Sunday, April 20, 2008
Last month Checker announced that they would be publishing The Complete Beetle Bailey. This great series is going to be edited by comic strip historian and Beetle expert Chris Walker, who also happens to be the son of it's creator. In the first volume, now available for pre-order from the Previews catalog and Amazon will cover the first two (!) years of this important gag strip. Beetle Bailey was one of the first 'new' gag strips that dominated the sixties and to which this blog is dedicated (for now). Together with Peanuts and Dennis the Menace it changed the landscape of American newspaper comics. Some say for the worst, but as I have stated earlier in this blog, the slow decent into nothingness didn't occur until the paper shortages in the early seventies cause newspapers and syndicates to start shrinking their strips, favoring gag strips over story strips and generaly accepting less instead of more. None of this is true for the great gag strips of the fifties and early sixties, as we can probably see from this collection.
I say probablyt, because I have seen very little of these first two years. From the rare reprint books that were done about this strip, I know of a couple of samples (and I will share some of them, as well as the cartoons they came from, with you in the next week). Beetle Bailey started life as a strip about college life and didn't get turned into an army strip until it's hero (Spider) was called in for duty at the start of the Korean war. I don't think he ever left training or America, but stayed here to frustrate his superiors and make us laugh for many years.
Like Hank Ketcham, Mort Walker had been selling cartoons for a living, before turning to newspaper strips to try and make a bit more. In his biography Mort Walker says that he became one of the biggest selling cartoonists in a short period after starting in 1948 at his college magazine. I will be showing some of those cartoons later on. They were the first of a whole wave of port-war cartoonists who developed a newspaper gag series, just like political cartooning was the way to get noticed in the nineties.
The Complete Beetle Bailey is based on a recent Scandinavian reprint series. Checker is a reletively young company, who have made a niche for themselves by (re)publishing classics from newspaper and regular comics. One of their most recent books was the relatively small B.C. book Growingold. There too, they had help from the family of the artist. But still, the way they represent this book for the American artist will be a test of their skills as publishers. Will they be able to get it into the shops and make it into the cash cow of their company the way the Peanuts Collection has become for Fantagraphics? I hope so, because I will certainly but this series until deep into the run.
Already I do see a couple of faults. From the publicity material I can't make out if this book is going to contain sunday pages or not. I hope it will, because the sunday pages often were where these cartoonists did their best work. I can understand why the Dennis the Menace reprint wouldn't have any sundays, because the panel format doesn't suit itself to the three tier format of the sundays. But the size of the Beetle Bailey reprint does accomadate sunday pages. To have them in between the dailies, where they stylisticly belong (as in the excellent Peanujt books) would be far better than to have them collected seperately. Although a seperate book would make a larger size a possibillity, which wouldn't be bad for the first 15 years of the strip.
Secondly, I am not very pleased with the changes they have made to the cover lay-out from the Scandinavian original. They have streamlined and modernized the look of the book (possibly to bring it in line with the BC book). I think it would have been far better to stick to the retro look of the original. This streamlined version looks more retro eighties than anything else.
Lastly, their decision to split the Scandinavian books in two, combined with the high price tag seems like the wrong strategy to me. Fantagraphics have proved that thick collectable editions (Peanuts) work better than small ones aimed just at the comic book market (Pogo). Book stores are not interested in flimsy books that will be destroyed by kids manhandling it. Furthermore, the Scandinavian edition (which can be seen at the start of this post) gives an accurate impression of the contents, showing both Beetle in his army outfit and an image from his college years. The image used for the cover of the Checker book probably is not from the year presented in the book. I am afraid all these decisions will make the book less desirable for the bookshops which would make it the hit it derserves to be. If you are going to do a complet reprint of the strip it should be a definite version. Still, I hope that everyone who is even the slightest intersted will buy this book to ensure the appearance of further parts. Otherwise I will have to learn Swedish or Finnish or whatever it is they speak up there...
In the next couple of weeks I am going to share a couple of cartoons and sunday strips from Mort Walker's early years. I will also try and see if I can provide a link to Amazon. I order from Previews myself, because postage on heavy books to Europe can be a bitch, but I believe there is a way I can do this, that give me a little kickback from Amazon with no cost to you, so why not? To start things off, here's my earliest Beetle sunday handy... a two tier version.