A Ramble Through the History of Comics Criticism

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

The origin of Seldes’ book reveals that its connection with comics is even more intimate than the two essays on the subject suggest. The 1957 edition modifies the original in two ways. First, Seldes has added comments to most of the chapters to reflect later developments; but the original text remains unaltered. Secondly, “for the historically minded,” he has supplied an Introduction in which he explains that he first voiced the idea for the book in 1922 after witnessing “one of the last performances of one of Al Jolson’s weakest stage shows.” But he also reveals that another theatrical production in February of the same year was more a propos his book and its purpose. This was a ballet based upon George Herriman’s strip: Krazy Kat: A Jazz Pantomime, a theatrical extravaganza by John Alden Carpenter. “The ballet was enchanting,” Seldes writes. “The scenery, by Herriman, unrolled like a sideways roller-towel; the scenario was a distillation of a hundred strips.”

He continues: “In a way, the Krazy Kat ballet demonstrated both the essence and the eccentricity of what I was going to be doing for several years. My theme was to be that entertainment of a high order existed in places not usually associated with Art, that the place where an object was to be seen or heard had no bearing on its merits, that some of Jerome Kern’s songs in the ‘Princess’ shows were lovelier than any number of operatic airs and that a comic strip printed on news pulp which would tatter and rumple in a day might be as worthy of a second look as a considerable number of canvasses at most of our museums.”

Seldes wrote the book while in Paris, and the entire thing, all 22 chapters of it on the gamut of the “lively arts,” was written “from memory” — except, he adds, for a folio of Krazy Kat strips and a few clippings. No other “notes, data or documentation.”

Most of the Introduction Seldes devotes to explaining how, in seeking to champion the popular arts, he had inadvertently set up a rivalry between the arts — the “lively” ones and the rest, which might be termed “dull” or, even, “dead.” In the ensuing confusion, which lasted for decades, it was supposed that Seldes was attacking the “great arts” or the “fine arts.” But, no, that was not his purpose. The “enemy” Seldes intended to attack, he said (at last), was the pretentious “high class trash” art that achieved its status by imitating the great styles. The Introduction attempts to eliminate the other great confusion of the book. The “seven” in the title alludes to the classical “seven arts,” but the book itself doesn’t clearly enumerate seven. “You could make seven,” Seldes helpfully notes, if you counted feature movies and Keystone comedies as one of the arts; or “you could make 10 if you counted all the forms of music separately. I never took a position on the matter,” he concludes, singularly unhelpful.

The chapter on the Keystone Comedies of Mack Sennett is perhaps more helpful in understanding Seldes’ critical stance. D.W. Griffith and Thomas Ince, Seldes writes, “were both developing the technique of the moving picture [by] exploiting their discoveries with materials equally or better suited to another medium — the stage or the dime novel or whatever. Whereas Mr. Sennett was already so enamoured of his craft that he was doing with the instruments of the moving picture precisely those things which were best suited to it — those things which could not be done with any instrument but the [motion picture] camera, and could appear nowhere if not on the screen. This does not mean that nothing but slap-stick comedy is proper to the cinema; it means only that everything in slap-stick is cinematographic; and since perceiving a delicate adjustment of means to end, or a proper relation between method and material, is a source of pleasure, Mr. Sennett’s developments were more capable of pleasing the judicious than those of either of his two fellow workers.”

After describing the usual hilarities of a chase scene with “the immortal Keystone cops in their flivver, mowing down hundreds of telegraph poles without abating their speed, dashing through houses or losing their wheels” in the typical Keystone Comedy, Seldes goes on to observe that “everything capable of motion [is] set into motion; and at the height of the revel, the true catastrophe, the solution of the preposterous and forgotten drama, with the lovers united under the canopy of smashed motor cars or the gay feet of Mr. Chaplin gently twinkling down the irised street. And all of this is done with the camera, through action presented to the eye.”

Seldes could be me, writing about the visual-verbal blend that is cartooning. Both of us take a medium’s essential characteristic as the basis for artistic achievement and critical assessment. Just as in motion pictures, motion is the medium, so in comics the blend of its basic ingredients, words and pictures, is the medium.

After Seldes, Worcester and Heer leap into the 1940s with Dorothy Parker’s “mash note to Crockett Johnson” (about the celebrated comic strip Barnaby), Clement Greenberg’s appreciations of William Steig and Britain’s David Low, and, into the 1950s, Robert Warshow’s notable essay about horror comics and Fredric Wertham, to mention a few. Manny Farber’s 1951 piece for The Nation seems a virtual echo of Seldes:

“Top comic strip artists (funereal-faced craftsmen who draw with their hats on) 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 the art world.” He concludes: “Good or bad, uphill or down, comic strips are read by sixty or seventy million daily devotees. They satisfy a demand for inventiveness, energetic drawing, and a roughneck enthusiasm for life that other plastic arts cannot meet.”

By the late 1940s, Worcester-Heer say, “the bulk of comics-related commentary [was] alarmist,” concentrating on comic books that such critics as Sterling North called “a poisonous mushroom growth” foisted on the public by “completely immoral publishers guilty of a cultural slaughter of the innocents” — “a national disgrace.” Aside from such brief quotes as these in their introduction, Worcester and Heer don’t use any of what North wrote. But they include cullings from the nefariously over-the-top critic Gershon Legman and selections from the much more restrained (but sometimes alarmist) Walter Ong. “Legman read and adopted Ong’s critique of superhero comics as fascist genre” and in his Love and Death created “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,” as Don Phelps puts it. Ong is represented by two essays, one of which, from 1941, castigates the use of Mickey Mouse-inspired “mascots” by military units during WWII because they mask the serious purposes of war; but in the other, from 1951, Ong finds redeeming virtue in Walt Kelly’s Pogo.

While an anti-picture prejudice runs through many of the essays collected here, by the 1950s or so, many of the critics find art where their predecessors have found only rubbish. Or, at least, they are willing to concede that cartoonists might be producing, some of the time, art as well as entertainment.

Mentioning the White-Abel volume a few paragraphs ago reminded me that I have often discovered in that 1963 book theoretical notions and scraps of history that I thought I’d brought out into the light for the first time myself much more recently after hours of painstaking digging and clawing around in ancient tomes and papyruses. Nothing new under the sun, as they say. But maybe we ought to be able to get at White-Abel more easily: Maybe all of it should be reprinted by some ambitious publisher eager to do Good Works. And while we’re at it, let’s bring back for an encore William Murrell’s two-volume History of American Graphic Humor (1933 and 1938); it, like the White-Abel book, contains much history and some theory that we seem to be re-inventing in a great huff these days. With these books at hand, easily accessible on every shelf, we could save ourselves a tubful of effort that we might devote to unearthing genuinely undiscovered treasure.

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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