It’s the Pictures, Stupid
Not to Mention Bondage and Grecian Urns

One of the side-effects of the dubious renown that attaches to a chronicler of comics history comes in the form of phone calls from strangers purporting to be newspaper reporters who have been assigned to write an article about the funnies. Among the first questions asked is one that goes something like this: Why are people so in love with the comics? What is it about them?

            I’ve had this question sprung on me more than once, but it always catches me wholly off-guard, like a naked man in the headlights of an onrushing deer. Well, that’s a little extreme maybe, but the question catches me up short and gives me a sinking feeling in the stomach: unaccustomed as I am to being at a loss for a thought, I can think only that I’ve never thought of that before. I never have on the tip of my tongue anything like the sort of penetrating, deep level analytical apothegm that readers of Rancid Raves have doubtless come to expect hereabouts.

            Partly, my dumbfoundedness prevails because it has always seemed to me self-evident why the comics are so popular. Asking me why the comics are popular is like asking me why standing under a summer sun makes one warm. Milton Caniff may have put his finger on it when he said, once, “Whatever it is that makes a popular art effective—escape, or the appeal to basic emotions, or ‘audience identification’—the funnies have it, and they have more of it than any of us ever suspected.”

            In other words, he didn’t know either. Or couldn’t say.

            When asked this question, I usually mutter that we (“people”) like the funnies because, through repeated visitation, the characters become almost members of our family—old friends, at least—and we like the easy familiarity of the company of old friends and family members. And if, by then, I haven’t fallen asleep out of sheer boredom at the mindless tepid banality of this analysis, I might have collected my wits sufficiently as I speak to remember, suddenly, that the Big Appeal of the funnies is that they make us laugh, and we all enjoy laughing—ergo, we turn eagerly, day after day, to the comics section of the newspaper before it even occurs to us to consult the editorial page where all the truly important utterances are taking place. We’d rather laugh than think any day.

            Actually, I usually leave out the last part about the editorial page. No point in annoying my interlocutor by rubbing his or her nose in journalism’s signal failure—namely, its inability to make its readers take news seriously enough to displace comic strips at the top of the hierarchy of their interests in the newspaper.

            Nor do I point out, gleefully, that their question sabotages a fiction to which newspaper editors have subscribed for generations in willful disregard of the facts. Editors say they think comics are for children, but that’s not what they really think. They really think, as I said, that they’ve failed to make their readers take news seriously, and since news is their business—their profession—they cover up their bitter disappointment at their own shortcoming by pretending that it isn’t their readers who ignore the news and read the comics but the children of their readers. Their readers, they fantasize (completely dismissing the results of readership surveys), are actually reading the front page of the paper and studying the editorials and forming adult opinions that they will subsequently translate into votes at the ballot box come Election Day.

            Most readers of daily newspapers would, if asked, tell these editors that the only reason they stop on the editorial page as they flip through the paper on their way to the funnies page is that a large cartoon at the top of the editorial page attracts their attention momentarily. Editors know this, too, although they don’t like to admit it. The closest they come to acknowledging the appeal of cartooning is to try to prevent their editorial cartoonist from drawing cartoons that are too opinionated, the sort of cartoons that Might Offend one group or another of the readers that aren’t reading anything else on the editorial page.

            By happy coincidence, the undeniable appeal of the editorial cartoon comes closer to explaining our emotional attachment to comics than anything else I’ve said so far. One of the best exegesis of the relationship between humans and pictures was made nearly sixty years ago by a psychologist, who, at the time he offered his explanation, was concocting stories for a comic book character he’d created, Wonder Woman. Writing in The American Scholar (January 1944), William Moulton Marston, with degrees from Harvard, titled his article “Why 100,000,000 Americans Read Comics.” Among his other accomplishments, Marston was author of the book Emotions of Normal People (1928) and discoverer of the lie detector and was therefore admirably equipped to confront the truth about comics and their readers.

            “Nine humans out of ten react first with their feelings rather than with their minds,” Marston wrote. “The more primitive the emotion stimulated, the stronger the reaction. Comics play a trite but lusty tune on the C natural keys of human nature. They rouse the most primitive but also the most powerful, reverberations in the noisy cranial sound-box of consciousness, drowning out more subtle symphonies.” Quite simply, he goes on, people are enthralled by comics because of the pictures. After a half-century of television, we no longer require extensive argument to be persuaded of the truth of this assertion. But in 1944, Marston felt the need to go into the matter at some length:

            “The potency of the picture story is not a matter of modern theory but of anciently established truth,” he said. “Before man thought in words, he felt in pictures.” Referring to articles by M.C. Gaines (“Narrative Illustration” and “Good Triumphs over Evil”), Marston continues: “The ancients, as numerous historical monuments attest, recorded their military triumphs as well as their domestic comedies in picture stories.” After noting that “the visual form must be simplified to essentials, the emotional response evoked must be instant and universal,” Marston careens away in the direction of explaining the fundamental appeal of superhero comic books. He begins by tracing, briefly, the history of pictorial narrative and divides the “evolution of comics” into three periods: in the first, 1900-1920, comics were almost entirely meant to be funny; but in the second period, 1920-1938, comics introduced “pathos and human interest” into stories that continued from day-to-day, ceasing, eventually, to be funny and becoming adventure stories.

            The third period began in 1938 with the debut of Superman, whose arrival “constitutes a radical departure from all previously accepted standards of storytelling and drama. Comics continuities [i.e., comic books] of the present period are not mean to be humorous, nor are they primarily concerned with dramatic adventure. Their emotional appeal is wish fulfillment. There is no drama in the ordinary sense because Superman is invincible, invulnerable. ... Superman never risks danger; he is always, and by definition, superior to all menace. Superman and his innumerable followers satisfy the universal human longing to be stronger than all opposing obstacles and the equally universal desire to see good overcome evil, to see wrongs righted, underdogs nip the pants of their oppressors, and, withal, to experience vicariously the supreme gratification of the deus ex machina who accomplishes these monthly miracles of right triumphing over not-so-mighty might. Here we find the Homeric tradition rampant—the Achilles with or without a vulnerable heel, the Hector who defends his home town from foreign invaders, wronged Agamemnon who pursues his righteous vengeance with relentless fury, and the wily Ulysses who cleverly accomplishes the downfall of attractive if culpable enemies by the exercise of superhuman wisdom. M.C. Gaines ... perceived the Homeric inheritance of Siegel and Shuster and ... turned the comics magazine into an illuminated vehicle for their drama-less but wish-fulfilling Superman tales.”

            Having established the wish-fulfillment nature of four-color superheroicism, Marston next asserts the morality of the medium. “What life-desires do you wish to stimulate in your child?” he asks.

            Surely youngsters should be encouraged to “wish for power along constructive lines. ... The wish to be super-strong is a healthy wish, a vital, compelling, power-producing desire” involving “the child’s natural longing to battle and overcome obstacles, particularly evil ones. ... Certainly, there can be no argument about the advisability of strengthening the fundamental human desire, too often buried beneath stultifying divertissements and disguises, to see good overcome evil. ‘Happy’ endings are shown in the new comics as products of superhuman efforts to help others—not as mere happenstances mysteriously obeying the ‘Pollyanna’ rule that ‘everything always comes out all right in the end.’ The moral force of this new type of story teaching is stronger by far than the older appeal to self-interest. ... The Superman-Wonder Woman school of picture-story telling emphatically insists upon heroism in the altruistic pattern.”

            That Marston’s essay veers off into a defense of comic books—then, as ever since their beginning, under attack by “concerned citizens” and “parents groups”—is not surprising. Not only was he writing one of the titles, he had, for some years, been on DC’s advisory board of educators, a roll call of distinguished personages in professorial garb charged with analyzing “the shortcomings of monthly picture magazines and recommending improvements,” which resulted, Marston goes on, in raising “considerably the standards of English, legibility, art work, and story content in some twenty comics magazines, totaling a monthly circulation of more than six million.”

            The only flaw in the array of newsstand comics before 1942, the year Wonder Woman debuted, is, Marston says, “their blood-curdling masculinity. A male hero, at best, lacks the qualities of maternal love and tenderness which are as essential to a normal child as the breath of life.” To rectify this oversight, Marston proposed that a superwoman be invented “with all the strength of a Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”

            Marston’s advocacy for the feminine mystique was not entirely philosophical, as we learn in Les Daniels’ Wonder Woman: The Complete History (2000). The good doctor believed, as early as the interview he gave November 11, 1937, to The New York Times, that “the next one hundred years will see the beginning of an American matriarchy—a nation of Amazons in the psychological rather than physical sense” and that eventually “women would take over the rule of the country, politically and economically.” Marston later elaborated: women would rule the world because “there isn’t love enough in the male organism to run this planet peacefully. Women’s body contains twice as many love generating organs and endocrine mechanisms as the male. What woman lacks is the dominance or self assertive power to put over and enforce her love desires.” Earlier, he theorized that woman would achieve dominance over man because “her body and personality offer men greater pleasure than they could obtain in any other experience. Man therefore yields to this attraction and control voluntarily and seeks to be thus captivated.” In short, women would achieve power through simple sexual enslavement. That Marston was the sort of professional to whom heed must be paid on such matters is evident in his own life. He lived with two women, one, his wife Elizabeth, and the other, a former student named Olive Byrne who was subsequently Marston’s assistant and colleague, and he had children with each of them. According to one of Olive’s sons, Byrne Marston, interviewed by Daniels, they all lived together “fairly harmoniously.” Olive never married, and Byrne and his brother were eventually formally adopted by the Marstons. Elizabeth once claimed that she suggested the notion of a superwoman to Marston. Byrne believes that his mother, Olive, was the physical model for artist Harry Peter’s rendition of Wonder Woman; Olive, it seems, also affected a wardrobe accessory that influenced the conception of the heroine—big silver bracelets, one on each wrist. Given Marston’s theory about the dominance of the female personality, I was amused to learn, from Daniels’ quoting Marston’s editor Sheldon Mayer, that the Marston household was “male-dominated” even though Marston himself was clearly out-numbered.

            Wonder Woman, for all her appeal, never quite lived up to Marston’s visions for female dominance of the known world. And she has always, from the very first, been a difficult character for comic books. The audaciousness of Marston’s proposal for a superheroine “was met by a storm of mingled protests and guffaws.” Heroines, Marston was told, had been tried before and had failed to attract readers. Yes, but, Marston reposited, those female heroes hadn’t been superpowered.

            Despite the seeming impracticality of the idea, Gaines, Marston says, “listened to our arguments for a while. Then he said:

            “‘Well, Doc, I picked Superman after every syndicate in America turned it down. I’ll take a chance on your Wonder Woman! But you’ll have to write the strip yourself. After six months’ publication, we’ll submit your woman hero to a vote of our comics readers. If they don’t like her, I can’t do any more about it.’”click to enlarge

            “Fair enough,” Marston said to himself, and he then “found” an artist—“Harry Peter, an old-time cartoonist who began with Bud Fisher on the San Francisco Chronicle and who knows what life is about, and with Gaines’ helpful cooperation we created the first successful woman character in comics magazines.”

            At first, she bore the awe-inspiring name “Suprema,” which, as Daniels remarks, got swiftly and mercifully lost on the way to her first published appearance in All Star Comics, No. 8 (cover-dated January 1942).

            Peter, I hadn’t realized, was probably in his sixties when all this transpired. He’d been dabbling in comic book illustration somewhat, but his early post-Fisher career had been in gag cartoons for periodicals like the humor magazine Judge. His drawing style, for the comic book medium, was unusual: at a time when house styles were overpowering individual mannerisms, Peter’s style was distinctive. And it remained so throughout his tour on Wonder Woman. To a bold linear treatment, he affixed a fussy preoccupation with details—eyeballs and eyelashes, and the curlicue of hair-dos—and a rather vague understanding of female anatomy, including a conspicuous affection for collarbone delineation and a tendency to model forms in places where there were no places in real life. He perfected a way of drawing women’s lips, however, and having got it right once, he did it in the same way forever thereafter.

            And as any reader of the Marston-Peters canon can attest, Marston (writing as Charles Moulton, his middle name and Gaines’) added to the “allure of a good and beautiful woman” plenty of “sly but imaginative psychological themes, especially those dealing with domination and subservience” (as Gerard Jones puts it in Ron Goulart’s Encyclopedia of American Comics). In addition to bondage, Marston also “played with some noble philosophic themes, especially the conflict between ‘the cruel despotism of masculine aggressiveness’ and the humane ways of women.” But the prevailing impression of Wonder Woman’s escapades is “a heady brew,” Goulart says, “of whips, chains, and cockeyed mythology.”

            Oddly—considering the mythological bent of Marston’s tales—the result of Peter’s effort was an imagery that conjured up memories of the kind of painting we can see on ancient Greek vases. (I say “oddly” because I hope no one takes this stylistic quirk to heart and subsequently manufactures a vast new thematic import for the Marston-Peter team-up on the Amazon in the spangled foundation garment. A more pertinent and productive line of reasoning would concentrate on the foundation garment.)

            All of which is somewhat beside my present point—which is, lest you’ve forgotten, to elucidate the reason for newspaper readers’ enthrallment by comics. And I don’t think we can improve much upon Marston’s contention that we are captivated by pictures. They appeal to a primitive aspect of our fundamental nature, taking us, momentarily, back to the age of primordial ooze when a sense of sight was the most acute of our senses and kept us alive as well as entertained. We can’t escape—nor should we try—our basic natures.

            And if I had a better memory, I could have summoned this interpretation to respond to the reporters’ queries without resorting to Marston. The first book I ever read on the comics was 1947's The Comics, by Coulton Waugh, who, right near the beginning of the book, says, “[Comics] have taken advantage of the ancient fact that a picture carries a thought faster than a group of words, and this is the reason why they have been so enormously successful. Man has always resisted the labor of thought, and the strips take a short cut to the mind of the reader without much effort on his part. Since cave men drew pictographs on bone and on cave walls, this new language is based on one of the oldest means of communication in the world.”

            True, no doubt, but there’s also laughter and old friends.

click to enlarge


Footnit: A slightly shorter version of this essay appeared in The Comics Journal.

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