Intellectual Marijuana:
comics and their critics

By Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester
Toronto Star Ideas section (March 27, 2005)

In 1943, when she was working in Hollywood, Dorothy Parker was one of the pre-eminent figures in the American intelligentsia. Her poems and critical writing in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair had made her a force to be reckoned with in highbrow circles; even if she wasn’t revered in academic circles at that time, she was still a shining example of the liberal, educated mind.

So a confession she made that year about the uneasy relationship that has always existed between intellectuals and the popular art form known as the comics was both startling and revelatory.

“For a bulky segment of a century, I have been an avid follower of comic strips — all comic strips,” Parker wrote. “This is a statement made with approximately the same amount of pride with which one would say, ‘I’ve been shooting cocaine into my arm for the past 25 years.’”

Tracing the literati’s views on comics over the past century repeatedly reveals the same divisions that Parker located within her own soul: an avaricious appetite for them combined with a feeling that they’re wicked.

Comics first came to prominence in newspapers in the late 1890s when two great press barons, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, engaged in a fierce competition over big-city markets, especially New York. In order to win reader loyalty, Hearst and Pulitzer gave prominence to comics, most notably the rambunctious brats in The Yellow Kid and the Katzenjammer Kids, and particularly in colour Sunday supplements.

Genteel critics writing in high-toned literary journals denounced these early comics as lowbrow and demeaning. In 1906, Atlantic Monthly described comics as “a thing of national shame and degradation.” Three years later, the Ladies Home Journal labeled comics “a crime against American children.”

For those early critics, comics were a symptom of everything that was going wrong with the world: the new-found preference for visual stimulation rather than time-honoured literary traditions; the growing strength of “disorderly” immigrant cultures in the United States and Canada, which they thought would overturn Anglo-Saxon supremacy; and the increasing acceptance of slang, which endangered norms of proper grammar and refined diction.

By the 1920s, however, the adherence to Victorian ideals of decorum and decency had started to fade, as a younger generation rebelled against their intellectual elders by celebrating popular art forms such as jazz and movies, as well as comics.

One book in particular, Gilbert Seldes’ 1924 work, The Seven Lively Arts, proved to be a major turning point. In this extended celebration of popular culture, he placed cartoonist George Herriman, who created the character of Krazy Kat, in a modern pantheon that included Charlie Chaplin and the early ragtime musicians. Krazy Kat, Seldes proclaimed, is “the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America today.”

Seldes’ words carried great weight. As managing editor of the influential literary magazine The Dial, as well as in his own writing, he had established a reputation as a serious and demanding critic. A man of impeccable highbrow credentials, he was also close friends with distinguished writers such as James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald and E.E. Cummings, many of whom shared his passion for popular culture. (Cummings would pen a paean to Krazy Kat as a “living ideal” superior to “mere reality.”)

Seldes’ enthusiasm was echoed by painters such as Joan Miro and Willem de Kooning, filmmakers Frank Capra and John Grierson, and writers Jack Kerouac and Gertrude Stein. (A strip of durable popularity, Krazy Kat is currently being reprinted in a multi-volume series by Fantagraphics Books.)

Seldes cleverly inverted the existing value system by showing that qualities that had been denounced as vices were, in fact, virtues. While the genteel tradition claimed that text was intrinsically superior to visual art forms, Seldes stressed that each should be judged by its own internal criteria. So, rather than decrying the slang of comic strip dialogue as evidence of bad grammar and diction, he praised cartoonists for their vernacular vigour. While genteel critics gave priority to tradition, Seldes responded by stressing the modernist value of novelty.

The first wave of pro-comics sentiment peaked in the jazz era of the 1920s, when modern culture was becoming more open. But in the 1930s and ‘40s, in the grim shadow of the Depression and the Second World War, the cultural mood turned sour.

In this pessimistic era, many writers began to fear that mass culture was contributing to the ills of the world. Many intellectuals came to see the general population as dupes, easily manipulated by the mass media, especially after witnessing the success of Joseph Goebbels as propaganda minister for the Nazi regime. Two famous science fiction novels of the era, Brave New World (1932) and 1984 (1948), gave vivid expression to those fears.

Thus it was not surprising to see fresh denunciations of both newspaper comic strips and the comic books sold at news counters. For literary critic Irving Howe, the famous creations of Walt Disney conjured up the spectre of the hated Nazi storm troopers.

“On the surface, the Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse cartoons seem merely pleasant little fictions, but they are actually over-laden with the most competitive, aggressive and sadistic themes,” he wrote in Politics magazine in 1948. “Often on the verge of hysteria, Donald Duck is a frustrated little monster who has something of the SS man in him and who we, also having something of the SS man in us, naturally find quite charming...”

Writing in The New Republic in 1948, Marya Mannes referred to the form as “intellectual marijuana.”

“Every hour spent in reading comics,” she asserted, “is an hour in which all inner growth has stopped.”

By the early 1950s, comics were under siege on numerous fronts. Parents’ groups organized comic-book burnings; comic-book publishers were called before the U.S. Senate to answer charges they were contributing to juvenile delinquency; and child psychologists such as Fredric Wertham published articles and books arguing that comics were throttling the tender sensibilities of the young.

In terms of their reputation within respectable society, comics hit their nadir in the early 1950s. Slowly, however, the pendulum started to swing the other way.

The careers of two Catholic intellectuals, Marshall McLuhan and Father Walter Ong, illustrate how comics re-won respect in the post-war era. In the 1940s, long before his fame as a media guru, McLuhan was exciting the imagination of bright, young students by confidently linking together disparate phenomena, from modernist art to medieval theology, into a single worldview. He gathered around him a circle of fledging scholars, including a young priest named Walter Ong, who were eager to join in his quest to make sense of the modern techno-communication landscape — what we now call, thanks in part to McLuhan, the media.

In their early work, the McLuhan circle tended to be critical of mass culture. Ong, for example, attacked Mickey Mouse in 1941 as “Mr. Disney’s West-Coast rodent,” while McLuhan in 1951 suggested that Superman was a potential dictator.

Yet as they immersed themselves in the subject, they quickly became more appreciative of popular culture, finding possibilities for creativity and even liturgical beauty in art aimed at a broad audience.

In 1951, Ong was openly praising Walt Kelley’s Pogo for displaying a linguistic playfulness reminiscent of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. McLuhan, meanwhile, came to cherish L’il Abner and Mad magazine as evidence that sophisticated satire could be appreciated by both young and old. And he was critical of society’s kneejerk reaction to comics in general.

“The elders of the tribe, who had never noticed that the ordinary newspaper was as frantic as a surrealist art exhibition, could hardly be expected to notice that the comic books were as exotic as eighth-century illuminations,” he wrote in Understanding Media. “So, having noticed nothing about the form, they could discern nothing of the contents, either. The mayhem and violence were all they noted. Therefore, with naïve literary logic, they waited for violence to flood the world. Or, alternatively, they attributed existing violence to the comics.”

In their shifting attitude toward popular culture, the McLuhan circle was a harbinger of change. The mid-20th century was a particularly exciting time to be a Catholic intellectual: Vatican II was gestating and there was an increasing openness in the church to the modern world, including popular culture.

By the 1960s, the groundwork for a new and ongoing appreciation of comics had been laid by McLuhan and other intellectuals, notably the literary critic Leslie Fiedler and the soon-to-be-famous novelist Umberto Eco. Drawing on theories from psychology and sociology, Fiedler and Eco studied comics as an example of social myth — popular stories that illustrated the dream life of the common person. For Fiedler, the superhero was an example of urban folklore, in which the dark forest of the fairytales became the urban jungle of Batman.

Meanwhile, Eco believed that the serialized nature of comics — where the adventure is always continued tomorrow or next week — reflected the anxious, provisional rhythm of modern life.

Since then, we’ve seen an ever-deepening appreciation of the form. Comics are now studied in the academy, archived in research libraries and lavishly reprinted in expensive collector volumes. In one Toronto high school, they have been used for the past three years as part of a successful program to boost literacy. And the recent rise of the graphic novel and manga (Japanese comic books), not to mention the recent massive success of Hollywood films based on comics (Spiderman, Spiderman 2, Hulk, Ghost World), has only strengthened the form’s cultural importance.

Yet surveying the long history of intellectuals and comics, we shouldn’t assume that this current resurgence of praise will be permanent. As we’ve seen, intellectuals are fundamentally divided about the worth of comics, and there is always the possibility of a backlash.

Perhaps a backlash wouldn’t be such a bad thing. There is value in an art form being perceived as dangerous. After all, being compared to marijuana and cocaine has done comics no long-term harm.

Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester are the editors of Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium (University of Mississippi Press), from which this article is partially adapted.