M. Thomas Inge
The comics occupy less and less space in newspapers in the United States these days, and even when they have a page or two of their own, each strip is so reduced in size that old timers have to squint to read them. Why don’t we give them more respect? These features occupy a few seconds of our time, but when well done, they can put a smile on our faces for the day, and maybe something to stick on the refrigerator door for others to enjoy? We should treasure them.
For as long as we have been recording our history, people have been telling stories and jokes through the combination of words and pictures, and most nations have had a tradition of sequential or narrative art and caricature. It was not until a little more than a hundred years ago that American cartoonists began to produce in the newspapers their own version of this distinct art form, which came to be called the comic strip and which would entertain millions of readers the world over with the antics of the Katzenjammer Kids, Mutt and Jeff, and Buster Brown.
Although few have recognized the cultural and aesthetic values of the comic strip, and its partner the comic book, the time has come to acknowledge that these are no ephemeral forms of entertainment, although printed on cheap paper and designed to be thrown away. Rather they are a significant part of our heritage to be cherished for their enduring artistic and social importance. Several publishers have recently understood this and are issuing handsome, hardcover complete collections of such strips as Peanuts, Dennis the Menace, Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, and Gasoline Alley.
Comic art has much in common with other forms of literary and visual expression in the modern world. As in fiction, the elements of narrative, characterization, and setting are important, and as in poetry, ideas must be developed within a very short reading time through symbol and suggestion. As in drama, a story or incident must be staged before our eyes within a box-like frame and with sharp limitations on dialogue and compressed time. As in motion pictures, visual devices such as cutting, framing, close-ups, and montage are used by the comic artist, and settings can range from the realistic to the fantastic.
Whatever they share with the other arts, however, they differ in distinct ways that are ultimately unique. For one thing, the comics depend on a balanced combination of words and pictures, the one depending on the other for maximum effect. What the proper balance may be, or how much text is too much, and whether or not you can have comics with no words whatsoever are questions still open for debate. Was Prince Valiant with the narrative and dialogue beneath each frame simply an illustrated medieval romance? Was the wordless Henry a legitimate comic strip? What about single panels like The Far Side and Family Circus?
Several essential features distinguish the comics from other art forms. For example, they appear in daily newspapers delivered to homes and therefore are available to any household member of any age. Newspaper editors therefore take careful note to be sure no constituency is offended, sometimes editing or banning a questionable strip. This frequently happened to the politically oriented Pogo and continues to happen to Doonesbury. Comics have to be politically sensitive, but the best have pushed the envelope by treating provocative subjects with sufficient skill and humor, followed usually by a letter or two of complaint to the editor asking why the funnies aren’t funny anymore. Despite a popularly held notion, the comics never were simply for children.
Another distinguishing feature is that comics give us a set of recurring characters with whom we become acquainted over time. Readers gain cumulative familiarity with the characters’ personalities, which essentially remain the same throughout the lifetime of the strip. As in much humor, stock or stereotype characters are common, and formulaic repetition is one of those techniques that most often makes us laugh (as in Charlie Brown’s annual unsuccessful attempt to kick the football held by Lucy, a paradigm of existential frustration).
Words are usually spoken in irregular ovals called balloons, a technique that descends from early illustrated broadsheets and political cartoons. Because of limited space, dialogue is kept to an absolute minimum and the joke or story related with the fewest words possible, a considerable challenge to the writer. Since sounds are not possible, comic artists resort to the poetic device of onomatopoeia, and while many traditional words such as “slam,” “bang,” “sock,” or “bump” will serve, new word coinages have proven necessary. Thus the comics have enriched American English by such contributions as “wow,” “whap,” and “zowie.”
While we can discuss the comics in such general terms, it is also necessary to observe that they are richly diverse in style and content. Styles range from the pure fantasy and surrealism of Calvin and Hobbes and Krazy Kat, to the fashion-plate art of Rex Morgan and Mary Worth, to the gritty details of realism in the mean city streets of Dick Tracy and Spider-Man. The content embraces all genres found in fiction, drama, and film—domestic conflict, situation comedy, war, the western, adventure, espionage, crime and detection, the worlds of the child and teenager, the professions, animal fables, satire, politics, science fiction, fantasy, and the absurd. Just when we think there can be nothing new, something like Pearls Before Swine comes along and magically challenges the existing definitions.
The twenty-first century is a time in which most of the information we need is conveyed to us visually, by way of the television, film, ipod, or computer screen. The comics then, and its latest development the graphic novel, are admirably suited to engage the interest of people with a cultural experience that is both emotionally and intellectually satisfying. With the comics in hand, we will remain verbally and visually literate and hopefully a little more cheerful and humane.
Copyright © M. Thomas Inge
M. Thomas Inge is the Blackwell Professor English and Humanities at Randolph-Macon College, where he teaches a course in American humor.