[Paleopsych] Toronto Star: Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester: Intellectual Marijuana

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Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester: Intellectual Marijuana

    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
    Sunday supplements.
    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
    American children.
    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
    mere reality.)
    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
    quite charming...
    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
    in general.
    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
    cultural importance.
    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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