- Komix Kountermedia (1969)
The left's mixed reception of komix is an interesting indication of the schism in attitudes toward "cultural" subjects. On the one hand, people (including myself) who believe that the New Left is only part of a much larger but more amorphous New Culture movement are excited to see an intrusion of radical attitudes into "classic" areas of modern cultural mediations, comic strips and comic books. For us it seems to promise another step toward an organic New Left, striking root in society deeper than the level of "politics" (elections, parties, organizers, etc.). On the other hand, plenty of fine, even good-humored radicals are plainly distressed to see the excitement over komix. One extreme tendency is indicated by a dealer in an old, CP1-oriented bookshop who wrote me that all "underground culture" was a new attempt by the ruling class to pervert the revolutionary threat. Another attitude, common among people sympathetic to New Left culturalists, is that komix are interesting but not to be taken seriously in political terms.
A considerable amount of the confusion about komix and the Left is their newness, with their power to irritate or excite. Not that comic strips have been unknown to the Left: […] strips have often been offered in radical newspapers. But komix, as drawn by such creative figures as Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, and S. Clay Wilson, are more than simply instruments of the political New Left; they are subversive thrusts at capitalism coming right out of a popular cultural tradition.
More fundamentally the confusion about komix is symptomatic of important misunderstandings about the meanings of culture and art. Bourgeois aesthetics has taught us that these are leisure customs associated with the elites, rather than organic aspects of popular life. But if we accept the anthropological definition of culture as the style and organization of day-to-day life and of art as a more self-conscious aspect of "culture," then content, how popular "culture" and "art" relate to the values of society's rulers, becomes an important political question.
As yet, the New Left does not possess the theoretical tools for a full analysis of modern (hence popular) culture and its art forms (certainly less for comic strips than for America's other two distinctive contributions to twentieth[-]century culture, cinema and jazz) under capitalism in the mass market epoch. Certain critics, like Marshall McLuhan, attempt to deal with the meaning of various communications media in contemporary society; but for me the most heuristic insights were offered by Walter Benjamin over thirty years ago, in his brilliant essay, "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." [End Page 199]
Art, as Benjamin understood, could not remain unchanged in the new era of mass production and consumption: its traditional "aura," its quality of craft refinement, of rarity, could not survive immersion in the "commonness" of the masses and their daily life. Indeed, to have any élan or vitality of its own art had to associate with and give expression to the existence of the people it now reached. Even poor Mona Lisa, reproduced on a half million postcards, simply wasn't enough.
But Benjamin also perceived that the possibilities for new, popular arts were emerging at the very time when bourgeois cultural vitality had long passed even though their nascent forms were subject to the influences of the decay of bourgeois culture. On the other hand, he believed that the threads of art's resurrection nevertheless lay within popular culture, in the essence of their content that commercial forms so thoroughly violated. In one sense, the forms of the future were stretching their fingers into a repression-ridden present; in another, mass art, like politically revolutionary forces, was maturing, as it had to, within the womb of the culture of the old social system.
Drawing on Benjamin's notion of a cultural dialectic, I have noted three rough stages for the emerging modern art form which also describe the growth of twentieth[-]century comic strips: (1) an early, highly experimental period, where the very newness of the form permits the "eccentric" visionaries to practice before internal and external discipline are fully introduced; (2...