- Introduction: Comics and Modernism
Comics and modernism, it could be said, served to coproduce each other. Phillip Wegner notes that like its kin-form, film, mass-circulated newspaper comic strips “emerge in the late-nineteenth-century context of a nascent cultural modernism” (para. 4). Many modernist artists and critics, moreover, relied on these newer forms and technologies as a defining point of contrast, taking them as the detritus of a degraded commercial culture in opposition to modernist experimentation and expression. Irving Howe, defender of modernist ideals into the postwar period, characteristically argues in his 1948 essay “Notes on Mass Culture” that comic strips and Hollywood cinema alike “suppress the free play of the unconscious” (47): “comic characterization consists of persistent identification of each name with an outstanding personality trait” and that “[l]ike comic strips, though seldom so simply, movie stars also tend to become identified in the mass mind with one personality strand” (48). For Howe and many of modernism’s leading exponents, comics — not only newspaper strips but also the comic books arriving on American newsstands in the mid-1930s — function as modernism’s wretched Other.
Not all modernists took such a dim view of comics, of course. In the US, littérateurs and cultural critics including Gilbert Seldes, Dorothy Parker, and e.e. cummings praised comics and cartoons as examples of a vibrant American folk culture or, to use Seldes’s formulation, the vernacular “lively arts.” Nevertheless, the view of comics as emblematic of a disreputable consumer culture prevailed, even as film acquired cultural legitimacy, thanks largely to the dominance of the fundamentally modernist auteur theory found in influential midcentury film journals such as Cahiers du cinema. And yet Michael Wood, in an essay on modernism and film, points out that despite the temptation “to argue that all films are Modernist, that the cinema itself is an accelerated image of modernity,” the medium has demonstrated a “yearning to become the twentieth century’s version of the nineteenth century’s novel” by consistently [End Page 111] embracing realism’s narrative coherence (269). By contrast, as comics studies as a field continues to define itself, expand, and become institutionalized in the academy, neither of film studies’ strategies — asserting the prestige of modernist sophistication or the respectability of mainstream appeal — hold sway. Rather, the desirability of legitimacy as such for comics is questioned: acclaimed comics creators Alan Moore and Gilbert Hernandez, among others, have insisted that the form draws much of its artistic vitality and politically subversive power from its outsider status. As Jared Gardner writes, “hanging a comic in a museum or bringing it into the university does not ‘repair’ what is essentially unique about the form — qualities that, at least in part, work against all attempts to take the gutter out of comics and make it a respective form for respectable audiences” (x). Contemporary comics scholars are thus generally reluctant to position comics as either an offshoot of a culturally elite modernism or as a comfortably genteel mainstream artistic practice.
Such differences — between comics and literature, film, the visual arts, and so on — now preoccupy scholars of comics and graphic narratives. For those like Gardner who are interested in the formal and historical relations between comics and modernism, critical distinctions are especially important. Gardner explains that while “it is hard not to see intimate connections between the formal experiments with the novel by Joyce and Faulkner and the fragmentary, looping narratives of modernity” (xi) found in early comic strips, there are fundamental differences, for “[j]ust as modernist poetry’s breaking of the iamb required an iamb to break, so the experiments of the modernist novel are always a choice not to make use of available unities and coherences” (xi). The comics genre, by contrast, is itself constituted by gaps and discontinuities. Such fissures manifest most prominently in terms of form — the gutters that separate comics’ panels — but also in terms of dissemination, since comics are so closely associated with serial publishing and its gaps in distribution. Gardner concludes, “Comics creators — while faced with an array of choices as every turn — have never had the possibility of developing tools and techniques that would allow them...