I addressed some of the problems with finding strong mythic discourses in comic strips in the three essays of the series THE LONG AND SHORT OF MYTH, beginning here. In addition to the LITTLE NEMO analysis that I posted this week, I have a couple more comic-strip candidates in mind for future installments. However, there won't be a "Bizarro version" of the NEMO strip this week. Since NEMO managed to pull off a consummate myth while remaining within the restrictions of the form, I felt that any "bad example" ought to be another comic-strip, but one that failed to consummate its discourse. But though I could find a lot of strips that were inconsummate in other ways, it was tough to find anything that worked for me. (If I was looking for comic strips that were inconsummate with regard to the thinking function, I could pick pretty much any MALLARD FILMORE strip.)
Since I believe that I have a pretty fair knowledge of the best-known comic strips, I find myself asking the question, "Is it possible that I'm not finding much because the restrictions of the comic strip form actively mitigate against the functions of thought and poetic intuition?"
In Part 3 of REFLECTIONS IN A MERCURIAL EYE I posited that these functions are secondary in a developmental sense to those of sensation and feeling. I won't get into the frightfully complicated schema Carl Jung provided for the four functions in PSYCHOLOGICAL TYPES. I've mentioned that he even subdivided his functions into "concrete" and "abstract" aspects, and that's further than I want to go at this time. I suppose I'll just say that all of the functions I address probably fall into the abstract aspect and leave it at that.
As every comic-reader knows, American comic books developed out of comic strips. The best known comic strips were syndicated in nationally distributed newspapers and were often used as attractions with which to sell the paper as a whole to a predominantly adult audience. A number of the strips were overtly aimed at children, but the only way that the kids could get them was if their parents, or some similar authority, either bought every paper every day or subscribed.
In contrast, American comic books were largely aimed at kids from the first, since individual comics were so cheap that they could be purchased with pocket money. In the early days some features aped the "continued next time" structure of comic strips, which would in theory force the buyer to purchase the next issue as well. For the most part, however, comic books of the Golden Age soon evolved away from the newspaper model-- suggesting to me that although subscriptions was possible with some titles, the majority of the juvenile readers wanted their comics "done in one" so that they wouldn't have to worry about purchasing the next issue.
Based on that quick comparison, one might think that the comic-strip form, being aimed at the adults, would be the more "advanced" medium, if one accepted the priorities of elitist criticism. Comic strips were allied to formidable syndication organizations, so they generally attracted the most formally accomplished artists. Throughout the run of the COMICS JOURNAL print magazines, its editors and raconteurs almost never ceased the sing the praises of the great comic-strip artists-- Caniff, Foster, Raymond-- and to devalue most comic-book artists, aside from a favored few like Eisner, Cole, and most of those associated with EC Comics.
What the elitists missed, however, was that comic strips, even at their greatest levels of excellence, were always hampered by the factors of serial progression. Certainly Sunday pages like NEMO and PRINCE VALIANT could get away with a somewhat "painterly" approach to comics-narrative, but they were the exceptions. Most story-strips, whether they appeared only on weekdays, on Sundays, or in a combined form, chose to pursue a straightforward linear narrative-- again, one designed to seduce the readers into regularly partaking of the newspaper that carried the comic. Caniff may have been the paradigmatic figure here, in part because one can see him channeling the "invisible style" of most Hollywood films of his time.
This linear narrative, in essence, followed the same association I've outlined for the sensation and feeling functions. The visual part of a given strip communicates what kinds of sensations that the characters are experiencing, and the verbal part gives it feeling-context: whether the reader is supposed to be happy or sad when a given character is killed.
Because this was the most efficient means of communicating narratives in a medium that was serial by nature and truncated by form, even the best artists tended to follow the "invisible style."
The comic book medium largely began by reprinting re-arranged comic strips, but as soon as it was evident that an original feature could make big money-- one guess which feature provided that proof-- most comic books began to rely on original material.
But this eventuated in a change in narrative strategies. The comic-creators might have a limited space to tell his story in each comic. But even a 4-page story allowed the creators to expand on narrative aspects that a comic strip could rarely indulge. It's true that the great majority of comic book features in the Golden Age were formulaic-- but they, unlike the best comic strips, possesses the power to expand into the realms I've called "thinking" and "intuition." On the whole most Golden Age comics did not encourage a lot of thinking, with the obvious exception of the EC books. But they could venture more deeply into the realm of intuition and its mythic images-- and they did so, though often only on a sporadic basis. I've commented that a lot of PLASTIC MAN stories aren't well written in terms of any function, but then, there's the one from POLICE #43 that I analyzed here. I suggest that because Cole felt free to slap down any kind of wild fantasy that occurred to him-- a freedom denied to the Fosters and Raymonds of the "big time"-- he was sometimes able to come up with a fascinating psychological myth like this one.
Possibly next week I'll work on some of the other fascinating myths of the Golden Age, since most of these stories are utterly ignored by current comics criticism.
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