Why not Comics? (Some history).

Underground, you can feel the weight of the cliff face overhead.  There is a solemn quiet in the tribe, even the bundled infants keep respectful silence.  All would be dark, but you have brought fire with you,  bundles of rivergrass twisted together burning brightly.  White Streak pours water on a pile of powders, dips his hand into the mud and strokes the wall, leaving a swatch of color.  He scratches with a burned stick, here and here.  Behold:  an animal,  then a herd, running, powerful.   Here a hunter carries a spear, here a spear has pierced the skin of a great longhorned bison that staggers and soon will die to feed the tribe.

Stories told in pictures have been with us for as long as we have recorded story in any durable form.  We are hardwired to understand images, and make stories in our heads to make sense of these images.  It is an important part of our mental heritage, and in fact one of the building blocks of ‘culture’ itself: the ability to pass on information via visual representations.

The truth is we understand that quite well.  I give my 1-yr-old daughter board books to chew on and we flip the pages while I point out that a cow says ‘moo’.   This is understood as a critical part of developing a capacity for conceptual thought in her wrinkly little brain.   I show her the image of an animal, describe its ways and actions.   She has no idea that this animal feeds her with milk and flesh, that its skin will cover her tiny pink feet.   But somehow it is important to know that there are cows in the world, and this is how they sound.  Even if she never has to hunt one to feed her family.  (I hope).

At some point though we decide that the stories we can tell are more nuanced  if we take away the pictures.  Kids graduate from books with vivid detailed images to chapter books with a few illustrative examples and then to thick tomes packed back-to-front with text.   There is a value judgment in that swap,  the belief that words are more mature or important than images.

But there is no real reason that this should be true.  Is an audiobook more refined and resonant than a foreign movie at the local arthouse cinema?    Is a poem more important than a painting?

poem and painting as one, Wm Blake’s Tyger

But to my way of thinking it is a false dichotomy.    A picture is worth a thousand words, but the narrative density of a work that uses image and word to tell a story allows you at times to pack a great deal more substance into a single page.  There is a reason why a two hour film can be described in 20 pages of storyboard — for this is at heart what comic books are movies on the page.  The function of sequential art –that is, images placed in sequence to tell a story–  is a series of shorthand ways to illustrate sound, time, emotion and action.  In the absence of a shaman who can mimic the bellow of a bull bison struck by a spear, we have  captions, speed lines, sound effects.

Still there’s no question when comes to comics,  the flinch reaction for many is to dismiss the format itself as inherently juvenile and sub-par.   It’s interesting to know how that value judgement was formed.   Two hundred years worth of history lays the groundwork for this bias.

In the late 1800’s New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer discovered that the more images he put in his newspapers, the more he’d sell.  With satirical editorial cartoons, he could encapsulate or lampoon an idea that might take a multi-column essay to explain otherwise, and even semi-literate readers, or new immigrants who primarily spoke other languages would still buy papers if the images helped to decode the news story, or otherwise entertain.

RF Outcalt’s slum-dwelling Yellow Kid  became the first recurring comic character, commenting on action via slogans written on his shirt, telling stories via panels written in sequence, essentially in comic strips.

The character and the format  became so popular that rival publisher William Randolph Hearst hired Outcalt away to illustrate for the New York Journal American, but the character continued to appear in the World.  Thus at one point both newspapers published Yellow Kid exploits.  They became known as ‘Yellow Kid’ newspapers, and the brand of  readership-at-all-costs sensationalist (even fictionalized) journalism they practiced became known as ‘Yellow kid’ then shortened to ‘yellow’ journalism.

So at the inception of the artform comics were linked with a medium perceived as sub-literate, low-culture, associated with sensationalist even unethical practices, perhaps fit only for indiscriminate readers and immigrants.

Or perhaps not, when you consider the brilliance of draftsmen like Winsor McKay who seized the artform and expanded its possibilities:

Winsor McKay’s mind-bendingly wonderful Little Nemo in Slumberland

Fast forward through the invention of the superhero in pulp action comics  in the early 20th century  (worthy of a post of their own, upcoming) and pause a moment in the 1950’s.

Comics traveled to the front lines with soldiers in World War Two, and soldiers returning from war continued to read them.  As reader’s grew up, the subject matter grew up as well, with stories touching on themes of horror, death, or romance and betrayal.

Psychiatrist Frederic Wertham discovered that many of the deeply disturbed kids he was working with in his clinic in Harlem were interested in these more mature comics.  Wertham made a causal link between these books and his patients disturbed state.  In his book The Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham made the case that kids are affected by the environment around them.    Since these kids were disturbed and they read these comics perhaps the comics contributed towards making them disturbed.

Perhaps–  though he neglected to consider other factors that contributed to the causes of their dysfunction.  He was treating children who had suffered significant trauma in their lives (rape, neglect and other abuse).  The literature they were reading was likely less of a contributing factor than the acts they had suffered.

In fact a case can be made that in reading books of this sort they were working out internal issues, seeking catharsis or resolution for their feelings.  This is one of the primary functions of art itself.

In Bruno Bettleheim’s the Uses of Enchantment he makes a similar case for the dark and gristly resolution of many folk tales and fairy tales.  The witch must be nailed into a barrel and rolled about the town for the child to feel that justice has been done.  Yes there is good and bad in the world, and evil must be punished.

Bettleheim’s argument goes that it is inherently satisfying to kids to learn this, since it gives them a place to put their own dark or complex or angry feelings.   Otherwise, if you give them only happy stories, they believe that they themselves  may be ugly or evil for having bad feelings.

Regardless Wertham’s case was so persuasive that Congress held hearings to protect America’s children from this sort of literature.  The comics publishers all agreed to censor themselves and adhere to a common code of morals, including such tenets as:

 Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.

If crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity.

In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.

Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism and werewolfism are prohibited.

Special precautions to avoid references to physical afflictions of deformities shall be taken.

Although slang and colloquialisms are acceptable, excessive use should be discouraged and wherever possible good grammar shall be employed.

  All characters shall be depicted in dress reasonably acceptable to society.

Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.

Respect for parents, the moral code, and for honorable behavior shall be fostered. A sympathetic understanding of the problems of love is not a license for moral distortion.

The treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage.

Passion or romantic interest shall never be treated in such a way as to stimulate the lower and baser emotions.
strictly forbidden.

Fair enough.  However, what it meant was that only certain kinds of stories were allowed to be told in this artform.  And their audience was predetermined.

Because kids could and did read comics, and because comics can be instantly understood even by those who are under-literate, therefore only stories that are appropriate for little kids could be published in this format.

From then on American comics have generally been thought of as little kid stuff.  Dismissably juvenile.  Or pigeonholed into various niche genres:  featuring the exploits of various superheroes in pajamas and capes, or in the hijinks of humor magazines, showing the golly-gee wholesome romance of Archie and his pals,  the shennanigans of Richie Rich, Caspar the Friendly Ghost, and so on.

In the half century (and then some) since those hearings before congress, the artform has grown and changed a great deal.  Society itself outgrew the limits of that comics code, and comics have matured again.

Books written in this format have been awarded the Pulitzer prize (Art Spiegelman’s collected Maus) and the Caldecott medal for fiction ( The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick).   Graphic Novels have proven a fertile ground for movies in many genre, not merely the cape and tights superhero flicks (see Road to Perdition, Persepolis, 300, V for Vendetta, among many others).

In a world where many children’s first access to Story comes not from books but from a visual format, in DVD or TV show, computer or console games, the role of a book that can take full advantage of the instant accessibility of images is increasingly important.  In this era when newspapers are dying out perhaps we should re-learn the lessons that Joe Pulitzer figured out 200 years ago.   For years now the only growth industry within the publishing world has been that of books written in this format.   It should be self-evident: Graphic Novels encourage reading.   Actual books.  That’s a good thing.

The trick as always lies in finding Quality stories and books.  And that of course is what sites like this are about.

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