TCJ 300: Funnybook Roulette

Posted by on December 28th, 2009 at 2:44 AM


The Experience of Comics

From Girls and Boys, by and ©1979 Lynda Barry.

So here we are, with enough issues of The Comics Journal to hold off the Persians. I joined the hoplites in #52, dated December 1979, God help us. The medium was on the verge of being reborn but you might just as easily have thought you were watching something dying. Newspaper comic strips had come to operate on the slave-ship principle, jamming as many as possible into a severely proscribed space without much concern as to whether they had room to breathe, and the only thing that was going to change from that day to this was that the ship was going to start sinking. If you wanted to read comics on a regular basis you mostly had to read them in 32-page saddle-stitched comics magazines printed on newsprint, published by a handful of publishers who owned all the contents outright, subject to the censorship regime consciously designed to reduce them to pabulum and sold on newsstands to a readership assumed by their retailers to be below the age of 13. Once a comic book had reached its cover date, far into the future though that tended to be, the only way to read it was as a back issue, or catch-as-catch-can in a reprint comic, which had a cover date as well. Collections of old newspaper comics, which were few in number to begin with, were similarly one-and-done affairs; one edition you couldn’t afford, a remainder that you might if you were in time, and then you had to search the used-book stores. There was no part of this model that some party to the enterprise didn’t want to escape. Attempts were rife. The publishers of National Lampoon were trying to sell French science-fiction comics to an adult readership in Heavy Metal, and Marvel was trying to imitate the format just in case it worked. The last attempt to maintain underground comics in their original form, a syndication scheme by Rip Off Press, was still under way but doomed. Despite this, mainstream comics creators were looking to the underground-comics model to give them ownership of their creations, freedom from censorship and better reproduction of their work, which is a measure of their desperation. The first viable comics on this model, Cerebus and Elfquest, were taking baby steps. The first alternative-weekly comics, notably Lynda Barry’s Ernie Pook’s Comeek, started about the same time. A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that Harvey Pekar was out of his mind. Mario Hernandez was looking at punk zines and wondering if you could publish a comic book that way. Françoise Mouly had bought a printing press. As the rain fell, a crazy man with a beard was building a vessel he said would carry everyone to safety. It was called a comics shop.

These attempts to remake the medium were ahead of their time, but they weren’t far ahead of their time. A typical example of the phenomenon was The Hyperion Library of Classic American Comic Strips, edited by Bill Blackbeard and published by Hyperion Press (not the same Hyperion that is now a part of the Disney empire). Reprints of classic newspaper comics up to this point had either been one-shot coffee-table books or bootleg affairs from companies like Pacific Comics Club, which was purportedly based in Tahiti. The Hyperion Library meant to change all that. In ambition and scope, it was unprecedented and remains unmatched. The first wave comprised 22 volumes featuring the work of cartoonists such as George Herriman, Winsor McCay, Elzie Segar, Cliff Sterrett, Rube Goldberg, Bud Fisher, Frank Godwin and Harry Hershfield. The goal was complete sequential collections and it included what are still the only significant sequential collections of Percy Crosby’s Skippy and Billy DeBeck’s Barney Google. The first wave was the last wave, and even now the first wave seems a wonder all on its own. It’s a measure of the quixotic nature of the enterprise that while some volumes now sell for hundreds of dollars, others can be had for near cover price. The Hyperion Library demonstrated two things. One was that you couldn’t spontaneously develop a market that would sustain this material by casting it upon the waters. Another was that when you don’t have a market that will sustain this material, one way to make at least a little bit available is for some benevolent fool to cast it upon the waters.

From “Soul of an Artist” in The Tomb of Dracula Magazine #3, written by Marv Wolfman, penciled by Gene Colan and inked by Tom Palmer; ©1980 Marvel Characters, Inc.

When I began writing, the comics I liked the best were, in order of preference, classic newspaper comics, underground comics, what I would call the true golden age of commercial comics from the end of World War II to the mid-’50s (which encompasses Will Eisner, Carl Barks, John Stanley, Harvey Kurtzman and EC generally — with a bit of stretching, Jack Cole, and if you can’t stretch for Jack Cole who can you stretch for?) and Marvel comics. Of those, I only had significant access to undergrounds and Marvel. For the others, I was limited to tantalizing samplings, and much of my writing over the first 10 years or so was either promoting what had been re-released or lobbying for more. In Marvel comics, the thing I liked least was the thing most people think of when you say Marvel comics. I had no stomach at all for the superhero-with-problems. I had the same attitude toward that kind of self-pity as the recovering drunk has for alcohol, for much the same reasons. (This is also the origin of the frankly ridiculous animus I’ve expressed toward Peanuts and Charles Schulz over the years.) My favorite superhero was Thor, mostly because not even a comic-book writer can pretend that a sane person given a choice between being a cripple and being a god is going to choose being a cripple. As a superhero and as a god, Thor was like a college professor who can’t be bothered to teach classes; he didn’t seem to have much interest in what was happening on Earth or in being worshipped by anybody who lived there. Aside from that, I would follow the nihilists — Prince Namor and the Incredible Hulk, for instance. But mostly what I was following was anything that tried to stray out of the superhero fold, like Howard the Duck, Tomb of Dracula, Conan the Barbarian (all of which could be said to be on the nihilist team, as well), the Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations they were doing for a while, even Star Wars comics.

My attitude toward the escape attempts I described above might be described as sympathetically defeatist. It seemed to me that the common thread between the attempts to renew comics was imminent failure, that, whatever their faults, the commercial publishers had the virtue of viability, and the main hope was to recover the creative vitality commercial comics had in the 1950s. I saw some potential for this in the early work of Frank Miller and Alan Moore. As it turned out, this was the least realistic theory, and one that kept me consistently behind the curve of what was developing in the art form for quite some time. The good thing about being a disappointed defeatist is that you can console yourself for being wrong with an unexpected victory.

A question that has occupied my mind ever since I began writing about comics: “Why would a grown man read comic books?” I was never satisfied with the conventional answer, which had to do with the potential of the medium to be a great art form. While it does have that potential, and part of the reason to champion the medium is to give it the prestige it would need to one day attract the caliber of artist that could fulfill it, the potential doesn’t explain why you’re reading them now. You don’t eat hot dogs because you think they’re going to turn into steak someday. While there are comic strips that rise to the level of high art, you can count them on the fingers of one hand, and they constitute a very small part of what you’d value in comics. That many of the comics most worthy of an adult’s attention were created for preadolescent children makes the question all the more pertinent.

From V.T. Hamlin’s Oct. 8, 1948 Alley Oop strip.

In Anglo-American culture at least, comics are something you’re expected to outgrow, whereas you’re not expected to outgrow popular music or movies. I actually did outgrow them, at about the age you’re supposed to, and I am at a loss at this date to recall what drew me back to them. I don’t think you’d be willing to face the stigma of reading comics as an adult unless you perceived some particular value in them. We think about them and write about them because we perceive we like them not in the way we like, say, chocolate ice cream or pictures of naked women, but because they mean something to us that we can’t readily define.

The question crystallized in my mind when I was reading one of my favorite comic strips, V.T. Hamlin’s Alley Oop, and I realized that I enjoyed it more than the content could account for. It’s hard to imagine another medium in which this bizarre mélange of cave men and time travel would seem anything other than idiotic unless the public had been prepared for it by a famous comic strip, and you could say the same for most of the newspaper-strip canon. On the surface, Dick Tracy was a police procedural written by a man with a weak grasp of police procedure, Li’l Abner was adept at giving the appearance of satire without actually satirizing anything specific, Little Orphan Annie was potted Victorian melodrama, Wash Tubbs an inquiry into Ruritanian political science, Terry and the Pirates a jingoistic fever dream of exotic places, and so on down the line. And yet my aesthetic response to it was not one of consuming empty cultural calories. What I realized is that the most important thing we get out of comics is the experience of comics, which is not the tautology it seems. What I mean by the experience of comics is the subjective universe the cartoonist creates, the way he makes it operate, and the way he visually conveys its inner life. No other art form is quite like it in this respect. A painting is a subjective universe far richer and deeper than any comic strip in its one frame, but in comparison, it’s a snapshot of its universe where a comic strip is a travelogue. Regardless of how vividly a writer of fiction describes things he does not define what every individual object looks like. When Uncle Remus tells you about Br’er Fox you conjure him out of your own mental image of a fox, unless an illustrator has drawn a picture for you. Regardless of how stylized the props might be, a motion picture still consists of taking pictures of things; the exception is animated cartoons, which are essentially comic strips at 24 frames per second. The closest thing to comics is music, which is not narrative in the way a comic strip is. Primitive man assumed that everything around him animate and inanimate was endowed with consciousness just as he was. The comic strip recreates this primitive world of human imagination, and, if the cartoonist is sufficiently inspired, it can transcend a trivial conceptual vessel. On one level, you read Dick Tracy as a suspenseful narrative, on another as a trip inside a tortured soul.

This view of what comics do has been complicated by the revolution in content that has taken place over the last 40 years. Comics became art the way a volcano becomes an island. On the mainland all was commercial, all was presumptively juvenile and all was under strict control. Suddenly out in the sea, where the desire to use the medium as a means of self-expression lay buried under the deep, there’s an eruption that continues until the volcano breaks the surface and becomes a small island. It spews mightily for a while then subsides, and though there’s always a bit of bubbling at the top, the volcano is to all appearances extinct. Rather than going out the bubbling continues and strengthens. This time you have no great eruption but a slow steady accretion, until you notice that the island is larger and better established than it was before, and shows no sign of stopping.

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2 Responses to “TCJ 300: Funnybook Roulette”

  1. patford says:

    It’s interesting that aside from comic books until fairly recent times cartoons as film and as print were created primarily for adults.
    Newspaper comics were created to be read by adults. Most theatrical cartoons from the 30’s until the 60’s were created for adults.
    The early Disney features weren’t created for children, the Looney-Tunes shorts were created for adults.
    Looking at the popular movies of today it’s a wonder anyone would question why an adult would read a comic book. A better question might be,”Why do adults go to super hero movies, action movies, and sophomoric comedies?”
    Good stories created for children have always been appreciated by people of all ages if they are well done. The Christmas season reminds us of a perfect example. The Seuss/Jones Grinch cartoon is well liked by almost everyone. It’s a gem, near flawless in every way. The Seuss book the cartoon is adapted from was written for children, and the cartoon follows it closely, but an adult can enjoy the cartoon, even see it as a classic. It’s a children’s story which has greater depth of thought than the slapstick Chuck Jones Looney-Tunes cartoons which were made primarily for adults, although enjoyed by children.
    Like the Grinch another Christmas TV special, was the first Peanuts cartoon. Unlike the Seuss/Jones Grinch the Peanuts cartoon was written for adults (as was the Schulz comic strip), but is appreciated by small children.
    The depth of a piece of work really has nothing to do with the vocabulary list being employed by the author. The maturity of a work has nothing to do with the “adult content” it might contain.
    It all comes down to one thing for me. It’s the creator who interests me. Is the creator a thoughtful, sincere, interesting, person who has something he wants to say, and does he say it well. If you have a creator who is interested in telling stories, then who that creator is, and how he thinks will fill up his work even if it’s an adventure strip, or a super hero comic book.

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