The comic strip—which began its career as a circulation builder for turn-of-the-century newspapers—is now an omnipresent element in our massive American popular culture, and has lately been the subject of much angry controversy. Heinz Politzer here examines the comic strip as a popular art form that in its own way illuminates some of the essential areas of American life and character. This article was translated from the German by Ralph Manheim.
On the heels of the Truman election came the publication of Al Capp’s Life and Times of the Shmoo. If, as has been said, Mr. Truman’s victory was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s greatest hour, then we can easily discern in the almost unprecedented success of Mr. Capp’s comic-strip creation a revival of some of the basic ideas underlying the New Deal: the anti-trust spirit, love of the simple man and the underdog, optimism toned down by a thorough knowledge of reality.—“And so, side by side, the two li’l shmoos waddle off into the sunset, confident that they—and billions of their children—will live happily ever after.” (But the bulk of the Shmoo nation had been wiped off the surface of the earth only a little while before.)
The Shmoo seems to have laid bare one of the emotional drives inherent in our democracy, and the pollsters might have done better to investigate the right funnies instead of the wrong statistics. However, there is a strain in the Shmoo that goes deeper than any single historical conjunction. “When yo’ looks at a Shmoo as though yo’d like t’eat him—he dies of sheer happiness!!” (Italics and exclamation marks are Capp’s.) The Shmoo is ready to immolate himself without any sense of sacrifice, simply out of overflowing love and helpfulness; and if the American people have adopted him for the moment as a sort of national symbol, they have voted for precisely this loving-kindness, which he represents with the exaggeration of a fairy tale.
The master, discoverer, and champion of the Shmoo is Li’l Abner. Li’l Abner is a Simple Simon, a Lucky Hans, a hillbilly. But he is also a giant-killer, the declared enemy of the strong and evil, with a stone for Goliath always ready in his sling. Behind his face stands another, more significant, face, and Coulton Waugh (in his book, The Comics) simplifies the matter when he attempts to reduce the resemblance to Henry Wallace. Li’l Abner is, in the unconscious depths of his being, a protestant; the world’s injustice, which he senses more than perceives, leaves him no rest. At the same time, however, he preserves a confidence in the victory of the good, a remnant of the pioneer spirit. “The Lord—and Mammy Yokum—is with you, and He’ll help you.” America today is well mirrored—and gladly so—in Li’l Abner. In him is reflected our ardent avowal of youth, but also a rather stubborn attachment to crude juvenility; a sympathetic identification with the victorious simpleton, but also a certain indifference to the development of personality—the simpleton remains a simpleton.
For Li’l Abner is not only a hillbilly, a strong man and a roof-raiser, he is also an illiterate. And his creator wants him so. When, for some petty political reasons, Li’l Abner was excluded from the pages of the Pittsburgh Press, Al Capp was heard to comment: “You know, one of my friends at the Press told me that when they left me out of the paper, they got fourteen thousand letters of protest. Who ever would have thought that so many people who like my strip are actually able to write?”
Beneath this cynical utterance lies the businessman Al Capp’s sober evaluation of the public whose daily spiritual bread he provides.
The comic strip of this century, like the Biblia Pauperum of the Middle Ages, works as an agent of civilization on an amorphous mass of readers not much more educated than the populace of those earlier times. The New International Encyclopedia gives the following information about the Biblia Pauperum: “A sort of picture book of the Middle Ages, giving on from forty to fifty leaves the leading events of human salvation . . . each picture being accompanied by an illustrative text or sentence in Latin . . . . Before the Reformation these books were very popular among both the clergy and the laity. Owing to their genuine popularity the printed copies were soon sold out . . . . The pictures . . . . were copied in sculptures, in wall and glass painting, . . . and thus became of importance in the art of the Middle Ages . . . .”
The pictures in the Bihlia Pawperwn were devised for the sake of their texts, but the pictures infringed more and more on the message and in the end made it superfluous. Historically, the dissemination of these books was one of the steps that led to schism in the Catholic church and the rise of Protestantism; it is easy to imagine a Roman cardinal, taken with foreboding, lifting his arms to hurl the anathema at these comic strips of his time (whether he later thumbed through them, we cannot tell). With these picture books, art began to abandon its place within the rigid structure of medieval society, changing not only its audience but also its themes and ultimately its function. The Biblia were the first harbingers, not of popular, but of bourgeois art.
Like the Biblia Pauperum, the comic strips are based on the picture, not on the word—on the how, not on the what. The dialogue, the “balloon,” is but the intellectual excuse for a medium essentially visual; it is the pretext literate people console themselves with for reverting to the atavism of picture writing. But there can be no doubt that in this very atavism lie the effectiveness and the revolutionary possibilities of the comic strip.
To be sure, the comic strips, unlike their medieval predecessors, have no message to proclaim. They owe their immediate origin to capitalist competition—the newspaper feud between Hearst and Pulitzer in New York in the 1890’s. From the outset they were used to attract circulation, and their syndication in 1913 by Moses Koenigsberg spread them over the whole continent. At first, the upper-class originators of the strips poured anything they pleased into them and translated it into a crass and primitive picture language. The comics were originally addressed to children, and since educators at the beginning of the century looked on children as small, stupid, and rough adults, the producers of the comics chose the sensational, the luridly fantastic, and the exotic—cruelty with a happy ending. And this, in the main, still remains the case. “Amoosin’ but confoosin’,” as Li’l Abner would say.
Addressed to the immature and to those of immature culture, to the dwellers in the side streets of contemporary civilization, the comics inevitably embody a threat. For they contain the revolutionary possibilities latent in all means of mass enlightenment. Underneath all the pedagogic, aesthetic, and moral arguments raised against the comics lies the unexpressed and usually unconscious fear that most responsible people feel in the face of any highly developed instrument for influencing the masses—and mixed in with this, perhaps, is a bad conscience for having thus far found no end appropriate to so potent a means.
Little Nemo and Yellow Kid revealed the condescension of the upper classes. But almost at once the audience of the comics began to project its own image into the thoroughly petty-bourgeois, suburban world of the comics. In so doing, they conformed, as in the Katzenjammers, to the stereotypes that the upper classes have of the lower: the Katzenjammer characters are completely naive, eager for adventures and happy endings; they are in fact a vulgarization of the Tom Sawyer motif, which was folksy enough in itself. It is only lately that the common man has reacted to the challenge of the comics by making them revelatory of his true nature. In the long run, the influence of the audience on the creators of the comic strip, and on their creatures, could not but leave its mark on this most democratic of art enterprises. Extending over the six plus one days of the week, exposed on every one of these seven days to the participation and criticism of its audience, the comic not only takes shape under the eyes of its public, the public takes shape along with it.
The originator provides the skeleton; the artist—who as often as not is also the originator—provides the flesh and clothing. Yet the comic strip owes its earthly existence, its fantasy, its adventurous idiom, its melodrama and shameless sentimentality, its awkward and well-concealed humanity, directly to its public. Instead of a message, the comic strip contains the mirrored image of its readers. Thus it is that the comics come to be the folk play of the American masses, produced on an infinitesimal stage built by the technical apparatus of the time for the needs of a mass public that breathes its own life into the end-product.
Accordingly, the comic-strip artist fulfills a function different from his less fortunate brothers in the free, non-applied “fine” arts. Indeed he may well be the only contemporary artist who does fulfill a function; the others, if not caught in the snares of an ideology, seem today only able to comment upon the problems arising from their disrupted communication with the public. Like his medieval colleague, the comic-strip artist has at least a path laid down for him in advance, and thus he is free to concentrate entirely on the formal aspect of his task. And since his work, once he is hired, is secure (almost as secure as that of the master-builder of a Gothic cathedral), he also has the leisure and the breathing space to keep on refining and perfecting it.
Like the artist of the Biblia Pauperum again, the comic-strip artist is essentially anonymous. The modern artist and his work feed on his biography, on the conflict in which he is embroiled with society. His name, the embodiment of his biography, is indispensable, and his work is to serve in establishing and maintaining his name in history. But in the comic strips the fictitious character is more important than the hand that draws it. It can survive its creator, change fathers. The new “authorship” may bring about certain small changes in line, composition, and characterization which the attentive reader may notice, but they make little difference in the general effect of the strip. Here if anywhere in modern art, the old concept of school and master has been revived. The art product has thrust aside the artist; the artist’s style is no longer his unique signature but rather an embodiment of the taste of the times.
The comic strips have developed two lines of evolution over the decades. One leads from Little Nemo to Superman, and represents what the industry as separate from the public considers suitable for mass consumption; it is imposed, reflecting the mood, the insight, and the cultural level of the entrepreneurs rather than of the audience. The other type, perhaps best exemplified by Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse, expresses the common-man comic-strip reader’s sense of himself.
The art work in McCay’s Little Nemo of 1906 has the bizarre baroque quality of American fin de siècle, the abstruse, imported beauty of the Hudson ferries and certain downtown subway stations. The representation of space is theatrical, the arrangement is that of an operetta or opera set. The color, highly differentiated out of regard for the printing techniques of that period, is full of the weary, satiated half-tones then popular in Europe.
Ignatz, on the other hand, the David who forever defeated Herriman’s Krazy Kat and was the forerunner of Mickey Mouse, has the gaiety of the circus and of the small-town carnival, a vitality that drives the strip on from box to box. Here at last was the dynamic needed to make a strip a strip. The Krazy Kat strip is to Little Nemo as the movies to still photography. In order to remain intelligible, Herriman’s dynamic figures require an optical concentration, an extreme simplicity as opposed to the vague overcrowding of McCay’s static sketches.
Nemo is a dreamer, Ignatz and Mickey are creatures of action. Nemo is genteel, a cisatlantic cousin of Little Lord Fauntleroy; Mickey is a hopelessly immature small-towner, the little man of the people. The logical continuation of Little Nemo’s dream world is the pseudo-scientific, pseudo-exotic world of Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon, strips that are obviously conceived as an assault on the nerves of their readers. The technical or scientific lore of these strips is there not to spread knowledge but to heighten tension by a merely apparent adjustment to reality; it is a technology not even limited by science. Utopia crowds out the reality of the day.
Ignatz needs no development. He stands there, round, bristling, impudent, and lewd. He heralds Mickey Mouse, but also the Sad Sack. He bears the imprint of a tradition that is older than the comic strip and extends far beyond the shores of America: the self-glorification of the little man through persiflage. He gives the strip folksiness, but also a true popular character. Originally he was conceived just as formally, or schematically, as other comic strip figures, but it turned out that the ordinary citizen was able to fill in Ignatz’s outline with his own self-portrait. The principle of Ignatz’s efficacy is not sensation but identification; he arouses less excitement than friendly recognition.
But the dividing line between suspense comics and funny comics is fluid. There are innumerable mixtures and conglomerates. Popeye with his seaman’s Latin is a perfect take-off on the Buck Rogers type. But the parody is filled with its own kind of seriously intended melodrama. The Little King is a petty bourgeois in royal robes, his comedy derives from this antithesis. Barnaby is a hard-boiled realist, unimpressed in his encounters with the miraculous. (The fact that he is an American child accounts for his realism as well as his flair for the miracle, and sharpens both conflict and comedy.)
Another synthesis is represented by figures like Terry of Terry and the Pirates and Joe Palooka. They are conceived as stereotypes of what the masses now hold to be expressions of individuality; but, through the dialectic of the comic strip, they serve not only the interests of their manufacturer, but also the real life they claim to represent. In the course of the strips they define themselves personally as well as socially; they might indeed contain the possibility of furnishing characters for an American comedy, but the schematism of the strip that creates them deprives them of the breath of personality; Terry and Palooka are individualists in a huge crowd of individualists, as much alike as the houses in a suburban settlement. (America insists that all its citizens must be individualists, but all in the same way. What standardizes them is the very obstinacy with which they insist on their peculiarities, their hobbies, whimsies, and tics.)
But perhaps this contradiction is a motif of democracy as such. The comic strip grew out of the common man’s urge to self-portraiture. It represents a compendium of the average American’s modes of behavior in every stratum of American mass civilization for the last half-century. It is the comprehensive presentation of the general behavior of the American man, a history of manners.
The comics are less revealing when it comes to women. Here they have committed themselves to the French Doll, an expressionless mask in every conceivable costume. Woman has become a taboo, hidden behind a symbol. This would seem to indicate that American society, among the middle classes at least, is still predominantly masculine. The female character has life and individuality only when a woman does the drawings, as in Virginia Clark’s Oh, Diana. Or the empty dream-figure that represents Woman becomes converted into its opposite and takes the shape of aggressive brutality, as in Popeye’s Olive Oyl or in Maggie of Bringing Up Father. But here, too, the woman remains little more than a function of the male imagination.
I nearly forgot Mammy Yokum, the extraordinary mother of the extraordinary Li’l Abner. “Vaguely female,” she is carved from the wood of the mandrake root; she is one of the great mothers who live on in the subconscious of the people, of every people. She is realistic and poetic in one. In this dwarfish, pipe-smoking, “vision conjurin’” matron, the people as such for the first time enter the American comic strip. Mammy Yokum stands in the background—or, rather, Li’l Abner is given a larger dimension proper to himself, like the saints in early medieval painting where everything incidental recedes—and yet it is she who fills the page after all; if she gives precedence to her son, she can well afford to do it, for she is the mightier of the two. Here we discern far more matriarchy and true feminocracy than in the pipe dreams of Blondie or Dixie Dugan.
Like all folk plays since the days of the ancient mime, the comic strip revolves around the stock figure. Intrinsically, the stock figure is the target of every possible identification, the schematic type into which every onlooker can project his own peculiarity, provided it does not shatter the general image. Through this projection, the stock figure is solidified and filled out, and achieves a kind of immortality; if, for technical reasons, it is removed from the stage of the comics, its departure becomes a public loss. That is why the comic strip, in its typical form, can afford to be as tedious, for example, as a novel by Dickens—where the reader also feels at home because the art is as slow and devious as life and shows him his own experience as he himself conceives of it.
Nameless as the creator of the strip may be, the name of his main character is vital; sometimes indeed the name is the whole content of the character. The register of names and destinies extends from Alley Oop to Yanitor Yens Yensen. Sometimes a name proves completely successful, as with the Katzenjammers, who carry the whole origin, atmosphere, and dynamic of their existence in their name. The German descent of the Katzenjammers not only contributes an invaluable linguistic touch; it is as though the strip wished to recall its own descent from the European picture book—in the case of the Katzenjammers from Max and Moritz, the bad boys of the inspired sadist Wilhelm Busch. Or a character’s occupation may be added to reinforce his name in establishing his personality and often foreshadowing his destiny.
It is here that Abie the Agent comes in. Abie Kabibble is as Jewish as the Katzenjammers are German: in him the ethnic minority enriches the American scene by the peculiarity of its speech, mentality, and group character. Abie is a shlemiel and a realist, outrageously sentimental and stubbornly matter-of-fact, the wandering Jew taking a short rest in the suburbs of the world. But the suburbs are those of pre-World War I America. Abie shows neither complacency nor self-hatred; his flat feet have plodded into reality and there he has settled down. He is the general underdog, proclaiming the philosophy of the socially underprivileged. He, too, is the last, the best of all the game. In his mouth, to be sure, this assurance has a faintly ironic ring.
Abie the Agent is the explicit contribution of American Jewry to the comic strip. Elsewhere, Jews function more as a leaven and a seasoning. Such artists as Rube Goldberg season the general trends with their wit rather than reflect themselves. And with Alfred Gerald Caplin who is Al Capp, American Jewry demonstrates its advanced position in American society. Al Capp has only to express in his strip his own desires, drives, and anxieties—like, say, Saul Steinberg in his cartoons—in order to answer the desires, drives, and anxieties of all his contemporaries, regardless of variety of origin or creed. By their very names, Abie and Li’l Abner show the stages in the path American Jews have followed in integrating themselves in the context of American civilization.
In Its names, the strip often parodies the mystic possibilities of nomenclature, sometimes in a way that is positively thematic, as after the birth of Toots and Casper’s Buttercup. But it also exploits the magic of names: in alliterations like Donald Duck, in rhymes like Silly Milly (who is by no means silly; with her, as with the Marx Brothers, the nonsensical sometimes borders on revelation); or in the pun, as in Claire Voyant or Ella Cinders (=Cinderella). Or the name is eliminated and gives way to the situation, as in Mr. and Mrs. or Bringing Up Father—both relatively early products. But there the artist intervenes, substituting for the name the graphic formula of a physiognomy.
The faces and figures of the comic strip, like the names, are abbreviations of characters and lives. Yellow Kid and Little Nemo are still, from the point of view of graphic characterization, nameless and indistinct; the scene is smothered in detail. The umbilical cord attaching them to English book illustration and to stage design has not yet been cut. But Mutt and Jeff already has that clarity of outline, that economy of stroke, and that forceful grouping of light and dark surfaces which characterize the good comic strip and are essential to its speed.
Living parasitically on the body of contemporary civilization, the comic strip has sucked in as much of the art of the century as it could digest. It contains traces of impressionism and even of abstract art. (The concentrated form of abstract art is perhaps best suited to its essential character, if only the comic strip artist is intelligent and bold enough to discern this essential character.)
Picture language is symbolical by nature, accepted as the reality for which it has been substituted. In thus replacing reality, it creates a circle of the initiated who are united by the symbol they have accepted in common. This principle applies no less to the admirers of Picasso’s “Guernica” than to the fans of Crocket Johnson’s Barnaby. Strips like this last, or Otto Soglow’s Little King or Disney’s more advanced works, or even Hoff’s Tuffy, show how readily the symbol as a pictorial element, no matter what liberties it takes with nature, can be accepted and understood by the public at large.
These strips also demonstrate the possibilities of modern non-objective art for popular consumption. All commissars to the contrary notwithstanding, realism and mass appeal are not identical; indeed, the intelligent selection and use of artistic symbols can make realistic detail appear not only superfluous but actually disturbing. From the artistic point of view, Paul Klee’s “Twittering Machine” and Barnaby’s Atom Machine for the manufacture of shoes have at least their remoteness from reality in common—except that Barnaby’s fantastic contraption is placed within an accepted context, while Klee’s exists in the glacial solitude of a violet vision. In the comic strip, the masses have begun to approach art and the dream and to put them to work for their own civilization.
Many comics are drawn with the left hand, the dreamer. To be sure, this dream is still unarticulated and heavily encumbered with the trappings of daily life; diffuse and awkward, stammering and drunk with sleep, it staggers along, then again it grows shrill and phantasmagoric, and always it remains in the fetters of business, of the syndicates.
Yet the comics, having risen from unconscious depths, must needs address themselves to the unconscious depths in their public. Graphically, they are derived from “doodles,” those glosses that the unconscious, once it knows itself to be free from control, writes in the margin of the wideawake day. Doodles are the safety valve through which the soul liberates itself from the tension of concentration, the back door by which the creative urge, which has no recognized place in the economy of the American working day, sneaks out of doors. Moreover, since the successful comic figure openly proclaims its descent from the doodle, the reader can identify himself not only with the figure but with its creator as well: he might have drawn it himself.
Rarely have so many identified themselves so profoundly with anything so vague. Consider Superman. He has hardly more than his name in common with Nietzsche’s blasphemous and iconoclastic phantasm; in fact one suspects that he originally owed his “super” to the “super-duper,” the “ne plus ultra and then some” of advertising usage. This Superman is a Li’l Abner without Mammy Yokum and without popular background, a hillbilly without the fertile background of folklore or remnants of creed. He is a Goliath rather than a David, but a Goliath who has joined the side of the conventionally right. The most serious objection to him I have heard from the mouth of a child: that he is immortal, and therefore the amazing things he does are not miracles.
The emblem of his supermanhood is inscribed on his chest, not on his forehead. He is as guileless as Li’l Abner, but he lacks the primitiveness of the country boy; the old magic that flows from the contrast between city and country is missing. Li’l Abner is at home in Dogpatch, Superman in the universe—that is, nowhere. Superman is on the side of the right as well as of hygiene. He uses violence against violence. His eyes penetrate granite walls and steel plates, but he does not see what Mickey Mouse always sees: reality. Planets serve him and the elements lie at his feet, but in the main his accomplishments are limited to smoking out a small gang of criminals or outsmarting some master mind. The mountain labors and—with the help of modern technology—brings forth a stunt.
An example of the irony unintentionally provided by Superman is the sequence in which he magnanimously carries away a glacier in order to help a village with its drainage problem. His work done, he has to bring a new glacier from the North Pole, because nature, which non facit saltus, plays a trick on the winged lord of creation and floods the village. Superman has about him something of Goethe’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, of Dr. Faust, of Hercules, and of Atlas. To be sure, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells also make their contribution to his costume and trappings, but essentially he owes his effect to the vanishing remnants of ancient mythology, that collective memory of mankind which has here been combined with Utopian anticipaation. He does not embody all this, for Superman has never achieved such density of personality as Li’l Abner, for example, but he does draw constantly from a plentiful, if shallow, reservoir of watered-down myths and pipedreams of the future.
Superman is a product of the last war, the shadowy but legitimate son of the Hitlerian age and the atom bomb. Although, as we have stressed, he comes in the wake of a long tradition, it is upon the miracle of technology that he finally calls in situations that can no longer be met with the implements of reality. The deus ex machina has become the machine god. Superman is the boy’s dream in pictures, but through the dehumanization of the miracle and the substitution of technical for poetic fantasy, his face has acquired a terrifyingly unhuman, aggressive, and hard profile, foreshadowing a world in process of formation, a world that is certainly new but far less brave than it thinks and claims to be. Seen politically, Superman is the promise that each and every world problem will be solved by the technical trick. He is the Man of Tomorrow; so he says himself.
Fritz Lang, to whom the American film owes a number of real achievements, made two films in pre-Hitler Germany that show symptomatic resemblances to Superman: Die Nibelungen, whose Siegfried resembled our hero in build and physiognomy—bull neck and a blank face moulded of some soft substance; and Metropolis, whose setting is related to the background of the Superman strips—a city on the borderline between modern civilization and pseudo-scientific Utopia. Like Superman, Lang had caught the Zeitgeist.
Myths crumble, heroic figures can be watered down, but symbols and names cannot be used with impunity. And even though this bashful, amiable Superman is to the petty Übermensch who unleashed the Second World War as Robin Hood to a storm trooper, they have one thing in common: they both blur the transition from the technically possible to the miraculous irrational, their efficacy rests on the vague hybridism of heroism and Utopia, of technology and the miracle.
Superman announces himself the ally of right, the people, and democracy. Prankster is his enemy, Lynch is a thorn in his side; he issues forth to vanquish the tyrannosauros rex, as Siegfried did to slay his dragon. But his credo, like the “balloon” in which he expresses it, is loosely attached and interchangeable. It is not the natural expression of himself, like Li’l Abner’s far more modest self-avowals. He has merely put on his credo like his winged cloak. He lacks human reality; is it not precisely his mission to abolish reality?
Superman, in fact, is a figure of dual identity. He slips from the civilian clothes of his everyday life into the ceremonial garb of his miraculous deeds and back again; he is a quick-change artist, and even more amazing than the ease of his metamorphoses are his trifling reasons for undertaking them. But the dual identity motif is the schema of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—a pattern bordering on that of the pathological swindler and criminal. For a popular figure, it is not without its dangers. The double face and the split personality are symptoms of a disease that has attacked our civilization. And, more often than not, it is also an attribute of modern dictators, perhaps of the tyrants of all epochs.
Superman has become anchored in those sections of the population that are most naive, most capable of enthusiasms, and most susceptible to revolutionary impulses. By the technique—general in the comics—of breaking off the text just before the climax, by creating new climaxes almost from day to day, it creates an excitement close to enchantment and frenzy. A toy, a puppet, Superman is a monstrous carnival figure combined of wishful dreams and present anxieties, of sensationalism and abused enthusiasm. Accustomed to change his identity, Superman has it in him to become a political figure. To play with him is to play with the dynamite of our times.
I do not know whether the comics are popular or folk art, primitive or “primitivistic” art; I do not even know whether the word “art” is in any sense applicable to them as they are today. But they are surely a democratic enterprise. An immanent need of the masses presided at their birth and helped to develop and round out their figures.
Accordingly, it is reassuring to see that after our entry into the war, the Superman of 1938 was followed by George Baker’s Sad Sack. Sad Sack is not an unmixed joy to his public like the hero and swindler of the air. He is a little man in the lineage of Charlie Chaplin, and he is the little man’s answer to the pathos and uniform of war. He is molded of clay, not blown up with air: an American Good Soldier Schweik, less subtle and malicious than Schweik (he ultimately accepts the cause for which he is fighting as his cause), but just as stubborn in asserting the rights of his private existence, which as a rule is identical with personal misfortune. The shlemiel and Hard Luck Joe is a healthy corrective to the unfettered pipedream of the masses; it is perhaps the only corrective that is possible throughout the whole breadth of our civilization.
We must see the comic strips for what they are: excellent means of communication. America has produced in them a technical miracle: precise, smooth-functioning, versatile, and, like everything that is technically perfect, always demanding new technical refinement. Absorbed in the production of this miraculous vehicle of modern communication, America has seldom asked herself who was going to ride in it and where it was bound for.
Every once in a while, when Americans take a good look at this product of theirs, they are seized by a fit of the shivers and feel almost that the best solution would be to throw the baby out with the bath. Aside from the fact that it would be impossible to prohibit the comics—everybody knows that, and the idea itself is merely a means of making conversation—such a step would deprive this country of one of the genuine contributions it has made to its own culture. America without comics would not be America.
It is, therefore, as shortsighted as it is ungrateful to see in the comic strip nothing but an incitement to crime and violence, and to forget, because of the magnetic emptiness of Superman and his like, the ironical urbanity of the Shmoo. Art has always had a certain similarity to the cactus. Many thorns are needed to produce, in a blessed moment, the blossom that crowns them all. The undeniably thorny horrors of the Gothic tales were needed to create a European poem like Byron’s Manfred.
The violent controversies between psychoanalysts and other educators over the comic strips are likely to obscure the basic problem they pose. How can we channel the revolutionary possibilities inherent in this—hitherto almost aimless—means of mass entertainment and mass enlightenment so that a maximum of art is combined with a maximum of edification; how can we realize and develop the artistic possibilities latent in the comics even today? How can we rescue them in general from that complete lack of significant content which has vitiated so much real talent? In the end all these problems become one. In view of the latent powers of the comics as a means of social criticism and of their enormous circulation and technical perfection, what they still lack is the artistic genius to control these forces and drive them towards a goal.
Li’l Abner and his Mammy Yokum are about as far removed from the creative origins of real popular art as they are from realizing the artistic potential of the comic strip as such. Yet they are on their way, perhaps, to that realization, and have already found some good companions among the menacing crowd of slick and sloppy nightmares let loose by the syndicates on the imagination of the nation.
“I was sick of writing for kids, and adults with the minds of kids,” condescending and calculating Al Capp meditated one day. “I got to know all the dirty tricks, and I knew that if I experimented and lost a great section of the featherbrained, Bam!-and-Zowie!loving public, I could always go back to them. But I also knew that by experimenting I might get some of the usually noncomic-reading public—the people who had been appalled by the childishness and utter stupidity of most strips.”
The future of the American comic strip as an artistic as well as a moral enterprise lies in meditations like these.