Opus 188 (July 31, 2006). No news is good news, saith the man. And since we have no nous this time, it must be good. What we do have, though, is better. Review and analysis of two graphicnovel-like productions, The Adapted Victor Hugo and City of Glass, and a long excerpt from my forthcoming biography of Milton Caniff—plus, a preview of its cover art that you’ll probably never see anywhere else. Ever. Not even on the book itself when it forthcomes next year. And our legendary reminder: don’t forget to activate the “Bathroom Button” by clicking on the “print friendly version” so you can print off a copy of just this lengthy installment for reading later, at your leisure while enthroned. Without further adieu—
“There is no one thing that is true. It is all true.” —Probably Ernest Hemingway
And before we get started (that’s a joke, son: we’ve already started—heh, heh), here’s one of that profusion of pictures I promised in the $ubscriber/Associate section. This picture I ran across in an ad in Nation. I should have used this closer to July Fourth, I know. But we didn’t post one of our usual installments close to July Fourth: we posted a Hindsight piece on Arnold Roth, and in the excitement, I forgot about Miss Liberty and her garters. I have no reason for posting this picture. I just think it’s funny. Enjoy.
Poetry and Graphic Novels
Where’s the dancer without the dance?
A year or so ago, NBM, continuing the courageous experimentation with the comics medium that has characterized much of its publishing effort over the years, launched a new series—“adaptations of famous poets in the ComicsLit series, Comics Poetry.” The first in the series was a slim (96-page 6x8-inch hardback; $17.95) volume entitled The Adapted Victor Hugo. A daunting undertaking about which I was immediately dubious. It would be difficult, I thought, to translate poetry into pictures. Poetry is simply something else, and I didn’t think it could be transformed into the verbal-visual medium of comics.
Poetry is hard work because it is all play, verbal play. Shakespeare never understood this about poetry, but he loved word play to excess and destroyed his narratives with it. His plays are renowned for the fecund majesty of their language and the psychological complexity of the characterizations, which are often complex because they are contradictory or inconsistent. Very human-like, we’re tempted to say—or maybe just botched attempts. Scholars and literary critics rejoice in this sort of complexity because it gives them something to do. They try to explain it. But riding their hobby horses pell mell prevents them from seeing the obvious: Shakespeare is complicated because the poet lost sight of what the playwright was doing when he was in poetic heat. His language ran away with him. Or vice versa. And as he pursued the music and meaning of the linguistic gyration he was performing, he forgot to be consistent in characterization or to delineate motive clearly. The result, as we have seen for ages, is the beautiful sounding and richly felt intricacy of plays in which the population does things that, upon close examination, usually defy logical explanation.
Poetry is about imagery and sound in words. Insofar as language is intellectual, poetry is a kind of intellectual recreation. Poetry in the literary tradition is a kind of word game: its great appeal lies in the sound and rhythm of the language and in the nuance and interplay of metaphor and meaning. Poetry is a game for the mind, an intellectual sport. Metaphors and similes, rhythm and rhyme—images and sound. Because it is so highly, peculiarly, verbal, it is very nearly impossible to translate it into the visual-verbal mode of cartooning. How does one evoke the musicality of poetry in silent pictures? Or, even, in blending words and pictures? Some words defy visualization.
Byron wrote one of my favorite lines of poetry: “She walks in beauty like the night ...” There are images here, but they are not clear, so how can they be pictured? “Like the night”—how is the night to be pictured? Or is the night invoked here a feeling rather than an image? The words, lilting across a page, seem a perfect evocation of a man’s beloved—grace, mystery and, perhaps, promise. But what picture is conjured up by these words? None, I’d say. Or, rather, hundreds—one for the beloved of each male reader of the poem. If an artist draws a picture or makes a comic strip about this line, what happens to the music, the rhythm of the words, the haunting suggestiveness? And what happens to the soft-focus hints of grace, mystery and, perhaps, promise? The images become, perforce, hard-edged, clearly etched. And the evocative character of the passage is lost.
The Hugo book is thoughtfully, even strategically, designed. Each of the thirteen poems being adapted to comics form appears first in its purely verbal state; then comes the cartoonist’s adaptation. In between are a couple paragraphs of biographical information about Hugo that seem to bear on the apparent subject of the poem at hand. In short, the book is virtually a lesson in poetry interpretation. First, we read the poem in its natural state. Then we get a glimpse of what may have inspired Hugo to write it. Finally, we encounter what one of the thirteen different artists has done in interpreting the poem. Leaving aside the problems that might have been caused by translating the poetry from Hugo’s French to our English, there are other hitches in the getalong.
One of the first poems is entitled “To a Man Leaving for the Hunt.” Hugo is clearly opposed to killing for sport. The cartoonist agrees with Hugo but converts the poem into a parable of retribution: the hunter inadvertently shoots and hits a tree branch, cutting it loose, and the falling limb lands on the hunter and kills him. The poem is a lyric essay, and lyric poetry is not narrative, yet the cartoonist has created a story. The verbal character of lyric poetry is frustrated whenever narrative intervenes. Different interpretations are surely valid, but when they undermine the original medium—destroying verbal playfulness, perverting it from lyricism to narrative—that goes beyond interpretation and becomes transformation, even desecration.
Another somewhat longer poem, “Ocean Nox,” reflects Hugo’s sense of awe at the power of the sea—in particular, its power to attract seafarers and then destroy them, leaving widows behind to mourn. The comics adaptation turns Hugo’s meditation into a disjointed story about a boy who goes to sea juxtaposed against remembrances of sailors destroyed by their briny mistress. The narrative, fortunately, is lurchingly episodic rather than straightforward and is laced with enough images of dockside farewells and grieving women to sustain an aspect ofHugo’s basic thought. But there are passages the poetry of which is destroyed by the visualizations. “But then your memory vanishes away. Bodies decay in seas, and names in minds.” These lines appear next to a picture of an old woman in a chair behind which is standing an attentive young sailor. Panels before and after suggest that the woman is mourning a missing husband or son. Bleak landscapes, a seacoast cottage, cloudy skies. But the word play—the balance between bodies decaying in the sea and names fading in minds, the echo one of the other—is altogether missing.
In another passage, “white-browed widows” are described “stirring ash within the grating of their hearth and their soul.” The image here suggests a fireplace in which a fire has died and gone entirely to ashes, which, notwithstanding, grief-stricken widows still tend, stirring the ashes to revive the flames. The picture that accompanies this passage in the adaptation shows two women, one young, the other old, looking at cards—tarot cards? Where is the suggestion that they want to bring their missing husbands back to life? Where is the heart-breaking poignance of that futile effort to revive a fire after it has gone out? Not here.
A few of the interpretations are more successful. “Pirate’s Song,” a bawdy ballad about a bunch of buccaneers and a boistrous nun, is a narrative and is rendered in bigfoot cartoon style, entirely appropriate. But the same style illustrating a bitter poem about how women urge their men on to bloody warfare is misapplied.
The attempt to interpret poetry through cartooning’s arts is, here, brave but seriously flawed. I don’t mean to suggest that cartoonists can’t produce poetic-like works. They can. Cartoonists can write “comics poetry”—works that deploy words and pictures in tandem in evocative ways for particular responses—but they must exploit the resources of the medium more expertly than we see in the Hugo tome. Luckily, we have an example handy of how comics can achieve poetic effects in an interpretation done, this time, of a novel, not a poem.
The 1995 Picador re-issue of novelist Paul Auster’s City of Glass as interpreted by cartoonists Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli (144 6x8-inch pages in paperback, $14) is an exquisite exemplar of what the visual medium can do with, and for, the verbal medium. It would seem easier to adapt a novel’s narrative to comics than the lyricism of poetry, but Auster’s novel in its original verbal form is poetic: he plays with language as well as ideas and with structure to convert a detective story to a Joycean puzzle. So Auster faces a poetic challenge. Auster’s protagonist in the graphic novel is a mystery writer named Daniel Quinn who answers his telephone one day to a wrong number. His caller is looking for a detective named, in the novel’s first metaphysical quirk, Paul Auster, and Quinn, on a whim, decides to pretend to be Auster, and he is hired by his mysterious caller, Peter Stillman (“not my real name,” he says), who fears that his father, also named Peter Stillman, just released from prison, is returning to kill him and wants Quinn/Auster to prevent the crime. Quinn finds the elder Stillman and follows him for several days, eventually falling into conversation with him. Then Stillman disappears, and Quinn, afraid now for the life of the younger Stillman, stakes out the Stillman residence and maintains a vigil. “What happens next,” as reviewer Neel Mukherjee says in timesonline, “defies belief and resists summarization.” Well, I wouldn’t go quite that far, but to summarize would be to spoil the book for anyone who might want to read either Auster’s novel or the Karasik/Massucchelli adaptation.
The thematic preoccupations here are with identity and perception and the illusive nature of reality itself. And the cartoonists manage their visual resources in stunning ways to elaborate on Auster’s themes. Early in the book, for instance, a steady progression of images slowly changes the appearance of an apartment facade seen through Quinn’s window to a maze and then to a fingerprint. The accompanying captions tell how Quinn frequently goes on walks through the “labyrinth” of New York’s streets until he feels he’s “leaving himself behind ... giving himself up to the streets.” Blending word and picture in this sequence yields the suggestion, incorporating the telltale fingerprint, that Quinn has somehow become his environment, the city around him in which he seeks to lose himself.
Another of the book’s themes has to do with language. The elder Stillman has spent his life trying to connect words and meanings. “When an umbrella breaks and you get wet, is it still an umbrella?” he asks, demonstrating how language has decayed. By way of illustrating further this odd deterioration, he says: “A lie can never be undone. I am a father, and I know. The father of our country chopped down a cherry tree. ‘I cannot tell a lie,’ he said to his father. Then he threw a coin across the river. These are all crucial events. He chopped down the tree and then threw away the money. Understand? He was telling us that money doesn’t grow on trees. Now Washington’s picture is on every dollar bill. You see?” We see confusion masking as comprehension, and that’s the point: the inherent function of language is to create the illusion of order where none, in actuality, exists. To further compound the confusion, Paul Auster himself shows up in the book. Quinn goes looking for Auster the detective but finds Auster the novelist, who says, after expounding on the authorship of Don Quixote, that “all anyone wants out of a book is to be amused.” And this graphic novel is a fascinating display of the various means to that end that cartooning can pursue.
An Introduction by Art Spiegelman, who commissioned this enterprise, tells us that the novel’s prose was broken down into pictorial continuity and the pages laid out by Karasik and then drawn by Mazzucchelli. Karasik’s adaptation is spectacularly inventive, and Mazzucchelli’s rendering deploys a stark beautifully undulating linear style lavishly embellished with sold black shadows, imparting a brilliant clarity to the visualization. We need visual clarity as a way of making sense of a narrative that would otherwise seem confused and baffling. Together, the two cartoonists exploit the medium with elan. In one passage, they make speech balloons mimic the disembodied way Auster has Stillman talk. In another sequence, panels alternate pictorial narrative with symbolism that amplifies the meaning of the accompanying verbiage. Varying camera angle and distance lends some otherwise static scenes dramatic movement and depth. Certain images are repeated throughout the book, each time gaining meaning and emotional impact while at the same time extending further the indictment of language for its imprecision. The book is a tour de force of the cartooning arts, and it rewards repeated readings with new discoveries of the ways words give meaning to pictures, and pictures lend nuance to words. Here, we have a vivid demonstration of the way cartooning can achieve its own kind of poetry.
THE EVERLASTING FATE OF COMIC STRIPS
A Still Pertinent Message From the Past
We all know that Fredric Wertham’s crusade against comic books resulted in the industry’s desperate attempt to save itself by self-censorship. The seal of approval from the Comics Code Authority effectively sealed the lips of the medium’s creative voices, eviscerating comic books in the mid-1950s, rendering them so bland and uninteresting that the medium nearly expired. What we may not realize—those of us not writing comics history of the period—is that newspaper comic strips were also imperilled at the same time, and they, like comic books, changed forever under the menace. Censorship, however, was not the issue for comic strips. Theirs was an economic peril. As I polished the prose of my biography of Milton Caniff last month, I was reminded of this confluence of misfortunes by the passage I’m about to quote. I’m quoting it here because, astonishingly, much of the rationale that threatened and changed newspaper strips then is still operative, and therefore the newspaper comic strip is today almost as endangered a species as it was then, and for very nearly the same reasons. I’m also quoting this lengthy passage because I hope it will whet your appetite for the Entire Tome, which will be published next year by Fantagraphics Books under the title Milton Caniff, Terry and the Pirates, Steve Canyon: Meanwhile... Here’s a mock-up of what I hope might be used, eventually, on the cover, but probably won’t be because it’s too “busy,” visually speaking.Although how the cover of a book with the title I’ve just cited could be anything but busy is beyond me. Regardless, here’s the extract still pertinent today:
In the March 1, 1955, issue of The Bulletin of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Walter Lister, managing editor of the Philadelphia Bulletin, lobbed a bomb with a short fuse. “Comics,” he wrote, “once regarded as a specific for all circulation ills, are now the sick chicks of the newspaper business.” After citing a survey in one city that showed readership of comics had declined by 15 percent, Lister offered an explanation. Television, he reasoned, has lured readers away. He then invoked two more readership surveys done in small towns in Alabama: in the town that didn’t yet have television, comics still enjoyed 68 percent readership; but in a neighboring town that had television, comics readership had dropped to 31 percent. Lister’s contention received national notice the next week in Time magazine, but the real damage had been done: he had undermined the raison d’etre for comics in a publication written expressly for newspaper editors, the very people whose opinions of the circulation-building prowess of comics were vital to the continued life of the medium.
Reading this, Milton Caniff was outraged. Many of his colleagues in the newspaper business were aware of a slump in readers’ interest in the comics, but all the surveys he knew had registered the decline at about 8 percent. An 8 percent falling off was a serious concern; but 15 percent was potentially disastrous. If editors believed Lister, his assertion could sound the death knell for newspaper comics. Lister had his facts wrong. Someone had to set the record straight, and Caniff knew just the agency to do it.
Caniff was one of the founding members of the Newspaper Comics Advisory Council, formed only months before, ostensibly for promoting the Sunday comics section of newspapers as an advertising vehicle. The rationing of newsprint during World War II had severely restricted page-counts for newspapers, and in an effort to expand advertising lineage within their allotted pages, papers sold advertising in the Sunday comics sections. As the age of television dawned, national advertisers turned increasingly to television. Charles Kline, president of Metropolitan Sunday Newspapers, Inc., a marketing company, wanted to find ways to bring advertisers back into the fold by enhancing the appeal of the Sunday funnies. On January 10, 1955, he held a meeting with various people who might help—syndicate officials, advertising managers and feature editors of newspapers, and cartoonists, the latter represented by Caniff and Walt Kelly. Their interest in the day’s agenda was as self-serving as everyone else’s—only not, perhaps, in precisely the way Kline and the others might have imagined.
Caniff and Kelly wanted newspaper comics to do more than survive; they wanted them to thrive. And to ensure the health of comic strips, the cartoonists wanted to protect the medium from further desecration of the sort that wartime shortages had perpetrated. To make room for advertising in the Sunday comics sections, strips that had enjoyed full-page display before the War had been cut back to half-page size; half-page features, to third-page size. Cartoonists had accepted the situation as patriotic sacrifice. After the War, they found that what they’d tolerated as a temporary condition had become permanent: newspapers were not inclined to give up the additional advertising revenue they squeezed out of the Sunday funnies by shrinking the comics. The comics would remain shrunken. And much the same reasoning applied to daily strips.
Until the War, daily strips had also enjoyed commodious accommodations. When Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates began, for instance, the strip was printed five columns wide, 10 1/4 x 3 inches. It continued to run at about that size until the second week of August 1942. That week syndicates and newspapers chopped all daily comic strips to conserve newsprint, which was used in munitions: henceforth, strips ran only four columns wide, 7 5/8 x 2 1/2 inches. Some papers ran some strips five columns wide, but when they did, they cropped a quarter of the strip off the bottom; so although the strips were wide, they were excessively narrow, 9 3/4 x 2 1/4 inches. The reduction in display space—like the shrinkage in the Sunday funnies—continued after the War. Cartoonists felt cramped in the reduced dimensions: in such small panels, it was especially difficult to produce the illusion essential to making continuity strip narratives convincing and engrossing. The visual rhetoric of the medium was seriously impaired. Caniff and Kelly realized successfully coupling Sunday comics to advertising revenue would prolong the life of comics, but they didn’t want the comics to be reduced in size any more merely to make room for advertising.
During the group’s discussion on the 10th, Ernest Lynn, vice president of the NEA syndicate, brought up a related issue—the tendency to omit humorous strips from Sunday comics in order to use the allotted space to run story strips, a maneuver intended, ironically, to maintain the thread of continuity deemed vital to reader interest. Paul Aird, Sunday editor of the Detroit News, responded by saying that editors had been oversold on the continuity strips’ supposed need for more space.
Caniff chimed in to defend his genre. “Continuity is the first consideration,” he said, “—the drawing is second. But you catch the reader with the drawing, and then you hook him with the narcotic of the storyline, continuing from day to day to day.”
Ed Kasun, promotion director and features editor of the Pittsburgh Press, offered a maverick opinion on their basic dilemma. They were giving too much attention to the 8 percent loss and not enough to the continued high readership enjoyed by comics. Pierre Martineau of the Chicago Tribune’s research department turned the discussion back to the main issue by complaining that comic strips were still too much the same as they had been since 1920.
“Today,” he said, “people expect a fast-moving plot. The most successful strips these days are those that keep up with the new sophistication in the country—like Dennis the Menace.”
Maurice Reilly, executive vice president of the Tribune-News Syndicate, concurred: comic strips must compete with television.
Caniff disagreed: “Cartoonists can’t compete with tv, but tv can’t compete with comic strips either. They’re two different media. They entertain differently. And I’ll bet the characters from newspaper comics will endure long after today’s television stars are gone and forgotten.”
By the end of the day, the group decided to make itself a permanent body under the name Newspaper Comics Advisory Council, changing the name later to Newspaper Comics Council, and voted Kline chairman. A steering committee met ten days later and set an ambitious agenda. The Council agreed to sponsor research that would improve readership surveys by reporting the intensity of reader loyalty as well as the popularity of individual strips and the comics in general. To entice advertisers back to Sunday comics, cartoonists would be asked to prepare a booklet showing how best to use the funnies to sell products. An extensive public relations program was proposed, much of it based upon successful ploys that Caniff—and the National Cartoonists Society—had used for years: a prestigious traveling art show, personal appearances before advertising clubs, public service works, magazine articles by and about cartoonists, speaking engagements, and so on. The most innovative was the Williamsburg Project.
It was proposed that syndicates send their top cartoonists to the restored colonial town of Williamsburg, Virginia, April 22-24, to soak up the atmosphere and history. Back at their studios, they would produce a series of tabloid-size full-page drawings about the natiion’s founding. These drawings would then be made available to client newspapers for use on Sunday, July 3, as a prelude to Independence Day celebrations.
Before adjourning, Chuck Kline reported good results from a letter he’d sent to executive editors of newspapers all across the country asking that “comic books” be used instead of “comics” in the headlines of stories about the alleged shortcomings of comic books. The letter had an immediate effect: newspaper comics were no longer being tarred in the news columns of their newspapers.
The Newspaper Comics Council was off and running. Then came Lister, proclaiming comics the “sick chicks” of the newspaper world.
Kline and his minions quickly sprang into action, calling Lister and Jim Coucy, whose survey Lister had cited, to point out that dozens of other surveys contradicted Coucy’s results. Upon examination, Coucy’s methods were discovered to be so suspect as to all but invalidate his survey. Meanwhile, Mo Reilly set the record straight with a well-placed word or two at Editor & Publisher, and Kline arranged a rebuttal on the subject at the forthcoming annual convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington in April.
Newspaper editors filled the meeting room in which the Council presentation took place on April 23. The Council’s heavy hitters were Carl Nelson, director of Publication Research Service, whose report of research soundly refuted Lister’s contentions, and Caniff, whose prestige gave great weight to his remarks.
Nelson passed out charts that summarized his firm’s research into newspaper readership since 1948 in over fifty surveys covering a dozen newspapers in major metropolitan markets. His analysis showed that reader interest in comics had dropped only 5%—from 87% in 1948 to 82% in 1954. This decline was paralleled almost exactly by slumps in other popular departments like sports news, weather report, best-read editorial, best-read newsstory, death notices, and advertising. Even so, the comics were still better read than anything else in the daily paper except advertising and, among men, sports news and sports photographs. The funnies consistently out-polled every other department by 15-20%. Nelson pelted the editors with chart after chart demonstrating that reader interest was still high: the percentage of people reading comics was never lower than 69%, and most often, it fell in the range of 77-82%.
“Readership of comics has not suffered as much as some of your competitors would have you believe,” Nelson told the editors. If television and other outside attractions had lured readers away, he said, “readers would have deserted Sunday comic sections and daily comic pages in much greater numbers than they have in the last five years.”
He went on to report the results of a young readers survey, ages 10-17, at the Pittsburgh Sunday Press. Astonishingly, 100% read the Sunday funnies.
“These figures perhaps are amazing to some people who think that these youngsters have deserted the comics for television,” Nelson said, “but at least on Sunday, these two media are not even in competition. There is plenty of time on Sunday to read the Sunday papers—not only for children, but for everybody in the family.”
If there has been a decline in comics readership, Nelson continued, newspaper editors must bear some of the blame: editors determine readership of newsstories by the sizes of the headlines, he said. “Has the reader interpreted your reduction in the size of comics to mean they are no longer important? Or is he passing up some comics because they are harder to read [at the new small size]?”
Nelson stressed simple showmanship, noting that some newspapers crammed their daily strips so closely together on a page that there is no white space left to make the page attractive. He contrasted this treatment with the strategy of the motion picture industry, which was seeking to bring audiences back into theaters with bigger screens. And television fought back with larger screens.
“I wonder what would happen if you gave your entertainment stars as much space as you give the movie and television celebrities?” he asked, rhetorically. “We have seen audience scores raised by ten points on Sunday by lively and thoughtful promotion campaigns,” he said in answer to his own question.
Then Caniff took the podium. He began in a somewhat satirical vein by giving voice to a seldom acknowledged suspicion that festered among cartoonists.
“It has never been a secret that editorial folk often look upon the creator of a syndicated cartoon strip as a lucky bum who used to paste up layouts in some newspaper art department and who was booted into submitting a strip to the syndicates because he could not operate an air brush,” he said. “Yet here was the fact at hand: these pariahs were turning out one simple strip of infantile sketches each day, being paid over and over by each newspaper that could be conned into buying the stuff. ... Public acceptance of the newspaper strip continued to seal the lips of the editorial critics until the coming of television altered the folk habits of the country. ... For the first time in twenty-five years, the editorial critics of the space-eating comics held a weapon with which to give the pampered darlings of the syndicates the comeuppance too long delayed and so richly deserved. ... At last the managing editor of a big, important paper [Lister] had called the bluff of these parasites who had so long used up space that could be turned to worthier account.”
Caniff knew his audience and he knew the newspapering game, and he drew upon that knowledge: “Happy tales were recited by editors of how a comic strip could be killed off by floating it away from its accustomed spot in the paper until the reader habit was lost.”
It was close enough to the truth to be true. But Caniff would accomplish nothing by alienating the editors whose opinions he had come to influence. Having attracted their attention by tucking tongue into cheek, he now turned the other cheek in a gesture of reconciliation.
“I must point out right here that I do not necessarily regard editors as the villains of the situation under discussion today,” he said, going on to explain that editors were more like lightning rods in the current strum und drang than villains. “With every few exceptions,” he continued, “I have never met an editor who buys my own strip who did not treat me with the greatest courtesy and kindness. ... In spite of this, however, I have sometimes heard these same men, whom I feel to be warm personal friends of mine, speak of my profession with near contempt. ... We are surprised at such critical attitudes in a year which saw one metropolitan daily report a clear profit of $100,000 garnered from charging a 10% premium for advertising placed directly below certain daily comic strips.”
Caniff continued by contrasting the ways in which the print medium and its arch rival, television, promoted their attractions. When NBC scheduled a lavish production of “Peter Pan” with Mary Martin, he said, the network touted the show with dozens of spot announcements in advance. And newspapers carried ads about it, too—and newsstories.
“In contrast to the billboarding given ‘Peter Pan,”’ Caniff said, “consider the usual send-off given a comic strip starting to run in a particular city. Like Barrie’s play, this feature may have established itself in other communities but is unknown locally, so the paper goes absolutely all-out.” His ironic thrust became apparent immediately. “There is a front page box in six point type maybe two or three days prior to the appearance of the first strip. ... Then,” his voice now dripping with sarcasm, “in the full glory of four columns of thumbnail sketches and pica size lettering, the new child is launched to compete with every other entertainment medium.” He paused to let it sink in.
“Yet the joker here,” he continued softly, “is that it so often does succeed! With the danger of children ignoring it in favor of comic books, with older people often unable to read the miniscule lettering in the reduced sizes—this practically still-born infant nonetheless has a chance of joining the other newspaper comic strips that are read by fifty million people every day. And what is most important—a successful strip will be around, keeping up circulation, long after Jackie Gleason has spent his $11,000,000.”
To emphasize the power of comic strips to engage their readers, Caniff alluded again to NBC’s “Peter Pan”: “The public was prepared to see a good show,” he said, “and they did. Eighty million people saw a delightful performance and talked about it for perhaps a month. Some of them might even remember which network carried it. ... However, I would like to have a dollar for each person in this room who cannot recall who sponsored the ‘Peter Pan’ show. On the second ante, I could use a buck from each person here who can tell me the name of the advertiser who sponsored Mr. Coffee Nerves, a cartoon character who has not even appeared in the Sunday color sections for several years.”
It was a telling comparison. The makers of Postum, the decaffeinated coffee, had been well served by Caniff and his studio-mate, Noel Sickles, who had produced several of Mr. Coffee Nerves’ Sunday adventures in an advertising comic strip in the 1930s; and their work had been continued by others for some years but not, any longer, in 1955.
Nelson and Caniff’s double-barreled rebuttal was impressive. Still, too many editors were not convinced. Too many had not even heard the Council’s defense of comics. All were paranoid about television.
The equation that haunted them all is almost as old as journalism. In newspaper publishing, the real money comes from advertising not the sale of newspapers. The number of buyers helps determine a paper’s ability to attract advertisers: the greater a newspaper’s circulation, the greater the volume of advertising and the higher the rates, and the income. As tv sets spread across the country, advertisers went to the new medium. Between 1950 and 1955, the advertising expenditure devoted to tv increased by 8.2%. To newspapermen, it looked like a replay of the 1930s when radio had gobbled up a big chunk of the advertising pie. Even paranoids have real enemies.
Seeing television as a competitor, newspaper editors initially refused to give aid or comfort to the enemy. Listings of television programs were at first puny and cryptic, begrudgingly given, until editors discovered, as they had with movies and with radio, that coverage of television increased their own readership. Still, seeking to wrest a reading audience away from television sets, editors offered their readers only what they could not get on tv. Because comics were a visual medium like television, editors assumed the two were similar in other ways. And since another visual medium—motion pictures—suffered because of television, editors found support in the fate of the movie industry for their contention that newspaper comics were losing their power to attract and hold readers.
By the end of the decade, the seed of this contention had flowered into a full-blown article of faith. Newspaper and syndicate editors were convinced that comic strips could not compete with television. It was a fateful notion for cartoonists like Milton Caniff: it would eventually doom the storytelling comic strip.
Why, editors asked, should a person read a story strip every day for two or three months to get a story when he can watch one on television that’s complete in thirty minutes or an hour?
It was an unanswerable question for several reasons. First, its premise was wrong: it assumed that efficient use of time was the governing factor in determining which pleasures a person pursues. And television would clearly lose in a contest with a newspaper’s comics page: on a daily basis, reading the comics takes far less time than watching even a single TV program.
But the question was unanswerable for another reason. Although television and comic strips are essentially visual media, there are important differences that shape the kind of pleasure each affords its viewers/readers. Television is audiovisual; comics are silent. Television moves; comics are static. A silent, static, spatial art is less insistent than a noisy fast-moving art. Cartoonists knew very well the distinctive qualities of their art.
“Television disappears right before your eyes,” Dick Tracy’s Chet Gould once remarked. “But a feature in a newspaper you can hold for as long as you want. You can show it to cousin Charlie or son John or your wife. Television can’t do that.”
Caniff agreed: “If my wife wants to show me something in the morning paper, she can keep it until I come home at night. You can’t do this with a television show. And you can tear a comic strip out and put it in your wallet or tape it to the refrigerator.”
Ironically, when comparing comics to television, syndicates failed to see the unique character of comic strips. Comics are one of the few newspaper features that a reader cannot find anywhere else. As Gould pointed out, “Comics are the only part of the newspaper that tv hasn’t stolen.”
The comparison of continuity strips to television shows was insidiously persuasive in its apparent logic. But cartoonists doing story strips insisted that their strips were still doing what they’d been devised to do.
“There isn’t anything in the newspaper other than comic strips that holds you, once you’re hooked,” Caniff said. “You have to be hooked, of course. The best gag strip in the world in terms of just plain acceptance is Blondie, and you can miss it any day. But assuming you’re hooked, you can’t miss Rex Morgan because every day there’s always a push forward of the story. If you miss it, you’re penalized: you lack some significant bit of information about the story.”
The seeming logic of the editors’ argument was later denied by a carefully designed readership survey sponsored by the Newspaper Comics Council in 1962. And the cartoonists’ convictions on the matter were utterly vindicated.
After running two pilot studies to test survey techniques, the Opinion Research Corporation of Princeton, New Jersey, conducted a full-scale national survey, interviewing 1,360 adults randomly chosen by means of a scientifically valid probability sample of the nation. Respondents were asked to name their favorite comic strip. Of the 128 mentioned, the top fifteen were: (1) Blondie, (2) Dick Tracy, (3) Little Orphan Annie, (4) Peanuts, (5) Rex Morgan, M.D., (6) Dennis the Menace, (7) Li’1 Abner, (8) Mary Worth, (9 and 10, a tie) Nancy and Snuffy Smith, (11) Beetle Bailey, (12) Brenda Starr, (13) Bringing Up Father, (14) Steve Canyon, and (15) Prince Valiant. Readers were scarcely tired of following stories in daily installments: 8 of the top 15 were continuity strips. But this data came too late.
By 1962, newspaper and syndicate editors were buying daily gag strips instead of continuity strips. Perversely, in comparing newspapers to television, editors failed to consider the proven drawing power of the soap opera, that feature of daily television to which the continuity strip was directly related. Even after the soap opera format had invaded prime-time tv in the 1980s, the editors of print media persisted in disregarding the obvious connection between continuity and daily allegiance in their audience. “Dallas” not only continued stories from week to week but kept the nation in suspense for an entire summer, waiting to find out who shot J.R. All at once, every serious tv drama had a continuity element that went on and on, a tactic that reached its apogee on the Fox network with “24,” a 21st century continuity that recorded the suspenseful events of a single 24-hour period, one hour at a time, week by week. But there are no new continuity comic strips in newspapers: the old logic dies hard.
The Newspaper Comics Council continued to initiate programs to improve the content and format of newspaper comics, to increase their prestige, and to stimulate the interest of the public in reading them. The Council funded research and produced brochures and booklets. Despite the best efforts of the group, however, comic strips lost ground on the vital issue of size. Comics continued to hold their own as newspaper features, but over the years, the strips grew smaller and smaller. In such steadily diminishing circumstances, continuity strips in particular fared badly. Their star was sinking. And today, 2006, it has, for all practical non-Spider-Man purposes, sank.
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