History, when presented in the comics, tends to have the stink of the schoolhouse to it. If Johnny can't slog though The Federalist Papers for some reason (kids today!), maybe he'll make it though the Classics Illustrated version: stiff and wooden drawing, monotonous writing and dialogue, no flow, no dynamism, no oomph. Short on yucks, too.
Rendering history in a comic strip (as opposed to comic book) adds a formidable constraint to already suspect and cumbersome content. Comic strips are made for quick jokes and easily encapsulated action, and you better damn well keep up, because there's no time to waste, wham bam and it's on to the Jumble, unless you're Lee Falk, who once drew Mandrake the Magician and Lothar pointing at the same airplane for two weeks straight ("Look!!! ... Plane?! ... Smoke?!?! ... Trouble!!!").
So consider, then, noted New Orleans author and illustrator John Chase's Louisiana Purchase (Pelican Publishing), a comic strip originally published in 1953 to coincide with the Purchase's 150th anniversary. It ran in 40 newspapers, daily strips only, for a total of 310 installments. It attempts -- and you have to admire the chutzpah, if nothing else -- to tell the story of the Purchase from 1300 to 1846, when Iowa, the last state created from Purchase land, was admitted to the Union.
The first thing a reader notices about the collection is that Chase is a talented artist when he wants to be; the strips have a great balance between light and dark, thin line and thick, and there is excellent period detail throughout. The second thing a reader notices, however, is sprawl: the story rambles, turns back on itself; characters are introduced, fade away and are reintroduced, with little narrative or stylistic continuity. The strips are narrated, with a block of exposition at the base of each panel. A character usually makes a comment on the action. One supposes this is intended as comic relief. It quickly grows tiresome. It's hard to keep the action straight without any real characters, and the lack of dialogue coupled with the often witless asides makes for a tough read.
This format -- narrated strips without continuing characters or settings -- is now a commonly used trope in long-form, non-fiction narrative comics; see Larry Gonick's ongoing Cartoon History of the Universe series, or the ______ for Beginners books. Chase can certainly make a case for inventing this particular manifestation of the narrated strip. He might also have a case for being the first to demonstrate that a comic strip can be a successful tool for presenting historical narrative. I don't know which newspapers carried Louisiana Purchase back in 1953, but I can't help but wonder if a young Jack (Lost Cause) Jackson might have read it while growing up in Pandora, Texas.
So, as a comic strip, Louisiana Purchase is more a curiosity than a revelation or even a good read. As a way of introducing young readers (the book seems to be aimed at the juvenile market, although I can't imagine under what circumstances a child would pick this up and read it for pleasure) to the history of the Louisiana Purchase, it fails roundly. The introductory material is generously peppered with typos and misspellings, and hardly seems authoritative. There is a certain lack of respect for comic readers that is inherent in this sort of project; creating a good, entertaining, engaging comic strip is secondary to cramming in every possible fact and figure, upping the high-fiber Education content at the expense of sugary Fun.
Chase has been a respected editorial cartoonist for many years and is obviously an enthusiastic student of history. There is a difference, however, between a single-panel editorial cartoon and a multi-panel comic strip, and Chase's experience working on Gasoline Alley should have taught it to him. Gasoline Alley was the first comic strip to let its characters age; it established rules of continuity, narrative flow and the passage of time that are still in use today. Louisiana Purchase, in contrast, is all over the map: from Jefferson to Napoleon to Cartier to Livingston and back, jumping between years and continents and intrigues with no thought to tying the disparate strains together. There is no sense of forward motion, no chance to see all the elements coalesce -- just the excited anecdotes of an amateur historian trying to impress his audience with a gaggle of facts.
"All this over a comic strip?" some of you say. Well, yes, sure. Comic strips have standards of excellence, critical reviews, checkered histories and formal taxonomies, just like any art form. And when a comic strip collection claims to house the first examples of one of those forms, along with unique and historically important content, then that collection is a legitimate object of critical scrutiny. Chase's strip might have remained an obscure footnote in comic history if it had not been reprinted and tossed into the sad little slap fight of Louisiana Purchase anniversary celebrations, all charmingly trying to get the general public interested in the intricacies of a 200-year-old real estate deal. Seen against the milieu of today's comics, Chase's work brings to mind nothing more than an old silent movie: the content lost to the years, but still important because of the technique, the innovation, and the vision.
- John Chase's Louisiana Purchase is more a curiosity than a revelation or even a good read.