Blogs > Cliopatria > Comics Are a Mirror of American Society

Aug 8, 2005 1:02 pm

Comics Are a Mirror of American Society

Steve Barnes, in the Houston Chronicle (April 15, 2004):

Like jazz and the banjo, comic strips are an American art form, one born and perfected in halls far from the academies of high art. In the comics' case, those hallways were newspapers'.

The battling giants of 1890s New York City newspapering, William Randolph Hearst (founder of the Hearst Corporation, which owns the Houston Chronicle) and Joseph Pulitzer, used comics in their fierce circulation wars.

Bold, graphic, colorful and generally simple in their language, the funnies were used to make readers out of the massive immigrant population, for whom the more elevated English of the news columns was difficult.

The first comic strip is generally credited to R.F. Outcault, who worked for Pulitzer's New York World. The strip, called Hogan's Alley when introduced in 1895, included a hairless child wearing what looked like a white nightgown, which Pulitzer's pressmen, experimenting with color, made yellow as a test of their new presses.

Hearst hired Outcault away from his rival in 1896 and put his new strip, titled The Yellow Kid, at the center of a multipage comics supplement to the Hearst-owned New York Morning Journal.

The term "yellow journalism" soon became synonymous with the sensationalist newspapering practiced by the moguls.

"In a matter of months a new cultural form was born," writes comics historian Maurice Horn in 100 Years of Newspaper Comics.

Newspaper comics exploded in popularity, quantity and quality. Within a few decades of creation their subject matter expanded to include crowded urban life, suburban families, fantasy and adventure, the subconscious and the unconscious. Idiot savants, in the form of scruffy urchins or peculiar critters, vied for space with every stripe of superhero and cynic, detective and dimwit, and all manner of animals.

Comic strips addressed both world wars, the Depression, the Holocaust, the civil-rights and anti-war movements and feminism.

Although many comics are merely diverting fun, a small subset of creators has been causing furors since after World War II. In the 1950s and '60s, the conservatism of Gasoline Alley and liberalism of Pogo outraged some readers and some newspaper editors, who refused to print certain days' strips. Doonesbury has rarely pulled its punches since it debuted in 1970; Johnny Hart has been accused of putting anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim messages in his B.C.; For Better or For Worse addresses issues such as homosexuality that some find inappropriate for the funny pages; and Boondocks regularly sinks its teeth into racism and the Bush administration.

"In short," writes Judith O'Sullivan in The Great American Comic Strip: One Hundred Years of Cartoon Art, "a reading of American comics is a reading of 20th-century social history."

comments powered by Disqus