“All cartoonists are geniuses,” wrote John Updike in his introduction to a collection of cartoons by Arnold Roth, a specialist in zany quasi-doodles popular in the late fifties and early sixties. Updike, who had wanted to be a cartoonist before he thought of writing, declined to mollify non-believers by explaining the comment. He knew it to be true from a lifetime of studying newspaper comics and comic books like sacred texts. As he recalled in an autobiographical essay published in his 1999 nonfiction collection, More Matter, “I loved cartoons—almost any cartoon that met a modest standard of professional finish—and studied them as if my salvation lay somewhere in their particulars of shading and penmanship.”
Updike got his education in comics from the comics, like everyone who took the funny pages seriously before the fairly recent emergence of cartoon studies as a scholarly discipline; and I began my education in comics by reading Updike on the subject. Thanks to Updike, I started to look at familiar comics for things I had not been equipped to notice before, and I wanted to know more about all those unfamiliar names he tossed off, like Fontaine Fox, who drew a strip called “Toonerville Folks,” and Percy Crosby, who did one called “Skippy,” which I remembered only vaguely as the source of a movie I had seen in a class at New York University.
Today, of course, a newcomer to anything can look up everything instantly, and students of comics in particular can draw upon a vast and growing body of serious literature published on the topic. In a tall bookcase in my own office, there are more than 200 books on comics and cartooning, with a whole shelf dedicated to biographies and memoirs of comics artists and writers, from early innovators like George Herriman (“Krazy Kat”) and Winsor McCay (“Little Nemo in Slumberland”) to creators of comic-book superheroes such as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (Marvel), Carmine Infantino (DC), and many, many more. This is the boom time of comics biography (as opposed to the “pow” and “kaboom” time), a time that seems to take as a given that all cartoonists are geniuses.
The urtext of this phenomenon, the book that established the model for most of the biographies of comics artists published in recent years, is Skippy and Percy Crosby: The Life and Work of a Great American Cartoonist, by Jerry Robinson, a journalism student turned cartoonist turned cartoon historian. Now eighty-nine and still active as a cartoon curator, speaker, and writer, Robinson himself recently became the subject of a biography modeled on his book about Skippy and Crosby: Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics, by N. C. Christopher Couch, writing in collaboration with Robinson. Skippy and Percy Crosby, published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1978, has been out of print for decades, unfortunately. Writers on comics (and writers of comics) still prize it as a primary work, and its mix of fast-moving biography and fanboy awe, heavily peppered with samples of art, has become the formula for the form.
About ten years ago, I began researching my own book of comics history, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. In preparation, I asked some of the artists I was interviewing to recommend readings, and Will Eisner mailed me a copy of Robinson’s book on Percy Crosby. “This was done very well,” Eisner wrote in a note he slipped inside the book. “I wouldn’t mind if a good writer did something like this about me.” Eisner, proud of both his work and the esteem it earned him during his lifetime, understood the value of biography in cementing the legacy of an artist.
Born around the same time as the American comic strip, in 1891, Crosby grew up in a day when newspaper comics were titillating the emerging mass audience for popular entertainment. Unruly, manic, crude, and hostile to propriety, the era’s cartoons captured American popular culture being born, and, nickel by nickel into the millions, they funded the news empires of both Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. When Crosby was a child in New York, the most popular comic strips in America—“The Yellow Kid,” “Happy Hooligan,” “The Katzenjammer Kids,” “Little Jimmy”—centered on the lives of kids growing up in the over-packed, chaotic, scary urban centers of the Northeast. (Few of the strips’ locations were explicitly named, although they all looked like New York City; in fact, most of the comics seemed to take place on a single block of tenements in the Lower East Side.) In the vernacular idiom of cartoon burlesque, the Sunday funnies dealt with the young problems of a new America.