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Arguing Comics

Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium

Copyright Date: 2004
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    Arguing Comics
    Book Description:

    When Art Spiegelman'sMaus-a two-part graphic novel about the Holocaust-won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, comics scholarship grew increasingly popular and notable. The rise of "serious" comics has generated growing levels of interest as scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals continue to explore the history, aesthetics, and semiotics of the comics medium.

    Yet those who write about the comics often assume analysis of the medium didn't begin until the cultural studies movement was underway.Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Mediumbrings together nearly two dozen essays by major writers and intellectuals who analyzed, embraced, and even attacked comic strips and comic books in the period between the turn of the century and the 1960s. From e. e. cummings, who championed George Herriman'sKrazy Kat, to Irving Howe, who fretted about Harold Gray'sLittle Orphan Annie, this volume shows that comics have provided a key battleground in the culture wars for over a century.

    With substantive essays by Umberto Eco, Marshall McLuhan, Leslie Fiedler, Gilbert Seldes, Dorothy Parker, Irving Howe, Delmore Schwartz, and others, this anthology shows how all of these writers took up comics-related topics as a point of entry into wider debates over modern art, cultural standards, daily life, and mass communication.

    Arguing Comicsshows how prominent writers from the Jazz Age and the Depression era to the heyday of the New York Intellectuals in the 1950s thought about comics and, by extension, popular culture as a whole.

    A columnist for theNational Post(Canada), Jeet Heer has been published inSlate, theBoston Globe, theGuardian, theComics Journaland many other venues.

    Kent Worcester, a professor of political science and international studies at Marymount Manhattan College, is the author ofC. L. R. James: A Political Biography. His work has appeared in theComics Journal,New Statesman,Popular Culture Review, and numerous other publications.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-588-8
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. vii-xxiv)
    JH and KW

    Illustrated storytelling in general, and comic strips and comic books in particular, have long excited fierce controversy. In 1846 the English poet William Wordsworth penned a sonnet, “Illustrated Books and Newspapers,” that inveigled against “this vile abuse of pictured page”:

    Discourse was deemed Man’s noblest attribute,

    And written words the glory of his hand;

    Then followed Printing with enlarged command

    For thought—dominion vast and absolute

    For spreading truth, and making love expand.

    Now prose and verse sunk into disrepute

    Must lacquey a dumb Art that best can suit

    The taste of this once-intellectual Land.

    A backward movement surely have...

  4. Part One: Early Twentieth-Century Voices

    • [PART ONE: Introduction]
      (pp. 1-3)

      The high-toned intellectual magazines of early twentieth century America featured acres of text, rarely adorned by pictures. Within this austere, print-dense environment, perhaps the main cultural battle was between the established defenders of the genteel tradition and the insurgent forces of literary modernism. The two sides of this battle had a very different attitude towards comics. For adherents to the genteel tradition, illustrated magazines and comics were symptomatic of much that was going wrong in the contemporary world: the newfound preference for visual stimulations rather than time-honored literary values; the growing strength of disorderly immigrant cultures in the United States...

    • From “The Tyranny of the Pictorial”
      (pp. 4-6)
      Sidney Fairfield

      Certain aspects of the illustration of newspapers and periodicals are interesting just now as indicative of modern tendencies and as marking the difference between the standard of what is worth publishing to-day and the standard that prevailed a decade or two ago. The editor of a prominent weekly says that his paper wants no literary matter beyond a very small amount,—about enough to fill three columns. What he does want and gives all his energies to secure is illustrations; the reading matter to carry them is easy enough to get, probably without calling upon outside help. In other words,...

    • From “The Reign of the Spectacular”
      (pp. 7-8)
      Annie Russell Marble

      In the varied phases of modern thought and activity, the obvious holds unchallenged sway. The deeds that are conspicuous, the ideas that are garish, the literature that is episodic and pictorial, gain the popular favor. The eye of the senses is regnant,—often a substitute for ear, imagination, and reason. Surface-impressions satisfy; “the eyes of our understanding” are dimly enlightened. In the vernacular of the American youth, every entertainment is a “show,” whether at the theatre or the church, at home or at school. With all possible tribute to the progress and appreciation of art during the last quarter-century, one...

    • From “The Humor of the Colored Supplement”
      (pp. 9-12)
      Ralph Bergengren

      Ten or a dozen years ago—the exact date is here immaterial—an enterprising newspaper publisher conceived the idea of appealing to what is known as the American “sense of humor” by printing a so-called comic supplement in colors. He chose Sunday as of all days the most lacking in popular amusements, carefully restricted himself to pictures without human and color without beauty, and presently inaugurated a new era in American journalism. The colored supplement became an institution. No Sunday is complete without it,—not because its pages invariably delight, but because, like flies in summer, there is no screen...

    • Introduction to Frans Masereel, Passionate Journey: A Novel Told in 165 Woodcuts
      (pp. 13-21)
      Thomas Mann

      I should like first of all to say a few words about the two quotations which Masereel has chosen as epigraphs for hisPassionate Journey.¹ Not everyone who picks up this book of pictures may be “cultured” enough to read these passages in the original. For you do not have to be as multilingual as a Riviera hotel-waiter or a nineteenth-century boarding-school miss to enjoy and appreciate the work of this great artist—especially in the volume before us. You may, for example, be a worker, a taxi-driver, or a young telephone-operator without any gift for languages, and yet be...

    • “The Krazy Kat That Walks by Himself”
      (pp. 22-29)
      Gilbert Seldes

      Krazy Kat, the daily comic strip of George Herriman is, to me, the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America to-day. With those who hold that a comic strip cannot be a work of art I shall not traffic. The qualities ofKrazy Katare irony and fantasy—exactly the same, it would appear, as distinguishThe Revolt of the Angels; it is wholly beside the point to indicate a preference for the work of Anatole France, which is in the great line, in the major arts. It happens that in America irony and fantasy...

    • “A Foreword to Krazy”
      (pp. 30-34)
      E. E. Cummings

      Twenty years ago, a celebration happened—the celebration of Krazy Kat by Gilbert Seldes. It happened in a book calledThe Seven Lively Arts; and it happened so wisely, so lovingly, so joyously, that recelebrating Krazy would be like teaching penguins to fly. Penguins (as a lot of people don’t realize) do fly not through the sea of the sky but through the sky of the sea—and my present ambition is merely, with our celebrated friend’s assistance, to show how their flying affects every non-penguin.

      What concerns me fundamentally is a meteoric burlesk melodrama, born of the immemorial adage...

    • “A Mash Note to Crockett Johnson”
      (pp. 35-36)
      Dorothy Parker

      I cannot write a review of Crockett Johnson’s book ofBarnaby. I have tried and tried, but it never comes out a book review. It is always a valentine for Mr. Johnson.

      For a bulky segment of a century, I have been an avid follower of comic strips—all comic strips; this is a statement made with approximately the same amount of pride with which one would say, “I’ve been shooting cocaine into my arm for the past twenty-five years.” I cannot remember how the habit started, and I am presently unable to explain why it persists. I know only...

  5. Part Two: The New York Intellectuals

    • [PART TWO: Introduction]
      (pp. 37-39)

      The New York Intellectuals were an amorphous and contentious group of mid-century cultural critics and thinkers associated withPartisan Reviewmagazine, City College and Columbia University. Emerging as a coherent group in the late 1930s, the New York intellectuals inherited a dual tradition. The centrality of modernism had been established by Jazz Age writers and the importance of political engagement by the radicalized generation of the early 1930s. Uniquely, the writers gathered aroundPartisan Reviewand a few allied magazines would try to link this double tradition of cultural and political radicalism.

      In attempting to create a fusion between modernism...

    • “Steig’s Cartoons: Review of All Embarrassed by William Steig”
      (pp. 40-40)
      Clement Greenberg

      The mating of drawing with caption has produced a new but very dependent and transitory pictorial genre. The future will be more informed than delighted by it. We can still relish the brush-drawing on a Greek vase for its own sake as a drawing—whether fitted happily or unhappily to the shape of the vessel. But to appreciate William Steig’s cartoons you have to get their point, and to get their point you have to be intimately acquainted with the contemporary American literate middle classes. And yet in spite of all this, Steig’s cartoons push and strain against the social...

    • “Limits of Common Sense: Review of Years of Wrath: A Cartoon History, 1931–1945 by David Low”
      (pp. 41-42)
      Clement Greenberg

      The success of Low’s cartoons with the newspaper public would suggest that the public is more sensitive to art for its own sake than its members themselves realize.

      Despite the claims made on the jacket of this latest collection of his cartoons to the effect that Low “combines technical mastery of his medium with a political intelligence that puts many of our contemporary statesmen to shame”—his insight into world affairs turns out to be only what might have been expected from any liberal with decent instincts and a large endowment of common-sense humor. Low has never, in reality, seen...

    • “Notes on Mass Culture”
      (pp. 43-51)
      Irving Howe

      When we glance at the pseudo-cultural amusements that occupy the American people’s leisure time, we soon wonder: what happens to the anonymous audience while it consumes the products of mass culture?¹ It is a question that can hardly be answered systematically or definitively, for there is no way of knowing precisely what the subterranean reactions of an audience are—and it will certainly not do merely to ask it. We can only speculate, and the answer to our question, if one is to be had at all, can be found only within ourselves.

      Here we meet our first difficulty: the...

    • “Masterpieces as Cartoons”
      (pp. 52-62)
      Delmore Schwartz

      Recently I have been trying hard to watch television and read comic books. I do not know whether this is an effort to keep in touch with the rest of the American population or an attempt to win the esteem and keep up with my brother-in-law, aged twelve, who regards me as a hideous highbrow and thinks that I am probably a defrocked high school English teacher. The effort is, at any rate, one which permits me moments of self-congratulation. I feel that no one can say that I have not tried my best to keep open the lines of...

    • “Woofed with Dreams”
      (pp. 63-66)
      Robert Warshow

      On the underside of our society, there are those who have no real stake at all in respectable culture. These are the open enemies of culture, despising indiscriminately a painting by Picasso and a painting by Maxfield Parrish, a novel by Kafka and a novel by A. J. Cronin, a poem by Yeats and a poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox—these are readers of pulp magazines and comic books, potential book-burners, unhappy patrons of astrologers and communicants of lunatic sects, the hopelessly alienated and outclassed who can enjoy perhaps not even Andy Hardy but only Bela Lugosi, not even the...

    • “Paul, the Horror Comics, and Dr. Wertham”
      (pp. 67-80)
      Robert Warshow

      My son Paul, who is eleven years old, belongs to the E.C. Fan-Addict club, a synthetic organization set up as a promotional device by the Entertaining Comics Group, publishers ofMad(“Tales Calculated to Drive You MAD—Humor in a Jugular Vein”),Panic(“This is No Comic Book, This is a PANIC—Humor in a Varicose Vein”),Tales from the Crypt,The Vault of Horror,Weird Science-Fantasy,Shock SuspenStories,Crime SuspenStories(“Jolting Tales of Tension in the E.C. Tradition”), and, I imagine, various other such periodicals. For his twenty-five-cent membership fee (soon to be raised to fifty cents), the E.C....

    • “The Labyrinth of Saul Steinberg”
      (pp. 81-84)
      Harold Rosenberg

      Steinberg’s line is the line of a master penman and artist; it is also a “line”—that is, a kind of organized talk. The pen of this artist-monologist brings into being pictures that are also words, e.g. the oddbirdsat a cocktail party. Or they are visualizations of things said, as in the drawings in his book,The Labyrinth, where people utter flowers, strings of beads, heraldic decorations.

      Both because of his superb penmanship and the complex intellectual nature of his assertions, I think of Steinberg as a kind of writer, though there is only one of his kind....

  6. Part Three: The Postwar Mavericks

    • [PART THREE: Introduction]
      (pp. 85-87)

      As Irving Howe noted, by the 1960s the criticism of mass culture offered by the New York Intellectuals was itself being attacked as “heavy and humorless” by advocates of a new sensibility, most notably Susan Sontag. Howe quoted a younger writer, Seymour Krim, who objected to “the overcerebral, Europeanish, sterilely citified, pretentiously alienated” style of the New York writers. Yet, the seeds of this 1960s critique had already been planted by a motley crew of postwar maverick thinkers, who as a group were aware of thePartisan Reviewcrowd but dissatisfied with their approach to cultural criticism.

      We’ve labeled the...

    • “Comic Strips”
      (pp. 88-90)
      Manny Farber

      Comic strips are not what they used to be. Those in theNew York Post, which are the ones I read, are getting increasingly genteel, naturalistic and like the movies, moving away from the broad comedy of their beginnings and into the pulp field. The old style in comic strips was to trip everything— drawing, dialogue, place, action—for laughs. The new style is almost never concerned with being funny; rather it tries to be as much like a soap opera as possible. The stories are either very gentle affairs full of cliches, corn and cozy morals (Mary Worth says:...

    • “Comic Strips”
      (pp. 91-93)
      Manny Farber

      Top comic-strip artists like Al Capp, Chet Gould, and Milt Caniff are the last in the great tradition of linear composers that started with Giotto and continued unbroken through Ingres. Until the Impressionists blurred the outlines of objects and diffused the near, middle, and far distance into a smog of light and dark, design had been realized in terms of outline and the weight of the enclosed shape. Today the only linear surgeons carrying on the practice—except for some rearguard opportunists like Shahn—are the pow-bam-sock cartoonists, whose masterful use of a dashing pen line goes virtually unnoticed in...

    • “Mickey Mouse and Americanism”
      (pp. 94-98)
      Walter J. Ong

      It is no easy task to find any common denominator in the various mixtures of ideologies existing in the minds of American men and women. But from our Victorian ancestors we nearly all seem to have inherited one first principle in common—an abiding faith in youth when it is accompanied by vigorous animal activity and a healthy grin. For confirmation of this fact, we need only look at the puppies and children in the advertisements.

      Hence it is ticklish business to undertake a critique of Mickey Mouse. For if all normal human beings are supposed to like young creatures...

    • “Bogey Sticks for Pogo Men”
      (pp. 99-101)
      Walter J. Ong

      Those who have set their faces against what they like to style “modern” art and literature are given something to think about in a current comic strip. For, strangely enough, a pa’cel of characters fished out of a swamp in the Deep South have been making fame for themselves and money for their creator by exploiting, at the most popular of popular levels, a linguistic which we had been assured was a private horror dripped from the brains of the most decadent ofavant-gardeintellectuals—meaning people like James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, or E. E. Cummings—and quite unthinkable to...

    • From The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man
      (pp. 102-106)
      Marshall McLuhan

      Harold Gray’s strip finds a natural setting and sponsor in the Patterson-McCormick enterprise. From this strip alone it is possible to document the central thesis of Margaret Mead’s excellent book,And Keep Your Powder Dry. As an anthropologist, Margaret Mead works on the postulate of the organic unity or “cultural regularity” of societies. Her own example of this postulate is that of the sudden fame of a movie star which must be explained to the public as the result not of luck but of know-how. Before being successful, the star had to have her teeth capped, her nose rebuilt, her...

    • “Comics: Mad Vestibule to TV”
      (pp. 107-111)
      Marshall McLuhan

      It was thanks to the print that Dickens became a comic writer. He began as a provider of copy for a popular cartoonist. To consider the comics here, after “The Print,” is to fix attention upon the persistent print-like, and even crude woodcut, characteristics of our twentieth-century comics. It is by no means easy to perceive how the same qualities of print and woodcut could reappear in the mosaic mesh of the TV image. TV is so difficult a subject for literary people that it has to be approached obliquely. From the three million dots per second on TV, the...

    • From Love and Death: A Study in Censorship
      (pp. 112-121)
      Gershon Legman

      Disguises are still necessary. The public can hardly be told what is being done to it. And so, super-imposed on the pattern violence of its children’s comics, there is a variety of titles, a variety of formulas suited to the age-groups and sexes the industry proposes to exploit: under six, six to ten, ten to fourteen, fourteen to sixteen, and up. The principal formulas, in the chronology of the age-groups they appeal to, are: the floppity-rabbit or kid comics, representing a tenth or less; the crime comics, one tenth last year, this year—having been legalized—a third or more;...

    • “The Middle Against Both Ends”
      (pp. 122-133)
      Leslie Fiedler

      I am surely one of the few people pretending to intellectual respectability who can boast that he has read more comic books than attacks on comic books. I do not mean that I have consulted or studied the comics—I have read them, often with some pleasure. Nephews and nieces, my own children, and the children of neighbors have brought them to me to share their enjoyment. An old lady on a ferry boat in Puget sound once dropped two in my lap in wordless sympathy: I was wearing, at the time, a sailor’s uniform.

      I have somewhat more difficulty...

    • “Over the Cliff”
      (pp. 134-137)
      Donald Phelps

      In the decade since I wrote “Cliffhanger Comic”, about Al Capp’sLi’l Abner, the most crucial event by far in the Yokum saga has been Abner’s marriage to Daisy Mae. This occurred in 1951, as the result, I take it, of those “public pressures” which are so often misread, as they were in this case. For Abner’s implacable virginity was—next to Downwind Jaxon’s permanently averted face inSmilin’ Jack—the arch tease of the comic-strip world. Too, it was central to that secrecy which gaveLi’l Abnerits tone, its unity and—beyond the rather specious satire and fantasy...

    • “Reprise: ‘Love and Death’ ”
      (pp. 138-141)
      Donald Phelps

      George Alexander (Gershon) Legman’sLove and Deathis a thunderous, overloaded, angry juggernaut, surmounted by a loudspeaker system which continuously blares Legman’s message: American censorship thwarts the imagery of normal sex, and encourages images of brutality, perverted violence and blood-letting. Legman published the book himself, late in 1949, after submitting it with methodical pessimism, to an alphabet of publishers, from A for Aberdeen Press, through X, for Xavier Publishers for the Blind. The critics were hardly more receptive: Malcolm Cowley, in theNew Republic, contributed a mildly sympathetic review, bristling with reservations; Robert Warshow, in thePartisan Review, was angrily...

    • “C. L. R. James on Comic Strips”
      (pp. 142-143)
      C. L. R. James

      To state it crudely, where formerly we had to look at the economic relations of society, the political and social movements and the great artistic expressions to get a whole, complete and dynamic view of the society, while as far as the great mass was concerned, we had to guess; today it is not so. The modern popular film, the modern newspaper (theDaily News, not theTimes), the comic strip, the evolution of jazz, a popular periodical likeLife, these mirror from year to year the deep social responses and evolution of the American people in relation to the...

    • “Letter to Daniel Bell”
      (pp. 144-145)
      C. L. R. James

      Future historians will write that in the twentieth century a new art began, and that the great masterpieces of the age, both in form and in impact upon the generations that they served, were the films of Chaplin and Griffith.

      These movies in their day were no doubt treated with the same lack of interest by critical intellectuals as comic strips are being treated today. The movies were new in that they were conditioned by the suffrage of the whole nation. The same quality of newness distinguishes the soap opera, the comic strip and jazz music because of the peculiar...

    • “The Myth of Superman”
      (pp. 146-164)
      Umberto Eco

      The hero equipped with powers superior to those of the common man has been a constant of the popular imagination—from Hercules to Siegfried, from Roland to Pantagruel, all the way to Peter Pan. Often the hero’s virtue is humanized, and his powers, rather than being supernatural, are the extreme realization of natural endowments such as astuteness, swiftness, fighting ability, or even the logical faculties and the pure spirit of observation found in Sherlock Holmes. In an industrial society, however, where man becomes a number in the realm of the organization which has usurped his decision-making role, he has no...

  7. Essayists
    (pp. 165-170)
  8. Index
    (pp. 171-176)