The best books for reading century-old newspaper funnies

Michael Tisserand Author Of Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White
By Michael Tisserand

Who am I?

I was walking across the country in 1986 when I met a journalist named Mike Sager who showed me that writing can also be an adventure. Since then, I’ve edited an alternative weekly newspaper and written books about zydeco, Hurricane Katrina, comics, and old Kodachrome photos. So far, most everything I write seems to be centered in some way around my adopted home state of Louisiana, a place that never seems to run out of stories. Also, I still like to walk.

I wrote...

Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White

By Michael Tisserand,

Book cover of Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White

What is my book about?

In 2007, living in the Midwest following the New Orleans floods, I attended the Masters of American Comics exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum. When I walked into a room filled with George Herriman’s original, hand-drawn pages of his masterpiece “Krazy Kat,” I immediately knew I had to learn everything there was to know about this amazing, inscrutable cartoonist and New Orleans exile. Ten years of research later, I published the first full-length biography of Herriman, revealing the story of his precarious position on the American color line and especially the transcendent “Krazy Kat,” in which Herriman created art from a personal history that could not be spoken out loud.

Krazy was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography and won the Eisner Award for best book about comics, and has been optioned by filmmaker Jonathan Hock for a documentary.

The books I picked & why

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The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics

By Bill Blackbeard (editor), Martin Williams (editor),

Book cover of The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics

Why this book?

Bill Blackbeard was the Harry Smith of comics. Just as Smith’s landmark Anthology of American Folk Music helped launch a folk music revival, so did Blackbeard’s massive volume of old newspaper comics spark a new generation of comics fandom and scholarship. This was also the first book of old newspaper funnies I ever read, during a childhood Saturday afternoon in the Willard Library in Evansville, Indiana, when I discovered the magical “741.5” shelf that held books of comics. Other big, beautiful anthologies of old newspaper funnies have been compiled by comics creators like Jerry Robinson and Brian Walker, but Blackbeard is the granddaddy.

Society is Nix: Gleeful Anarchy at the Dawn of the American Comic Strip 1895-1915

By Peter Maresca,

Book cover of Society is Nix: Gleeful Anarchy at the Dawn of the American Comic Strip 1895-1915

Why this book?

Warning: This book will make you build a new bookshelf. Like other oversized offerings from Peter Maresca’s Sunday Press Publishing, you need a tape measure, not a ruler, to determine its dimensions. This means that you can read this startling collection of strips from 1895 to 1915 in the grand size in which they first appeared in early newspapers, back when the colors and characters screamed off the page, reflecting and refracting the frenetic dawn of a new century. These old newspaper comics pages are where Americans first learned to laugh together. Society is Nix can be difficult to find but is well worth the effort.

Screwball! The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny

By Paul C. Tumey,

Book cover of Screwball! The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny

Why this book?

Paul Tumey is one of our pre-eminent comics scholars, but like the cartoonists he honors in this work, he mainly wants to make you laugh. To this end, he’s assembled cartoons, comics, and old photos, mostly dating to the early 1900s, to build a case for a comics genre he calls Screwballism. It’s all a very funny read, and if the names of genius creators like Frederick Burr Opper and Gene Ahern aren’t yet household names, don’t blame Tumey.

The Goat Getters: Jack Johnson, the Fight of the Century, and How a Bunch of Raucous Cartoonists Reinvented Comics

By Eddie Campbell,

Book cover of The Goat Getters: Jack Johnson, the Fight of the Century, and How a Bunch of Raucous Cartoonists Reinvented Comics

Why this book?

Before there were funny pages, there were sports pages with funnies on them. Eddie Campbell, best known as the artist-collaborator with Alan Moore on From Hell and the creator of his own wonderful and sort-of autobiographical Alec: The Years Have Pants, has pored over these old sports pages to uncover the secret origins of the funnies. Along the way, he tells stories of a lurid murder trial and a racially charged boxing match, all seen through the eyes of sports cartoonists. This is hidden history at its most entertaining.

In the Shadow of No Towers

By Art Spiegelman,

Book cover of In the Shadow of No Towers

Why this book?

Unlike the other books on this list, this isn’t primarily a reprint collection of early-twentieth-century comics. Rather, Art Spiegelman (whose essential memoir Maus was the first comic to win a Pulitzer Prize), re-introduces old comics characters in a very personal story of the 9/11 attacks and the political fallout. Figures like the Happy Hooligan, Jiggs and Maggie, Little Nemo, and Krazy Kat and Ignatz float through these stories like New York City’s awakened ghosts. Spiegelman also adds a masterful essay on comics and curates a few selections of the original strips. No work better demonstrates how the early cartoonists can speak through the rubble of history with vitality and humor.

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