Cartoons'N Comics: Communication to the Quick


This article originally appeared in Issue# 20

As you laugh, take us seriously!

The comics. They may be worth a glance as you check your horoscope. They may provide a chuckle as you sip your morning coffee. But seriously? You can' take the comics seriously!

Au contraire. The comics are taken quite seriously -- by fans whose complaints deluge any newspaper that dares cancel a strip, by semi-literate adults who can find in them a sort of pictographic "Ann Landers" and certainly by historians and analysts of popular culture who regard the "funnies" as a revelatory aspect of cultural history.

The comics, say these experts, offer a cross-section of human psychology and capture significant snatches of American life and mores.

The Comics as History

A look at the evolution of the comic strip shows how the "funnies", in their own way, record history. The "Yellow Kid," born in 1895 in the New York World, is generally accepted as the first comic character. A violent, gangster-talking figure, the Kid would probably be banned from today's papers. His comments and struggles, however, echoed reality for the city's slum dwellers. Though the Kid died, comics, with their solid psychological appeal, were here to stay.

By the Roaring Twenties, such still familiar strips as "Mutt and Jeff" and "Gasoline Alley" were populating newspaper pages. "Gasoline Alley" made comic strip history by introducing realism and allowing its characters to age. In keeping with the decade, some strips incorporated the emancipated woman. 'Nancy," "Winnie Winkle," and "Blondie" (a high fashion model) were all born in this era.

The Crash and the troubled '30s saw the rise of action comic strips. "Dick Tracy," "Terry and the Pirates," and "Buck Rogers," could take charge and set things right.

With the war in Europe spreading to the U.S., the l940s became the decade of the comic strip superhero. Welcome 'Superman" and 'Wonder Woman," both vigorous fighters in the Allied cause. The comics stepped out of newspapers into books of their own with the creation of additional heroes: Batman, Captain Marvel, the Green Lantern.

The l950s, by and large, grew reflective. Comment could be humorous or biting. 'Lil Abner grew in popularity. "Pogo" and "Peanuts" offered observations on politics and life. The humorous side of the daily lives of ordinary mortals became the subject of such strips as "Dennis the Menace" and "Beetle Bailey.

If the '60s were an era of protest and questioning, the comics felt the mood. As "Doonesbury" was born, superheroes went into a sharp decline. The self-doubting and reluctant Peter Parker (alias Spiderman) is one of the few superheroes of recent vintage.

The Comic Appeal

Old-timer or newcomer, the comic strips apparently owe their ongoing appeal to solid psychology. They mirror human life and respond to the human spirit. When life is bleak, a laugh can help. When life is dull, adventure spells relief. When life seems stupid, humor-become-satire makes its point. When life is lonely, romance provides connections.

These are, in fact, the four major responses the comics offer. Humor strips like "Momma," "Marmaduke," "Hi and Lois," "Hagar," and "For Better or For Worse" allow us to laugh at life's petty but persistent frustrations.

Adventure series like "Steve Canyon," 'The Amazing Spiderman, and the perennial "Dick Tracy" and 'Superman" spin stories that keep us wondering (but not worrying) about what will happen next.

Comment comics, including "Doonesbury" and "Peanuts," strike with satire at political, social, or human pretensions.

Romance or soap opera strips like "Mary Worth," "Brenda Starr," and "Dondi" provide a cast of caring characters with which to people our private worlds.

This unique media form has marched out of the "funny papers" to an expanded social role: to educate and irritate, tickle and tease, inform and reform.

The comic's universal appeal to the human psyche is strengthened by their universal distribution. Long before television or radio provided cross-country communication links, comic strip characters were known nationally.

They were fantasy figures inciting the imagination. They were mythic heroes proving in varied situations that right overcomes might. They were story-book characters authorized for adults, reflections of daily life, witty crusaders in a variety of causes, 20th century successors to the likes of King Arthur and Robin Hood.

An American Art Form

Such literary connections come naturally to the comics, which, as an American art form indigenous to America, have verbal as well as visual components. No serious discussion of the "funnies" can proceed far without including words like satire, allegory, fable, personification, comedy (in the classical sense), myth, pun, allusion. All these aspects of literary art exist in the comic strip.

However, it is primarily as a visual art form that the comics have made their contribution. They borrowed and refined the tools of the political cartoonist. Before movies were commonplace or television was conceived, comic strips were the storyboards from which later script writers would learn.

Panel by panel, they set the scene, introduced the characters, unfolded the action. Comic artists taught movie serial makers how to build to a climax and bring the audience back next week.

The strips developed their own "language" or signals: word balloons indicated dialog; sentences strung across a frame suggested narration; and the very way words were printed "produced" sound effects! Any wonder, then, that comic strips have spawned television series and vice-versa?

In the enriching mix of today's media, comic strip characters continue to command considerable attention. They entertain us, exercise our fantasy, and reflect wryly on the way life is. They are multiplying. They are leaping off the pages of our papers to live on our movie screens.

In doing so, they continue, like living beings, to adapt to the times. Popeye has proved capable of touching tenderness, Superman and Tarzan have found romance, Zorro has been transformed by satire. The comic strips, in turn, are welcoming into their ranks new figures from other formats — Luke Skywalker, for example, and JR. Ewing.

The comics, quite clearly, remain popular and prosperous. Some are funny. Others, serious. Taken together, however, the comics have much to reveal --about their characters, yes; but more so, about us, their readers!

Author Bio: 

Joy Clough, RSM, was director of communications for the Chicago province of the Sisters of Mercy and later for the Archdiocese of Chicago. 2002 Update: She is currently the elected president of the Sisters of Mercy, Regional Community of Chicago.