Well, if you were looking for a new genre of books to collect while you’re sitting at home browsing the Interwebs, the world of comic strip collections is still reasonably open.
I don’t mean Comic Strip Collecting, which has been established for many years (though it was not really until the nostalgia wave of the 70s that prices really started to zoom, and lawsuits about who owned the original art began to bounce around the courts.) Whether you frame original art on the walls or just clip from the newspapers and keep the results in those little boxes your checks come in, you are in good company. Some people (including at least one museum) collect the whole comics pages, feeling that was the way the strips were designed to be read.
But newspapers realized what they had fairly early in the history of the comic strip, and began selling separate books which collected certain strips. These tended to be fairly thin volumes which reprinted several weeks of, say, The Katzenjammer Kids or Happy Hooligan (a strip so popular that it added phrases and graphic conventions to the nation’s vocabulary.) This went on until the early 1930s, as far as I can tell. The Book Fair has had donations which included several Bringing Up Father collections from the 1910s, as well as Little Orphan Alley and Gasoline Alley collections from the 1920s.
To a great degree, these were replaced by the trade paperback format in the 1950s, with Charles Schulz’s Peanuts and Walt Kelly’s Pogo leading the way. Somewhat similar in format (the Peanuts books were shorter and thicker) the books took different approaches. Whereas Charles Schulz volumes took the best of the year’s strips and presented them as they originally appeared, Walt Kelly would pick and edit, often redrawing or adding panels so that each storyline in a year formed a different chapter in the resulting book. Freed from the confines of the newspaper page, punchlines could be given added punch.
The 1950s also saw an explosion in the smaller, mass market paperback, an excellent format for single panel cartoons. A little experimentation was necessary to take the three or four panel comic strips and make them fit, but publishers saw the benefit of this kind of comic strip collection: fewer comic strips were needed to fill a book. Dozens of comic strips which had only flirted with the larger size appeared all over the paperback racks in this format. (Many of the earlier Peanuts collections were broken into smaller volumes, hence the note sometimes seen on Peanuts mass market paperbacks that this is volume 1 of the strips from a bigger book.)
Garfield seems to have been the strip which made the next move. His collections were brought out with clockwork regularity, because unlike the Pogo, Peanuts, Beetle Bailey, Hagar the Horrible collections, the strips were not selected. Garfield collections simply presented every single strip in chronological order: when enough strips had been produced to fill a book, there was a book. The publishers also used a new, oblong shape, so that two strips could be presented per page, one at the top, and one at the bottom. This filled three pages, and then the Sunday strip could fill every fourth.
As the genre moved into the later 1970s and early 1980s, some publisher realized that in a taller book, three strips could be presented to a page, giving one whole week of weekday strips on two pages, followed by a full-page Sunday strip. This format took over comic strip collections, though publishers, with an eye on their investments, cut back on the number of strips worth publishing. Comic strip collections might fill a wall at a bookstore, but on close examination, all these great big books represented different volumes of the same six or seven highly profitable strips.
We get all of these differing formats at the Book Fair: the matte-finish paperback of the 50s, the smaller hits of the 60s (some of which became collectible to the tune of forty or fifty bucks each), the thicker, slicker productions of the 80s and 90s…oh, and I neglected to mention these little magazines which presented reprints of assorted newspaper comic strips in the 1930s. The publishers of those figured out it was cheaper to hire artists to write stories just for them than to pay for the rights to reprint newspaper comics, and by and by the comic book was born. And, by the way, Hagar the Horrible and Beetle Bailey were also transformed into Graphic Novels in Europe, and you’ll need those in your collection as well. Just remember to leave a space on the shelves for those old check boxes filled with cut-out strips. You don’t want to neglect any format.