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Minnesotans and comics: A new book looks at contemporary artists

There's never been a really comprehensive review of Minnesota's contributions to the comic arts. Sure, we all know about Charles Schulz, to some extent. Most "Peanuts" fans know he hailed from St. Paul, and many know that he drew from the experiences for his enormously popular long-running comic book. More dedicated fans know the St. Paul native published an early version of "Peanuts," called "Li'l Folks," for three years in the Pioneer Press, and that his nickname was, adorably, Sparky. And I know he was actually born in Elliot Park, blocks away from where I am now writing this, because I am sort of obsessed with these sorts of things.
 
Fewer remember "Gasoline Alley," alas, as it was, in its time, as popular and influential as "Peanuts," and was somewhat unique in the world of daily cartoons in that its characters actually grew older as the strip progressed. The creator, Frank King, hailed from the tiny Wisconsin town of Tomah, but he spent four of his formative years at the Minneapolis Times, where he got his start as an illustrator.

 
And, from there, we enter a world of names that are thoroughly obscure, except to dedicated historians. How many remember Fergus Falls native Cliff Sterrett, who created a character, Polly, that would be the prototype for a rash of strips about adorable, romantically adventurous flappers, the best known of which is Blondie, who, rather dully, quickly abandoned her garçonne fashions and hard-partying ways to settled down the barely sentient Dagwood.
 
And so on. There have been literally thousands of Twin Cities cartoonists, and publishers, who contributed significantly to the development of the medium, and there is no good way to find out who they are. Whither thou, Wayne Boring, who was at least as responsible for the development of the iconic Superman as the character's creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster? Whither thou, Wilford Hamilton, creator of "Captain Billy's Whiz Bang"? Whither thou, C.C. Beck, inventor of Captain Marvel?
 
They're mentioned in passing in the book "Superheroes, Strip Artists, & Talking Animals," by Britt Aamodt and published by Minnesota Historical Society Press, but only in passing. The book is, instead, a survey of many of the Minnesota comics creators who still work in the industry, so that at least this generation of cartoon creators won't be lost to posterity. This is an especially good time to take such a survey — unlike in the past, when comics illustrators generally moved away to find work, nowadays they often stay in Minnesota — or even move here to get their start. Comics are no longer made in large rooms in New York, with large sheets of 8½' by 11' paper moved from room to room in a single office to get drawn, inked, and colored. No. Comics that are still created in this way have no limitations based on geography, thanks to the Internet, and still others are created and distributed entirely digitally.

"Superheroes, Strip Artists, & Talking Animals" by Brittt Aamodt
"Superheroes, Strip Artists, & Talking Animals" by Brittt Aamodt

Additionally, for a while now the Minnesota College of Art and Design has been one of the few schools in America to offer an MFA in comic art, which makes it something of a mecca for young artists who hope to be able to break into the industry. And many of them stay on, perhaps because rent is relatively cheap and the Twin Cities have a fairly vibrant arts community, perhaps because they lack the proper nerves to be able to feel cold.
 
And so it is that Aamodt introduces us to several dozen of our local comics writers and illustrators, divided into sections based, loosely, on the sort of market the artist is most associated with: newspapers comic strips, mainstream comic books, independent comic books, and, in a section that is mostly an afterthought, the world of online comics. Aamodt may simply have run out of room, but the fact that online comics get just a mention is something of a crime — it's the market that has developed the most rapidly over the past decade, and continues to develop. It would be like discussing Twin Cities newspapers and then just mentioning in passing that there are, somewhere online, something called MinnPost and Minnesota Independent and the Twin Cities Daily Planet and the enormous amount of written content Minnesota Public Radio produced for the web. Perhaps there can be a supplemental book put out in a few years dealing primarily with online artists, and perhaps there can be another one addressing our forgotten history of contributing to the medium. Both would be invaluable resources.
 
But, with what she tackled, Aamodt has tackled it well. Minnesota comics artists, after all, killed Superman — or, at least, illustrator and writer Dan Jurgens was part of the team who offed the Man of Steel in a famous story arc from 1992. Of course, he didn't stay dead — death is really just a speed bump in the world of mainstream superhero comics, and both heroes and villains pass back and forth between the veil of life and death with an ease and lack of caution that would make Orpheus jealous. But, as publishing gimmicks go, killing Superman was superb, and the issues were well-crafted — they were intrigued with the question of what this world might be like if we had come to rely on a godlike creature to protect us from our own excesses, and what might happen if suddenly that protector was gone. This is a smart question to ask of Superman, and made the storyline considerably more than just a stunt.
 
Aamodt's book gives us a page or two of introduction to the various cartoonists she's chosen to profile, and these are tightly written, combining résumés and biographical details with interviews with the artists. She has a knack for the quick profile — I have met roughly a third of the artists mentioned in the books, and done my own profile of several, and can attest that she has provided a genuine sense of them as personalities. But, as Aamodt herself admits, readers may be less interested in her profiles than in the illustrations that her subjects produce, and so the book is lavishly illustrated with samples of work.
 
I am sure there is much to complain about with this book, which, as I have already mentioned, is as much defined by what it leaves out as by what it includes. I would suspect that Minnesotans who script comic books, or color them, or letter them, but do not illustrate them, keenly feel the fact that they have been left out. (In fact, they go pretty much entirely unmentioned.) But, as all arts writers know, ever story is a crime — there is no story told that doesn't leave a dozen worthwhile stories untold. Let us consider Aamodt's book to be a starting point, and those of us who are interested in the subject will pursue it further, in whatever way we can.
 
For instance, I will mention another book that details one of the artists who only got a cursory mention by Aamodt, because he was a bit outside the scope of her book. That artist was Wally Wood, and he hailed from Menagha, Minn., and he was about as important as any comic artist ever. He was one of the finest artists in E.C. Comics' stable, especially well-known for his extraordinary visual sense in conceptualizing science fiction. After that, Wood was instrumental in creating the underground comix scene of the '60s, and, among an entirely different audience, is most famous for a satiric illustration published as a double-truck in the pages of  Paul Krassner's "The Realist" in 1967, depicted Walt Disney's collection of cartoon characters engaged in a dazzling collection of illegal, immoral and perverse behaviors.

"Wally's World" by Steve Starger and J. David Spurlock
"Wally's World" by Steve Starger and J. David Spurlock

Wood is the subject of a 2006 biography by Steve Starger and J. David Spurlock called "Wally's Word," which offers a detailed and unsentimental look at the man who was, to put it politely, a bit prickly, and who ended his life with suicide. Wood was a titan in the world of the comics, and it's unsurprising he would end up with his own biography — although the authors deserve credit for the enormous amount of research and craft they put into making this one. We probably can't expect as much effort put into remembering the smaller stars in the firmament of cartooning, but they deserve a mention. When I get a chance, I'll introduce those I can. If there are any particular favorites you have that you feel have been overlooked, feel free to mention them in the comments.

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Comments (1)

Nice bit on comics. Small error: Frank King was from Tomah, not "Toma." (Though born in the coulees of Cashton.)