Comic strips as an art form have seen better days. As the fortunes of the newspaper industry have waned, so has the life force of comics: page space. Comics have shrunk along with ambition, with syndicates and editors opting for safe bets and old war horses rather than taking a chance on something new. There are few fresh wonders to be found on the comics page today, and that is a great shame—it’s still one singular feature that newspapers could use to their advantage.
Matthew Foltz-Gray‘s Spirit of the Staircase bravely attempted to scale the heights of a full-page, full-color newspaper comic strip. It’s one of those odd-couple set-ups, starring a crusty young curmudgeon and a cute lil’ sprite. But it works, lightly treading the dividing line between human Matt’s morose nature and creature Mumford’s spirit of adventure, balancing melancholy and delight in each carefully wrought frame. Published in the now defunct alt-weekly the Knoxville Mercury (2015-2017), it thankfully continues online at GoComics—but it was originally intended to rekindle an appreciation for large-form comics. (Note: I was the editor at the Mercury who engaged Foltz-Gray to draw it.)
Exploring a comic strip on the printed page, frame by frame, still holds an intimate appeal that cannot be duplicated by a touchscreen. And presenting that comic as a full-page strip offers creative opportunities for storytelling and composition that demand to be seen, first as a whole and then through the eye’s progression from top to bottom. Generations of readers have missed that experience, one that was integral to the very creation of modern newspaper comics—those large, colorful Sunday strips that dazzled the eye, from masters such as Winsor McKay and George Harriman, and later by artists like Bill Watterson.
Tackling such a goal today is no small feat, though it wasn’t exactly Foltz-Gray’s lifelong ambition. At the Academy of Art University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree, Foltz-Gray focused on story boarding for animation—which turned out to be excellent training for the creation of comics. Although he’s always thought of comics as a potentially fun way to make a living, he’s been skeptical of its feasibility.
Nevertheless, Spirit of the Staircase won a Silver Medal from the Society of Illustrators at the 2016 Comic and Cartoon Art Annual in New York. In 2017, he was nominated for an Eisner Award for Rikki, a graphic novel based on Rudyard Kipling’s short story “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” adapted by writer Norm Harper. (I wrote the intro.) The strip’s title refers to the French phrase l’esprit de l’escalier—those verbal altercations when you are unable to think of the perfect rejoinder until much too late. In this interview, Foltz-Gray carefully shares his thoughts about the comics industry.
Why do you pursue comic strips as a career? Don’t the obstacles get depressing?
I think it’s immensely rewarding and one of the few mediums that allows you to create an entire world all on your own. The fun part is getting to surprise yourself with how the characters develop and the world grows. I enjoy seeing what each character does just as much as anyone who reads it and I’ve never worked on something that rewards me in the same way. If I could make it a career, that would obviously be terrific, but I’m also not going to let that ruin the fun of just creating it. At the end of the day, the strip is something I can leave behind and be proud of.
In an era of shrinking newspaper readership (and space for comics), are comic strips still as culturally relevant as before?
At this point, no. I absolutely think they could be, but the Internet has to be figured out first. I don’t know how one might do that, but it’s become an untamed beast and it’s hard to get anyone’s attention for more than a second. The only comic strips that I see reaching a mainstream audience, lately, are ones about cats or have headlines like, “Guy Makes Comic about Girlfriend’s Eating Habits!” I would love to see more character-driven strips make it to a Buzzfeed list.
Is being published online different than being in print?
To me, yes. I think the Internet has a way of diminishing things. You can get distracted so easily. With print, what you see is what you get and I think it helps focus the reader. Also, it’s much easier to see!
Are there new comic-strip artists that you follow online?
Yes! Wallace the Brave by Will Henry is always funny, sweet, and charming. He is worthy of all his praise. Lee Gatlin’s strips, which vary from subject to subject, are hilarious and his drawings would make any cartoonist envious. Keith Pakiz is another cartoonist who I admire greatly. His cartoons are strange but also very human. They are full of life and character. I’ve studied his style quite a bit and it never fails to amaze me. There are so many other talented comic strip artists out there, but those are a few that I wish were more recognized for their talent and ones I’m always eager to see more from.
Where do you foresee the comics industry heading—or is it already there?
I’m not sure, really. I think the whole realm of stories, news, and art is in a transition period that no one quite knows what to do with. Graphic novels are doing great right now, but I worry about comic strips. I think they’ll always be around, but in what capacity, I don’t know.
Here’s a gallery of Foltz-Gray’s favorite Spirit of the Staircase strips thus far: