Welcome to TCJ.com and Oh, By the Way, A Brief History of Comics Criticism While I’m At It

Posted by on December 14th, 2009 at 1:42 AM

I have been advised that I should welcome everyone to the shiny new digital incarnation of The Comics Journal here at tcj.com, and indeed I do, but all I could come up with in terms of an introduction-of-sorts were the usual elitist pieties and bromides, and who needs any more of those? You know why you’re here: You’re looking for honest, intelligent, robust criticism and commentary on comics and related media and, hell, maybe even a dollop of philosophical discourse because you’re the kind of gal or guy who isn’t discomfited with a little straying from the thematic farm.  But in the course of mulling over what tcj.com means in the greater scheme of things, I began reflecting on the history of comics criticism and concluded that it may be worth reciting, especially for those of you who don’t even know that there’s such a shaggy and ramshackle series of events that could even remotely comprise a history of comics criticism.

Notwithstanding the occasional and aberrant essay on the aesthetics of comics by a Gilbert Seldes or an e.e. cummings (or the occasional social or cultural critique by a Robert Warshow or Fredric Wertham), taking comics seriously began at the grass roots level when EC fans like Ted White, Bhob Stewart, and Frederick von Bernewitz published fanzines and wrote about EC comics. There were no institutions that could provide an hospitable forum for the discussion of comics as art —no universities, no magazines— and so fans had to create their own. Stewart, for example, published the E.C. Fan Addict in 1953; White published The Story of Superman in 1952 (in a run of perhaps 50 copies). EC was certainly the most editorially consistent and highest quality line of mainstream comics ever published, and when they were going great guns, the line as a whole attracted the attention of discerning pop-culture aficionados who approached them from the modest standpoint of intelligent fans who noticed the difference between EC and every other publisher and wanted to discuss the work among themselves — readers who were knowledgeable with and sympathetic to comics generally and EC particularly. This was criticism in its most rudimentary phase, and though I cannot say with any authority to what extent this was their primary impulse, EC fans were interested in debating artistic values and proceeded to do just that. The impulse to talk about comics progressed in fits and starts from that time to the present.

Bhob Stewart went on to co-edit with Dick and Pat Lupoff the science fiction fanzine Xero in the early ’60s, which ran essays about comics and cartoonists virtually unknown at the time, such as Carl Barks and George Carlson (these essay were later collected into a book, All in Color for a Dime); Jerry Bails founded Alter Ego in 1961, a fanzine predominantly devoted to DC and superhero comics; Roy Thomas took over Alter Ego in 1964; Don and Maggie Thompson started publishing the somewhat solecistically titled Comic Art in 1961 and Newfangles in 1967. Lupoff was primarily an SF fan who dabbled in comics; Bails was at bottom an historian and not a critic; Thomas became, after Stan Lee, the driving force behind Marvel Comics in the late ’60s and early ’70s as a writer and editor, but whose perennial fanboyishness largely precluded critical judgment; and in contrast to the untutored intellectual anarchy of the previously mentioned EC fans, the Thompsons fused a smug middlebrow sensibility onto fan triumphalism, which was, at least, a first for comics.

As I said, fits and starts.

When EC folded in 1954, it left something of an aesthetic gulf; there was no single generative force to rally around. There were good comics being produced —Barks and John Stanley were doing some of their best work, there was Kurtzman and Trump and Humbug— but there was a dispersal of creative energy in the post-EC/Comics Code era during which comics sales dwindled and creators left the field for what they hoped were greener pastures. (To give you some idea of how creatively impoverished the field was, Bails considered it a celebratory event when DC began publishing its rejuvenated superhero line in 1959!) Good criticism, at least at this stage it seems, required a critical mass of good art — and that there certainly wasn’t; the fanzines created in the early ’60s (and most of the fanzines through the early ’70s, in fact) reflected the stunted creativity of the comics themselves in their mindless enthusiasms and exuberant appraisals.

Which brings us to three figures who brought vision, analysis, and idealism to the idea of thinking critically about comics: Bill Spicer, Richard Kyle, and John Benson.

Spicer began publishing Fantasy Illustrated in the mid ’60s, changing its name to Graphic Story Magazine in 1967. (It’s interesting how even the more astute comics readers’ early frame of reference was so bounded by the science fiction and fantasy genres; there were few “realistic” comics published at the time and even those were ludicrous (i.e., crime); fantasy and science fiction, thin as they were, were actually more legitimate genres than most of what comics consisted of, and many fans discovered comics after submerging themselves in the SF and fantasy genres. By the late ’60s, Graphic Story Magazine evolved into the most literate “fanzine.” I remember thinking, at the time, that GSM looked like it was put together by grown-ups, whereas most fanzines, mine included, were cobbled together by my peers — precocious but essentially clueless high school kids. Spicer brought a rare maturity to fanzines that had been conspicuously absent. His editorial direction was less fanboyish and more professional; that is, he and his writers —among whom were John Benson and Richard Kyle— focused less on characters and more on individual cartoonists and in a far more searching way than most other “fan” writers of the time. GSM pioneered long, probing interviews (with such artists as Alex Toth and Will Gould) which was mostly a matter of asking intelligently conceived questions — or at least of avoiding the usual cretinous fanboy idolatry that wasted so many opportunities.

If there is a fourth name to add to this list of critical heroes, it would be Gil Kane. One cannot overstate how significant his 1969 interview in Alter Ego (conducted by Benson) was to those of us floundering around trying to make some critical sense of comics. I’ve spoken to literally dozens of people over the years who read that interview when it was originally published and they all had pretty much the same reaction:  Kane’s was a jaw-droppingly invigorating way of looking at comics. He took the only intelligent path a critical mind could given the comics he had to work with; he dismissed the scripting out of hand and focused on the distinctive but theretofore recondite visual virtues of specific artists. He articulated what many of us impressionistically loved about Jack Kirby and John Severin and Alex Toth but couldn’t put into words — or even into cohesive thought. He provided a ray of hope that comics could indeed be admired without abandoning one’s brains.

Kyle wrote a column called “Graphic Story Review” in GSM, and in 1971 began publishing a newsletter devoted to news and critical commentary of comics called Graphic Story World, which he somewhat inexplicably re-titled Wonderworld in 1973. This was a miraculous extension of Graphic Story Magazine (which had by then either ceased publication altogether or drastically slowed down its periodicity), full of literate reviews, news, essays, and discussions. It was also the first time a fan magazine devoted energy and space to covering international comics. Here was a handful of serious comics fans who focused on the better mainstream comics, underground comix, European (and even Japanese) comics, newspaper strips (past and, occasionally, present) — and saw the potential of a medium whose potential had barely been scratched. In an early issue of Wonderworld, Kyle summed up his evangelical editorial stance:

For as long as we have lived, there have been men and women who have tried to see beyond the commonplace. They have been called dreamers, and their visions have been labeled “fantasies.”

But the greatest fantasies of all are those accepted by the believers in the commonplace, where the sun circles about an earth as flat as a tabletop, travel to the moon is impossible — and nothing can live on dry land, out of the primal sea. The commonplace world is built of iron fantasies, a place where yesterday was always better.

In the commonplace world, all new arts are trash. In Elizabethan times, it was commonplace to say that Shakespeare’s theatre was trash. And then it was the novel’s turn: the novel, they said, was trash. And then the film came along. First it was the silent film, and the commonplace was that it was trash — until the sound film emerged. Then the silent film suddenly became an art, as the theatre and the novel had, and it was the sound movie that was trash. Today, all film is becoming art. What’s trash today, then? Comics, of course. But now that the newspaper strip is ailing, the commonplace is that it may be art. Those comic book stories, though, they’re surely trash…

But the limits of the wonderworld are reality, not the fantasy reality the commonplace world of every age creates for itself, but reality — the real universe in which we live, whose dimensions remain still unknown and virtually unexplored, vast beyond all but our imaginations. Like all the arts, the graphic story is a tool, a way of seeing into the real world, a deeper extension of our senses, and it has a destiny.

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10 Responses to “Welcome to TCJ.com and Oh, By the Way, A Brief History of Comics Criticism While I’m At It”

  1. Bhob says:

    A good summary, but a few points:

    The correct title of my 1953 publication was THE EC FAN BULLETIN. Gaines saw the promotional possibilities and added a word, so his promo newsletter was titled THE EC FAN-ADDICT BULLETIN. He invited me to be a “contributing editor” but never used the article I sent him while I was a junior in high school.

    I wouldn’t say that Dick Lupoff “dabbled in comics”. When I met him he was dressed as Captain Marvel! Woody Gelman, in 1961 or 1962, asked him to write something about Fawcett. XERO was designed like an Ace double with two covers; one was sf, with the comics cover on the other side leading into the major comics article. Dick also was involved in several meetings that led to the creation of the first comic book convention.

    You left out Larry Stark, an unfortunate oversight. THE EC FAN BULLETIN’s emphasis was on news rather than criticism. I knew that Larry, who had just graduated from Rutgers, wrote these long letters of criticism to Bill Gaines, and I thought he should reach a wider audience, so in 1954 I created POTRZEBIE (mimeod by Ted White) with the concept that it was not a fanzine but a literary magazine which would mainly feature Larry’s critical insights. As the flip side of Wertham, Larry was the first true comics critic.

    Bhob @ Potrzebie: http://potrzebie.blogspot.com

  2. […] Fantagraphics/TCJ honcho Gary Groth steps onto the balcony of his stronghold to to address the throng and gives a very cogent history of comics criticism while he’s at it: You know why you’re […]

  3. DerikB says:

    “…I noticed a handful of truly discriminating critics emerging on the web (Robert Martin, Dan Nadel, Bill Randall, Charles Hatfield come to mind), but I never quite knew when they would appear or where…”

    I don’t know about Martin, but Randall, Hatfield, and Nadel all have blogs where they post content or links to their content. You subscribe to their blogs (RSS or email) and then you don’t have to go looking.

    One reason it’d be nice if this site made a little more use of the potential for RSS feeds. WordPress makes it super easy.

  4. Gary Groth says:

    I knew there was someone I’d forgotten among those early EC readers and, yes, it was Larry Stark, who was indeed a significant critical catalyst of the time. Thanks to Bhob for pointing that out.

  5. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Robert Martin has a lovely blog.

  6. Domingos says:

    I’m sorry, but I don’t agree with the title. Shouldn’t it be “Welcome to TCJ.com and Oh, By the Way, A Brief History of Comics Fandom While I’m At It?”

  7. […] way of introducing the New Comic Journal website, Gary Groth offers a brief history of comics […]

  8. WLLilly says:

    So , Gary…I assume the Zhu Zhu Pets Hamsters are all sold out in Seattle then ?

  9. Russ Maheras says:

    Nice essay.

  10. R.C. Harvey says:

    “Seriousness isn’t what it used to be” (if it ever was). I admire the phrase (which is actually a clause, for those grammarians still reading). And I also admire the thought it introduces. But it seems to me that your admittedly cursory review of the history of comics criticism has left aside a vital ingredient–namely, the fragments of comics’ past upon which so much discerning criticism must, in one way or another, rest. I’m surprised, for instance, that you left Jules Feiffer out; his superhero book of the early 1960s was a trail-blazer. Ditto the reprint volumes Woody Gelman produced at about the same time. Without the latter, would we ever have unearthed Alex Raymond in sufficient quantity to truly appreciate his achievement? Without the former, would Plastic Man and Jack Cole remain forever buried in the past? Probably not (for both) but Feiffer and Gelman gave us a good head start.
    On another tack, I’ve usually thought of criticism as a way of enhancing appreciation–not as a cause or a crusade. Still, I enjoyed the ramble.