The Art of the Funnies: An Aesthetic History

By Witek, Joseph | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Summer 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Art of the Funnies: An Aesthetic History


Witek, Joseph, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


The Art of the Funnies: An Aesthetic History. Robert C. Harvey. Studies in Popular Culture Series. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1994. 246 pp. $19.95 paper.

Students of American popular culture will recognize Robert C. Harvey as a veteran cartoonist, a long-time student of the comics medium, and a valuable contributor to the Journal of Popular Culture. In this major work of comics criticism, Harvey focuses on the aesthetic development of the comic-strip form in a chronological overview of American strips ranging from Richard Outcault's Yellow Kid to Bill Watterson's (recently retired) Calvin and Hobbes. The book includes chapters on such notable persons as Winsor McCay, Bud Fisher and George McManus, Roy Crane, newspaper mogul Captain Joseph Peterson, Milton Caniff, Charles Schulz, and such important developments in comics history as the proliferation of comic-strip syndication and the illustrative drawing style of adventure strips. A final chapter discusses the familiar denizens of today's comic pages.

The subject headings indicate Harvey's approach to his topic: he sees developments in the aesthetics of the comics primarily in terms of individual creators, and thus The Art of the Funnies follows in the tradition of most previous histories of comic strips, from Coulton Waugh's 1947 The Comics to Judith O'Sullivan's 1990 The Great American Comic Strip. Harvey is no revisionist, and few of his critical premises or aesthetic judgments will surprise those familiar with earlier works in the field, but he is no mere nostalgist, either. The emphasis here is on the nuts-and-bolts techniques of cartooning and the many insights Harvey provides into the stylistic nuances of familiar artists such as Milton Caniff and Charles Schulz make this volume required reading for all comics scholars. Especially valuable are Harvey's discussions of the connections between style and theme in George McManus's Bringing Up Father, and his description of the development of Roy Crane's highly influential chiaroscuro style in his seminal adventure strip Wash Tubbs. Few historians of comics have had Harvey's well-developed critical judgment and acute eye for visual detail, and The Art of the Funnies is consistently rewarding reading despite its journey over such familiar ground.

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