Friday, September 11, 2009

Happy Trails

I just read the last Scary Go Round ever. I'm sad about that. It has been one of my favorite comics for a long time.

John Allison showed up in the comments when I spoke about Achewood the other day, rightfully pointing out that comparing any living cartoonist to Charles Schulz is something of a canard. Well, yes, that it is, just like comparing modern superhero artists to Kirby doesn't do a lot for advancing that conversation either. I knew it was a red herring when I wrote it, but I still did it for a very specific reason.

One of the best things about cartooning is that, as an artform, it really offers a unique format with which to observe an artist's talent grow and mature. Sure, you can make these sort of observations with just about any kind of artist or medium - Pitchfork just did a whole week on the new Beatles' remasters, a series of reviews that drew specific attention to the ways in which the Beatles' sound and approach to musicmaking changed over the course of seven extremely busy and fraught years. This is an old story but still fascinating, not just because of the music itself, but because the frequency with which the music was made contributed to a fuller picture of the music and the musicians. They released so much music in such a short amount of time that it feels, at least in retrospect, like every moment of their creative maturation is recorded for posterity.

But really, no matter how much the most prolific musician might release, they've got nothin' on a strip cartoonist*. Day-in, day-out, they've got to produce a strip. If there is one thing the last few years of excellent strip reprint projects has taught me, is that there are few more edifying experiences in all of comics than sitting down with a two-year chunk of, say, Terry & the Pirates or Dick Tracy and swallowing it whole. Incremental change flies by in the time it takes you to turn the page, and before your very eyes you witness an artist mutating, growing and bettering himself, using the pressure of daily deadlines as a kind of crucible to constantly improve themselves. It's not just broad strokes but every little detail - little things like the kind of brushstroke Caniff used to draw people's cheekbones, minuscule details that might not have stood out when observed daily over the course of the decade but which, when seen together, add up to vast differences. A cartoonist who releases artwork on a regular basis gets to grow up in public in a manner not really analogous to any other kind of art**. Sure, a touring band will improve daily, but most people don't get the change to follow a young rock band on the road for the first two or three years of their existence in order to register the gradual change from scrappy young naifs to grizzled pros. In comics, you get to do that, and I have really sincerely come to believe that this sort of intimate experience is one of the true pleasures of comics as an artform, unique among others. It's not just that an artist improves, but that they leave concrete, verifiable traces of every step of the process, from the very beginnings to the present moment.

Look at the first episode of Scary Go Round, here. It could have been drawn by an entirely different artist that today's strip. Look at the first Bobbins, here. Pretty amazing, no? From an almost total cipher to one of the most influential webcartoonists extant - just ask Jeph Jaques or Kate Beaton - that's an amazing arc for just eleven years. He's not retiring anytime soon - he promises a new start with a new strip (with some of the same characters) in a week or so, but still. Every new chapter is preceded by the closing of the previous chapter.

So, thank you, John Allison. Thank you for providing one of my favorite strips for seven years running; thank you for having the stamina and perseverance to make yourself a better cartoonist and giving us all the opportunity to watch every step of the way; thank you for your funny characters and your willingness to follow every joke to its logical conclusion regardless of how preposterous it may have seemed; thank you for answering my fan letters about why Tessa and Rachel disappeared from the strip. No thank yous for setting them on fire, however, that was just mean.

* I wouldn't put it past Robert Pollard to start releasing a song a day, but it's not really the same thing.

** Perhaps in the 18th and 19th centuries, when prose fiction was released primarily in serial form, it might have been possible to observe similar effects - but since fiction is no longer received that way, that is an experience most modern readers will never have (some internet experiments notwithstanding).

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