A Century of Cartoons

Articles by Walt Kelly and others on the Yellow Kid, superhero comics, Art Spiegelman, and more

This month the new Center for Cartoon Studies, a graduate program for cartoonists, will open its doors, offering such classes as "Introduction to Graphic Narratives" and "Survey of the Drawn Story," taught by visiting comics luminaries like Alison Bechdel, Jack Kamen, and Craig Thompson. As some see it, this solidifies the standing of cartoonists as serious artists rather than as dedicated grubbers and amusers of children. Indeed, recent years have been good to cartooning. The Pulitzer Prize that honored Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale in 1992 not only made it acceptable for adults to like comics, but also made the claim that comics are an art form in themselves, capable of evoking powerful adult emotions. In 2001 Michael Chabon's epic novel about the golden age of comics, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay also won a Pulitzer Prize, further enhancing cartooning's status as a subject worthy of adult consideration. And themes from the comics and graphic novels are increasingly being given sophisticated treatment in other mediums as well; the 2003 movie American Splendor, for example, turned a thoughtful eye to the people behind the funnies, expanding the genre of artist biographies.

From the archives:

Interviews: "Drawing Without a Licence" (November 1997)
Cartoonist and illustrator Edward Sorel talks about his career, his work, and the state of the art today.

Such cultural legitimacy would have been beyond imagining for most early cartoonists. Richard Outcault, a newspaper illustrator who began his career illustrating science articles in Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, created the yellow-nightshirted imp who in 1895 would become the popular comic strip character the Yellow Kid. When William Randolph Hearst hired Outcault away from the World in 1896, Pulitzer hired a substitute artist and continued to publish the comic. The rivalry gave the Yellow Press its name, and demonstrated the popular appeal of Outcault's marriage of art and words. The Katzenjammer Kids, a pair of rambunctious twins who were "fellow warriors in the battle against any form of authority," followed the Yellow Kid into the world two years later, and the age of comics had definitively begun. Critical examinations of the new form followed close on the heels of these riotous cartoon scamps. Despite these comics' popularity, they were scorned by many as low-brow.

In August 1906, The Atlantic published Ralph Bergengren's condemnation of newspaper comics in an article titled "The Humor of the Colored Supplement" (so called because of the colored ink used to print the strips). His complaint was that the comics were coarse and unsophisticated in their attempts at humor—that "they unite vigorously, as if driven by a perverse and cynical intention, to prove the American sense of humor a thing of national shame and degradation." Rather than produce fresh characters,

The very element of variety has been obliterated by the creation of types,—a confusing medley of impossible countrymen, mules, goats, German-Americans and their irreverent progeny, specialized children with a genius for annoying their elders, white-whiskered elders with a genius for playing practical jokes on their grandchildren, policemen, Chinamen, Irishmen, negroes, inhuman conceptions of the genus tramp, boy inventors whose inventions invariably end in causing somebody to be mirthfully spattered with paint or joyously torn to pieces by machinery, bright boys with a talent for deceit, laziness, or cruelty, and even the beasts of the jungle dehumanized to the point of practical joking.

And there seemed to be no mishaps or misdeeds cartoonists had not already explored.

Somebody is always hitting somebody else with a club; somebody is always falling downstairs, or out of a balloon, or over a cliff, or into a river, a barrel of paint, a basket of eggs, a convenient cistern, or a tub of hot water. The comic cartoonists have already exhausted every available substance into which one can fall, and are compelled to fall themselves into a veritable ocean of vain repetition. They have exhausted everything by which one can be blown up. They have exhausted everything by which one can be knocked down or run over. And if the victim is never actually killed in these mirthful experiments, it is obviously because he would then cease to be funny—which is very much the point of view of the Spanish Inquisition, the cat with a mouse, or the American Indian with a captive.

Despite his overwhelming disapproval of the medium, however, even Bergengren relented somewhat, admitting in his final paragraph that not all comics were without literary merit. He singled out the now-classic "Little Nemo in Slumberland" for special praise, commending its creator Windsor McKay as "a man of genuine pantomimic humor, charming draughtsmanship, and an excellent decorative sense of color, who has apparently studied his medium and makes the best of it."

Comics had changed by September, 1942, when The Atlantic published Lovell Thompson's reflection on the question "How Serious Are The Comics?" While the ethnic stereotypes Bergengren derided had not vanished from comic strips and books, they had been joined, and in some cases replaced by masked crime-fighters, superheroes, and visitors from the future. Thompson took the chance to compare the current generation's favorite comics with those of his generation, and argued that parents would always disapprove of the comics their children enjoyed. "I have often wondered why our parents forbade us such comics as Buster Brown," he mused, "who lived in the days of Alexander's Ragtime Band and the leg-‘o-mutton sleeve. [Buster] 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. In retrospect, he looks like Little Lord Fauntleroy." Thompson theorized that the comics of any given age prefigure the future and help each generation of young people come to terms with it. "Man has always feared change," he observed. "That is why our parents were instinctively against Buster."

The parents of 1942 were now warily eyeing a new generation of comics—a cartoon world that seemed to be all about machines, combat, and self-preservation. Parents, he suggested, should not try to keep their children away from such reading, because those complex, futuristic stories represented "the dangers [the contemporary child] accepts." He warned that contemporary parents, on the other hand, might be well advised to stay away from such disturbing fare.

Only the men of tomorrow can take it. Do not try to deal with the world of Flash Gordon. 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…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.

As for himself, Thompson declared, "I can take it if the children can." But he added a caveat—"There's only one thing that worries me, and that is this: How will these children face their children, who will be the men of the day after tomorrow? After Captain America—what?"

As the comics got more serious, so did The Atlantic's approach to them. The comics even earned the right to some semi-literary analysis when Walt Kelly, creator of the immortal comic strip Pogo, penned an explanation of comic-strip language. In "Ka-Platz: The Delight in the Unexpected" (March 1963) Kelly explained why so many artists used strange-sounding, non-existent, or out-of-context words in their drawings.

If you have a noise, you might as well have a funny noise; not that you'll have to hold your sides when you behold "plink," but I think it's about 3 1/4 times funnier than "crash." Who laughs at the word "bang"? It used to be very important, but "bang" doesn't have much bang anymore. The better strips are using other words. Some of them in foreign languages, for impact. Style is very important. It would not do for Steve Canyon to fall with a Li'l Abner noise. Canyon is a dignified man and a sort of status symbol in the comic strip game. Likewise, Dick Tracy could never get hit on the head with a "whacko" noise.

But despite the humorous tone of Kelly's explanation, he had a serious point. Legalese, government-speak, and other forms of official language, he believed, had become ridiculous and impenetrable. Children, the most frequent readers of comics, had an instinct for the direct, simple language that could best convey meaning. He and they understood that making a reader laugh was often one of the best ways to keep him or her interested long enough to absorb the sometimes rather serious message behind the giggle.

Two decades later, Cullen Murphy, now managing editor of The Atlantic and for many years also the writer of the comic strip Prince Valiant, warned of the pitfalls of perhaps taking the comics a bit too seriously. In his article, "Ms. Buxley?" (December 1984) Murphy took a look at the impact of political correctness on Beetle Bailey when a number of readers sought to organize opposition to the strip. The object of their wrath was Miss Buxley, the comely secretary who worked in General Halftrack's office. Mort Walker, the creator of Beetle Bailey and a number of other nationally syndicated strips explained to Murphy:

"The feminists have been after me about her quite a bit. According to them, Miss Buxley is a stereotype of a dumb blonde secretary. Actually, I patterned her after Marilyn Monroe. I tried to keep an air of innocence, as if she doesn't know what she's got. She just wears those little dresses because she feels good in them, and even though they reveal a lot she doesn't notice she's revealing anything. There are a lot of feminists around now and a lot of them work on newspapers and a number of them got their editors to drop my strip ... or to leave it out when Miss Buxley was in it. My argument is that I'm really showing how silly the General is when he acts in a male-chauvinist fashion."

But his argument was in vain; in the end, Murphy observed, Walker capitulated and Miss Buxley got high-necked sweaters, knee-length skirts, and secretarial courses that included instructions for filing sexual-harassment lawsuits. Walker got his daughter Margie to serve as his political-correctness watchdog, and in Murphy's mind, the comics got a little bit less funny.

More recently, in a March 2001 article for Atlantic Unbound, Peter Swanson commented on the ascendance of the graphic novel and its significance for the medium of cartooning. The publication of Spiegelman's Maus, he explained, had heralded a revolution of sorts:

Spiegelman challenged the notions of what stories a comic book can tell, employing surrealistic, comic-book fantasy elements in his nonfiction account of his parents' Holocaust experience—Jews, for example, are drawn as mice, or else people wearing mouse masks; Nazis are cats; the French are frogs. These renderings add a distance and an allegorical frame that elevates his narratives to fine art.

In "The Humor of the Colored Supplement," Bergengren had dismissed cartooning for its crassness: "It is an insult to the whole line of English and American humorists—Sterne, Thackeray, Dickens, Meredith, Twain, Holmes, Irving, and others of a distinguished company—to include as humor what is merely the crude brutality of human nature." But nearly a century later, Swanson expressed a very different concern. Perhaps, he suggested, comics today are attempting to become almost too sophisticated:

It seems there's a movement afoot to class-up comic books—both adult comics, by moving them out of the ghetto of specialty stores and sci-fi racks, and kids comics, by giving them a significant place in our pop-culture canon. I do not doubt for a moment the artistic merits of many of the books and writers in the comics field, adult or otherwise. What I wonder about is this sudden bid for legitimacy. If some of these upstarts find themselves lodged between the Styrons and the Tans on the big people shelves, will they still talk to the superhero comics?