Masters of American Comics. Edited by John Carlin, Paul Karasik, and Brian Walker. Yale: 2005. 328p., 9.5″ x11.5″, $45.00.
This book accompanies the Masters of American Comics exhibit currently running in California, coming to the East Coast in the fall. It features: Winsor McCay, Lionel Feininger, George Herriman, E.C. Segar, Frank King, Chester Gould, Milton Caniff, Charles Schulz, Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Kirby, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Gary Panter, and Chris Ware. First off, the book is beautiful. Clearly, much time was spent in the design and reproduction process. Pages and pages of comic art are reproduced at a very high quality. Pages of newspaper strips, original art, sketches, painting, etc. The beginning and end of the book feature full bleed pages of details from each of the included creators’ work.
The main part of the book is taken up by John Carlin’s essay and the accompanying illustrations. Carlin walks through the history of comics from Winsor McCay (after a very brief stop with The Yellow Kid) through all the other featured “masters” to the present day. He traces the evolution from the comic strip to the comic book and the graphic novel in numerous short segments. He does not exclusively discuss the “masters”, but offers others as examples where appropriate (kind of a “where to go next” for those unfamiliar with the many artists mentioned). This long essay is the meat of the book, providing much historical and aesthetic context to the numerous illustrations. Each “master” has a few full pages of art. The size of the books really improves on the experience of the art (perhaps only McCay’s art is here reproduced smaller than in original publication), and the art is the main attraction. Even if you don’t read the text, the pictures are worth it. Carlin’s essay occasionally spends too much time describing a comic or summarizing a plot, but for the most part it is an education in itself.
Following the main essay are shorter pieces on each of the “masters,” along with more art reproductions. Many of these essays are written by contemporary writers or artists of some fame: Dave Eggers, Matt Groening, Jonathan Safran Foer, Glen David Gold, Raymond Pettibon, etc. And many have very little of interest to say about their subject. Far too much biographical information and personal storytelling. Why not have some actual.. gasp… comics people write about these “masters”? That disappointment aside, Gold’s essay on Kirby is an exception; it provides a real sense of appreciation and passes on a passion for the work that is contagious. Brian Walker, one of the editors, seems to have gotten stuck writing about Lionel Feininger (probably the least known of all the artists) and finds little to say beyond some historical context. On all accounts, I’d have liked to see a little more about the art itself and about comics. I may not find myself going back to those latter essays, but I will be paging through, looking at the wonderful reproductions.
I’ll be discussing the “masters” further in future posts, starting with Lionel Feininger (McCay is chronologically first, but the Feininger book is due back at the library soon).