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The story of radical Comix: Paul Buhle on the history of a genre from 1920 to today

John Merrick25 August 2015

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To kickstart our week dedicated to our selection of non-fiction graphic novels, we bring you Paul Buhle's introduction to Michael Demson's Masks of Anarchy: The Story of a Radical Poem from Percy Shelley to the Triangle Factory Fire. In this piece, Buhle offers us a panoramic history of the development of graphic novels from Gasoline Alley in the 1920s to the current stars of the graphic novel world: Art Spiegelman; Alison Bechdel; Harvey Pekar and Joe Sacco.

Comics Meet History, and Poetry, too! 
by Paul Buhle

The book before you, reader, is one of the most remarkable works of comic art to date. One can safely predict that Masks of Anarchy will cast its influence widely over future nonfiction graphic work, especially as regards the uses of poetry and the meanings of social, labor and women’s history.

Scholar Michael Demson and artist Summer McClinton have mediated between - and in one or two ways actually merged - the saga of the great English revolutionary poet Percy Shelley and the story of courageous immigrant labor activist Pauline Newman, who stirred working women into action, in part through the use of Shelley’s work and legacy. An amazing true- life tale in itself, the combined version is memorably captured here both in narrative and art. Shelley and Newman come alive equally for us, their fates taken together with the poetic lines offering proof and promise of the human capacity to dream and to act.
We need to appreciate this book within the field of comic art, and in particular the evolution of nonfiction comics. Speaking as an editor of nearly a dozen of these works and a scholar of the field at large (in the English language), I hope a small history lesson will remind readers how very much has changed in a short time with the acceleration of developments in comic art and narrative, and how best to appreciate the text in hand.

We might most effectively begin near the chronological end: the first decade of the new millennium has seen more significant developments in comic art than any time since the first comic strips appeared, in the dailies of the 1890s. Now, of course, comics as well as their artists and readers are found all over the globe, both in print and on the Internet. From a visual standpoint, today’s comics are inspired and shaped by a contemporary readership that is not only substantially larger than in the past, but also arguably more aesthetically sophisticated than its predecessors in the “reading” of the comics.

As late as 2000, the nonfiction component (a microscopic corner of the so-called graphic novel world) would have seemed most unlikely to grow much or to make an impact. How it has since done both is a story wound around a larger comic art history, which has gained more facets but also more clarity than one could have imagined only a decade or so ago. Comics have now become a full-blown field of scholarly inquiry, as numerous scholarly journals and books have vanished in their earlier forms to be replaced by electronic versions, and as comics scholars themselves gain status in the universities. This marks either a fitting irony or a kind of fulfillment of the art form.

The Receding Past

The field of comic art, always subject to volatile market conditions and very often to a boom-and-bust pattern, with surges followed by collapse, has advanced so unpredictably that almost nothing seems far in the past. Newspaper comic favorites like Blondie have notoriously refused to die or retire with their creators, continuing over generations with one imitator after another. With most of the strips, the less famous have disappeared from public memory, but “classic reprint” volumes of past comic art began to appear in large numbers during the 1970s-80s, a trend that has only accelerated. The presence of the Internet, with less strict copyrights (or less attentive enforcement), has added enormously to the volume and variety of comic art readily available.

And yet artistic innovations have in some respects been historically quite slow as well as idiosyncratic. Harvey Pekar once quipped that the “art” of comic art has been so limited that the modernism that transformed the very nature of painting during the 1910s-20s only reached American comics during the 1970s-90s. Even then, these advances of artistry appeared highly avant-garde, almost shocking, and doubtless unwanted by legions of superhero-trained, juvenile-mentality readers. Not only had the parameters of style and narrative been narrow, but outside of the daily press, in comic books, trends like war, horror, and love-interest comics tended to come and go in a rush, along with the bulk of the smaller publishers themselves. Rare were the individualistic talents with the time and the encouragement to grow to their full potential. Rarer still were those artists who could make a living on such experimental efforts.

Still, even the earliest comics of the 1890s offered hints that they might be at last understood and appreciated a century and more later. The discovery of a potentially massive daily readership with a taste for a new kind of illustration prompted the onset of comic strips as a major commercial art form of the fin de siècle, evolving within a generation or two into most of the modern versions that readers recognize today. How was it that the barely literate newspaper readership of the 1890s-1920s, obviously craving visual humor and drama, sought images of themselves (or of those distinctly unlike themselves), in art, or at least a kind of art, hitherto unknown?

Were comics on the “funny pages” perhaps simply easier, cheaper, to access than a vaudeville stage or the first movies? Did the “family” comics reader _ that is, presumably the middle-class reader of influential, slow-moving domestic dramas like Gasoline Alley _ of the 1920s and after also go to art galleries? How did things change with the sudden emergence of the hugely popular comic book format, aimed squarely at the young (and mostly boys)? Such questions and others were first posed by scholars around 1960, part of the growing academic interest in “mass culture” that emerged alongside an actual decline in the circulation of comic books and a reduction, in various ways, of innovation and actual space for the more artistic newspaper strips. Decades late in even being posed, these were the very questions that the next generation asked a second time in the aftermath of the next phase, the rise and fall of uncensored, openly radical “Underground Comix.” A quipster of the 1970s remarked that for Parisian graduate students before 1968, writing a dissertation on comic art was impossible, impermissible, but after the student revolts, became irresistible, albeit there were few in actual numbers. The generation or so of professors that followed actually used comics as illustrations in their presentations, and increasingly assigned comic art to students bored with the normal reading matter.

Until such “graphic novel” courses in colleges and universities placed comic art on bookstore racks alongside manga titles, only a small handful of comic artists had gained serious recognition. Art criticism, let alone art history, in this field was still waiting to be born. The majority of published comics scholars, the writers of monographs, has to date continued to consist mostly of self-taught non-academics. Even the academic scholar writing commentary aims mostly at an audience of fellow fans, usually providing texts with as many illustrations as possible on oversized pages. Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History by William B. Jones, Jr., is the finest single example. This has begun to change, but anything like a full-blown, formal comics scholarship remains for the future.

A small-scale rush beginning in the first years of the new millennium saw the emergence of online journals, scholarly conferences, and the very occasional scholarly series on the topic. The academic field is still largely the domain of English or American Studies and its non-U.S. variants, areas where historical issues remain distinctly secondary to aesthetics. Exhibition catalogs rendered into semi-scholarly volumes, like Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into

Comix by James Danky and Dennis Kitchen, are a new entry onto the stage but fulfill familiar purposes for scholarly minded comic fans turned museum mavens, comic art pub-crawlers.

The “classics” of modern comic art, at least in the (now omnipresent if not necessarily all-dominant) English language, may be briefly delineated. Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize- winning Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, the Harvey Pekar persona of the award-winning film American Splendor (along with Pekar’s actual script-writing and self-publishing), the assorted works of Pekar’s early collaborator Robert Crumb, Alison Bechdel’s extraordinary Fun Home, and the various works of Chris Ware practically exhaust the list of household names. After these come a host of others less famous if not less accomplished, including Joe Sacco, Ben Katchor, Peter Kuper, Spain Rodriguez, the Indian artist Sarnath Banerjee, and precious few others in the upper circles of public attention. Considering the body of comic art at large, it is surprising how much of this canon is nonfiction or nearly nonfiction, works ranging from oral history and reportage to memoir and memory-fiction, projects seeking to recapture dramatically a kind of personal recollection.

We might look at this canon differently, and more usefully, by adding “pre-modern,” mid-twentieth-century art that, in its realism or naturalism, stylized or innovative, may actually predict the art in Masks of Anarchy. The lives of authors and their great literary works appeared most abundantly in the
tens of millions of copies of the Classics Illustrated comic books of the 1940s-70s. Often cursed by critics and teachers for their simplification of plot lines and their stiff drawing style, employing the efforts of individual artists whose names have disappeared except among scholars and aficionados, Classics nevertheless did the work of introducing generations of English-speaking children to literature high and low, ancient and almost modern alike.

Otherwise, comic books of the past eras seem scarce on realism, but not entirely bereft. As recent reprints demonstrate, Harvey Kurtzman’s historical comics of conflict, and most daringly his unheroic, unromantic comic stories of the then-current Korean War, were realistic right down to the military uniform buttons. More important, they were realistic in their treatment of the fate of consigned civilians, abused and treated as objects. Realism crept into comic art with the “alt” (as in “alternative” to the superhero mainstream comics) era following the collapse of the Undergrounds (1970-80), and especially with the persona of Jack Jackson (Jaxon), an underground regular who returned from California to Austin, Texas, and drew extended sagas of Texas history close to the record, comic volumes admired as accurate and forceful by scholars of regional history. A People’s History of American Empire, the adaptation of Howard Zinn’s totemic work, may suitably represent the history comic’s advance into the twenty- first century, alongside a kind of semi-fiction that gains its popularity through explanations of science or math (Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, which is the story of Bertrand Russell, provides the best example, perhaps the only one to reach the bestseller list).

Comic stories of poets’ lives and work have been rare indeed, and the few in existence tend to be confined to assorted anthologies (chapters of The Beats and its successor, Bohemians, and sections of the three-volume Graphic Canon treating the poets along with their writings), rather than fully developed in the fashion of Masks of Anarchy. Why would this be? Perhaps because not until now did readers of poetry seem to overlap with readers of comic art. This is an interesting proposition because poetry was so universally popular in the early nineteenth century. Edgar Allan Poe’s verses were widely read in the mid-nineteenth century, beloved and recited by factory “girls”; the lines of Shelley and Robert Burns, among others, were heard often in British, Scottish and Irish factory villages (and in pubs in particular) well into the twentieth century. Other forms of entertainment such as recorded music, along with assorted changes of lifestyles, drove poetry at once downward in popularity and upward to an elite readership. The 1960s Underground Press, somewhat later the cultural and political feminism of the 1970s onward, and more recently poetry slams may have brought poetry back down again to a non-academic, lay audience. Yet the contrast to a century ago is striking.

The labor audience of the 1890s to the 1940s, or rather certain segments of the labor audience, offered something special in matching poetry with the dream of a “cooperative commonwealth” (socialism under one name or another). Even by 1890, a full generation of German-speaking immigrants had gathered first in secularist gymnastic Turnvereine, had successfully created unions in various trades, and set up socialist clubhouses physically or informally (that is, in taverns) where labor choruses sang their vision of a better future. Their sickness-and-death benefit societies, a necessity in pre-Social Security days for the religiously unaffiliated, provided a further sturdy basis for loyal participation. Weekly literary supplements to daily socialistic papers offered fine radical poetry from the homeland and beyond, Shelley translations emphatically included. By the early twentieth century, more than a dozen ethnic groups, arriving in the U.S. a generation later than the Germans, had formed similar socialistic societies backed up by benefits and expressed in amateur theater as well as poetry recitations and choral performances.

The world of Yiddish-speaking Jews stood out among these ethnic milieux, not only because of the super-condensed neighborhoods in the Lower East Side (and soon parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx), and not only because of the misery of working-class life. A messianism deep in Jewish history found a new expression in the blossoming socialist movement with its visions of a better future. Unions heavy in Jewish membership, notably the so-called needle trades, especially bore the socialist stamp. By the late 1910s, they began to consolidate as cultural institutions, reaching their full measure in the 1930s-40s. After the war, faced with a corrosive combination of political repression and the assimilation of the next generations, these cultural movements drifted toward disintegration.

The use of English by organizers and activists allowed a reach across ethnic lines, a sense of working-class unity that might overcome all the efforts of the class enemy to keep workers divided against each other. Thus Helen Keller, in her introduction to a collection of poems by the Italian-American strike leader Arturo Giovannitti, compared him to Shelley as a poet of struggle. Pauline Newman came from Yiddish into English in this way, with a mission that by the 1910s was both old and new: the grand messianism of social transformation and the new opportunity to build industrial unions that might provide the bridge toward a new, egalitarian society.

We are, then, reader, dealing with something dramatically new in Masks of Anarchy.