I got a bunch of new comic book and strip collections for Christmas. One of them is “Get Lost” by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito. It’s a collection of the only three issues of that title that were published in 1954. I had never heard of it before I read about this new printing but “Get Lost” was one of the many comics that hoped to ride the wave created by “Mad”. It’s a humor comic and even looks like the early issues of “Mad”.

Last year I got “Mad Archive Volume 1” and when I read it I noticed an awkwardness to it. I couldn’t quite quantify or describe it but it was there. Good stuff but I still found it clumsy some how. When I started reading “Get Lost” I noticed the same awkwardness. It was then that I realized what it was. A totally different type of storytelling than I was used to.

Comic book storytelling is basically designed to keep you moving forward. The artists and writers try to control where your eye looks and bring you to the important points in the story as it moves forward. They can alter the pace of the story as suits them but it’s a relentless march to the last page. The epitome of this is Japanese comics that move forward so fast that sometimes it seems as if I’m just flipping pages. Like a page turning novel they are all about what happens next.

The gag-a-day comic strip has an even more simple storytelling structure. It’s set-up, pause, joke. Three panels are all you need and it’s all about getting to the gag in the last panel. I’m tired of that gag a day comic structure which explains why I don’t like many comic strips these days. Of course it could also be that there aren’t many good strips around. After all, I still love the classics: Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts, and Doonesbury.

Even Mad Magazine, which I grew up reading in the 1970’s, used a combination of these structures.”Mad” had a lot of short strips that were of the set-up, pause, joke variety. It also had a lot of movie parodies. These parodies used the set-up, pause, joke structure within the context of a larger “Push you forward” story. The story of the movie it was mocking. Sometimes making fun of the plot of the movie was most important and sometimes the gags. Either way pushing you forward was paramount.

That is what makes the early “Mad” and “Get Lost” storytelling different. They are all about what is happening now. There is a story, or sometimes just general craziness, going on in the word balloons and overall main structure of the art but many panels also contains a lot of unrelated little stories i.e. gags. It is more related to single panel gag cartoons than gag-a-day comics or comic strips.

This type of storytelling is not about moving the reader relentlessly forward. It’s about the reader pausing in the here and now to try and see all the sub-stories, sight gags, and funny drawings going on in each panel. This makes the overall story less important and awkward to read because it’s interrupted so much. But it’s also what makes this type of storytelling so different. The point isn’t to keep reading until you get to the end. The point is to enjoy the humor of the “here and now” of each and every panel. The end be damned.

In the gag-a-day world of comic strips the first two panels are meaningless without the payoff of the third panel. In the world of “Get Lost” and early “Mad” nearly every panel exists on it’s own with it’s own jokes and funny drawings. Sometimes the point of a panel is just that it’s a funny drawing. It doesn’t matter what is going to happen next. What matters is that things are funny right now.

When I realized this as I was reading “Get Lost” I slowed down. I stopped paying so much attention to what was going to happen and paid more attention to what was happening. The next panel didn’t mater so much. The awkwardness that I felt before was gone as I got into what the artists were trying to do.

I like it that there are new things to discover in old things.