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Arguing Comics

Literary Masters on a Popular Medium

Publication Year: 2004

When Art Spiegelman's Maus-a two-part graphic novel about the Holocaust-won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, comics scholarship grew increasingly popular and notable. The rise of "serious" comics has generated growing levels of interest as scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals continue to explore the history, aesthetics, and semiotics of the comics medium. Yet those who write about the comics often assume analysis of the medium didn't begin until the cultural studies movement was underway. Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium brings together nearly two dozen essays by major writers and intellectuals who analyzed, embraced, and even attacked comic strips and comic books in the period between the turn of the century and the 1960s. From e. e. cummings, who championed George Herriman's Krazy Kat, to Irving Howe, who fretted about Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie, this volume shows that comics have provided a key battleground in the culture wars for over a century. With substantive essays by Umberto Eco, Marshall McLuhan, Leslie Fiedler, Gilbert Seldes, Dorothy Parker, Irving Howe, Delmore Schwartz, and others, this anthology shows how all of these writers took up comics-related topics as a point of entry into wider debates over modern art, cultural standards, daily life, and mass communication. Arguing Comics shows how prominent writers from the Jazz Age and the Depression era to the heyday of the New York Intellectuals in the 1950s thought about comics and, by extension, popular culture as a whole. A columnist for the National Post (Canada), Jeet Heer has been published in Slate, the Boston Globe, the Guardian, the Comics Journal and many other venues. Kent Worcester, a professor of political science and international studies at Marymount Manhattan College, is the author of C. L. R. James: A Political Biography. His work has appeared in the Comics Journal, New Statesman, Popular Culture Review, and numerous other publications.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-xxiii

Illustrated storytelling in general, and comic strips and comic books in particular, have long excited fierce controversy. In 1846 the English poet William Wordsworth penned a sonnet, “Illustrated Books and Newspapers,” that inveigled against “this vile abuse of pictured page": ...

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Part One: Early Twentieth-Century Voices

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pp. 1-3

The high-toned intellectual magazines of early twentieth century America featured acres of text, rarely adorned by pictures. Within this austere, print-dense environment, perhaps the main cultural battle was between the established defenders of the genteel tradition and the insurgent forces of literary modernism. ...

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From “The Tyranny of the Pictorial”

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pp. 4-6

Certain aspects of the illustration of newspapers and periodicals are interesting just now as indicative of modern tendencies and as marking the difference between the standard of what is worth publishing to-day and the standard that prevailed a decade or two ago. ...

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From “The Reign of the Spectacular”

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pp. 7-8

In the varied phases of modern thought and activity, the obvious holds unchallenged sway. The deeds that are conspicuous, the ideas that are garish, the literature that is episodic and pictorial, gain the popular favor. The eye of the senses is regnant,—often a substitute for ear, imagination, and reason. ...

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From “The Humor of the Colored Supplement”

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pp. 9-12

Ten or a dozen years ago—the exact date is here immaterial—an enterprising newspaper publisher conceived the idea of appealing to what is known as the American “sense of humor” by printing a so-called comic supplement in colors. ...

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Introduction to Frans Masereel, Passionate Journey: A Novel Told in 165 Woodcuts

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pp. 13-21

I should like first of all to say a few words about the two quotations which Masereel has chosen as epigraphs for his Passionate Journey.1 Not everyone who picks up this book of pictures may be “cultured” enough to read these passages in the original. ...

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“The Krazy Kat That Walks by Himself”

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pp. 22-29

Krazy Kat, the daily comic strip of George Herriman is, to me, the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America to-day. With those who hold that a comic strip cannot be a work of art I shall not traffic. The qualities of Krazy Kat are irony and fantasy—exactly the same, ...

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“A Foreword to Krazy”

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pp. 30-34

Twenty years ago, a celebration happened—the celebration of Krazy Kat by Gilbert Seldes. It happened in a book called The Seven Lively Arts; and it happened so wisely, so lovingly, so joyously, that recelebrating Krazy would be like teaching penguins to fly. ...

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“A Mash Note to Crockett Johnson”

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pp. 35-36

I cannot write a review of Crockett Johnson’s book of Barnaby. I have tried and tried, but it never comes out a book review. It is always a valentine for Mr. Johnson. ...

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Part Two: The New York Intellectuals

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pp. 37-39

The New York Intellectuals were an amorphous and contentious group of mid-century cultural critics and thinkers associated with Partisan Review magazine, City College and Columbia University. Emerging as a coherent group in the late 1930s, the New York intellectuals inherited a dual tradition. ...

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“Steig’s Cartoons: Review of All Embarrassed by William Steig”

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pp. 40

The mating of drawing with caption has produced a new but very dependent and transitory pictorial genre. The future will be more informed than delighted by it. We can still relish the brush-drawing on a Greek vase for its own sake as a drawing— whether fitted happily or unhappily to the shape of the vessel. ...

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“Limits of Common Sense: Review of Years of Wrath: A Cartoon History, 1931–1945 by David Low”

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pp. 41-42

The success of Low’s cartoons with the newspaper public would suggest that the public is more sensitive to art for its own sake than its members themselves realize. ...

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“Notes on Mass Culture”

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pp. 43-51

When we glance at the pseudo-cultural amusements that occupy the American people’s leisure time, we soon wonder: what happens to the anonymous audience while it consumes the products of mass culture?1 ...

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“Masterpieces as Cartoons”

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pp. 52-62

Recently I have been trying hard to watch television and read comic books. I do not know whether this is an effort to keep in touch with the rest of the American population or an attempt to win the esteem and keep up with my brother-in-law, aged twelve, who regards me as a hideous highbrow and thinks that I am probably...

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“Woofed with Dreams”

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pp. 63-66

On the underside of our society, there are those who have no real stake at all in respectable culture. These are the open enemies of culture, despising indiscriminately a painting by Picasso and a painting by Maxfield Parrish, a novel by Kafka and a novel by A. J. Cronin, a poem by Yeats and a poem...

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“Paul, the Horror Comics, and Dr. Wertham”

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pp. 67-80

My son Paul, who is eleven years old, belongs to the E.C. Fan-Addict club, a synthetic organization set up as a promotional device by the Entertaining Comics Group, publishers of Mad (“Tales Calculated to Drive You MAD—Humor in a Jugular Vein”), Panic (“This is No Comic Book, This is a PANIC—Humor in a Varicose Vein”), ...

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“The Labyrinth of Saul Steinberg”

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pp. 81-83

Steinberg’s line is the line of a master penman and artist; it is also a “line”—that is, a kind of organized talk. The pen of this artist-monologist brings into being pictures that are also words, e.g. the odd birds at a cocktail party. ...

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Part Three: The Postwar Mavericks

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pp. 85-87

As Irving Howe noted, by the 1960s the criticism of mass culture offered by the New York Intellectuals was itself being attacked as “heavy and humorless” by advocates of a new sensibility, most notably Susan Sontag. ...

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“Comic Strips”

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pp. 88-90

Comic strips are not what they used to be. Those in the New York Post, which are the ones I read, are getting increasingly genteel, naturalistic and like the movies, moving away from the broad comedy of their beginnings and into the pulp field. ...

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“Comic Strips”

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pp. 91-93

Top comic-strip artists 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...

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“Mickey Mouse and Americanism”

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pp. 94-98

It is no easy task to find any common denominator in the various mixtures of ideologies existing in the minds of American men and women. But from our Victorian ancestors we nearly all seem to have inherited one first principle in common—an abiding faith in youth when it is accompanied by vigorous animal activity and a healthy grin. ...

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“Bogey Sticks for Pogo Men”

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pp. 99-101

Those who have set their faces against what they like to style “modern” art and literature are given something to think about in a current comic strip. For, strangely enough, a pa’cel of characters fished out of a swamp in the Deep South have been making fame for themselves and money for their creator by exploiting, at the most...

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MARSHALL MCLUHAN: From The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man

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pp. 102-106

Harold Gray’s strip finds a natural setting and sponsor in the Patterson-McCormick enterprise. From this strip alone it is possible to document the central thesis of Margaret Mead’s excellent book, And Keep Your Powder Dry. As an anthropologist, Margaret Mead works on the postulate of the organic unity or “cultural regularity” of societies. ...

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“Comics: Mad Vestibule to TV”

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pp. 107-111

It was thanks to the print that Dickens became a comic writer. He began as a provider of copy for a popular cartoonist. To consider the comics here, after “The Print,” is to fix attention upon the persistent print-like, and even crude woodcut, characteristics of our twentieth-century comics. ...

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From Love and Death: A Study in Censorship

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pp. 112-121

Disguises are still necessary. The public can hardly be told what is being done to it. And so, super-imposed on the pattern violence of its children’s comics, there is a variety of titles, a variety of formulas suited to the age-groups and sexes the industry proposes to exploit: under six, six to ten, ten to fourteen, fourteen to sixteen, and up. ...

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“The Middle Against Both Ends”

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pp. 122-133

I am surely one of the few people pretending to intellectual respectability who can boast that he has read more comic books than attacks on comic books. I do not mean that I have consulted or studied the comics—I have read them, often with some pleasure. ...

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“Over the Cliff”

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pp. 134-137

In the decade since I wrote “Cliffhanger Comic”, about Al Capp’s Li’l Abner, the most crucial event by far in the Yokum saga has been Abner’s marriage to Daisy Mae. This occurred in 1951, as the result, I take it, of those “public pressures” which are so often misread, as they were in this case. ...

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“Reprise: ‘Love and Death’

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pp. 138-141

George Alexander (Gershon) Legman’s Love and Death is 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. ...

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“C.L.R.James on Comic Strips”

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pp. 142-143

To state it crudely, where formerly we had to look at the economic relations of society, the political and social movements and the great artistic expressions to get a whole, complete and dynamic view of the society, while as far as the great mass was concerned, we had to guess; today it is not so. ...

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“Letter to Daniel Bell”

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pp. 144-145

Future historians will write that in the twentieth century a new art began, and that the great masterpieces of the age, both in form and in impact upon the generations that they served, were the films of Chaplin and Griffith. ...

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“The Myth of Superman”

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pp. 146-164

The hero equipped with powers superior to those of the common man has been a constant of the popular imagination—from Hercules to Siegfried, from Roland to Pantagruel, all the way to Peter Pan. Often the hero’s virtue is humanized, and his powers, rather than being supernatural, are the extreme realization of natural endow-...


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pp. 165-170


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pp. 171-176

E-ISBN-13: 9781604735888
E-ISBN-10: 1604735880
Print-ISBN-13: 9781578066872
Print-ISBN-10: 1578066875

Publication Year: 2004