How Serious Are the Comics?

Advertising and Production Manager of Houghton Miffilin Company, LOVELL THOMPSON is a publisher whose delight it is to analyze the power of the printed word as it appears in the Congressional Record, the Sears Roebuck Catalogue—and the funnies.
More

EVER since the turn of the century when the Yellow Press was named after Outcault's Yellow Kid, the war of the comics has been savagely fought. It has been a bitter civil war with parents on one side and their children on the other. Under leaders like Charles W. Eliot and Kate Douglas Wiggin, and publications like the New Republic and the Chicago Daily News, the parents have been winning the battles but losing the war. That is because the elders find themselves regularly reading the comics and haveto fall back on that old line; "We read them to see how bad they are." After half a century of successful attack by the comics we ought to be considering the terms of surrender. We should rise above the battle and take the cold long view.

The newest outrage of the enemy has been the comic magazine. It is only a few years old but it is deeply entrenched. The best evidence of this is the fact that it has forced out the marble as childhood's medium of exchange.

The child's marble, curving, pellucid, used to carry a mystery in its center. The alley, impenetrable, unyielding, self-contained, had in its depth an answer such as no jewel ever gave. When you had it in your hand, you knew it was a sphinx's eye. The future that children sought beneath the marble's surface has for a moment almost become explicit in the comic magazine.

If you have ever found yourself guiltily reading one of your child's comic books and exchanging it hastily for the Times Book Review as someone enters the room, you know that there seems a sinful unreality about this superworld. It is too easy and too inhuman. There are no real problems and no real answers. It is a long procession of tawdry Charles Atlases accompanied by a minimum of reading matter of no distinction whatever. It is the world of the Batman and Captain Marvel, of Superman and the Phantom. It is a criminal world and an idealistic world; it is sadistic and romantic. In it time and space are reduced to secondary nuisances. You may have the career of Jimmy Doolittle and that of Michelangelo side by side and Flash Gordon's rocket ship not much more than a stone's throw from Jimmy. Can a mind nurtured on this predigested wood pulp hope to have form or direction when it grows up?

Thinking back in search of an answer, I have often wondered why our parents forbade us such comics as Buster Brown, who lived in the days of Alexander's Ragtime Band and the leg-o'mutton sleeve. He was a moral if misguided little boy. His virtues are clear when you compare him with a modern killer of fiends such as the Batman, a fiend's fiend. Whatever may be the vices of Superman, Buster was hopelessly good. In retrospect he looks like Little Lord Fauntleroy.

There are many strips which look similarly harmless. Moon Mullins still devotes himself exclusively to the simple old vice of wine, women, and song; and the improbabilities of Orphan Annie are lost in the flow of refugee children. Will our children in their turn look back and find Superman as far short of reality, and are we repeating the error of our parents? Did our parents forbid us Buster because they knew that Batman follows Buster? (And what could follow Batman I know not.) They said that the funny page was bad training for the grown-up world. It was not a way to nurture the habit of reading and study. That was what they said, but it wasn't quite what they meant; the comics are not a bad preparation for Life magazine or the Roto section.

Today only a library will yield forth Buster and his black-sheep brother the Yellow Kid, but if you look back there you will find that they represent the two sides of the industrial revolution. Times changed, but not the soul of Buster. Annie, too, has her fixed period. Hers is the generation between wars - the lost generation. Sad, wise, humorless little Annie is the child of Farewell to Arms.

Only on December 7 did the world catch up even to such comics as Terry and the Pirates. Terry had been Far East minded since his beginning in the middle 192O's. He is a transfigured boy scout learning to cope with the wisdoms and cruelties of the East. He seems to grow at halfspeed, and even at this leisurely pace it has taken us half a generation to catch up to his time by putting an army of Terries in China. Being Terry minded hasn't done any of those soldiers any harm, and some are likely to read Terry nostalgically for many years. When you read Moon Mullins you're back three decades to the era when father carried his shoes in his hand if he came in after midnight. When you exchange Moon for Annie you move from the old pre-war world to the newer post-war world. When you read Terry you have moved on from the era of the lost generation into today. And when you read a really recent strip like Superman? Do not doubt it, you read a caricature of tomorrow.

The tendency of the comics is to prolong a period by anticipating it before it arrives, sustaining it during its brief passage, and maintaining its illusion after it is gone.

2

Man has always feared change. When he has been shown the future he has resented it. When he finds it in the comics he resents it no less - and he forbids his child to have anything to do with it. That is why our parents were instinctively against Buster. For us the problem is the same as it was for our parents, and it is really our problem, not our children's.

There are only two ways to meet this problem: one is to shut your eyes to it, and the other is to open your arms to it. In terms of their generation, all that is said about the comic magazines by parents who confine themselves to the daily or Sunday funnies is true. It was bad enough when four pages became eight and when all eight came out in color. But to be able to sit down and read sixty-four pages of colored comics - for ten cents - and then read sixty-four more on a swap, and finally become a child with a library of this feebly vicious material, certainly seems the goalless excess of decadence. This is a sub-hell where the devil himself is discipIined.

True or not, this is true for you. In Buster our parents felt a new, picture-minded world and they resented it. Like our parents, we scent a changed world in the comics that our read and we stick with Moon, with Orphan Annie, and with Terry, finding there a refuge from the front page and from the Batman.

Do not let a tempted eye which has strayed out of the lost world of Mutt and Jeff and Gasoline Alley into the present of Terry and the Pirates and Smilin' Jack Martin go into the world of tomorrow. There you are afraid. There only the men of tomorrow can take it. Do not try to deal with the world of Flash Gordan. Don't try to get around with Zatara the magician, with Captain Marvel, or with the Shadow, or the Flame, or the Torch, or the Phantom, or Toro, or Lightning, or Captain America and Bucky, or Spy Smasher, or Magno, or Bullet Man and his flame Bullet Girl. Don't slip into the new dark age with Prince Valiant. Even Superman can hardly take that stuff. Leave the world of tomorrow to the men of tomorrow, but remember that the men of tomorrow are the children of today.

3

That is how to shut your eyes to the menace. If you are to open your arms to it, you must look more deeply into your own guilty reading of the comics and into that of your child whose guilt you have cultivated. Suppose that you wish to look into the sphinx's eye. How can the nightmares that you see there come true?

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Hunting With Poison Darts

An indigenous forest dweller in Borneo explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Hunting With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

The story of an action figure and his reluctant sidekick, who trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In