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Stripping with Tom Russell: Deliberately Ephemeral

Here’s Tom, who you may recall as the author of Bill Reed’s theme song. – BC

“Comics are made to be in print and they’re made to be cheap and disposable… It’s nice that people are making one-of-a-kind original art objects, but still, the reason I read comics, as a kid, was in the newspaper and you just use that to wrap fish with. Having this cheap, accessible entertainment is something I believe in.”
–Suzanne Baumann

The above quote, taken from an interview I did with Ms. Baumann in 2006, has been floating about in my head ever since my wife and I bought a discounted subscription to the Detroit Free Press. We received the paper from roughly January until this September, encompassing within its nine months the front-page drama of the Kwame Kilpatrick scandal that shook up the local political scene and restored my faith in the power of traditional print news media. It also saw the nine month renewal of my acquaintance with Rose Gumbo, Judge Parker, Satchel the dog and Rat the, um, rat.

If, in this day of graphic novels and hardcover absolute editions, the monthly stapled comic book is considered somewhat ephemeral, where does that leave the daily comic strip? Sure, the truly great strips, the masterpieces, they get the four-star treatment: consider The Complete Peanuts or the Calvin and Hobbes three book set cum medicine ball. And popular strips get those soft-cover treasuries.

But many comic strips will never be collected. They appear for one day and then– barring a pair of scissors and a refrigerator magnet– they’re gone. They’re cheap and disposable. They’re deliberately ephemeral, like political blog posts, like episodes of game shows, like newspapers themselves.

I’m attracted to ephemera, and to objects and works of art that have long out-lived their usefulness. I find that even when something’s been built to last only for a moment, when it is destined to fall apart between the space of two breaths, that a tremendous amount of artistry and craft is in evidence. Indeed, sometimes it is when a work of art is scheduled to self-destruct that the artist is the most creative, the most daring, the most ingenious: it’ll be gone tomorrow, so you can get away with more.

Now, I’m not trying to make any sweeping statements here; I’m not saying this is what goes on in the mind of this or that comics creator. And, as I said above, the more popular strips do get reprinted and I’m sure many of those creators write for the trade (though, given the particularities of the daily comic strip form, it doesn’t have the same effect on the episodic day-to-day output that writing for the trade has on a monthly comic book).

All I’m saying is, a lot of strips do not get the attention they deserve. Comics Curmudgeon aside, most of the comics blogosphere focuses on monthlies and trades. Partially, I think this might because of the extremely short shelf-life of a daily strip; you can’t exactly scour the back issue bins for a given installment of Mary Worth. But partially I think it’s also a bit of snobbery regarding the format: can you really create something worthwhile in the tiny three-to-four panel straitjacket?

Well, of course you can. And that’s what this column is going to be about.

* * *

Back in October, when I began thinking about this column, I wasn’t quite sure what I would be writing about, though I was leaning mightily in the direction we’re now facing. Living in Michigan, my finances do not allow me to even buy a couple of monthly comics from The Best Comic Book Store in Metro Detroit, Green Brain Comics (http://www.greenbrain.biz). And, in fact, those same finances prevented me from renewing our subscription, now at regular price, to the Detroit Free Press. How could I blog about comics without any comics to blog about?

What I did have, though, were some daily comics sections I had rescued from our recycling bin. I have roughly half of the dailies from a four and a half month period: from the end of May to the beginning of September. And, ever since I got the okay to do a column, I’ve spent much of my free time compiling a database of these strips to make them easier to find, scan in, and, finally, write about.

Having finally finished said database in the week between Christmas and New Year, I am now ready to actually start the damn column, which will be comprised of my observations and theoretical musings about the form, substance, and artistry of a splattering of daily comic strips published by the Detroit Free Press last summer.

It is, like daily comics themselves, deliberately ephemeral.

And that appeals to me.

NEXT TIME: The column actually begins with a look at one of the most ginormously entertaining characters on the funnies page, the one and only Ted Forth!

8 Comments

That quote is so wrong to me. I don’t believe anything worth reading is completely disposable. I don’t buy collections of comic strips, but I respect their right to exist. Nine Chickweed Lane is probably one of the greatest pieces of graphic literature ever produced. I doubt anyone since Eisner has done such experimental things with a simple newspaper strip. The paneling design is often more complex than most comic books.

Huh. Cool idea for a feature.

I am excited and intrigued by this new feature. I’ve also felt that a lot of the supposed comics audience and critical circle ignores the strip form, especially the current stuff, and I’m glad to see that on its way to some kind of rectification. Hurrah!

@ Dalarsco: I don’t think Baumann meant that comics– whether they’re comic books, minicomics, collections, or dailies– should be actually disposed of, but rather that the appeal of comics is their accessibility to a mass audience. That they’re meant to be in print and cheap as opposed to, say, a Van Gogh painting. Mo Willems said something somewhat similar to that in his introduction to one of the Peanuts books, in which he recounts having access to the originals. I’m paraphrasing from memory here, but basically what he said was that the original one-of-a-kind artwork wasn’t comics in the way that the mass-produced comics were.

In any case, I was using the quote less to explore the point she was making and more as a leaping-off point about not only the actual physical disposability of daily comics (people generally don’t file them away in long-boxes like they do magazines) but also about the mental disposability exhibited by many comics critics: that is, the way in which they are denied the attention and consideration they deserve, the way in which critics “throw” them away.

Not relevant for the actual project, but alot of the comics can be found online at various newspaper websites. One I go to is:

http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/fun

REALLY REALLY looking forward to the Ted Forth piece. Not even joking; I love Francesco Marciuliano’s work on Sally Forth. It’s slightly subversive; comics like Lio and Pearls Before Swine turn off the more conservative funny-page reader, but Marciuliano is able to sneak in some really idiosyncratic writing under the veneer of a “safe” office/family comic strip.

The downside is, of course, my friends don’t believe them when I tell them Sally Forth is actually really funny.

Justin, I know _exactly_ what you’re talking about with trying to convince people of the awesomeness of Sally Forth. In fact, in an amusing coincidence, the working title of that next column is “Sally Forth Is Actually Really Funny”! :-)

Suzanne Baumann

January 10, 2009 at 2:59 pm

Hi. I just saw this and wanted to confirm that yes, Tom’s explanation of my (admittedly confusingly worded) quote is pretty much what I was getting at.

Which is the more meaningful comics reading experience: A) Saving [or clipping from] a publication you’d otherwise just throw out, because it contains a comic you really liked; or B) Holding onto a mediocre comic book because you paid good money for it, and it’s printed on such nice paper?* Take raised expectations and the anxiety of spending money out of the equation, and a lot more people will come to the happy surprise that they Actually Like Reading Comics.

Anyway, nice article. Looking forward to reading all about Ted Forth!

*False dichotomy, I know; but if there weren’t good cheap comics out there to attract new fans, there’d be a lot fewer people willing to buy the pricey, well-produced ones.

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