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.
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.
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?
For one thing, when you look at the comics you read and the comics your child reads, you will realize - and perhaps nobody has ever had such a chance to realize it before - how different is your child's stake in the world from your own. Before your eyes, and with the dime that lie chisels off you, that child is planning the new world, searching for new strength to deal with the old evil which has found wheels and wings. He has already discounted your world - the old world.
His search is not without effort and discrimination. You will find, for example, that a few of the thoughtful people interested in child education have begun to point out that the children who read comics are also the children who read books. They are, in fact, simply children who read. It's even thought that the comics tend slightly to make readers of children who might not otherwise get the reading habit. Children develop definite patterns of taste in comics: some like it hot, some like Mickey Mouse, some prefer to dwell even in the familiar old, old world of their grandparents with the Katzenjammers. A "good" child will select what at first glance 'will look to you like the worst comics. Each child's selection will give you something of a glimpse of his particular world problem. If you know the gamut of the comics, there can be for you a terrifying pathos in that pile of magazines in your child's life. For there are the dangers he accepts, which you, as you cling to Annie and Terry to escape the headlines, try not to foresee.
Not all comics deal with imaginary men of tomorrow. There is a comic magazine called True Comics. It is intended to be uplifting and is a fight-fire-with-fire sort of tactic, started by Parents' Magazine. It was bad to start with, but now it is full of hard fact in a Superman package. Your child reads it and he thinks that everyone knows that Chiang Kai-shek was a stockbroker who got wiped out in a depression in 1920 and that he divorced a first wife to marry Mayling Soong. He has a method of learning certain kinds of information far more efficient than any you encountered. The picture-caption-diagram-caption never was put to really effective use in the days when our minds were open, the days when we learned the things we remember. In the comics this most effective technique works overtime, and the things that it teaches are very far from the trivial misdemeanors of Buster Brown. This is the making of 1960, for that is when some of these children will find themselves in power.
As you go yet more deeply into the pile of comics, you will see how, under the stimulus of the comic horror of tomorrow, this same child begins to turn to the practical side of miracle making. Next the shelf that holds the comics you will find a shelf of magazines with titles such as Mechanix Illustrated and Modern Design. You will find them amongst the mess of model airplane parts not far from the discarded streamlined train. With the same affection that you learned to spot an Overland or Maxwell these children identify a P40 or a B-6. They live in a world of strange machines, a less social world than ours - more lonely; a world where the law is likely to fail and a man must be able to look out for himself. Those are a few of the ways by which the comic is transmitted into fact. And there are other more contemporary ways in which you can watch this unreal world of tomorrow being converted into the real world of today.
Our comics are on the noses of our fighting planes, and do you remember where you met the Jeep? He was sent to Olive Oyl from the heart of Africa by her Uncle Ben Zene. He was almost Segar's last gift to the world before he died and Thimble Theatre passed into other hands. In 1936 Olive would have sold you that Jeep - his name was Eugene - for five bucks. The Jeep was a magic little animal who looked to be by Rikki-Tikki-Tavi out of Krazy Kat; he had a very red nose and all the answers. He had to be fed orchids. Well, there are a lot of Yankee mechanics concocting spare parts for jeeps in a land where there are plenty of orchids and no spare parts.
In the comic world a top-flight German official flew secretly to England from Germany only a short time before Hess did. To a comics-reading child the Hess flight would seem a thing to be expected. Finally, I know a little girl who wears her cardigan sweater buttoned once at the neck and flung back over her shoulders, the arms hanging free like dislocated wings. That's Superman style and it will be a mode in ten years when that little girl is grown.
When I was a child, my friends and I fought a war with lead soldiers that lasted nearly a year. It outstripped the war of '14 then in progress. It became by spring a war with a fluid front based on strong points, a highly mechanized force, and enormous fire-power concentrated in the hands of one man. A few of our tactics still grimly await fulfillment.
So, as the war of '39 has always been my War and Terry's War and perhaps even Daddy Warbucks's War, the struggles of '60 are those that go on now in the comics which we wisely denounce. Like all men in the storybooks and out of them, when we are shown the future we scoff with our minds - and with our souls we fearfully await fulfillment. Meanwhile, however, if you have stomach for tomorrow, don't feel guilty about adding the Phantom to your repertoire. You can have the Twentieth Century all at once instead of day by day. Between Puck, the comic weekly founded around 1900, and Planet Comics you have time on a map. You can determine your progress and know what's around the bend.
It's all all right with me. I can take it if the children can; there's only one thing that worries me, and that is: How will those children face their children, who will be the men of the day after tomorrow? After Captain America what?