The Comics Before 1945

I don’t know very much about the history of newspaper comic strips, so this coffee table book was a wonderful eye-opener.

The Comics Before 1945 cover
The Comics Before 1945 (hardcover)
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Each decade from 1900 through the forties gets a chapter, consisting of an introduction that sets the historical stage, both culturally and in terms of significant comic strip changes; a series of one-page biographical profiles of key artists from that period, followed by examples of their work; and samples of other key strips of the period, often grouped thematically. There are also short pieces on cultural issues, such as the use of racial caricature and changing roles for female characters (praised for being both “hardworking and attractive”; although there are no female artists profiled in the book, there is a short section mentioning some of the best-known names in the 40s chapter introduction).

The decade overviews are written as surveys, briefly mentioning as much as possible in a dry, reporter-like “just the facts” style. As the book progresses, strips change from goofy comedy drawn in ways that look incredibly immature to our eyes to cliffhanger-driven adventure tales with fine illustration and graphically developed styles.

The biggest problem with the book is the same that mars any such survey volume: the desire for more. One or two strips from classic runs are hardly enough to understand why they’re so revered, but the only way to solve that would be to make it a DVD instead of a book, and reading comic strips on a screen would be even further removed from the original experience. Many of the better-known later period adventure strips are becoming available in comprehensive reprint volumes from other publishers, though.

I still don’t understand why Krazy Kat is so beloved, but I got to see Blondie back when she was a flapper and Dagwood a millionaire’s son. I look forward to seeing the companion volume, The Comics Since 1945, where I’ll be more familiar with the strips it contains.

4 Responses to “The Comics Before 1945”

  1. Tim Rifenburg Says:

    Just a heads up for those that want to check out both volumes. Barnes and Noble has a volume that has both the before 1945 strips and the other with strips after 1945. It has been in the Bargain section and goes for $19.95. A definite bargain and if you are into strips or are new to them and want an overview of them, the compilation book is a good buy.

  2. Mark S. Says:

    I have a few overview history of comic strip type books, and this is one of the best. And I have the same problem you do. I would like to see more of many of the strips.

  3. Cole Moore Odell Says:

    Krazy Kat was lost on most audiences and even editors of the papers that Hearst forced to publish it for decades–but it really is amazing. I’ve got seven of the recent Fantagraphics reprint volumes. Herriman’s achievement gets more impressive, and comes into greater clarity the more strips I read. He captured so many nuances of human relationships to one another/nature/ideas through the endless variations of his basic set-up. The wordplay is clever, sometimes real poetry. And the cartooning, once you acquire the taste, really is beautiful. There’s the same kind of deceptive grace in those squiggly lines and surrealistically shifting backdrops that Schulz pulled out of his own pen.

  4. George McManus’s Bringing Up Father » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] the domestic humor of Maggie and Jiggs. I’d learned a little about the strip while reading The Comics Before 1945, but R.C. Harvey’s nine pages of introduction comprehensively covers the origin of the […]




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