When Anarchy Ruled the Funny Pages

A new, large-format book captures the dawn of comics, when the medium had no rules and its messages were surprisingly irreverent.
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Peter Maresca makes big books. Really, really big books: larger than old “broadsheet” newspaper pages that were common before paper costs rose and page widths were shaved. The size, however, fits the contents of his books: full-page newspaper comics from the golden age of Sunday funnies–the likes of Little Nemo, Krazy Kat, and Walt & Skeezix. Somewhat surprisingly, Maresca came to his old-school, large-format publishing method after years of working in digital entertainment.

“I felt the need for these deteriorating comics pages to be printed as originally intended,” he told me. "Since no publisher was interested, I did it myself."

Since starting Sunday Press Books with his first Little Nemo volume in 2005, a number of other publishers have issued broadsheet-sized comics collections, and comic strip reprints have become larger and more true to the original newspaper pages.

“Art Spiegelman has noted that the same technology that is ‘destroying’ the print media has caused a renaissance in the publishing of comics and graphic art,” Maresca says. “Without leaving their desk, one person can research and acquire material, scan original pages, restore and process images, lay out full color pages, and send files to the printer. This makes it possible for independent publishers to create larger-sized volumes that offer an experience that cannot be replicated on a Kindle.”

Despite the space needed to house Maresca’s books, there is a loyal following of people willing to pay for more volumes. He says his print runs vary from 1,500 to 3,000 copies, and his two Little Nemo volumes have sold more than 12,000 copies, plus international editions.

“If you don’t count my labor, none of the books has lost money,” he says, “though for the hours I put into this, some volumes pay me just over minimum wage." But many of those hours are spent pouring through old comics: “Under other circumstances I might even be willing to pay for that pleasure.”

His latest, Society Is Nix: Gleeful Anarchy at the Dawn of The American Comic Strip 1895-1915, a surprising reprise of the earliest years of the art, which Maresca says has had little written about it. The histories commonly focus on classics like The Yellow Kid, Little Nemo, and Krazy Kat, and the Golden Age of comic strips. But there were hundreds of different titles created in the first two decades of comics and many are both influential and relevant, though they remain unknown to all but a handful of aficionados.

“I believe it’s important to give this seminal work a wider exposure,” he says. “And the full broadsheet size is essential, since many of the pages have incredible detail.”

Society Is Nix is full of surprises. Comics in those days communicated a sense of anarchy, rebellion against authority, and disrespect for manners and mores. The depth of this rebelliousness is curiously refreshing.

“There was a solid populist feel that reflected the mood of the audience, done with a broad, vaudeville-style humor without politeness or filters,” Maresca says. “And that sold newspapers.”

The art was rich in craft and conception, and Maresca believes that was due to a different kind of anarchy—not in the content but in the creative process.

“There was really no set formula, no template available to fill up a 23 x 18-inch color newspaper page with cartoons. Earlier comics in magazines like Puck and Judge were small, black and white, and accompanied by humorous text stories, essays, and jokes. The Sunday color supplement fostered the creation of a new art form; the creators were given free reign, making up the rules for those who followed. The Twains, Griffiths, and Kovacs of their medium.  Often in art, anarchy feeds creativity, and that was certainly true here.”

The genesis of Sunday funnies began with technology providing a way to cheaply produce color newsprint pages, and out of a desire for an outlet to lampoon new social developments in transportation, communication, power. This was also a period of huge immigration, particularly from the poorer countries in Europe where English was limited and accents were the fuel of comic and stereotypical ridicule. A growing working class from different backgrounds shared a thirst for entertainment.

“With the masses specifically in mind, newspaper comics became the first popular culture as we know it today: synchronous, predictable, ephemeral, and with a near-universal appeal, well before cinema, radio, and TV,” Maresca says.

Humor at this time was not filtered through any lens of political sensitivity. But bringing to bear a 21st century consciousness, Maresca left some of the more "offensive" material out of the book.

“It was not so much a matter of not being able to show it,” he says, “but about editorial decisions as to what was important work by influential artists. Many ethnic minorities were crudely caricatured in these early comics, but African-American stereotypes were particularly widespread. The term 'coons'” and caricatured big-lipped black figures can be found throughout the book, because racism, as a reflection of the society, played a substantial role in comics history. Virtually every cartoonist in the early 20th century created comics that today would be considered offensive or at least insensitive. What I did not include in this book were those cartoons whose purpose seemed to be cruelty above comedy.”

Most of the comics reproduced in the book came from Maresca’s own stacks and from another collector. The biggest challenge was restoration of the pages, many of which had been torn or stained. “Often small parts had to be redrawn to get the complete page—hopefully these alterations will be hard to identify,” he says.

There are many individual pages of comics' early ears that are yet to be recovered and hopefully will be reprinted, Maresca says. Whether he is the one to do it remains to be seen: “I’d like to do at least one more full-size edition in the series to cover the 1915-1929 period, which takes the comics fully into character-based stories, family comics, and the start of screwball funnies.” He is passionate about making books, and it shows in the product, but the selling and marketing is a tough chore for a micropublisher. “I hope to work with other publishers on strip-related material and partner with artists and writers to bring their favorite ‘commercially unviable’ projects to print," he says. "But maybe as smaller editions. I’m getting too old to lift these monsters.”

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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