Comics and Childhood: An Overview

Posted by on September 24th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

 

 

All of these characters have slowly adapted themselves to different generations of adolescent readers and in some cases have been carried over to film and/or television series. In addition, all manner of superhero-themed paraphernalia, including children’s toys, children’s underwear, bed sheets, towels, sports equipment for children, costumes, kitchenware, etc., have been sold on the basis of these characters’ appeal. The iconography of the superheroes drives and decorates the aesthetic coordinates of childhood “stuff.” It is perhaps because I was from Spain that the culture of the U.S. superheroes was never that alluring to me. My neighbors, however, read the stories of those heroes and their super powers day in and day out. Even the way the heroes dressed seemed a bit strange to me, almost ridiculous. The only one I let off the hook was The Phantom, who didn’t wear a cloak — not because his purple outfit didn’t seem ridiculous because of course it did, but because I liked his girlfriend Diana Palmer. She was smart and had a much stronger personality than the girlfriends of the other superheroes. But The Phantom wasn’t a superhero because he didn’t have super powers; in addition, he was a product of newspapers at the end of the 1930s, not a member of the DC or Marvel comic books family. My friends were purists, and I limited myself to being an “uninformed” eclectic reader captivated by the classic tradition of the daily strips. I made no formal distinctions between the kind of stories or the kind of format. I read everything with the naive pleasure of those who appreciate good stories and good drawings with no concrete bias and no specific pedagogical guidelines. I loved for example, the complex plots of the comics laden with a certain epic quality. When I was 10, I was a passionate reader of the volumes that gathered the adventures of Prince Valiant, created as a comic strip by Hal Foster in 1937. Forty years after appearing on the scene those strips had become part of the canon and had found a place among the thickest volumes on my parents’ bookshelves. Each vignette was a visual pleasure, even if at times horrible battle scenes with swords were depicted. What’s more, there were fascinating damsels who were queens, women who had autonomous and well-defined characters within the structure of the squabbles at court. No one explained to me what marked good childhood reading of comics. I know my father hid the underground and other adult comics in a safe spot, but he left the classics, the young-adult comics, science-fiction comics, superhero comics, the funny ones and the adventure comics all within my reach; they were part and parcel of my varied reading experiences as a child.

The latest U.S.P.S. homage to comics is in 2010, centering on the Sunday funnies, where many of the figures are represented on 44¢ stamps. Archie, created by Bob Montana but also drawn by Dan DeCarlo and others could be described as the idealized portrait of American adolescence at the end of the ’40s, and one that has survived for decades. While it is more known in comic-book format, it has also appeared in newspapers. I never read Archie as a child, and I must confess that when I arrived to the States the strip didn’t particularly catch my attention. When I started to work on adult comics by the Hernandez Brothers, the two Latino artists who revolutionized alternative comics, they spoke fervently about Archie as one of their childhood favorites and the aesthetic influence DeCarlo’s drawings had on them. Another celebrated character in the stamp collection is Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace, the 5-year old boy who appeared in 1951 as a single-panel gag to later be adapted over time to cartoon and film format. These vignettes of Dennis were also key in the literary and aesthetic education of the Hernandez Brothers.

 

 

Bill Watterson, another author whose work has found its way into the childhood mindscape, but also into adult popularity with his series Calvin and Hobbes is honored as well. Calvin. The syndicated strip was published between November 1985 and December 1995, but the adventures of the six-year old Calvin and his stuffed tiger Hobbes have been re-edited in a variety of book and other formats. I have immersed myself in the world of Bill Watterson as an adult, but I also recognize that his strips inspire a certain type of affection in me that identifies with my childhood feelings. All of these comics-related stamps reflect a key aspect of the mass culture created in the twentieth century. It’s a culture of entertainment, which nevertheless does not have to be at odds with learning and the imagination. The characters tell us stories and show us their worlds, stimulating our perceptive capabilities. Good comics are remarkable pedagogical instruments and can facilitate the development of a love of reading in children.

In my opinion, the most impressive examples of child protagonists portrayed in a syndicated comic strip are Charlie Brown, his dog Snoopy and their collection of friends. The world of Peanuts, created by Charles Schulz in 1950 as a daily strip has evolved into an entire empire of products for children. Peanuts maintains a dialog with an adult reader who empathizes with the existential angst of the characters, but at the same time children have their own interpretation of the universe created by Schulz. The strip has expanded into books, films and musicals generated for children. All types of subject matter appear in the strip: the metaphysical world of Charlie Brown, contrasting with the relaxed character of Snoopy, the delicate character of Charlie Brown’s friend Linus, Lucy’s sarcasm, Peppermint Patty’s cynical humor, and the musical obsessions of Schroeder.

 

 

The Walt Disney world has also had a considerable impact on the production of comic books. Most noteworthy are the adventures of Donald Duck, under the direction of Carl Barks between April 1943 and March 1965. While he remained the anonymous artist of the Donald Duck folios for quite some time, we owe the invention of Uncle Scrooge McDuck to him in December of 1947. As with Tintin, the adventures that appear in Barks’ Duck comic books reflect the ideological attitudes of the period, which has resulted in some controversy over the colonialist values transmitted in the stories. Nevertheless, when we were children we all read the adventures of Donald Duck and his nephews, or those of Mickey Mouse, in the little books that were sold in the kiosks on the street corners, and we accepted quite naturally the inconsistencies of the world in which they lived.

Bone by Jeff Smith is a new U.S. classic for children. It narrates the story of the three Bone cousins exiled from their homeland. As they try to find their way back home they encounter all manner of secret, sinister forces. Their contact with humans strengthens thanks to their friendship with a young girl named Thorn and her grandmother Ben. The epic adventures of Fone Bone, Smiley Bone and Phoney Bone first appeared in 1991 as a series in black and white. They later evolved and adapted to the market by incorporating color. Bone is now a series gathered in nine volumes that assemble 12 years of work. It doesn’t matter that I discovered them in a tiny comic-book store in Columbus, Ohio, during the mid-’90s. It doesn’t matter that I wasn’t that engrossed little girl any more, that I was an adult who had lost her innocence, because Bone’s comics made me laugh just as hard as I did when I was a child. They allow me to return, if just for an instant, to the magic of my parent’s home.

 

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3 Responses to “Comics and Childhood: An Overview”

  1. Jeff Albertson says:

    Thank you ,for this, Ana. I share all of these comics memories with you.

    Alas, I fear that small kids just don’t read comics as a matter of course any more…

  2. WLLilly says:

    …Daily and Sunday newspaper strips in the Hearst NEW YORK JOURNAL-AMERICAN , which my father brought home when his jornalism job had him on more or less a standard 9-5 , were among my earliest…

  3. WLLilly says:

    …( cont. ) , if not my earliest , comics exposures .
    I saw the ” nicer ” NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE at least , some , too .
    I recall LITTLE IODINE , and I guess THEY’LL DO IT EVERY TIME , being in the J-A . The H-T had PEANUTS and PENNY .
    My father had worked for a Hears paper , in his earlier years , when he still worked on business towards newspapers proper , as had my mother…
    I seem to recall Little Iodine as a daily , but references say that it was a Sunday-only . Whatever .
    The two papers I mentioned merger with another into the WORLD JOURNAL TRIBUNE , which didn’t last very long , and maybe some of my comics memories come from that paper…I recall HI AND LOIS causing me to switch to calling my parents ” Mom ” and ” Dad ” , like Chip !!!!!!!!!
    We also had home-delivered the Westchester County daily , which diod not publish a Sunday .
    DENNIS THE MENACE ? MUTT & JEFF ? I recall POPEYE being in it , but dropped when I was about 6 and I never saw it again except when thumbing past the Sunday of the Spanish EL DAIRIO .
    I saw comic books too , including those d*mm*d super-hero ones , as much as the Journal demographic might perfer to have me ( and themselves ) not do so !!!!!!!!!!!
    But more on that later…Maybe .
    After the WJT went under – My father bought o copy of their last Suinday and put it away in a trunk but we were never able to find it agin . – my family’s Sunday-paper-with-comics custom ( Yes , we bought the Times on Sunday as well . ) switched to the NEW YORK NEWS , which I suppose must’ve picked up BLONDIE and LIL’ ABNER about then .