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.