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Arguing Comics

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Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium




Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester




Published in 2004 by University Press of Mississippi




Arguing Comics by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester presents readers with an in depth look into the varied forms of scholarly comics criticism that existed before before the rise of the Cultural Studies movement, and long before the now burgeoning field of Comics Studies was even conceived of as a legitimate field of academic inquiry.  The book's main endeavor is to show people interested in comics (especially those looking at the medium from an academic perspective) that, despite the relative newness of Comics Studies as an academic field of study, the comics medium has generated a spirited public debate among intellectuals, media personalities, literary and art critics (both popular and academic), and well known writers ever since the 1890s when comic strips first made their entry into American popular culture via daily newspapers.  The public debate and controversy surrounding the comics medium among comics fans, educators, politicians and parents and parental organizations that spans the same time period covered by this book is well documented elsewhere, but Arguing Comics opens a window on the virtually unknown debate between critics, scholars, and writers that occurred in the pages of books, magazines, and newspaper articles over the value of comics as art and literature and the effect the medium had on American art and culture.


Arguing Comics is comprised of 27 essays (or parts thereof) by writers and critics spanning from 1895 to 1972.  Some of the represented scholars are almost completely unknown by the general public currently, but the book also includes pieces by celebrated writers and scholars such as E.E. Cummings, Marshall McLuhan, Umberto Eco, and Irving Howe, most of whom are still well known and oft-cited both inside and outside of academic circles today.  The book is divided into three sections along more or less chronological and thematic lines.  The first section, "Early Twentieth-Century Voices," covers the pre-1940 period, and most of the essays in this section discuss comics as a problematic, almost menacing medium that uses pictures as a substitute for text, and therefore not only an inferior art form, but not art at all.  The second section, "The New York Intellectuals," centers on the writings of a group of writers and critics from the 1940s and early post-war period, many of whose essays were published in magazines like the Partisan Review.  Once again, the tone in this section is mostly negative, with most of these writers writing about comics as a form of mass culture and therefore a throwaway medium intended to distract the public from true art and literature.  The third section, "The Postwar Mavericks," presents a wide array of writers who were beginning to take a wholly different approach to the comics medium in the later post-war period and through the 1960s.  The writers in this section, although not completely positive, are starting to treat the comics medium as an art form worthy of study.  Some of the essays here reveal the foundations of what would become the field of cultural studies and eventually the comics studies field itself.  




Early Twentieth-Century Voices


This section presents critical essays by writers from 1895 to about 1946.  The authors represented in this section are: Sidney Fairfield, Annie Russell Marble, Ralph Bergengren, Thomas Mann, Gilbert Seldes, E.E. Cummings, and Dorothy Parker.  The essays in this section show that the subject of comics as the "death of literature" is not only not a new issue, but it is even older than the the hysterical arguments against the medium that sprouted in the wake of Frederic Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent, and dates all the way back to the medium's inception.  Most of the writers here discuss how comics are trash-art, do not enhance literature or other textual media, and are even somehow dangerous to literacy.  Notable exceptions to this viewpoint in this section are an excerpt are provided in the essays of Gilbert Seldes, E.E. Cummings, and Dorothy Parker (who at first opposed comics but later embraced them).




  • Annie Russell Marble:  Though it would be difficult to select the most vicious attack on comics in this section, Annie Russell Marble's 1903 "The Reign of the Spectacular," excerpted here from The Dial, is notable.  Russell's views herself as a protector of the genteel puritan tradition, and begins her article by letting her readers know that "literature that is episodic and pictorial [is] often a substitute for ear, imagination, and reason."
  • Glibert Seldes:  In his book, The Seven Lively Arts, Gilbert Seldes praises the very things (Jazz music, slapstick comedies, and comics) that supporters of the genteel tradition like Marble were attacking as indigenous American art-forms worthy of our study and attention.  In the chapter that Arguing Comics includes, "The Krazy Kat that Walks by Himself," Seldes even goes so far as to argue that Krazy Kat is "major art" and 'the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America to-day."
  • E.E. Cummings:  Written more than twenty years after Seldes' book, "A Foreword to Krazy," an article from the Sewanee Review by the well-known modernist poet E.E. Cummings, is a veritable homage to the comic strip Krazy Kat, and is written in some of the same modernist poetical language that Cummings used in his poetry.


The New York Intellectuals


The essays in this section were published in the post-war period from 1946 to the mid 1960s. The authors represented in this section are: Clement Greenberg, Irving Howe, Delmore Schwartz, Robert Warshow, and Harold Rosenberg.  The New York Intellectuals were a circle of writers and art/literary critics associated with the "thinker" magazines Partisan Review, Comment, and Politics, as well as Columbia University and City College.  Most of these writers were non-Stalinist, American communists concerned with examining art through the lens of social and political context, creating a fusion of Marxism and modernist art and literature, and establishing a connection between cultural and political radicalism.  As a result of this, these rather "high-minded" thinkers tended to view most American pop-culture artifacts (pop music, films, and especially comics) as "mass culture," labeling such things as a waste of time (at best) or as symptomatic of some political/corporate affront to "a genuinely autonomous and democratic culture."




  • Clement Greenberg:  In his 1946 article from The Nation, Greenberg critiques the comics art of popular American cartoonist and New Yorker cover artist William Steig.  Greenberg's lofty prose is a good example of the type of writing one can expect from the Partisan Review circle of writers.  He discusses Steig's politics, and describes his style in extremely highbrow terminology, but gives almost no clue to the reader as to whether or not Steig's cartoons would be found humorous or pleasing to the eye of the average reader (it is, after all, a review of a magazine cartoon collection).  Consider the following sample:  "Steig's cartoons push and strain against the social and psychological limitations of the cartoon form and strive to become self-sufficient, time-transcending art.  The quasi-abstract drawings...are...those which most visibly embody Steig's aesthetic yearning...If...Steig were somewhat more susceptible himself to those dangers of middle-class existence he too triumphantly points out, he would score much more frequently."  It must be noted that Greenberg's articles, in a move forward from the almost universal dismissal of the previous section, at least acknowledges comics as a form of art to be considered, though his approach to criticism is more suited to that of an fine art critic speaking about a museum exhibit.
  • Irving Howe:  As one of the most famous and prolific figures of the New York Intellectual circle, Irving Howe wrote on almost every imaginable artistic, literary, and pop-culture topic under the sun between 1948 and 1992, and comics was no exception.  In his "Notes on Mass Culture", reprinted from a 1948 article in Politics, Howe speculates on the paradox facing the modern critic trying to analyze and critique the different aspects of pop-culture.  He says that first the critic has to begin by "admitting to himself that, like it or not, he is part of the mass audience and influenced by mass culture."  Despite this early, logically intuitive approach to the criticism of modern commercially driven art forms (which he also brought to his criticisms of traditional literature), Howe does not seem to be able to stop himself from labeling comics as "pseudo-cultural" diversions foisted upon a unaware and dim-witted working class by a politcal/corporate power structure whose motives are suspect.  His article does make for a fascinating read.


The Postwar Mavericks 


This section overlaps chronologically with the previous one and there is probably more thematic variation in the essays in this section than in any other.  The authors included are: Manny Farber, Walter J. Ong, Marshall McLuhan, Gershon Legman, Leslie Fielder, Donald Phelps, C.L.R. James, and Umberto Eco.  Although the writers represented her were writing independently, much of their work was a response in direct opposition of the type of politically based criticism coming out of the New York circle.  In this section we still see somewhat of an emphasis on pop culture, but rather than being hypercritical, or dismissing the artifacts of pop culture altogether, these essays seem to be more focused on the acceptance of the products of mass culture for the purpose of studying what they might contribute and add to literature and art as a whole.  Some of the work of these writers (both comics based and otherwise) laid the foundations for what would later come to be known as cultural studies.  Not all of the views of comics presented here are positive, but there is more of a mood of acceptance of comics as an art form, and many of these writers at least give comics a "fair shake" when analyzing what the medium might mean for writers, artists, fans, and the American culture at large.  We still see political approaches to comics in this section, but religious and psychological, as well as genre approaches are also presented.




  • Walter J. Ong:  Ong is perhaps most widely known as the man who introduced the critique of superhero comics as a fascist genre (which persists in some circles to the present day), but Arguing Comics presents an article by him reprinted from a 1951 issue of America called "Bogey Sticks for Pogo Men."  This article is a truly analytical piece on the then extremely popular comic strip Pogo by Walt Kelly.  Rather than telling whether or not we should like the strip, Ong attempts to analyze the contextual meaning of Pogo, and quite competently draws comparisons between various elements of the strip and more traditionally accepted art forms.  He compares the linguistic elements of Pogo to the prose of James Joyce, and points out similarities between Kelly's style of art and that of cubist master Picasso.  Ong blurs the lines between mass culture and serious art by referring to a sort of sameness between something that is obviously very "street" in its appeal and things (Joyce and Picasso) that are widely considered to be far too highbrow and inaccessible to the average person.
  • Marshall McLuhan: Known primarily as a "media guru" from his work in the television and radio fields, Marshall McLuhan also wrote extensively on humanist issues and their relation to literature, technology, and the spiritual (mainly Catholic) condition.  Similar to the Partisan Review crowd (although decidedly less pessimistic and more embracing of pop culture) surrounding Irving Howe, a circle of like minded thinkers built up around McLuhan, including fellow writer Walter J. Ong.  McLuhan was one of the media figures who, because of the rise of TV in the 1950s, announced the "death of the book."  It is not clear whether it was because of this view, or in spite of it, that he was able to approach comics in such a literary manner in articles like "The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man" from 1951.  In this piece, McLuhan expertly navigates his way through such diverse topics as Little Orphan Annie and Superman, managing to compare the cultural myths presented in these comics to the same mythical themes present in the work of authors from Mark Twain to James Thurber, all the while guiding his argument through the scholarly logic of noted anthropologist Margaret Mead.
  • Umberto Eco:  Although Umberto Eco's essay, "The Myth of Superman," is certainly the least obscure piece of scholarship among the "lost articles" presented in Arguing Comics, it is worth noting here that this often reprinted and critically acclaimed article is perhaps the most famous single piece of comics criticism ever published.  Eco is one of the founding fathers of modern semiotics, a philosopher, and an award winning novelist. This article by him is considered by many scholars to be one the early works of cultural studies.




Arguing Comics, because of the wide range of topics it covers, the diversity of authors (from obscure academics to celebrity media figures) it includes, and the variety of scholarly approaches it contains, is an essential read for almost anyone interested in the comics medium or pop culture in general.  The book's emphasis on literary criticism makes it especially useful to scholars interested in approaching comics from a literary angle, but the historical context presented in the book makes it interesting for any one interested in the history of media or cultural studies.  Above all, it is a book that will come in quite handy for serious student s of comics studies because it represents the very root of criticism (in every sense of the word) of the medium.

It should be noted that, due to the age of most of the pieces contained in Arguing Comics, the book's focused is centered more on comic strips and single frame cartoons than on comic books (though they are discussed), and sometimes on just the concept of graphic art in relation to literature, but even hardcore comic book fans should be able to find articles in Arguing Comics that spark their interest.














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