Long ago, when there were still rules to break, intellectuals could demonstrate their originality by praising comic strips, a form of art cordially despised by respectable guardians of culture. A few literary stars, such as E.E. Cummings, Dorothy Parker and Umberto Eco, defied the comic-haters by discovering artistic and moral value in a daily strip or a monthly magazine.
These voices, and good many others, come together this month in a delightful collection of essays, Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium (University Press of Mississippi), edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Today the argument about comics appears settled; their fate resembles that of Japanese woodblock prints made in the 18th and 19th centuries by artists like Utamaro and Hiroshige.
Those prints were issued on rough paper, sold cheap, and considered unredeemably lowbrow. Eventually they became cherished cultural artefacts as well as a major influence on modern painting. Similarly, many current artists find rich possibilities in comic books. No one any longer faces ridicule for drawing a story in pictures.
Art Spiegelman's Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust as experienced by the son of a survivor, deserved its Pulitzer in 1992. In 2000, another kind of legitimacy came to comic books when Michael Chabon won a Pulitzer for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a novel that sympathetically depicts two young men helping invent superhero comics ("this great, mad new American art form") in the 1930s. In 2003, Harvey Pekar's comic-book autobiography, American Splendor, became a terrific film comedy starring Paul Giamatti. In 2004, one of the impressive works of Canadian fiction was Clyde Fans (Drawn & Quarterly Publishers), a touching and ingeniously designed study of melancholy by the artist who signs himself Seth.
But back in 1949, the Nation, a weekly for American intellectuals, declared in an editorial that "A generation of Americans has been driven several degrees toward illiteracy by the 'comic' book." Did the Nation's editors know what they were talking about? On the issue of literacy, my own experience ran in the opposite direction. At age five my central motive in learning to read was my desire to understand daily strips, in particular Robin Hood, without the intercession of parents or older siblings.
Which was sometimes secured only through negotiation, begging, or dubious promises of future virtue. I listened intently to my first schoolteacher, Robin Hood always in my mind.
The turn toward high-level appreciation of comics began when intellectuals noticed the quality of Krazy Kat, a strip that William Randolph Hearst's newspapers ran from 1913 until the death of its creator, George Herriman, in 1944. Over the years Woodrow Wilson, Walt Disney, Frank Capra, Willem de Kooning and Jack Kerouac went out of their way to express their admiration for Herriman. In 1924, Gilbert Seldes with his book, The Seven Lively Arts, was the first to describe the strip's virtues in detail, calling it "the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America today."
In 1946, Cummings described Krazy Kat as "a meteoric burlesk melodrama." The plot involved a cat's persistent and unrequited love for a mouse, who always responded by throwing a brick at the cat's head. The characters spoke an intricately inventive English, unknown before or since, and the drawings were wildly surrealistic, their constantly changing backgrounds anticipating rock videos by about seven decades. Reading a book of Krazy Kat strips throws a surprising light on the tastes of Hearst, who loved it so much that he ordered it lifted off the comic pages and given space as an independent feature.
Other comics similarly won the affections of brave intellectual commentators. Manny Farber, a film critic of talent and influence, argued that the "plump and sassy roadster tires" drawn in the Katzenjammer Kids had "more aesthetic kick" than the effects of Rubens. In the 1940s, the great discovery was Barnaby, the work of the now largely forgotten Crockett Johnson, who had been a political cartoonist for the communist New Masses in the 1930s. Barnaby first appeared in 1942 in PM, the wondrously original but short-lived New York daily.
Barnaby is a little boy who has an incompetent Fairy Godfather, Mr. O'Malley; his wand, a cigar, rarely works. Dorothy Parker, never easy to please, fell in love with Barnaby and particularly liked his dog, Gorgon, who can talk ("Didn't know I could do it; never tried it before, I guess") but, as Parker noted, turns out to be such a crashing bore that they have to lock him away to avoid listening to him. In the essay reprinted in Arguing Comics, she anoints Barnaby and his friends "the most important additions to American Arts and Letters in Lord knows how many years."
Umberto Eco found in Superman "a perfect example of civic consciousness," a figure of "judicious and measured virtue." Marshall McLuhan admired Al Capp's Li'l Abner, seeing a subtle reading of the human situation in "the Dogpatch predicament of helpless ineptitude." He considered comics "as exotic as eighth-century illuminations," like the Book of Kells, but noted that young people, uninhibited by normal expectations of literacy, have always been able to grasp them without trouble. In the 1950s Father Walter Ong wrote (in the Jesuit magazine, America) about his love for Walt Kelly's Pogo, above all its ingenious manipulation of language and its ability to inject avant-garde ideas into mass culture.
An evil spirit named Fredric Wertham hovered over comics for some years. He was a psychiatrist whose 1954 polemic, Seduction of the Innocent, warned parents that their children were being corrupted by violent and vicious horror comics. He terrified the comic-book publishers, who found they had to defend themselves before a congressional committee and even moderate their gorier covers. We catch echoes of that controversy in Arguing Comics, particularly in a famous essay from 1954 by Robert Warshow, "Paul, the Horror Comics, and Dr. Wertham."
Warshow, who died in his thirties after proving himself one of the brilliant young critics of his day, argues that while he fears what comics may do to his young son, he's even more leery of Wertham's simple-minded ideas about the imagination. The editors of Arguing Comics state in an endnote that Paul not only survived but went to Harvard and eventually donated to its library his entire collection of Mad comics.