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Tue, October 13th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist
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BLOOM COUNTY: 1980-1982

The first volume of IDW's "Bloom County: The Complete Library" collects all the strips -- every last single one, including many that haven't been reprinted before -- from the debut strip in December 1980 through September 1982. It's the best collected edition volume of a comic strip that I've seen to date. The book is unbelievably well put together, from editorial to the physical object, itself.

And it's only $40. Maybe that's because the majority of the book is in black and white, but I would have thought that a nearly 300 page hardcover bound on the side with the heaviest weight paper I've seen on a comic-related publication would be more expensive than that. I'm very happy that they managed to keep the price so reasonable.

Besides all the strips, there's a healthy introduction to the volume, led by a foreword from the strip's creator, Berkeley Breathed, who recounts the harrowing tales of flying to his editors while finishing inking the strip in the air, to the reason why he thinks the strip found popularity early on. That's just the first two pages. There follows a three page background piece by series editors Dean Mullaney and Bruce Canwell, that places the strip in the context of its time period. You even get samples of Breathed's college strip that led to "Bloom County." Steve Dallas is the star, though it's a completely different strip. Some of the gags seen here are mined for "Bloom County" gags later in the volume, though, and they're kind enough to point those out to you.

The strips are annotated sparingly. "Bloom County" has a large number of then-current pop cultural references in it. Many, I'm sure, seem like antiquated notions to today's kids. Many may have been over the heads of the kids reading the strips in the first place back in 1980/1981/1982. But there they are, explained in a short paragraph next to the strip. Early references include Betty Crocker, the Selective Service, Bella Abzug, and J. Edgar Hoover. Even better, Breathed appears (though even less frequently) in italicized text to give extra thoughts on some strips. This is one failing of other such comic strip reprint projects. The creators are either no longer with us, or just unwilling to contribute as much as Breathed has to this particular project.

I was happy that I didn't really need any of those annotations as I read through them now. I guess I read them just to see what they thought was the most basic information needed to explain something to a younger reader.

The strips are presented three to a page, stacked close together, leaving all that white space in the margins for more commentary. The paper stock is solid white, and not thin. Nothing bleeds through in this book, not even the color Sundays. I initially thought the book had twice as many pages as it does, and that's due strictly to the heavier paper stock they used. It's great stuff. Some random strips look a little coarse, but that's due to the lack of a pristine original to shoot from. Trust me; it's not distracting. You'll notice it, but you'll be enjoying the strips too much to balk at those muddier images.

Here's something I just noticed; Breathed used four panels for every daily strip, and they're all exactly the same size. While I bet this is in part to give the newspapers the option to run the strip as a small two-by-two stack, it's always fun to see an artist work within limitations and yet still make them fly.

As for the content of the strip, I shouldn't comment on that just yet. I just got to the introduction of Steve Dallas, a mere few months in. Opus hasn't even been spotted yet. The earliest days of the strip were focused on Milo, his grandparents, and the other older folks who lived in the Bloom Boarding House together. By Breathed's own admission, he didn't know what the strip was about yet, and you can see some flailing around looking for that, including an unfortunate dip into the "Doonesbury" pool.

It really is like reading a new comic strip for me, though. Twenty years of maturity since the strip ended means that I can understand Steve Dallas to be a cad and a womanizer in a way other than oafishly charming. The characters often spout philosophical bits of wisdom that wouldn't have struck me as a kid, but that feel truthful and incisive to me today. "Bloom County" is about more than a talking penguin and a weird cat. In this first volume, we're just seeing the author finding that voice.

I can't wait to see more of it come into sharper focus. Five volumes in total are planned, so we've got lots of great reading ahead of us.

THE FAMILY CIRCUS: 1960-1961

Perhaps a bit less of an obvious choice for IDW's "Library of American Comics" is "The Family Circus." We've all grown up reading it at this point, and most of us stopped thinking about it years ago, or even looking at it. It seems a little creepy today if read the wrong way, or just plain silly and juvenile. The internet, of course, feeds on such uncertainty in a variety of odd, funny, and disturbing ways.

But I think it bears a second look. I can't tell you for sure if that's because the strip started off better than it wound up today, or if it's because I'm in a different part of my life now, but "The Family Circus" reads as an excellent commentary on the lighter side of raising kids to me. Sure, many of the gags in this book might seem obvious or too cute by today's standards, but there are some wonderfully subversive gags in here, such as the time Dolly imitates Lady Godiva on her rocking horse. Or when the boys see a couple on television kissing and imagine that they're really choking each other. It's the kind of stuff that likely wouldn't pass by newspaper censors today.

Keane's other real strength is in marrying the visual to the dialogue. You need both to get the jokes. This isn't illustrated radio by a long shot. No, the gags in this book rely on the reader actually looking at the image and reading the caption. They work together, often to create the humor of the panel, but never with one part repeating the other. Many gags, in fact, are purely visual, using pantomime or a subtle visual cues to make their point. (One Sunday gag appeared to be meaningless, at first glance, until you realized the neighbors put all their furniture out of reach from the kids before they came over.)

Keane's cartooning may be simple and cartoonish, but his storytelling is spot on.

And the characters evolved over the years. You can see that just from the figures on the cover of the book. The mother is a bit more, er, front loaded upstairs, if you know what I mean. The kids are even rounder and more big-headed than they evolved to be. And the father looks completely different, more a working schlub than the more put-together version he'd later be, even when dealing with the madness of raising three kids.

The gags are presented three to a page, with the same attention to reproduction detail and the same nice paper stock as "Bloom County" received. The white spaces between panels are filled with with grayed out bubbles and art of the kids pulled from various strips, no doubt. By printing two gags higher on the page, they allow the third gag to come in the middle just a bit lower. (And vice versa.) I have to think this means the reproductions are just a bit larger than they would have been had they chose to print three straight across. It's a nice touch.

I didn't know anything about Bil Keane before reading this book. All I knew was that his son, Glenn, became a big time Disney feature animator, and another son works on the strip with him today. (And, come to think of it, he did a Jeffy sketch for me in San Diego a few years back.) But the biographical background at the beginning of the book -- written by Christopher Keane and running nearly 20 pages -- is a nicely formatted bit of history, complete with lots of family pictures and early cartooning samples. It puts the "Bloom County" introduction to shame, and I liked that one just fine. It provides a great cultural and personal context for the book, which you'll almost like in spite of yourself.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed "Family Circus" again after reading this book. I expected to see a string of now familiar and cliché "suburban child-loaded family" gags that illicit naught but an occasional chuckle. Nope, "Family Circus" turns out to be a lot better than just that. I found myself smiling through most of the book, and laughing out loud more often than I would have thought.

Still, I wonder how much being a father of a one year old has to do with that for me, now. I hope one of you single folks with no children and too much disposable income give this book a shot and let me know how it works for you. I think this might be a great cultural test.

"The Family Circus" Volume 1 will be in stores soon. I don't have an exact date, though Amazon lists it as being the first week in November. Cover price is $40 for 230+ pages, and that's for a side-bound hardcover book, complete with nifty red ribbon to save your place as you make your way through the it.

ONE LINERS

  • Also out last week from IDW in the comic strip vein: Chris Eliopoulos' "Desperate Times." Talk about bad timing -- it got buried under all the "Bloom County" publicity. You can read CBR's interview here.

  • My review of "Walt Disney's Comics and Stories" #699 appeared in the CBR Reviews section this week. I gave it three and a half stars. I love the art style from the Italian creators, though I have problems with the story that I'm not entirely sure I explained cogently enough.

  • A 50th Anniversary Asterix book? Count me in! I love that cover. When does Sterling publish it in English? Make it soon, please.

  • I have rejoined the Twitterverse as AugieShoots, adopting my photography blog name as my new handle. I've given up on Twitter making right their mistake in suspending my original account and started anew. I'll still be posting comics-related content on there, not just photographic. So if you once followed my Tweets, here's your chance to start all over again. Thanks!

  • I don't think anyone reading this could read Roger Ebert's "Books Do Furnish a Life" blog entry and not think about their comic book collections. . .

Next week: I have many ideas, but I don't know which one will stick. Come back next week to find out, won't you?

My photoblog, AugieShoots.com follows my stalking of the local gopher.

I'm on Twitter again at AugieShoots, commenting on the breaking comic news of the moment, and so much more.

The Various and Sundry blog is at a standstill while I fix a pesky back-end issue I'm having, and find the drive to do it regularly.

Don't forget to check out my Google Reader Shared Items. It's the best of my daily feed reading, sometimes with commentary!

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 800 columns -- more than twelve years' worth -- are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.

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