Wednesday, January 11, 2012

2011, Fantagraphics' Year of the Funny Animal

Fantagraphics Books has been an easy-to-like outfit for me. They've given prestige treatment to the world's rowdiest and randiest alternative (or “underground”) comics artists, at affordable prices that make it difficult for me to walk by without reaching for the plastic. But while the product of cranks and horndogs can be fun to peruse, I've found little to comment upon. Exceptions allowed for (Los Bros. Hernandos and Lynda Barry, for starters), most of the alternative bunch have trouble introducing the element of surprise — chiefly because they have trouble with nuance.

Although still very much devoted to their usual rabble, Fantagraphics took a radical shift at the turn of the millennium — or, more precisely, at the passing of Charles M. Schultz. As the bigger houses churned out glossy doorstops in tribute to Schultz, Fantagraphics quietly acquired the rights to the complete Peanuts archives, and republished the earliest iterations of the comic strip. Although Fantagraphics' hardcover Peanuts library was no less reverential than its coffee-table competition, the reproduced strips — with Schultz's rough-hewn and frequently cruel characters, printed to scale in the original b&w — were a poignant reminder of how trenchant the “Peanuts Gang” had been before they became Hallmark Greeting Card stalwarts.

Sales must have been encouraging, because in 2011 Fantagraphics jumped from Snoopy & The Gang to take on America's largest corporate mascot — Mickey Mouse — and re-expose the charmingly gritty tendrils of his roots, vis a vis Floyd Gottfredson's Depression-era dailies.

Joining the feisty rodent on the bookshelf were also Carl Barks' Donald Duck . . .

. . . and (joy of joys!) Walt Kelly's Pogo . . .

. . . making 2011 Fantagraphics' Year of the Funny Animal.

The Funny Animal genre, particularly as a product of Disney, might seem like a curious form to elicit comment, considering it is probably the most ironclad of comic book genres. To be sure, there aren't many forums buzzing with discussion re: the pulp product of Hanna-Barbera or Walter Lantz. Carl Barks, Walt Kelly and Floyd Gottfredson, on the other hand, are very much alive — and not just on teh interwebz, but in the halls of Academia. That is because, as is so often the case, it is in the most regimented and regulated formats that the truly brilliant artists find unusual ways to shine — exploiting Nuance and its brilliant progeny, Surprise, again and again. These are stories and artists worth commenting on!

First up, Floyd Gottfredson.

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