Pity poor Pogo.

One of the first series of newspaper-strip reprints I got really excited about was devoted to Walt Kelly’s Pogo — a high-watermark in funny-pages history, full of talking animals cute enough for kiddies who spouted satire bright enough for adults. When Fantagraphics started issuing reprints in the early ’90s, though, publishing strips in any kind of comprehensive format was in itself so rare that a somewhat flimsy, bare-bones softcover was as good as fans could possibly hope to get.

That was before the gorgeously packaged Krazy Kats, the compact, sturdy Peanuts, the radiantly jolly Walt & Skeezix — each new series raising consumer expectation. These days, genius on the inside isn’t enough; the package itself has to be pretty impressive. (Fanta intends to revisit Pogo someday, presumably after completing some current projects.)

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Curses, by Kevin Huizenga, gets the royal
treatment from Drawn & Quarterly.

So for the first of six Popeye tomes, Fantagraphics can’t simply bind the thing within hard covers. It must also be oversized (14 1/2 by 10 1/2 inches), adorned with an eye-popping design that blows a single action panel up for Lichtenstein-like emphasis, and ... um ... what to add? For I Yam What I Yam, the publisher has die-cut a hole in the cover to emphasize a title treatment on the first inside page.

Adding a pop-up section to the book might have sounded more appropriate. But work a little, and you can rationalize the hidden-treasure approach. Consider: Not only was our squinty sailor not the original star of E.C. Segar’s serial, he wasn’t even introduced until four months into the story’s run. This first volume, then, chronicles Popeye’s evolution from a one-note supporting character to a pugilistic leading man. And here you thought the cover was just a gimmick to make it stand out on bookshelves!

Also not a cheap stunt: the use of color in reprints of This Modern World. Stumbling across Tom Tomorrow’s Hell in a Handbasket (Tarcher/Penguin) in their local bookstore, regular alt-weekly readers might assume the artist’s splashy use of color within is a concession to a marketplace that frowns on black-and-white picture books. Readers who get their TMW fix online, though, will know the dissident cartoonist retired his monochromatic Zip-A-Tones long ago; unfortunately, the hippie tree-hugging rags that publish him (um ... ) can’t afford to print him in full color every week.

Chris Ware is at the other end of the news-biz spectrum, having had his work featured not just in The New York Times but on the glossy pages of its magazine section — as well as in lavish books by Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly. Not good enough, says Mr. Ware! The melancholy author, whose constant self-deprecation belies the respect he has for his work, has forsaken all imprints in favor of self-publishing. (Granted, he’s letting D&Q distribute the books once they leave his hands.) Number 17 of The ACME Novelty Library continues to ask more of funny books than they’re accustomed to delivering: Bound in embossed, foil-stamped faux leather, this installment lays further groundwork for Rusty Brown, another novel-length ode to plump, underachieving men whose inner lives are deeply embarrassing.

In the “rising tide lifts all boats” department, heightened attention to packaging has come to mean that artists can hope to see their early efforts put out in durable, attractive editions even before they’ve become Pulitzer candidates or New Yorker contributors. Both Lucky, by Gabrielle Bell, and Curses, by Kevin Huizenga, sport stiffer cloth covers and better stitched binding than most “real” books get — treatment that, given the modest voices of the authors in question (that’s “modest” as in a lack of self-aggrandizement, not as in limited talent), seems very special indeed. Drawn & Quarterly, the publisher behind these books, clearly feels Bell and Huizenga (both veterans of the D&Q Showcase) are members of the roster who merit the outlay of some capital. Who knows — if they get treated well enough early in their careers, maybe they won’t decamp á la Ware when they become hip-household names.


More by John DeFore



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