The Literaries

In the wake of the comics medium’s forty-year hike to serious acceptance, the chances are that now a person won’t get laughed out the room for putting them on a par with Literature. The flipside of the medium having gained this kind of recognition is that it has also acquired a new species of critic who demands that comics be held to the standards of LITERATURE. Since the invasion of these literaries, I have been observing a tendency to ask the question: if this weren’t a comic would it stand up? Would the story be any good if it were prose and in competition with the rest of the world’s prose? If we take away all these damn pictures, would the stuff that is left be worth a hoot?

Thus we see, for example, the recent argument about the 1950s EC comics, started by Ng Suat Tong: "Over two millennia ago, Aristophanes was brilliantly mocking the tragedies of Euripides (Women at the Thesmophoria) and risking prosecution with forthright attacks on the leaders of Athens. Contrast this with what we get in Mad…"

And this: "'Master Race' is, however, a children’s story... As a children’s story, it does not contain one iota of the humanity found in a thirteen year old girl’s famous diary during World War 2-enshrouded Amsterdam. It is pathetic that it should still be considered one of the finest stories ever created in comics."

We might not get laughed out of the room, but the question is, would we want to be stuck in it with some guy who would ask: Since we already have Aristophanes, who needs Kurtzman? Since we have Erasmus of Rotterdam, why would we want Steve Martin? With Wagner still available, who cares about the Firehouse Five? Furthermore, would we let that guy organize the party music?

What appears at first to be taking a more stringent view is in fact applying irrelevant criteria. It dismantles the idea of a comic and leaves the parts hopelessly undone.

The argument was picked up by Chris Mautner, who does not while away his lunch hour with the immortals on Parnassus like the above critic, but just wants a fair serve of story for his buck. And he sees the story as exactly the one that can be summed up in terms of the "plot."

"Rather than saying ‘Mad was great,’ we should be saying which stories in Mad were great…” “'Pirate Gold' … is a fun, jet-propelled story of an amnesiac sea captain out for revenge…” “…stories like 'Contact!', a simplistic, jingoistic ‘us versus them’  tale that naively suggests America will win the Korean War solely because ‘we believe in good’" … “'F-86 Sabre-Jet', a mesmerizing tale of derring-do aeronautics…"

This critic does not have the pretensions of the first one, but is still reducing a comic to its "story."

Jeet Heer, in the comments following Gary Groth’s response to Mautner, shows more inclination to recognize the pictures, but he too, apologetically, wants to separate them from the package: "Most of the EC books belong to the history of American drawing & illustration rather than the history of American comics.”

Heer is choosing to ignore the fact that a narrative drawing is still a narrative drawing even when isolated from its story setting. Removed from its context it will just be telling a slightly different story. All the drawings in an EC comic are narrative drawings. Indeed they are the particular species of narrative drawing that belong entirely and exclusively to comics. If you dismantled the running order of an EC comic story, threw out the ending and mixed more than one story together, the drawings could still only belong to the history of comics (to express it in the terms of the given argument).

Let me fix the Kurtzman war comic in the reader’s mind before moving on. Here is the cover of Two-Fisted Tales #26, March 1952. There is a whole story in it and the way the story is told is quite sophisticated. A soldier in the middle of a historical action is already referring to it in the past tense. The first time I saw Kurtzman’s war comic art I wondered how on Earth he was able to get away with something so radical as that choppy cartooning, so far removed from what one would expect in war art. (Ng Suat Tong wants us to know he would be expecting no less than Goya.) He used the same choppy drawing on the early Mad covers. Notice how the Mad example, #7 October 1953, also tells a whole story. It took Kurtzman months, years, to distil this ink. That’s a story too.

Comics have had different kinds of critics at different times. I recall an earlier phase, in which the French critic Maurice Horn (I think it was he) took pains to compare comics (he was writing about Tarzan and Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon) to eighteenth-century opera. In studying opera, in this theory, it is not wise to attend too critically to the story material, with all its pleasant pastoral business with the shepherds and the nymphs. Our attention is more fruitfully applied to the dramatic use of the music, and to the beauties that the attentive ear can find there. Note here that if you isolate the music it does not cease to be dramatic-narrative music. It remains quite different in form and purpose from the more abstract music of an instrumental sonata. Applying the same principle to comics, the art is to be found in the story the cartoonist tells in his graphic strokes, his deployment of the whole panoply of cartoon effects and ways of seeing and representing. In the work of an exceptional artist there can be a whole other story happening. It was well explained by Robert Fiore in his response to Ng Suat Tong, though I don’t think anybody else has so far seized upon it:

What comics give us most of all is the experience of comics. What I mean is the way a given cartoonist portrays the world- the particular kind of subjectivity that is the cartoonist's special privilege- and the way the cartoonist tells his story from panel to panel. You can get this experience from comics whose intellectual content is fairly negligible.

By way of a comparison, think of the great Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit". It is a fine literary poem, set to music, and its author could have found no better singer to put it across. But a die-hard fan of Billie Holiday, the kind who has most of her recordings, is more likely to put on something from her earlier Columbia series of recordings, like "You’re a Lucky Guy" or "Billie’s Blues"  (“I ain’t good looking, and my hair ain’t curled”). A good number of the songs she had to sing during that period weren’t particularly good songs by high critical standards, and she didn’t have much choice in the matter, but the important thing is the musical alchemy by which she turned them into something precious. That and the happy accident of the first-rate jazz musicians she found herself playing with, such as Teddy Wilson and Lester Young. Every time she sang she told her own story, whatever the material she was working with. I’m not talking here about technique, a set of applications that can be learned, or about an aesthetic aspect of the work that can be separated from the work’s primary purpose. The performer’s story is the essence of jazz music. The question should not be whether the ostensible "story," the plot and all its detail, is worth our time; stories tend to all go one way or another. The question should be whether the person or persons performing the story, whether in pictures or speech or dance or song, or all of the above, have made it their own and have made it worthy.

Here’s another example. Read Umberto Eco’s essay "Casablanca, or, The Clichés are Having a Ball".

…aesthetically speaking (or by any strict critical standards) Casablanca is a very mediocre film. It is a comic strip, a hotch-potch, low on psychological credibility... And this is the reason it works, in spite of aesthetic theories and theories of film making… When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion. Just as the height of pain may encounter sensual pleasure… so too the height of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the sublime.”

To explain the value of Casablanca by its plot would be lame. To represent Billie Holiday’s work in terms of song lyrics would be to do her an injustice, which is not to say that there weren’t felicitous moments. The true appreciation of all this stuff demands a less linear mind.

Moving sideways at this point takes me to another recurring argument that falls within the jurisdiction of the present rant. I refer to the incessant debate over who authored Marvel Comics, was it Stan Lee or was it Jack Kirby? Like the above, the critics of the current crop have a tendency to look at the situation in a linear way. Since it is a "story," it must have an author, they reason. However, like Eco with his dissection of Casablanca, it needs to be seen as a conglomeration of accidents, any one of which on its own would not amount to much. The end result of these accidents, Lee at Marvel, Kirby at Marvel, the chance that an imitation of DC’s Justice League might sell a few books, was the simple idea that we have come to call "the Marvel style." Kirby, continually feeding the hungry production machine, needed a script but there wasn’t one ready. Lee improvised a "plot" for Kirby to take home, with the intention of inserting the dialogue after the fact. For the purpose of my thesis, the plot need not have been anything special, as the stories were all variations on a theme, whether they were monster stories or romance stories or westerns.

The literaries are inclined to debate whether the furnishing of a plot is enough of a claim to authorship, or whether the real writer in this case was the artist. Once the argument gets started it can go in any direction, and is just as likely to deny that a plot was ever given in the first place, because it is obligatory that everybody who wasn’t there have an opinion and take sides. None of that has ever mattered, as far as I’m concerned, though I acknowledge that the ownership of successful movie franchises could make a difference to this party or that. But the movies do not interest me and I do not care. None of them have ever captured the thing that made Marvel comics exciting to me in 1965 when I discovered them for myself.

That thing is only to be found in the actual old pages of the comics and it is what we would attempt to describe with the words "Marvel style." "Marvel style" is not just a different way of arriving at the same result, meaning a story in the literary sense, but a way of arriving at something different. The essence of this different thing tends to elude conventional literary analysis, so that the old Marvel comics attract a lot less respect these days. Here’s a page from Tales of Suspense #85, January 1967.

Two characters, Captain America and Batroc, are depicted and three others are mentioned. The others are Stan and Jack, the artist and writer, and the addressee, called "frantic one," being of course the reader. “The wise man knoweth when to speak and when to shuteth up! Sly Stan knows that no words of his can do justice to Jolly Jack’s great action scenes… And so…”  “See what we mean, frantic one?”  If our theoretical literary critics could bring themselves to contemplate the piece after such a delightfully disheveled piece of writing (you mean moronic, I hear Ng Suat Tong mutter in my inner ear), they might be inclined to discuss it in terms of "breaking the fourth wall," which would be the intrusion of a latter-day literary concept. Recognizing the artist in the text is hardly an innovation. There have always been cartoons with that happening, for example “Battler Herriman perches at the ringside and sees Jim Flynn win.”

What we’re looking at is in fact the return of a very old idea. The configuration, a page showing two figures in continual action, with the extreme casualness of the two captions, could only be arrived at by a method in which the art came first and the writer, in the parlance of another age, is "writing up to the pictures." This is exactly how it was done a couple of hundred years ago in illustrated storytelling, before Charles Dickens arrived on the scene with the intention of making a more serious literary enterprise of the writer’s craft. He then had to go to some trouble to change things around so that the words came first. I wrote about this on my blog a while back in relation to Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1822), quoting a passage, like this Marvel page, in which the text acknowledges the picture: “…we were assailed by some troublesome customers, and a turn up was the result, (as the Plate most accurately represents.)” (The writer then tells how he lost and then recovered the notes for the piece you are reading.)

The simple fact of putting the pictures before the words creates a lively spontaneity that comes across almost as improvisation. In a sense this is true; once stories start expanding over a number of issues, there’s no going back to fix what happened last month. We are made to feel that the work is being created while we watch, and that anything is possible. The logic of a worked out plot takes a back seat and bits of pictorial business are allowed to lead to other pictures, and so on. A comic put together this way feels quite different from one thoroughly plotted on a typewriter at the outset. The famous example of a result of working this way is the anecdote Lee has told of how the penciled pages of Fantastic Four #48 came in and as he sat down to dialogue them he noticed, amid the cosmic crackle, an oddly anomalous little character on a surfboard…

Now, I am cognizant of the fact that the multitude of kids reading that Captain America were just thinking about what Cap and Batroc were doing to each other. But for me this page, and others of a similar stripe, opened up a whole new different way of thinking about comics (I was nine; I’d been thinking about them for quite a few years). And many years later, when I was doing Bacchus, there was a period when I had a fellow writer helping me out. I always made it clear to him that I was happy to buy in writing but that once the pictures started going onto the paper everything could change and I reserved the right to rewrite it. (I wonder if that makes me a villain in the eyes of the literaries.) On one four-issue series I found that narrative logic, the hand I was holding at the given moment, dictated that all the villains had to be killed in the third issue. Indeed, the momentum of the pictures demanded it, something that couldn’t have been foreseen at the writing stage. My co-writer, for whom the villains still played a role in his synopsis for issue #4, argued that this was crazy, but sometimes there’s just no stopping the train. Issue #4 now had to find something better than villains

To bring things full circle, how does that Marvel comic stand up if you take away the pictures? It doesn’t. Does that make it worthless? The literaries would say undoubtedly. Wee Eddie Campbell would say it was an act of magic, the way the whole thing worked, with Stan and Jack, and the frantic one.

A long time ago, when comics started getting complicated and written continuity was needed, a job opened up for people who could write the stuff. I’m talking as long ago as 1920 and The Gumps, when cartoonist Sydney Smith started using the story suggestions of a traveling jewelry salesman named Sol Hess. Writing comics is a special skill quite different from writing prose. But before you take it all apart, ask: can you take the pictures out of a sports cartoon, or reduce a clown's circus performance to its plot? Can everything about a musical performance be conveyed in a stave of notes, or can everything about a film be known from its shooting script? Sometimes, while everybody else was watching the clock, the clown, the actor, the singer, the cartoonist, the writer even, because writers never have as much freedom as we think they have, have slipped their own story in between the tick and the tock.

If comics are any kind of art at all, it’s the art of ordinary people. With regard to Kurtzman’s war comics, don’t forget that the artists on those books were nearer to the real thing than you and I will ever be. Jack Davis and John Severin were stationed in the Pacific, Will Elder was at the liberation of Paris. Maybe we should pay attention to the details. Who knows what we’ll find there? The little bird on the machine gun may appear rather twee to your fine literary sensibilities, but that kid looks dead to me.