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Review of Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium

By Eric L. Berlatsky

Heer, Jeet and Kent Worcester, eds. Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004. Print.

In 2009, editors Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester compiled what is probably the best collection of academic comics criticism currently available, The Comics Studies Reader, published by the University Press of Mississippi. While the individual entries vary somewhat in quality and interest, the book largely does what it sets out to do. It collects the most important landmarks in the still nascent field of “comics studies.” Properly understood, however, The Comics Studies Reader is actually a sequel to Arguing Comics, a 2004 volume also edited by Heer and Worcester, and also from the University Press of Mississippi. The raison d’être of Arguing Comics is to collect the best, most important, and most intriguing statements about comics before there was such a thing as “comics studies,” or before the academic world decided to take notice of comics as a legitimate object of study. It succeeds in its purpose admirably, and, if anything, proves to be a more enlightening read than its successor, if only because the material it collects is less known and less cited by most of today’s scholars.

Many current pieces of comics criticism begin with Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993), or, for those a bit more adventurous, Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art (1985). Those two books function as “poetics” of comics, preoccupied more with their formal attributes than with their social, political, or historical impact. In this, they take a dramatically different approach than the “psychologist(s) vs. fans” battles of the fifties, which centered on comics’ potential contributions to social violence and juvenile delinquency. In either case, the sense that discussion of comics’ social influence began in the fifties or that the preoccupation with formal concerns began in the 1980s is belied by Arguing Comics, which culls a bounty of provocative writings from 1895 through 1969, focusing on both of these important areas of concern and more.

As the subtitle of the book indicates, the book focuses on “Literary Masters” who discuss comics. This is, to some degree, a code for “big names,” well-known public figures and writers who, at one time or another wrote something about comics. In some cases, this seems like a bit of a gimmick, as occasionally pieces are included more for the recognizability of their contributors than for the value of the essay. C. L. R. James’ two brief comments on comics fall into this category, as does Dorothy Parker’s brief discussion of Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby. This is a minor complaint, however, about a book that is full of fascinating writing, as well as usually excellent contextual essays by Heer and Worcester. In fact, even in the case of Parker’s lightweight contribution, it contains enough of her trademark wit to make me glad of its inclusion.

Arguing Comics is divided into three sections: “Early Twentieth-Century Voices,” “The New York Intellectuals,” and “The Postwar Mavericks.” As the introduction details, the first of the sections focuses partially on a set of “genteel” writers who typically criticized or attacked comics, illustrated magazines, or illustrated books precisely for being illustrated. That is, a text/image binary is adhered to by many of the writers, who note that the increasing preponderance of pictures in early twentieth-century publication is a sign of the decay of modern culture, where people were supposedly becoming too lazy to focus on words in all of their complexity. These contributions by Annie Marble, Sidney Fairfield, and Ralph Bergengren are opposed, according to Heer and Worcester, by writers influenced by “the spirit of modernism” (2), represented in the collection by Gilbert Seldes’ and e. e. cummings’ well-known encomia of Krazy Kat, Dorothy Parker’s “valentine” to Johnson, and Thomas Mann’s extensive praise of Frans Masereel’s novel-in-woodcuts, The Passionate Journey.

Heer and Worcester’s representation of modernism as an aesthetic radicalism that allowed for a mixing of high and low (or mass) cultures in ways that the genteel cultural rearguard was skeptical of seems a bit undernuanced, given the disdain several important modernist figures had for the masses. While Heer and Worcester invoke Seldes’ connection with T. S. Eliot as proof of Seldes’ modernist credibility, Eliot’s response to mass culture in general (and comics in particular) was far more ambivalent than that of Seldes. Indeed, Krazy Kat came to hold an acknowledged position as the comic for intellectuals, and embracing that particular strip is hardly evidence of a general belief that comics constitute something like “art” in the modernist sense. Likewise, Thomas Mann’s 1948 reading of Masereel is a far distance from an embrace of “comics in general” and instead seems like an example of a kind of exceptionalism which declares Masereel’s work as a “new art form” without considering the ways in which it connects to the concurrently developing field of comic books. All of this is to say that the loose narrative Heer and Worcester construct of the genteel illustration-hating old guard vs. the more progressive comics-friendly “modernists” is somewhat problematic.

Regardless, the essays themselves remain, for the most part, fascinating, irrespective of their contextualization. Mann’s essay on Masereel makes the reader want to turn directly to the source, and Seldes’ account of Krazy‘s virtues works similarly. Bergengren’s critique of the “noisy, garrulous pandemonium” (11) of the early comics is both exceedingly well-written and an obvious and instructive representative of the classist attitudes of many of these “early twentieth-century voices.” Bergengren is, in fact, ready to condemn cultural products merely because they portrayed the lives of the working-classes and those ethnic groups who had yet to sufficiently assimilate. His link of “German-Americans and their irreverent progeny” to mules and goats (9) is a snapshot of what ethnic slurs were evidently acceptable in 1906, and how those prejudices extended to the cultural products of which comics were a prominent part.

The second section, on “The New York Intellectuals,” begins with Clement Greenberg’s mid-forties formal assessments of William Steig’s and David Low’s cartoons, and concludes with Harold Rosenberg’s fascinating exploration of Saul Steinberg’s perpetually oscillating words and images. My familiarity with all of these cartoonists was peripheral at best (like many, I know Steig best from the Shrek picture book), but again, these treatments were enough to make me want to explore further. The majority of the section, however, is devoted to essays about “mass culture” and comics’ place within it, particularly those originally published in New York magazines like The NationThe Partisan Review, and Commentary. The antagonism toward “illustration” displayed at the outset of the twentieth century turns, by mid-century, into widespread critique of any “entertainment” for the masses, which is said to anesthetize, rather than challenge, its audience, to put the mind to sleep, rather than awaken it. Irving Howe’s 1948 “Notes on Mass Culture” takes this position stridently and effectively. Noting the “passivity and boredom” (44) encouraged by films, popular music, and comics, he echoes the then-recent Frankfurt School critique of popular music, that mass cultural products offer only the illusion of revolution and resistance without its actuality. He applies a similar analysis to comic strips like The Katzenjammer Kids and Krazy Kat, both of which “allow[] the audience the limited freedom of vicariously breaking the social law” (49). Howe’s linking of mass cultural products to the violence endemic to modern culture and his close reading of a film like Double Indemnity remain compelling some 60 years after their initial publication. While it is rare these days to see quite this much insistence on a mass culture/high culture division, Howe’s eloquence reminds us why the position had such influence in the first place. Like Adorno and Horkheimer, Howe is not necessarily critical of the working classes, but of the “mass culture” that helps to pacify and control them. While there is some condescension in Howe’s position, his readings of individual films and comics remain compelling.

Delmore Schwartz’s lengthy 1952 screed against Classics Illustrated is far more elitist than Howe’s essay, and, at least partially as a result, is far less interesting. Robert Warshow’s two contributions are, however, more balanced and reasonable. His 1954 discussion of his son Paul’s love affair with E. C. Comics, during the height of Fredric Wertham’s persecution of E. C.’s horror line, reminds us that not all cultural commentators on comics were slavering-at-the-mouth book-burning types. Despite Warshow’s covert wish that E. C. Comics might be banned (or, at least that his son would be denied access to them), he is forced to admit that Kurtzman’s Mad has its merits, and he can’t ever quite articulate why it is that these comics bother him as much as they do. Warshow’s balanced presentation of the pros and cons of the 1950s-era comics controversy illustrates just how much of an overreaction the Comics Code probably was and how cooler heads might well have prevailed in the long run if given the opportunity. The 1955 Leslie Fielder piece included in the following section serves a similar purpose and indicates how Warshow’s was not a lone voice in the wilderness.

The final section on “The Postwar Mavericks” is more diffuse, more “catholic,” in more ways than one, covering, as it does, important Catholic critics like Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong, and disconnected figures like Gershon Legman, Leslie Fielder, C. L. R. James, and Umberto Eco. James’ and Eco’s inclusion takes the scope of the book beyond North America, and their inclusion makes one wonder why more international voices did not find their way into the volume. This complaint is muted somewhat by the excellence of Eco’s essay, “The Myth of Superman,” which provides canny insight into the distinction between superheroes and heroes of myth, as well as insightful observations on the static temporality of Superman and the ways in which superhero comics, at least of a certain era, function in anxious avoidance of the inevitability of death. Eco’s account of the repetitiveness of superhero genre tropes (and those in detective novels) is actually reminiscent of Howe’s critique of the redundancy of mass culture, and while Eco’s focus is more on semiotics, he too is interested in what social need creates a genre wherein time does not move forward, coming to not altogether dissimilar conclusions. Donald Phelps’ 1969 discussion of Li’l Abner also focuses on the idylls of atemporality and repetition that many comics represent (and what happens when the static suddenly becomes synchronic in Li’l Abner). The links between Phelps, Eco, and Howe illustrate how three different approaches (psychoanalytic, semiotic, cultural materialist) to similar material can arrive at similar conclusions, and seeing the three approaches acting indirectly in concert in the same book should, no doubt, open up some areas of exploration for today’s comics scholars.

The final section, indeed, functions as a transition, from the “comics as controversy” discussions of the fifties, into the academic comics studies of recent decades. Gershon Legman’s overheated homophobic rants taken from 1949’s Love and Death: A Study in Censorship surprisingly contain seeds of potentially useful psychoanalytic approaches to comics. Legman’s angry attacks on the sexual repression that results in eruptions of violence read like Freud as viewed through a funhouse mirror, and Legman seems unaware of how his own homophobia might easily be read as a result of sexual repression, rather than the critique of it he intends. In fact, Legman’s overly schematic “sex vs. violence” dynamic appears in more queer-friendly comics environments in recent years (e.g. Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls [1991-2006]). Donald Phelps’ 1969 rebuttal of Legman indicates just how over-the-top Legman’s rhetoric was, even when it was published. Nevertheless, Legman’s book serves as the opportunity for Phelps to make some more coherent and cogent points about the sex/violence dynamic, a dynamic which remains central to any discussion of comics in general, and superhero comics in particular (140).

The two contributions each by Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan indicate the ways in which the cultural wind was eventually to blow, as well as the adaptability of these well-known and influential figures. Ong’s attack on Mickey Mouse and his ilk in 1941 turns to a thoughtful appreciation of Walt Kelly’s Pogo by 1951. While the earlier piece reads like a knee-jerk attack on mass culture, the treatment of Pogo cleverly articulates the ways in which the strip combines mass cultural and high cultural attributes, linking Kelly’s playful language to the nonsense verse of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear (101), and to high modernist wordplay like that of Joyce, Stein, and cummings (98). Similarly, McLuhan’s attacks on Little Orphan Annie and (fascist, violent) Superman in 1951, turn to an appreciation of the developing comics medium, and particularly of the satire available in Mad by 1964. This shifting in perspective is indicative of the debates highlighted throughout the book. While some critics were inveterately opposed to comics of any stripe, others were happy to embrace the medium’s signal achievements, while still writing off the vast majority of what it had to offer. Still others were unsure what to make of comics and took some time to arrive at a tentative position that they would be free to reverse at some later date.

In all of this, Arguing Comics does an excellent job of providing a snapshot of the comics criticism of the first half (more or less) of the twentieth century and, if anything, leaves the reader wishing for a still larger collection. At less than 200 pages, the collection feels a bit skimpy, especially when compared to the Comics Studies Reader. If one’s primary complaint about a book is that it is too short, however, that volume is obviously doing something right, and this is certainly the case with Arguing Comics. The only other cavil to be leveled at the volume is the insufficient attention paid to its proofreading. Typographical errors abound in the book in frankly unacceptable proportions. It is rare to get through 5 pages of text without encountering a typo of some kind, so much so that the errors become distracting. Given the book’s quality and its potential value to contemporary scholars, it is to be hoped that it will remain in print for a lengthy period of time, and that subsequent editions will correct the majority of these errors.

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