The Smithsonian Collection Of Newspaper Comics

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Edited by Bill Blackbeard and Martin Williams. Co-published by Smithsonian Institution Press and Harry N. Abrams. Over 750 plates, including 90 pages in color. Hardcover, $27.50; paperback, $12.50

Newspaper comics—typically irreverent and blunt—were beloved by the American public long before they were recognized as a serious native art form. One of the problems, according to the useful text that accompanies this great feast of comics, is that the early strips tended to appear in newspapers that bettereducated Americans didn’t read, such as the Hearst papers. Art critic John Canaday, who writes the foreword to this book, says that he followed his favorite comics as a boy in Texas by pawing through his neighbor’s trash, because his father wouldn’t allow a Hearst paper in the house.

Nowadays, comic strips are admired for their narrative power, their artistic originality, and the inventiveness of the language that bubbles out of their dialogue balloons. ( Goon, heebie jeebies, horse feathers, zowie , and glug were all originally comic-strip phrases.) In the years covered in this collection, 1896 to the present, an astonishing range of artists have tried their hands at drawing comics; John Held is here, and the New Yorker cartoonist Rea Irvin, and even Dr. Seuss. The connoisseur’s comic is unquestionably Krazy Kat, that gentle soul who meandered through George Herriman’s strip for thirty-one years.

In terms of both nostalgia and discovery, this sumptuous collection is positively seductive.