodate, and, by selecting material for a more balanced or satisfying read, the editors of these magazines can’t give readers the historical charge of seeing exactly what a Sunday section from September 9, 1906 was like or July 10, 1938 or December 30, 1934 or April 26, 1936 was like. [Again, I am a hater, but should I win the lottery, I will blow most of my fortune assembling and publishing a super-Sunday of all the best strips across all the syndicates that were published on a given day. Don't tell me that wouldn't be exciting to see.]
All three Sections lead off with Crazy Quilt, the original jam comic from 1914. We don’t need to rewrite the Greatest Comics Ever list to accommodate this semi-lost strip, but it’s better than the footnote or paragraph it’s rated in biographies of its best-known participants, Frank King and Dean Cornwell, would imply. It’s a daring but successful feature to run on the cover, and you receive just enough of the strip to want to read more.
After that, each section presents us with the first seven months of Gasoline Alley Sundays [Dec 1920-May 1921] in ten-page chunks. It’s historically valuable work, with the serendipity that the Sunday launched just a few months before the transformative introduction of Skeezix — although I would happily read another 90 years of Walt Wallet as a solo act who avoids marriage and drives his jalopy, it still strikes me as an unfortunate choice to devote a third of the issue to material that’s almost guaranteed to get a more satisfying and sustainable repackaging from Walt & Skeezix publisher Drawn & Quarterly.
I love V. T. Hamlin’s Alley Oop art, so even just a handful of gorgeous Sundays in chronological sequence was a pleasure to see at all, but printed in full color at nearly the original printed size was a true delight. Once again, Cochran treats us to the first few months of the strip’s Sundays.
Bronc Peeler is an interesting case, if not a particularly enjoyable read; a Western strip that mixes of humorous daring-do adventure with sensitive, beautifully drawn full-color vignettes [that sometimes feature poetry, no less] in the center of the page and a colorless “Uncle Bill” gag strip at the bottom. If Peeler rings no bells; it limped along for four years before transforming into the much more popular Red Ryder. Again, these are its first Sundays.
Another standout and treasure to be found here is the four pages of color Stumble Inn strips, one of George Herriman’s more underrated efforts, which ran concurrently with Krazy Kat. Speaking of Kat, the short selection of four color Sundays from February 1922 are most welcome, even if there are at least two other books readily available that present this material in color, albeit significantly smaller.
I couldn’t find a biographical/contextual monograph for Dudley Fisher’s Right Around Home in the issue, but my reference says Home ran from 1938 to 1965, with Fisher handling the astounding Sunday page-sized vignettes and the spinoff Myrtle daily until his death in 1951. [Bob Vittur and later Stan Randall continued the strip.] This is definitely a strip that would need to be reprinted large to make any sense; anything less would be like trying to get all of Playtime‘s gags in a pan & scan print. Nearly any one of the Right Around Homes would look fantastic framed and mounted on the wall.
It’s a strange case all the way around; judging by his website, Cochran originally intended Funnies to be a 32-page monthly but the plan changed and, instead of being issues 1, 2 and 3, the three 32-page packages being reviewed here are titled Sections A, B and C of issue one. No worries but if that’s the new plan, why not collate all of the Gasoline Alley strips into one section and do the same for the other strips, which undoubtedly would make the reading experience a bit more filling?
By the way: One can gauge the health of every new distribution channel for comics based on how quickly Krazy Kat and the Hal Foster run of Tarzan in particular are once again repackaged and published — from the niche bookstore publishing of the 1960s to the direct-market boom of the ’80s to the resurgent bookstore market of the last 10 years. I hate to say it, but I think the appearance of my beloved Alley Oop beneath an ISBN is the sign that a given new market has been saturated, the classic-comic-reprint party is over and the entire market is about to retract violently; he’s the Kell Mossa of American comics publishing.
It’s curious to [quite rightly] celebrate Blackbeard’s legacy of preservation in a publication that features so much redundant material that could have been spent preserving and sharing lesser-known or rarely seen treasures. That said, Sunday Funnies #2 is slated to have more Gasoline Alley, Alley Oop, Bronc Peeler, Krazy Kat and Tarzan, but also include Buck Rogers, Frank Goodwin’s Connie, Frank King’s Bobby Make-Believe from 1915, Winsor McCay’s Tales of the Jungle Imps and Billy Ireland’s The Passing Show.
It’s understandable to mix some well-known strips like Krazy, Tarzan and Gasoline Alley in with the lesser-known strips, but it doesn’t seem to do either group much of a favor. Would people shell out $30 for Quilt, Home or Peeler? Probably not, but if preservation of the newspaper strip’s vanishing heritage is this publication’s mission — Cochran’s essay “The Vanishing Newspaper” does a yeoman’s job of praising Blackbeard’s vital work in saving and preserving comics’ heritage as libraries began dumping their newspapers for microfilm — why devote so much real estate to strips that are all but guaranteed to be packaged and kept in print far longer than Sunday Funnies‘ limited print run and distribution range will reach? In an age when it barely takes ten minutes to track down and buy a copy of every edition/variation of a book ever printed, do we really need another reprinting of Wee Willy Winky’s World?