Cole Closser designs strips such that they're not just pastiches or homages to classic comic strips, but rather as a strip that could be transplanted back into the past with the authenticity, skill and authority of one of the masters. Little Tommy Lost is not a parody; while it has jokes, it's very much a straightforward adventure strip. It's designed to look like Annie Koyama had somehow found a drawer full of original tear sheets from a 1930s comic strip and shot a book directly from those old, slightly yellowed and even stained originals. While Harold Gray and his Little Orphan Annie is an obvious inspiration for the book, there are also nods to Winsor McCay and Frank King in terms of the way Closser designed the color Sunday comics to act as an explosively clever, dream-oriented strip separate from the daily continuity. Gray's white-pupils are in effect here as far as character design goes, but there are also bits of Chester Gould to be found in terms of the grotesques who pop up. I'm no scholar of comic strip art, so I'm sure there any number of other allusions to be found here, down to the way Closser signs his name on each strip, emulating Ernie Bushmiller's handwriting.
That said, the strip owes as much to the serialized writing of Charles Dickens as it does Gray. Tommy is separated from his parents in the big city and soon winds up homeless and on the streets. A corrupt cop takes him to work at a children's slave labor factory, where he makes friends with some of the boys but winds up making enemies out of several huge and scary older boys. Tommy is no victim, though; he's a tough kid who's good in a fight, eventually winning over the brutish Clarence Pigg to his side. He also schemes to find a way to escape and gets involved in the mysterious plans of the factory's owner. The poor lost boy who's at the mercy of unscrupulous adults is a Dickens staple, and Closser brings that story to life.
Closser has the rhythms of a daily strip down cold, keeping things moving while re-emphasizing certain key plot points. Indeed, Little Tommy Lost unfortunately reproduces one of the more annoying aspects of daily adventure strips: a day-to-day repetitiveness originally designed to help keep casual readers up to speed. The result is that it sometimes takes three or four strips to propel the story when it could have been done in one or two strips. Information is repeated every few strips as Closser goes to great lengths to spell out what's going on, just as strip cartoonists had to make everything plain to keep the attention of their readers. Reading all of the strips at once, it makes processing some of the strips a grind to get through. Still, Closser's art is a genuine pleasure to stare at, with his confident cross-hatching and memorable character design. Characters like Pigg and Oliver "Skullface" Duggery are frightening to behold, and factory owner Mr Greaves' hunchbacked posture and balding head make him a figure of genuine menace. Closser's dialogue is street-tough rough but is always crystal-clear in meaning; it adds a great deal of texture to the book.
Ultimately, the first volume of Little Tommy Lost is somewhere between an astounding achievement in terms of the skill and care devoted to creating this kind of object and a storytelling curiosity. While the first volume had its moments, the storytelling padding reduced its overall impact. I liked that Closser had his strip adhere to the seasons he depicted with his daily, arbitrary dating that he created, but I wish we had gotten to the high seas adventure promised in volume two much earlier. The daily grind of the strip sometimes allowed Closser to delve into the pathos of his characters, but again that repetitiveness made even that attempt at storytelling depth feel like going to the same well a few too many times. To make this more than a simple triumph of conceptual design, Closser needs to up the narrative ante while still staying true to the comic strip roots that are so important to him. Breaking the rules wouldn't be such a bad thing, as so many classic strips became classics precisely because they broke the established rules of the day.