The Art of the Funnies: An Aesthetic History

By Robert C. Harvey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
Exoticism Made Real The Advent of Illustrators

January 7, 1929 is a date that resonates in the minds of historians of the comic strip. It rings with import. Alas, the note it sounds is false. What is supposed to have happened on that date did not, in fact, happen. Early historians of the comics commonly gave January 7, 1929, as the date that the adventure strip was born. On that propitious day, the adventure strip seemed to burst, full-blown, onto the funnies pages of the nation's newspapers. On that date, two new comic strips started. The synchronous coincidence of this double debut doubtless had something to do with making the launch date portentious. Perhaps (we might have thought) something magic resided in the simultaneity itself. And there was more than mere magic here: neither Buck Rogers nor Tarzan was quite like any other strip. They regaled their readers with exotic locales, and they subjected their heroes to high-risk physical dangers. That was not so new. As we have seen, Roy Crane was doing much the same in Wash Tubbs--and had been for at least a year before either Buck Rogers or Tarzan appeared on the scene. No, the adventure strip had begun long before January 7, 1929. But something else started on that date.

Crane drew in a big-foot cartoony style. And the men who rendered the adventures of Buck and Tarzan sought to convince us of the reality of their heroes' circumstances by the accuracy with which they depicted the natural world. Both attempted, one more successfully than the other, to draw realistically. And this was different. This was new. And it was probably this--the coupling of realistic drawing styles to stories of high adventure--that made the debut of these two strips stand out in the history of the medium, stand out to such an extent that Crane's earlier achievement was completely overshadowed in the history books. But Crane was not the only cartoonist whose work in the adventure mode was overlooked.

Adventure strips had loomed briefly on the comics horizon early in the century, and then they sank out of sight, leaving the field entirely to joke- a-day strips. As I mentioned earlier, Hairbreadth Harry and Desperate Desmond had deployed the cliff-hanger as a narrative device, but the objective was comedy not suspense. The great potential of this mechanism for building suspense would languish unexploited until "illustrators" (not, strictly speaking, "cartoonists") invaded the comic pages. Then adventure strips would tell their stories in deadly earnest, and the realistic artwork of the men who illustrated them would make suspense keener by making people and events seem real. Realism was vital to a good adventure strip.

The heady brew of a good adventure strip traditionally includes several ingredients. A good adventure strip tells a story that is, at the least,

-116-

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