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CSotD: Graphic imagination

Lincoln Peirce offered a bit of critical commentary in Big Nate (AMS) yesterday.

It’s no secret that a lot of comic strips have outlived their creators, but, when a cartoonist gives up a strip, what happens next varies. If a strip is not in a lot of papers, the syndicate may shut it down, but if it’s doing well, there’s a strong urge to keep it going.

 

One of the most prominent examples of this occurred September 6, 1956, when Alex Raymond, one of the top artists in the genre, was killed in an automobile accident that spared another excellent cartoonist, Stan Drake.

King Features scrambled to find a cartoonist who could recreate Raymond’s style. The last Rip Kirby with Raymond’s signature appeared September 28, a Friday.

Monday saw an unsigned strip, with Kirby and Desmond making their first appearance under the new pen the next day.

The first strip signed by John Prentice did not appear until January 7, though this paper hadn’t gotten the word and still credited Raymond. Presumably, however, the delay was in finalizing an agreement with Prentice, by which time he had mastered the main characters. (And was working with Raymond’s established writer.)

In recent times, there’s been less attempt at continuity, and strips have instead been “re-imagined,” with the poster child being Nancy (AMS)

In 1983, Jerry Scott took over the strip, and his changes were, by today’s standards, modest.

But they upset a lot of loyal readers at the time.

In 1995, Scott  began partnering on Baby Blues, turning the strip over to the Gilchrist brothers, who reverted to Bushmiller’s classic style, until it was taken over and re-imagined again in 2018 by the current artist, the pseudonymous “Olivia Jaimes,” who expanded the cast to the point where Nancy often doesn’t appear at all, and the themes are considerably more esoteric.

The list of re-imagined strips has grown in recent years, including Heart of the City (AMS), Judge Parker (KFS), Dick Tracy (AMS) and Rex Morgan MD (KFS).

I follow some re-imagined strips, but I’ve given up on several others. It’s like listening to cover versions of a favorite song: Even if they do a good job, it’s still not the same thing.

Though you shouldn’t be a snob: The 1941 Humphrey Bogart/Mary Astor version of the Maltese Falcon was, after all, a re-imagining of the 1931 original with Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels.

Now let’s look at a cartoonist who chose to pull the plug.

 

This is not a book review

I’d have to recuse myself from formally reviewing Terri Libenson’s new book, Truly Tyler, because I’ve run into her at Kenosha and the Billy Ireland and probably a couple of other places.

She’s a bud, and I didn’t so much request a review copy to review it as to see it early, and I wasn’t sure what I’d write if it were a disappointment.

Fortunately, it’s not.

In 2019, Libenson ended her strip, Pajama Diaries, after 13 years, in order to focus on writing children’s books, though reruns are available at the KFS site.

It was a successful move, as the line “Best Selling NYTimes Author” on her more recent book covers suggests, and, while I’ve read all her books, they then go to my grandkids who are hardly the only youngsters who get excited when a new title arrives.

She’s done two things that work well: One is to not get wed to the “Sixth Sense” style surprise endings she used in her first books.

They stop being a surprise and can become formulaic and forced, while the need to include them can distract from the effort to tell a good story.

The other good move is that she has anchored her books in a particular middle school, creating a cast of characters that faithful readers will recognize, even if they play only minor roles in a subsequent title.

Meanwhile, she’s careful to make sure that, while it’s fun to pick up on those things, you can read any of the books alone, or read them all in any order.

They are marketed as “Emmie & Friends” books, and Emmie, star of “Invisible Emmie,” co-stars in this newest book. She’s still shy and insecure, but so is Tyler, which makes them a good pair of friends but ones who obsess over what their schoolmates think of them hanging around together.

The books are written in first person, and Libenson manages to capture the cadence of middle school kids without coming across as a mom trying to talk like a kid. There are text-message abbreviations and references to popular video games, but not a lot of faux-current slang, which always fails.

 

She employs different styles when Tyler is talking and when Emmie is talking, which not only suggests the deeper emotional thinking of middle school girls compared to their male counterparts, but breaks up the narrative to keep what is a substantial (384 pages) graphic novel feeling fresh.

And, as Tyler and Emmie collaborate on a graphic novel for art class, Libenson also differentiates between Tyler’s pages (left) and Emmie’s (right), as Tyler writes from the POV of a young ghosthunter and Emmie takes the role of the ghost.

There is substantial crossover between the theme and characters of their comic and their own lives and relationship. That’s something you would expect in an adult novel about writers, but might not in a book aimed at middle-school kids.

Which is probably why Libenson is so popular among middle-school readers: Her stories are not so much aimed at them as shared with them.

Which, yes, qualifies as gushing over a friend’s book, but if I didn’t like it, I’d pretend I didn’t know it was coming out.

Truly Tyler is a really good book and if you don’t have middle-school kids or grandkids or nieces or nephews, pretend you do, because book sellers don’t care.

To delve deeper into her writing and illustrating process, both in terms of the challenges of this book and the challenges of creative work during a pandemic, check out this fun, thoughtful entry on her blog.

Finally, this good news: Her books are popular enough that Truly Tyler — released this week — is surely on the shelf at your local bookstore.

Shop local. ly.

(I don’t know any songs about Tylers. Here’s one about an Emmie.)

Community Comments

#1 Maggie Zakem
March/22/2021
@ 11:18 am

My daughter teaches fifth and sixth grade. When Terri Libenson comes out with a new book in her series, I order it, read and enjoy it, and then donate it to my daughter’s classroom library. She says they are very popular. I’ll let her know another is on its way soon.

#2 Darryl Heine
March/22/2021
@ 12:57 pm

I wish Peanuts got reimagined for the comic strip pages.

#3 Mary McNeil
March/22/2021
@ 4:56 pm

Darryl – please don’t give Marculiano any encouragement.

#4 Brett Mount
March/23/2021
@ 1:57 am

As a general rule, I’ve enjoyed the reimagined (for want of a better word) strips. They don’t detract from what the original cartoonist produced, and give us another view of things – it’s an additive process.

Considering the alternative is “no new Heart of the City/Mark Trail/whatever”, handing things over is by far the best option.

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