Comics for Kids

Posted by on March 19th, 2010 at 6:53 AM

The Sunday comic weekly newspaper magazine that appeared in the last decade of the nineteenth century at the New York World was intended, like the weekly humor magazines that inspired it, for a general audience, adults—chiefly male, but also the rest of the family, women and children. Children alone were not the target readers. Never had been. Not on Sundays.

Not on weekdays either. The compulsions and vacillating fortunes of Bud Fisher’s racetrack tout, A. Mutt, were scarcely of the sort that children would find amusing. But adults would. And adults did, buying papers to massage their aching funnybones.

Comics, like everything else in a newspaper, were aimed at adults because it was adults who bought the paper, not children.

Increasingly, adult readers turned to the comics in newspapers for entertainment, buying more and more papers, which, in turn, stimulated the creation of more and more comics.

As the twentieth century dawned, various groups of concerned parents among the adults expressed alarm at the possible negative effect on their children of exposure to the vulgarity of the physical pranks of the Katzenjammer Kids and others of their ilk in the comics. To co-op this criticism, cartoonists were persuaded to keep juvenile readers in mind as well as adults when crafting their product and avoid material that might corrupt the youth of the nation.

One cartoonist, Carl “Bunny” Schultze, even invented a comic strip that implicitly contended with the corrupting influence of Hans and Fritz and their habitual abuse of their elders. Foxy Grandpa was smarter than his grandchildren, who, despite their innate mischievousness, were defeated by his greater cunning. In a blatant concession to the parental morality patrol, Foxy Grandpa was a cautionary tale. Likewise, Richard Outcault’s Buster Brown, whose misbehavior was always punished by the end of each installment, resulting in a moral lesson for the day.

And so began the most intricate of dance steps. Editors knew that adults read the comics. They knew the Sunday comic supplement increased sales of newspapers. In an effort to appease the critics while continuing to publish the supplements, they claimed that the Sunday comics taught morality to the children who read them.

And they also sought out or developed wholesome comics that were intended chiefly for juvenile consumption—Little Nemo in Slumberland, Billy Bounce, The Upside-Downs, The Teenie Weenies, Mama’s Little Angel Child, the comic strip version of Baum’s Oz stories, and, later, of Peter Rabbit and Uncle Wiggily.

But the more exuberant creations (Happy Hooligan, the Katzenjammers, and others) continued in the same pages, side-by-side with their more righteous brethren—albeit toned down somewhat.

The comics supplement as a whole was now suitable for juvenile readers. But “suitable” for children is not the same as “tailored specifically” for children. Still, the effect upon the understanding in the general public was the same.

By this contortion, many people—but not newspaper editors—began to think that comics were for children. And so they were, but not for children exclusively. Children were included in the projected readership: the comics were just about the only part of a newspaper that offered something that appealed to children—as well as to adults. But comics, as a genre, were never aimed solely at youngsters.

Whether you make comics expressly and exclusively for children or merely make them suitable for children, you are thinking about children as you make the comics. In effect, then, comics were being manufactured “for” children. Thus, by this rhetorical sleight of hand (or mind), the Sunday funnies as comprehended in the popular consciousness were for children. And by the same token, they were no longer for adults. Or so it would seem.

But adults continued to read the comics. And cartoonists continued to produce comics aimed at adult sensibilities. That never changed. Bringing Up Father and Polly and Her Pals dealt in concepts that children could not fully comprehend; they may enjoy the pictures and even understand the jokes in some rudimentary way, but the satire implicit in the battle between Jiggs and Maggie over her social pretensions was undoubtedly beyond childish ken. Ditto the satire of the generational conflict that animated the comedy in encounters between Polly and her Paw and Maw.

Still, everyone quietly acquiesced to the pretense that the funnies were “for the children.”

Even though they weren’t. Not exclusively. And comic books, as we’ll see next time, started with the same strategy and partook of the same pretext, and fell into the same trap.

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