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.

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.


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.

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