The Books Briefing: Comics Can Push—And Draw—Boundaries

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A black-and-white photo of a boy wearing a black shirt and peering at a newspaper comic, with newspapers stacked on both sides
John Pratt / Keystone Features / Getty

Six quarters were all you needed, in the 1990s, to laugh until your belly hurt at a series of slapstick shenanigans, or to escape, for a few seconds, from your quiet Illinois town and travel the world with a glamorous ace reporter. I can’t count how many mornings I spent with my stomach on the floor, feet in the air, balancing my weight on my arms as I pored over the vibrant colors of the Chicago Tribune comics insert. All I know is there were a lot.

While the Sunday-comics ritual has faded as a cultural touchstone, the distance a few decades provides may be what allows many of us to appreciate this kind of raucous, boundary-pushing, and occasionally transgressive art. As my colleague Caitlin Flanagan was growing up in the 1960s, the feminine and daring heroine Modesty Blaise showed her what it meant to inhabit a world of possibilities. My colleague Cullen Murphy—who wrote the comic strip Prince Valiant alongside his father, the artist John Murphy—notes that many classic cartoonists were “kind of adventurers” who had lived wide lives, helping them better understand everyday people.

But for all the nostalgia and joy the genre brought, it shouldn’t be romanticized. Racist slurs and stereotypes “played a substantial role in comics history,” the publisher Peter Maresca notes. Some view the comic strip Li’l Abner as a satirical masterpiece—yet its creator, Al Capp, was a misanthrope and, by multiple accounts, a sexual predator who destroyed much of his own legacy. And in 1960s Japan, a teenage cartoonist named Kuniko Tsurita submitted her manga over and over again to her favorite comics magazine—only to be told, eventually, that she should shift from telling action stories and “draw about girls,” with all the romantic plots and societal norms that phrase implied at the time.

Yet Tsurita would one day find her own “world of possibilities” as an innovative and acclaimed manga artist—just as Flanagan, and then I years later, did as readers half a world away.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

A shepherd stands by a tree in this watercolor sketch for an unpublished 'Prince Valiant' story, 1991

Courtesy of Cullen Murphy

Growing Up in Cartoon County

“Going to college was not a ticket to entry to the world of comic strips and cartooning and illustration, and not going to college was not a bar to entry. It was one of those professions where you learned to do it by doing it. And if you couldn’t do it, you discovered that fact fairly quickly. So you had people who were kind of adventurers who would go into it. To have lived a wide life before you settled down into this trade could be helpful to you. Because of what it tells you about human nature, and what it tells you about an audience—people in general.”

📚 Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe, by Cullen Murphy

A broadsheet of a air balloon with blue sky in the background

The King of the Sunday Funnies

“Peter Maresca calls himself ‘an accidental publisher.’ The accident began when in 2004 … he decided ‘the world needed to see these masterpieces in the original format before they went the way of all cheap newsprint.’ That meant making a book of incredible proportions (16 by 22 inches). He took his project to the usual art book publishers, and while all appreciated his zeal, they felt it was impossible to publish and distribute such a large book. ‘The only option was to publish it myself.’”

📚 Forgotten Fantasy: Sunday Comics 1900-1915, edited by Peter Maresca

Lil' Abner characters watching Al Capp in the TV

Capp on the cover of a 1952 TV Guide

Just How Bitter, Petty, and Tragic Was Comic-Strip Genius Al Capp?

“In the 43-year run of his satiric comic strip Li’l Abner, Al Capp not only launched iconic American characters (Abner, Daisy Mae, Mammy Yokum, Pappy Yokum, the Shmoos) and places (Dogpatch, Lower Slobbovia), but introduced lingo like hogwash, natcherly, and double-whammy into the lexicon. His legacy, though, is more complicated than that … The veteran biographer Michael Schumacher and the underground comics pioneer Denis Kitchen set out to highlight his talents as an artist—but found themselves inevitably also chronicling the man’s dark side.”

📚 Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary, by Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen

A yellow, white, white and black comic strip of Modesty Blaise


The Comic-Strip Heroine I’ll Never Forget

“Modesty Blaise was my secret self the year I was 15, the subject of ardent daydreams and the first female character I encountered who was truly in charge of something other than a hospital ward, or a school, or a household. She ran an organization full of dangerous men, and they all obeyed and revered her. She would know exactly what to do with a Harvey Weinstein or a Matt Lauer, and it would be a pleasure to see her do it. Half a century before Beyoncé, Modesty wasn’t bossy; she was the boss.”

📚 Modesty Blaise: The Killing Game, by Peter O’Donnell

Three black and white comic panels of a woman with long black hair and a melancholy air

Drawn & Quarterly

The Groundbreaking Female Artist Who Shaped Manga History

The Sky Is Blue With a Single Cloud succeeds in establishing Tsurita as a truly singular cartoonist whose versatile oeuvre deserves more critical attention. Her work, including somber sphinxian riddles and the quiet, unforgettable terror of the titular comic, reflects a complicated artist who fought against the sexist strictures of her era, leaving behind a rich, multivalent collection of art wholly her own.”

📚 The Sky Is Blue With a Single Cloud, by Kuniko Tsurita

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Mary Stachyra Lopez. She just finished reading Midsummer Mysteries, by Agatha Christie.

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