There had been serious writing on comic strips—or writing of varying quality by serious people—since the earliest days of newspaper funnies. Much of the first journalism on the strips, by people such as Ralph Bergengren and Sidney Fairfield, was severely critical—attacks on the slangy, rough-edged, highly visual form of mass entertainment by defenders of the genteel tradition. By the Jazz Age, critics disposed to modernism, such as Gilbert Seldes, editor of The Dial (and first publisher of “The Waste Land” in the US) saw a kind of democratic radicalism in the idiosyncrasy of strips like “Krazy Kat,” and intellectuals on the whole warmed up to the funnies. By the 1960s, a sizable body of serious essays and short works of criticism on comics had been published, the best of them collected by the editors David Manning White and Robert H. Abel in the 1963 anthology The Funnies: An American Idiom. This was the environment Robinson entered in 1974, when he published his first book, The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art, a heavily illustrated overview of newspaper-strip history, written under the aegis of the Newspaper Comics Council, an organization of cartoonists protective of their legacy. (The group held the copyright to The Comics.) While researching this book, Robinson developed an interest in Percy Crosby.
Skippy and Percy Crosby is, by design, a work of popular history, not an academic study. After all, Robinson is a journalist by training, a cartoonist by vocation, and a historian by aspiration. Besides, even if Robinson (or anyone other than a well-established historian) had been fully equipped and determined to write a dense, scholarly study of Crosby’s life and work, there is no reason to think any publisher would have wanted it. Robinson’s book, an authoritative but readable and somewhat boosterish short biography, was the book appropriate to its time, the book necessary to make possible longer, more penetrating biographies of comics artists.
Affectionate but not fawning, the book positions Crosby with precision in comics history. Robinson, who researched Crosby well and understands cartoons, does particularly well at the trickiest part of biography: illuminating the work though the life. (The opposite is easier.) Drawing from Crosby’s autobiographical writings, Robinson traces his subject’s mercurial association with organized religion, and relates it to a cartoon in which Skippy is asked what church he attends. Skippy answers, “I go to God direct.” Crosby, plagued by mental illness that overtook him in the end, left early hints of his trouble in word balloons. As Skippy says in one strip, “I ain’t myself, I wonder if I’m goin’ screwy. For no reason at all, I catch myself feelin’ happy—an’ it’s all I can do to steer my mind back into things that worry me.”
Crosby began unraveling in the funny pages and then moved to the news sections of the paper, and, finally, the pages of books he published himself. Skippy, always mildly philosophical, grew more political and less mild, until the strip became little more than a forum for Crosby’s increasingly zealous ideological jumble of conservatism, anti-intellectualism, and isolationism. In one strip, Skippy and a friend, a little girl, walk and talk together. “What’s all this Pan American stuff I see in the papers?” asked the girl, who looks no older than three or four. “The Pan America stuff start off ‘n Vesey Street by your belittlin’,” says Skippy, “an now it’s takin’ aviators an’ warships to press out the wrinkles.”
The girl responds, “Congress can’t bluff me.”
As they walk away, their backs now to the reader, Skippy concludes, “The map o’ the United States is like an open hand, ready to shake with South America; But it’s guys just like you that’s tryin’ to make a fist out of it.”