I had originally intended this segment to be a discussion of how comics can be differentiated from other visual arts but points in my original post have generated some very good questions from readers that should be addressed first.
The questions all refer back to the following statement:
“Comics are not just for kids and never really were except for those with some deep investment in an arbitrary highbrow/lowbrow distinction. This distinction is one based on historically constructed relations that give privilege to very debatable aesthetic principles.” (Buchanan, 2014)
You’ll notice that this paragraph is – primarily – composed of two assertions, one about the appropriateness of comics to any particular age group and another about the standards for judging a form of art. The latter point also expressly questions such standards based on an – ancillary – investigation into how such standards are derived (or rather, constructed). Implied in the standards are further questions regarding the nature of this “authority” (i.e., what fits a certain category of art, who can or should enforce standards for the categories, etc.).
Let’s look at the first assumption, often expressed by critics of comics as some variation of “comics are just for children,” and how it fails to hold up as something other there than a pat dismissal of the art form.
For the sake of discussion, let’s define comics quickly as publications that tell stories with pictures on paper using pencil and/or ink that may or may not incorporate words. It’s not the only – or even best – definition but it conforms well to the general understanding of what makes a comic. In the West, broadsides and their descendants, mass publication newspapers, have included such stories – either editorial or entertaining – in some form since the 18th Century.
These information outlets have hardly been within the purview of children in that time. Other than following the comics page, children have used newspapers mostly for mandatory research into a current or historical event for class. With the rise of the Internet, the modern media-savvy child is less likely to read the printed newspaper than ever before. Further, children’s input into mass publication newspapers has rarely extended beyond the comics page. Only a few features such as comics page war-horse Slylock Fox have solicited input from and encouraged participation by kids.
Mass publication newspapers are owned by, created by, and published for adults. As cartoons (and comic strips) have been a staple of newspapers for over 200 years, it would indicate that they are deemed appropriate for adults. The function of the comic strip was to leaven serious publications with some light-hearted fun, helping to increase circulation. It is this aspect of joviality that gave the comic its name, separating it from the more serious (in intent) “cartoon.”
The evolution of the comic strip to the comic book was tied to the fortunes of the newspaper in the era between the First and Second World Wars. The earliest comic books were simply republications of strips in a different format. The first monthly comic book, Comics Monthly, was published in 1922. It lasted for 12 issues and reprinted various comic strips from 1921. During the Great Depression, publishers even created comic books for give-away just to keep their very expensive printing presses running.
Traditional comic books have been consumed by adults continuously since the 1920’s. During World War II, about 44% of servicemen read comics regularly and another 13% read them occasionally. (Gordon, 1998, p. 139) According to the U.S. War Department, comics accounted for approximately 25% of all printed materials sent overseas to soldiers in 1944. (Gordon, 1998, p. 140) Figures for comic book readers over the years are notoriously hard to pin down but adults have become the dominant demographic as generations of comic fans have grown older and continue to read them.
So why were comics supposedly just for children?
Looking back to the period before World War II when this cultural attitude took root, the newspaper was often considered a lower form of information than literature or scholarly studies. It was literally disposable. Comic strips – one of the least important features – were especially ephemeral, viewed by many as nothing that an adult would think twice about.
Even the stand alone comic book was thought to be a cheap publication akin to pulp magazines rather than a proper book. The lurid or gaudy figures that dominated comics in those days – private detectives, action adventurers, funny animals, and superheroes – were deemed inappropriate for “literature.” The stories were seen as less coherent and less meaningful, as something that appealed to the under-developed tastes of children.
Further comics were under attack during the late 1940’s to early 1950’s. The attacks were part of a general paranoia about the rising demographic of the “teen” and its potential delinquency. It culminated in the Comics Code Authority, a self-regulating board for the comics industry, which enforced a series of rules which guaranteed that comics in the U.S. would be suitable for children. Unfortunately, the industry was also stifled from developing for many years, so much so that mainstream comics ended up reinforcing the idea of the art form being “just for children.”
How this all changed is something for another article, though.
Buchanan, A. (2014, September 25). In Defense of Comics. Retrieved May 10, 2015, from http://blogs.lfpl.org/readers/734/
Gordon, I. (1998). Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890-1945. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Article by Tony, Main Library