PRINT December 2013

Books: Best of 2013

Art Spiegelman

Society Is Nix: Gleeful Anarchy at the Dawn of the American Comic Strip, 1895–1915 (Sunday Press), edited by Peter Maresca, is a staggering sixteen-by-twenty-one-inch (!) anthology of Sunday pages printed at the original broadsheet size, introduced when rotary color printing and American comics were both brand-new. The beginnings of any medium—before limits and definitions set in—are the most giddy and fertile; and seeing these hitherto-hidden treasures in their full-scale splendor invites the reader to literally take their measure and experience the shock of the new. Size does matter. So does the scrupulously reproduced color from a period when the printers were as jazzed by the new technology as the artists.

For the first time in their history, comic strips now actually have a history—with more and more works rescued from the slow-burning forest fire that is newsprint to form a pantheon of acknowledged masterpieces. Sunday Press has produced other must-have, storage-straining, full-size volumes devoted to Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, and one called Forgotten Fantasy that includes a complete run of Lyonel Feininger’s Sunday comics pages. The true glory of Society Is Nix is that it explodes this developing canon (see book cover) to insist that it’s ALL amazing.

There are token examples of the aforementioned artists here—check out McCay’s Dream of the Rarebit Fiend on page 141, showing a fretful old maid with ever-multiplying men’s soled feet piling up under her bed as if they escaped from a late Guston painting!—but there are also revelatory pages from the less-gentrified alleyways of the first Sunday funnies: the raucous vaudeville of Happy Hooligan and The Katzenjammer Kids, to be sure, and a mayhem-filled Kelly’s Kindergarten by R. F. Outcault that makes most twenty-first-century inner-city schools look like Harvard. Here also are total anomalies like C. A. Beaty’s Little Denny Mud (six photographed bas-relief clay slabs complete with a nihilist’s bomb exploding in panel four) and a 1914 Crazy Quilt jam by five Chicago Tribune artists that sends your eye careening through a densely built pinball machine of intertwined gags. It’s impossible to catalogue the breadth of the aesthetic and sociological surprises packed inside this wonder cabinet of a book, but it all proves that our printed heritage is not quite ready to be Kindled or reduced down to an iPad.

Art Spiegelman is a cartoonist. An international traveling retrospective of his work is currently on view at The Jewish Museum in New York through March 23, 2014.