Comic Books and Graphic Novels (page 4)
The idea of telling continuing stories and showing the passing of time by drawing pictures in different boxes, as opposed to having just a single cartoon, was a turn-of-the-last-century innovation. In America, Richard F. Outcault is generally credited with the creation of newspaper comic strips. He had been a scientific and technical illustrator for Thomas Edison's laboratories but wanted to combine his drafting skills with his keen social observations and so began creating comic art. In April of 1895, Joseph Pulitzer's New York World agreed to carry Outcault's Hogan's Alley, which started as a single panel but gradually evolved into a "strip." One of the characters was a buck-toothed street urchin named Mickey Dugan. He wore an oversized shirt and had his head shaved, which was a common practice to prevent head lice. What "The Kid" said was either printed on the front of his shirt or in a cut line underneath.
The newspaper had just purchased a color press with the intention of printing great art pieces and explaining them to the public, but the technology was not advanced enough to get satisfactory color separations and so the newspaper looked for other ways to get a return on its investment. Yellow was the easiest color to reproduce and a pressman took it upon himself to color Mickey Dugan's shirt yellow. Mickey Dugan became so famous as "The Yellow Kid" that the name of the strip was changed, and the bidding back and forth between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst to print "The Yellow Kid" became so vitriolic and unethical that it contributed to the acceptance of the term yellow journalism, which was first used in 1898 to refer to the competition between Pulitzer's New York World and Hearst's New York Journal and the sensationalized stories that both papers were printing about Spanish atrocities in Cuba.
Bill Blackbeard, who edited a 1995 book celebrating the centennial of comic strips, R. F. Outcault's The Yellow Kid: A Centennial Celebration of the Kid Who Started the Comics by Richard Felton Outcault described The Kid as "the first great newspaper comic character" and the "lucrative predecessor" to such other characters as Maggie and Jiggs, Popeye, Blondie, the Gumps, Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and Charlie Brown and Snoopy. In the 1930s, such storytelling was banned in Italy by Mussolini, while in the 1950s comic books were investigated and castigated for their moral content in an investigation led by U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. When radio arrived, comics were counted for dead; again their demise was predicted when movies started to talk, and then again when television programming was developed. Today's big threat to comic strips is the shrunken space in newspapers and the desire of editors to cram in a comic strip to please every taste. Some newspapers crowd as many as twenty or thirty strips onto a double-page spread, so that they all end up practically unreadable.
In November of 2006, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer spent a week as visiting artist for the Honors College at Arizona State University. When we talked with him, he questioned the idea that we are now in what some people are calling "a golden age of comics." He said that of course he is glad to walk into bookstores and see well-stocked comic sections and to see that after many years this art form is being recognized by the United States Postal Service with a set of stamps honoring superheroes, "but it's a bad set." Even Superman is not represented by the original creators: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. They were two "Clark Kents" from Ohio, who brought their own dreams to a fantastic idea.
He thinks the golden age of comics was the 1930s when the Sunday supplements devoted whole pages to Prince Valiant, Tarzan, and Gasoline Alley. In the 1920s, cars were still relatively rare and people were obsessed with them, which made Gasoline Alley as exciting for its time as space travel is today. When he mentioned Skeezix as the first baby to grow up in the comics, several people in one of his "older" audiences smiled because they remembered babies in their own families being called Skeezix.
One of the points Feiffer made was how important writing is to comics. Of course the drawings are what people see first, but the comic strip has its own form of language. He said that when he first read Samuel Becket's Waiting for Codot, he recognized it as comic strip dialogue. He couldn't believe the way it resonated with him, the way the phrases stuck in his head. Becket was the best cartoonist he ever read-even though he did not draw.
Feiffer said he learned a lot from Becket, including that what you're not telling the reader is as important as what you reveal. Suspense is when you don't know what's happening. In Waiting for Godot, nothing is happening, like in Seinfeld, which would never have been on the air if it had not been for Samuel Becket. In a similar way, Star Wars would never have been made if not for Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon.
Another aspect of comic strips that he finds fascinating is the crossover among genres. Milton Caniff, with his Terry and the Pirates, was a genius when he created the adventure strip by turning comic art into a storyboard. His Dragon Lady came straight from the movies and for generations circled back around in the popular culture. Soldiers in Vietnam were still using her as a reference point, and Anne McCaffrey (see her Margaret A. Edwards Award, p. 225) jokingly refers to herself as the Dragon Lady.
Comic books were a natural outgrowth of comic strips and almost from the very beginning newspapers began reprinting their strips, binding them together, and selling them through newsstands on a monthly, bimonthly, or quarterly basis. The term "comic magazine" was also used. It was the 1930s before original material was prepared and whole books were devoted to single characters.
The terms comic strips and comic books became so firmly entrenched that they continued to be used even when creators moved away from the kinds of humorous events and jokes that had been the norm in such "innocent" strips as Mutt and Jeff, The Yellow Kid, and Krazy Kat. What comic books have in common is their format and binding, not the subject matter or the attitudes that their creators take toward their stories. Every possible genre—adventure, romance, tragedy, informative nonfiction, horror, science fiction and fantasy—has been treated in so-called comic books.
Graphic novels are comic books that have gone off to college and come back with new sophistication and respect. Actually, many of them are not so different from comic books except that they have more durable bindings and cost more money. One of the reasons that the new term is coming into popularity is that it is more accurate because it focuses on what such books have in common, which is the drawings. The Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary (tenth edition, 2001) dates the term graphic novel at 1978 and defines it as "a fictional story for adults that is presented in comic-strip format and published as a book." Feiffer said while many graphic novels are junk, they are still the place where the most interesting forms of cartooning are being done today, especially with the alternative presses.
He thinks highly of Chris Ware (whose real name is Jimmy Corrigan) and The ACME Novelty Library series, which are being put together from Ware's comic strips supplemented by a few extras. Michael Chabon, who won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, had an early love of comics, which he put into the plot of his adult book, set just before World War II when comic books were rising in popularity. Back in 1991, Jeff Smith, who was also a lover of comics, especially Walt Kelly's Pogo, started independently publishing his Bone books (Sample titles include Out from Boneville and The Great Cow Race) for a general adult audience. The characters are a surprising mixture of human and imaginary creatures engaged in activities reminiscent of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
It's not just boys who are reading graphic novels. Marvel Comics has published Spider-Girl, Volumes 1 through 6, by Tom DeFalco and Pat Olliffe. The subtitles are Legacy, Like Father Like Daughter, Avenging Allies, Turning Point, Endgame, and Too Many Spiders! The Spider Girl comics are the longest-running Marvel comic books starring a female superhero. A bonus is that they offer a world where even villains can find redemption and heroes can retain their moral scruples. The most charming graphic novel we've seen is To Dance: A Ballerina's Graphic Novel, by Siena Cherson Siegel, illustrated by Mark Siegel. It is an autobiographical story being marketed to fourth through seventh graders, but we've seen older girls and adults enjoying it while also learning about the American dance scene in the 1970s and 1980s.
Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life, by Paul Gravett, is a good introduction to graphic novels appropriate for either adult or high school readers interested in learning about the genre and about the thirty graphic novels Gravett considers "classics." Feiffer suggests we offer books to students that will give them some historical benchmarks from which to view today's comics. He went back to Windsor McKay as a model for some of his early drawings and he also looked at the work of Thomas Nast, not for his style of art but to get the feeling of rage that Nast expressed. One of his happiest moments was to hear that both Woody Allen and Gary Trudeau have said that they went to some of Feiffer's work for inspiration as they developed their own kinds of humor.
© ______ 2009, Allyn & Bacon, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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