A Ramble Through the History of Comics Criticism

Posted by on October 18th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

The Comics Journal passed its 30th anniversary not so long ago, and I intended to take note of it by reviewing the book I’m going to review here. Serious criticism of comics may have gone forward without the Journal, but it’s difficult to know where. The only other periodical devoted regularly to the comics was, back then — 30 years ago — the Comics Buyer’s Guide, but it was then and is now essentially a cheerleader for the industry, not a critic of any of it. And ivy-covered walls would likely not be much help in fostering a serious comics criticism for general consumption: Academia has a penchant for drowning itself in self-indulgent obscurities in prose and thought. Like much theoretical scholarly endeavor, exploration of this sort is useful in its own peculiar, trickle-down way: Some of it legitimizes the art form as it eventually filters through to popular criticism, and, hence, to the makers of comics, thereby influencing not only the cultural acceptance of comics but the ways comics are made. But academic criticism is not intended for a general readership. Or even a “fan readership.” No, it took Gary Groth and the Journal to kick-start serious critical writing about the comics. But we’d be mistaken if we believed there was no serious criticism before the Journal. There was. A good bit of it.

David Manning White and Robert H. Abel collected almost two dozen essays about cartooning and comics in 1963 for their The Funnies: An American Idiom, including pieces by actual practitioners of the art, Al Capp, Walt Kelly, and Allen Saunders. And there were also a few sprouts of theoretical writing about the comics in magazines and journals now too fugitive to be readily at hand for consultation. In 2004, though, someone cobbled together an ingenious compilation of long lost scholarly and critical essays on the cartooning medium, Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium (200 6×9-inch pages in paperback, $22, from the University Press of Mississippi).

The ingenuity is that of the editors, Kent Worcester and Jeet Heer, who combed vast quantities of magazines and journals from 1895 to 1972 to unearth these gems of furtive admiration or thundering condemnation from the likes of Thomas Mann, Gilbert Seldes, E.E. Cummings, Dorothy Parker, Robert Warshow, Walter Ong, Marshall McLuhan, Gershon Legman, Leslie Fiedler, Umberto Eco, and a dozen more. This is a genuinely bright idea. Someone should have had this notion a long time ago.

Worcester and Heer aim to “recover” the incidental critical writings about comics by “influential reviewers and critics — literary masters, if you will — who wrote on comics during the long epoch between the introduction of cheaply printed images and the consolidation of popular culture studies.” Interviewed by Tom Spurgeon, Heer said they looked for articles that “(1) appeared in general interest magazines or books rather than specialized academic tomes, (2) were written by writers of some accomplishment, and (3) appeared between 1890 and the 1960s.” He elaborated: “General-interest writing is preferable because it’s engaged in a public debate rather than addressed to a particular field or discipline.” He acknowledged that discussion of comics existed before 1890, but “the intensity of the debate changed once comics became part of the fabric of daily life” as comic strips in daily newspapers. They ended their search for appropriate essays with the 1960s because after 1960, “the terms of the debate change and you start seeing critics who specialize in comics, in both fandom and the academy.”

The earliest published opinions about comics tended to be influenced by a literary bent that “objected to any effort to place commercial images on an equal footing with text.” In short, to the literary-minded, words were superior to pictures, and, in fact, pictures could pervert words. The earliest critic they quote is Sidney Fairfield, who wrote in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine for June 1895, taking the illustrator to task for “perverting” the “facts” (the text) by exaggerating. “He makes effects; he does not inform.” For Fairfield, the illustrator cannot add anything to “the well-developed characterizations of our successful novelists.” If the illustrator does not commit “a literary crime” by distorting the effects of a writer’s prose, then he is likely to take his cue “for a picture from some such inadequate and puerile suggestion as that conveyed in the familiar climax of love stories: ‘And she fell on his breast and wept tears of unutterable joy.'”

Through much of the serious thinking and writing about cartooning, this anti-image bias prevails. Talking with Spurgeon, Heer said: “I think especially in the Anglo-American culture, there is strong distrust of visual culture, particularly in its popular vulgar form. This goes back, I think, to the Reformation. Catholicism made its arguments through visual media like architecture (think of all those great cathedrals), painting (the Sistine chapel), and stained glass windows. Reacting against this, Protestants argued that truth resides in words alone: Only reading the Bible can give you truth. To the Protestant mind, pictures are always suspect — babbles to confuse children and the weak-minded. This attitude, secularized in the 19th century, is the undercurrent of most hostility towards comics (and cognate art forms like film). Combined is a general suspicion of popular culture as debased and dehumanizing. Of course, if you read a lot of the crappy comics of the past, you realized that there was ample evidence to support this point of view.”

I’m not so sure about trundling in the Reformation to make the case, but Heer’s point is demonstratively valid from daily experience without invoking Papal authority: Pictures in this culture aren’t serious; words are — the longer and the more of them, the better.

The essays in the book are divided into three sections more-or-less chronologically, beginning with “Early Twentieth-Century Voices” (roughly everything before the 1940s), then “The New York Intellectuals” (1940s) and “The Postwar Mavericks” (1950s and 1960s), the most recent by Don Phelps, whose writings yielded two for this compilation, both 1969. Each section is introduced by the editors, who provide some helpful orienting context for the essays to follow.

By the 1920s, comics had joined jazz as artistic phenomena worthy of serious critical attention, and Worcester and Heer reprint all of Gilbert Seldes’ celebrated essay, “The Krazy Kat That Walks by Himself” from his 1924 book, The Seven Lively Arts. From this once-provocative tome, we have been extracting Seldes’ Krazy essay for years, claiming it is the first serious critical endorsement of cartooning as an art form. Oddly, another Seldes essay in the 1924 volume, “The ‘Vulgar’ Comic Strip,” has, as far as I know, never been reprinted. And it isn’t in the Worcester-Heer tome either.

In that essay, Seldes allows that the comic strip “is the most despised and with the exception of the movies it is the most popular… of all the lively arts.” He looks, briefly, at several of the 1920s crop — The Gumps, Bringing Up Father (aka Jiggs and Maggie), Mutt and Jeff, Jerry on the Job, The Hallroom Boys, Happy Hooligan, and a couple of other favorites of the day that have since sunk without a trace into the bog of forgetfulness. Says Seldes: “The comic strip has been from the start a satirist of manners; remembering that it arrived at the same time as the Chicago World’s Fair (1893), recalling the clothes, table manners and conversation of those days, it is easy to see how the murmured satiric commentary of the comic strip undermined our self-sufficiency, pricked our conceit, and corrected our gaucherie…. I am convinced that none of our realists in fiction come so close to the facts of the average man, none of our satirists are so gentle and so effective.”

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3 Responses to “A Ramble Through the History of Comics Criticism”

  1. Matthias Wivel says:

    Nice overview, thanks!

    The Seven Lively Arts (1954 ed.) can be read in its entirety here.

  2. Jeet Heer1 says:

    Bob: thanks for the thoughtful overview. For the record, Seldes’s essay “The ‘Vulgar’ Comic Strip” has been reprinted several times and is available in A Comics Studies Reader, the follow-up to Arguing Comics that Kent and I did. Ideally, if a reader is interested in Arguing Comics they should also want to have A Comics Studies Reader as a companion volume since it shows the evolution of comics criticism in the last few years.

  3. rocketcrow says:

    Thanks very much for your review. I wanted to mention that I am using “Arguing Comics” as the textbook for the course I am teaching at the University of Victoria, called “History of Comic Book Art.” I found it to be the best intro to comics criticism in one book. My hat’s off to the editors, Jet Heer and Kent Worcester!

    Peter Sandmark