[Paleopsych] Toronto Star: Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester: Intellectual Marijuana
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Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester: Intellectual Marijuana
comics and their critics
By Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester
Toronto Star Ideas section (March 27, 2005)
In 1943, when she was working in Hollywood, Dorothy Parker was one of
the pre-eminent figures in the American intelligentsia. Her poems and
critical writing in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair had made her a
force to be reckoned with in highbrow circles; even if she wasnt
revered in academic circles at that time, she was still a shining
example of the liberal, educated mind.
So a confession she made that year about the uneasy relationship that
has always existed between intellectuals and the popular art form
known as the comics was both startling and revelatory.
For a bulky segment of a century, I have been an avid follower of
comic strips all comic strips, Parker wrote. This is a statement made
with approximately the same amount of pride with which one would say,
Ive been shooting cocaine into my arm for the past 25 years.
Tracing the literatis views on comics over the past century repeatedly
reveals the same divisions that Parker located within her own soul: an
avaricious appetite for them combined with a feeling that theyre
Comics first came to prominence in newspapers in the late 1890s when
two great press barons, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer,
engaged in a fierce competition over big-city markets, especially New
York. In order to win reader loyalty, Hearst and Pulitzer gave
prominence to comics, most notably the rambunctious brats in The
Yellow Kid and the Katzenjammer Kids, and particularly in colour
Genteel critics writing in high-toned literary journals denounced
these early comics as lowbrow and demeaning. In 1906, Atlantic Monthly
described comics as a thing of national shame and degradation. Three
years later, the Ladies Home Journal labeled comics a crime against
For those early critics, comics were a symptom of everything that was
going wrong with the world: the new-found preference for visual
stimulation rather than time-honoured literary traditions; the growing
strength of disorderly immigrant cultures in the United States and
Canada, which they thought would overturn Anglo-Saxon supremacy; and
the increasing acceptance of slang, which endangered norms of proper
grammar and refined diction.
By the 1920s, however, the adherence to Victorian ideals of decorum
and decency had started to fade, as a younger generation rebelled
against their intellectual elders by celebrating popular art forms
such as jazz and movies, as well as comics.
One book in particular, Gilbert Seldes 1924 work, The Seven Lively
Arts, proved to be a major turning point. In this extended celebration
of popular culture, he placed cartoonist George Herriman, who created
the character of Krazy Kat, in a modern pantheon that included Charlie
Chaplin and the early ragtime musicians. Krazy Kat, Seldes proclaimed,
is the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art
produced in America today.
Seldes words carried great weight. As managing editor of the
influential literary magazine The Dial, as well as in his own writing,
he had established a reputation as a serious and demanding critic. A
man of impeccable highbrow credentials, he was also close friends with
distinguished writers such as James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald and
E.E. Cummings, many of whom shared his passion for popular culture.
(Cummings would pen a paean to Krazy Kat as a living ideal superior to
Seldes enthusiasm was echoed by painters such as Joan Miro and Willem
de Kooning, filmmakers Frank Capra and John Grierson, and writers Jack
Kerouac and Gertrude Stein. (A strip of durable popularity, Krazy Kat
is currently being reprinted in a multi-volume series by Fantagraphics
Seldes cleverly inverted the existing value system by showing that
qualities that had been denounced as vices were, in fact, virtues.
While the genteel tradition claimed that text was intrinsically
superior to visual art forms, Seldes stressed that each should be
judged by its own internal criteria. So, rather than decrying the
slang of comic strip dialogue as evidence of bad grammar and diction,
he praised cartoonists for their vernacular vigour. While genteel
critics gave priority to tradition, Seldes responded by stressing the
modernist value of novelty.
The first wave of pro-comics sentiment peaked in the jazz era of the
1920s, when modern culture was becoming more open. But in the 1930s
and 40s, in the grim shadow of the Depression and the Second World
War, the cultural mood turned sour.
In this pessimistic era, many writers began to fear that mass culture
was contributing to the ills of the world. Many intellectuals came to
see the general population as dupes, easily manipulated by the mass
media, especially after witnessing the success of Joseph Goebbels as
propaganda minister for the Nazi regime. Two famous science fiction
novels of the era, Brave New World (1932) and 1984 (1948), gave vivid
expression to those fears.
Thus it was not surprising to see fresh denunciations of both
newspaper comic strips and the comic books sold at news counters. For
literary critic Irving Howe, the famous creations of Walt Disney
conjured up the spectre of the hated Nazi storm troopers.
On the surface, the Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse cartoons seem merely
pleasant little fictions, but they are actually over-laden with the
most competitive, aggressive and sadistic themes, he wrote in Politics
magazine in 1948. Often on the verge of hysteria, Donald Duck is a
frustrated little monster who has something of the SS man in him and
who we, also having something of the SS man in us, naturally find
Writing in The New Republic in 1948, Marya Mannes referred to the form
as intellectual marijuana.
Every hour spent in reading comics, she asserted, is an hour in which
all inner growth has stopped.
By the early 1950s, comics were under siege on numerous fronts.
Parents groups organized comic-book burnings; comic-book publishers
were called before the U.S. Senate to answer charges they were
contributing to juvenile delinquency; and child psychologists such as
Fredric Wertham published articles and books arguing that comics were
throttling the tender sensibilities of the young.
In terms of their reputation within respectable society, comics hit
their nadir in the early 1950s. Slowly, however, the pendulum started
to swing the other way.
The careers of two Catholic intellectuals, Marshall McLuhan and Father
Walter Ong, illustrate how comics re-won respect in the post-war era.
In the 1940s, long before his fame as a media guru, McLuhan was
exciting the imagination of bright, young students by confidently
linking together disparate phenomena, from modernist art to medieval
theology, into a single worldview. He gathered around him a circle of
fledging scholars, including a young priest named Walter Ong, who were
eager to join in his quest to make sense of the modern
techno-communication landscape what we now call, thanks in part to
McLuhan, the media.
In their early work, the McLuhan circle tended to be critical of mass
culture. Ong, for example, attacked Mickey Mouse in 1941 as Mr.
Disneys West-Coast rodent, while McLuhan in 1951 suggested that
Superman was a potential dictator.
Yet as they immersed themselves in the subject, they quickly became
more appreciative of popular culture, finding possibilities for
creativity and even liturgical beauty in art aimed at a broad
In 1951, Ong was openly praising Walt Kelleys Pogo for displaying a
linguistic playfulness reminiscent of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein.
McLuhan, meanwhile, came to cherish Lil Abner and Mad magazine as
evidence that sophisticated satire could be appreciated by both young
and old. And he was critical of societys kneejerk reaction to comics
The elders of the tribe, who had never noticed that the ordinary
newspaper was as frantic as a surrealist art exhibition, could hardly
be expected to notice that the comic books were as exotic as
eighth-century illuminations, he wrote in Understanding Media. So,
having noticed nothing about the form, they could discern nothing of
the contents, either. The mayhem and violence were all they noted.
Therefore, with naïve literary logic, they waited for violence to
flood the world. Or, alternatively, they attributed existing violence
to the comics.
In their shifting attitude toward popular culture, the McLuhan circle
was a harbinger of change. The mid-20th century was a particularly
exciting time to be a Catholic intellectual: Vatican II was gestating
and there was an increasing openness in the church to the modern
world, including popular culture.
By the 1960s, the groundwork for a new and ongoing appreciation of
comics had been laid by McLuhan and other intellectuals, notably the
literary critic Leslie Fiedler and the soon-to-be-famous novelist
Umberto Eco. Drawing on theories from psychology and sociology,
Fiedler and Eco studied comics as an example of social myth popular
stories that illustrated the dream life of the common person. For
Fiedler, the superhero was an example of urban folklore, in which the
dark forest of the fairytales became the urban jungle of Batman.
Meanwhile, Eco believed that the serialized nature of comics where the
adventure is always continued tomorrow or next week reflected the
anxious, provisional rhythm of modern life.
Since then, weve seen an ever-deepening appreciation of the form.
Comics are now studied in the academy, archived in research libraries
and lavishly reprinted in expensive collector volumes. In one Toronto
high school, they have been used for the past three years as part of a
successful program to boost literacy. And the recent rise of the
graphic novel and manga (Japanese comic books), not to mention the
recent massive success of Hollywood films based on comics (Spiderman,
Spiderman 2, Hulk, Ghost World), has only strengthened the forms
Yet surveying the long history of intellectuals and comics, we
shouldnt assume that this current resurgence of praise will be
permanent. As weve seen, intellectuals are fundamentally divided about
the worth of comics, and there is always the possibility of a
Perhaps a backlash wouldnt be such a bad thing. There is value in an
art form being perceived as dangerous. After all, being compared to
marijuana and cocaine has done comics no long-term harm.
Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester are the editors of Arguing Comics:
Literary Masters on a Popular Medium (University of Mississippi
Press), from which this article is partially adapted.
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