Monday, August 25, 2014

Apocalypse Aborted: Philip José Farmer's Literary Plea



Dynamite’s Doc Savage #8 is now out, completing the series. I have blogged about this twice before; rather than reiterating those remarks, let me just say that the story’s ending offers no further introspection into the ideology of its protagonist, who vows “to abide by the court’s decisions” in the wake of certain scandalous revelations concerning his methods, and merely sets the stage for new stories set in the twenty-first century present. Update accomplished. Since most mainstream comics over the past generation or more seem afflicted with an emphasis on continuity over storytelling, resulting in mere dry tabulations of events rather than full-blooded storytelling, it would have been a false hope to expect an adaptation of this venerable property to buck the trend. Still, as the inspiration of such diverse and durable pop culture franchises as Superman and James Bond, I was rooting for Doc. But my basic judgment stands: this was an ambitious project that would have been better treated as a prose text, and a creditable first outing for newcomer artist Bilquis Evely, who was confronted with the arduous task of reconciling the Baumhofer and Bama versions of Doc while evoking nearly a century of eras from World War II to the present. But the Dynamite Doc reads more like a dry run for a movie bid and a slightly plodding exercise in revamping. One only hopes that a collection of this series into a graphic novel package will allow author Chris Roberson to add some textual background for the reader to flesh out some of the conceptual material he had in mind.

If this series will be remembered for anything, I suspect it will largely be for its enshrinement of certain concepts belonging to Philip José Farmer into the official Savage canon. For, what is not extrapolated from Lester Dent’s original pulp series is derived almost entirely from Farmer’s Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life and Farmer’s other original Savage adventures. These texts are mined for such concepts as Doc’s alleged immortality serum, which accounts for Doc not aging past fifty and Pat Savage aging more slowly, as Monk, Ham, and the other Fabulous Five grow old and fade away; and for the ethical qualms, such as they are, over the Crime College and other practices deployed by Doc. It is unfortunate that Farmer’s distillation of the pulp ethos, “to tell a rattling good story,” was not equally taken to heart, nor his speculation that the only suitable mates for cousins Doc and Pat were each other (Farmer also points out incestuous themes in the later Lensman novels of E.E. Smith, although I never made it that far with the other Doc). But the latter probably was not possible under the constraints of a licensing agreement.

But unfortunately, Farmer’s influence on most comics and fiction fans has always been his penchant for arcane continuity (in line with industry obsessions) more than his ribald sense of humor. Farmer’s followers have always taken his “fabulous family tree of Doc Savage,” which they have dubbed the “Wold-Newton Universe,” far more seriously and reverently than Farmer himself. To be sure, Farmer’s schematization, not only of Doc’s 181 “supersagas,” but a vast wealth of popular literature besides (including most of the oeuvre of Edgar Rice Burroughs among others) is done with a great deal of affection if not obsession and, as Win Scott Eckert points out, without the benefit of spreadsheet or database technology. The interrelation of adventure characters such as Doc Savage, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, and myriad others has inspired such projects as Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman (and will no doubt subtend Dynamite’s Doc Savage team-up with the Shadow and The Avenger). Indeed, Farmer’s penchant for tying everything together neatly has contributed not only to the comic book industry’s mania for continuity, but extended to TV and movie franchises as well, becoming a general cultural obsession.

Farmer, not as talented a writer as Burroughs or even Dent, was at least clever enough to realize if he made the sexual drives underlying the pulps more explicit in the manner of writers such as Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs, and Norman Mailer, among others, he could unleash more of the sublimated energy of the genre. Farmer succeeded, not only with the intentionally perverse and satirical Doc Caliban series (most notably in the homoerotic A Feast Unknown), but eventually striking gold with his best-selling Riverworld series, which for a brief moment in the late 1970s dominated the fledging paperback bookstore market (it was said that the backbone of chains like B. Dalton and Little Professor, forerunners to juggernauts Borders and Barnes and Noble, was paperback science fiction, primarily Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings and James Blish’s workmanlike adaptations of the original Star Trek TV series).

The cover of The Return of Megaton Man #2 (Kitchen Sink Press, August 1988), featuring Doc, Pat, Ham and Monk (or their parodic approximations). © Don Simpson 1988, all rights reserved.

While I confess an early fascination with Farmer’s Savage family tree, which has played a role in my own work (most notably Bizarre Heroes in the 1990s), I have always valued Farmer’s Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life primarily for reasons other than those valued by the Wold-Newtonians. Having read some fifteen or twenty of the Bantam reprints by 1975, I was at first perplexed by that white-covered Bantam paperback, purporting to tell the true “life story” of this purportedly fictional adventure character. It was probably an overcast, wintry day in suburban Detroit when I purchased this odd little book, but to paraphrase Farmer, I will always remember it as a golden afternoon. I have read parts of His Apocalyptic Life too many times to recall, particularly its opening chapters.

Megaton Man visits his Fortitude of Solemness, where he meets Philip José, the kindly caretaker. Spread of pp. 2-3, from The Return of Megaton Man #2 (Kitchen Sink Press, August 1988) © Don Simpson 1988, all rights reserved.

Farmer begins Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life with a mixture of nostalgic sentiment, provocative literary polemic, and a discursus on the apocalyptic aspect of the Savage supersagas, all of which are quite moving. Apart from the emotional recollections of his youthful readings, and the terse litany of plotlines paraphrased from the adventures themselves, Farmer has a serious point to make on behalf of the “ungreat literature” of the pulps. Following a long harangue against academic snobbery, Farmer concludes, “I am convinced that poplit, despite its massive flaws, is worth a serious study.”

However, Farmer declines to develop this argument any further, sensing perhaps that a literary defense of the pulps is perhaps unsustainable, least of all by him—he would have had to have read more Joseph Campbell than Sigmund Freud. Instead, in the very next sentence he intimates his personal uncovering of several “biographies of so-called fictional characters,” introducing the fanciful idea that pulp literature is based on factual accounts of the exploits of living persons. At first, this seems almost a perverse throw-away joke, but it will soon emerge as a dominant theme for much of the remainder of the book. This is sad, because Farmer’s critical plea is serious and heartfelt, and worth far greater development. But Farmer gives up, as if to say that the only way to take the pulps seriously is to literally pretend that they are real, to double down on the credulity of childhood.

It is worth quoting passages at length to examine how Farmer presents, and then aborts, his argument. Farmer begins the book with a moving recollection of his youth and the magazine rack of pulp imagination awaiting him at Smitty’s drugstore. “It was truly a vessel for me,” he recalled,


one which I boarded for many a fabulous voyage down the Mississippi of a boy’s mind. […] It was here that I dipped my line into the waters and brought up the fabulous Argosy magazine once a week. […] Those were golden days. At least, they had their golden moments, and these are what I’ve treasured up in my memory.

After a stint in the service and college on the G.I. Bill, Farmer developes more grown up tastes in literature. “In my young manhood and beginning of middle age, between 1949 and October 1964, I rarely thought of Doc Savage. Such childish things were behind me.” Instead he read a litany of serious authors and critics, until “Bantam Books resurrected the buried fifteen-year-old” with the reprinting of the Doc Savage series. 

 I was just beginning to turn back to the “classics” of my childhood and the pop lit of my youth. And as the Bantams came out, starting with The Man of Bronze, I re-experienced the delights of my juvenile days. This nostalgic joy was tempered by a recognition of literary faults which I’d not noticed during the original readings. However, by then I had gotten over my snobbishness. I knew that much of the “great” literature of the world had, along with the great virtues that made them classics, great flaws.  Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Melville, and Twain are splendid examples of this. Examples in poetry are Shakespeare, Milton, and Blake.

Farmer continues,

There is a fifteen-year-old in my brain, and he loves Doc. There is also a seven-year-old who still loves Billy Whiskers, a nine-year-old who still loves Oz and the heroes of ancient Troy and Achaea, a ten-year-old who still loves John Carter of Mars, Tarzan, Rudolf Rassendyll, King Arthur, Og, Son of Fire, Umslopogaas and Galazl, the Ancient Mariner, Captain Nemo, Captain Gulliver, Tom Sawyer, Hiawatha, Jim Hawkins, and Sherlock Holmes.

It is then that Farmer proceeds into his most forceful polemic.

The “ungreat” literature, the poplit (mystery, romance, adventure, gothic) was put down or ignored by most of the literary critics (and, hence, the intellectuals) on the grounds that they had no merit whatsoever. This is just not so, and perception of this has begun to filter into the academic community. […] There are elements in poplit other than just entertainment. […] It was Jung who pointed out that there was more to be learned about the archetypes and symbols of the unconscious from H. Rider Haggard than from any hundred of self-consciously psychological artistes. And Henry Miller seconds this.

Just so, there is much to be learned from the works of the poplit writers, past and present. And the reader, even the Ph.D., can enjoy himself, if he puts himself into the proper frame of approach. First, he has to be able to enjoy the art of telling a rattling good story. Second, on rereading, he has to be able to abstract the elements that make them psychologically valuable. This requires a somewhat schizophrenic mind, but most scholars have this. Third, he has to be able to fuse one and two if he is going to emerge with the pearl of great price from the depths.

Why is it that A. Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs, mere romance adventure writers, are so vastly read today, while hundreds of their contemporary colleagues, so lauded by the critics, have dropped into oblivion? Why is it that these two, along with Haggard, will continue to attract larger and larger audiences, while so many so highly praised today will be forgotten? What are the ingredients of their appeal? Why is it that Burroughs, for one, has had a larger readership, and far more influence on literature, than has Henry James, a hyperconscious “psychological” writer?  This latter statement will drive the literati far up the wall (where they should stay), but an objective study would confirm it. This judgment, by the way, comes from Robert Bloch, a mystery-horror writer, author of Psycho, and a keen literary critic. He is widely read, knows the classic psychologists well, but brings up his stories from his personal psyche, which has an umbilical attached firmly to the collective unconscious.

Whether my argument is valid or not, I am convinced that poplit, despite its massive flaws, is worth a serious study.

It is at this point that Farmer’s polemic takes an abrupt nosedive. From this point forward, the conceit that the Savage supersagas are real, and the “family tree” theme, will progressively take over the book, filling two entire addenda. In the meantime Farmer will compellingly compare Dent, the “revelator from Missouri, to Henry Miller, E.E. “Doc” Smith, and William S. Burroughs, and rattle off a breathtaking synopsis of the supersagas in support of his contention that they are apocalyptic literature. But he will no longer argue for the literary merit of poplit in literary-critical terms.

Philip José recounts the fabulous exploits (and fucked up sexuality) of Doc, Patsy, and his sidekicks. Spread of pp. 4-5, from The Return of Megaton Man #2 (Kitchen Sink Press, August 1988) © Don Simpson 1988, all rights reserved.

This is disturbing, among other reasons, for what it implies about the creative literary impulse itself. For, in order to take the Wold-Newton concept seriously, we have to posit a world in which mainstream journalism and publishing completely ignore the world-saving exploits of adventure characters, who nonetheless grant permission to pulp and adventure publishers to chronicle their exploits in rushed and sloppy hackwork. Lester Dent, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and other fabulist writers are reduced to mere reporters of actual facts. Indeed, whenever Farmer comes across a moment in the Doc Savage mythos which is either too absurd or irreconcilable with the continuity he is establishing, he consistently chalks it up to writers relying on their feeble imaginations to fill in gaps in the factual account. Of one Savage installment he finds particularly implausible, Farmer asserts,

the ridiculous and badly written Yellow Cloud read[s] as if plotted and typed in one day and sent out by midnight messenger directly to a drunken printer with literary aspirations.

In other words, the best pulp writing is when the writer sticks to the facts, and the worst is when the writer is just making stuff upcertainly a paradoxical way to praise the literary merits of creative material.

Philip José lays out the fabulous family tree of Megaton Man. Spread of pp. 6-7, from The Return of Megaton Man #2 (Kitchen Sink Press, August 1988) © Don Simpson 1988, all rights reserved.

Perhaps the popularity of the Wold-Newton Universe, and the mania for continuity in comics and other popular media that has gripped our culture at large, is indicative of some innate self-loathing expressed by Farmer in His Apocalyptic Life. In any case, it would be preferable if creative artists and writers were to keep in mind Farmer’s visionary if not apocalyptic postulations, and embrace the sheer love of “the art of telling a rattling good story.”

Quotations are excerpted without permission from Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life (Bantam, 1975), from Chapter 1 and 2, “The Fourfold Vision,” and “Lester Dent, the Revelator from Missourri,” pp. 1-25. A “Definitive Edition,” edited by Win Scott Eckert, complete with a heavily “Wold-Newtonian” introduction, was published in 2013 by Altus Press; the ebook version was consulted in preparation for this post. © 1973, 2013 by the Philip J. Farmer Family Trust. All rights reserved. Images from The Return of Megaton Man #2 are © Don Simpson 1988, all rights reserved.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Kunzle’s Pre-History of Comics: But Is It Really?


The scholar David Kunzle declared in 1973 that he was writing “a history or pre-history” of the modern newspaper comic strip. This enterprise has come to encompass a significant portion of his professional scholarship, including four major books with the term “comic strip” in the title: History of the Comic Strip, Volume I: The Early Comic Strip—Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c.1450 to 1825 (1973)[1]; The History of the Comic Strip, Volume II: The Nineteenth Century (1990)[2]; Rodolphe Töpffer: The Complete Comic Strips (2007)[3]; and Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer (2007)[4]. These four volumes are preceded by one of Kunzle’s first published articles, a translation of Francis Lacassin’s “The Comic Strip and the Film Language,” which is augmented by almost 4 ½ pages of “supplementary notes” by Kunzle and amounts to a prolegomena to Kunzle’s own scholarship on pre-twentieth-century picture stories and their relationship with cinematic history.[5] Such a sizeable corpus of research and writing,[6] to say nothing of the publication of these sometimes cumbersome and profusely illustrated works, would be a worthy if not magisterial achievement for any scholar, particularly one working in such a pioneering area of graphic art as pre-twentieth-century printed picture stories. However, the twentieth-century term “comic strip” figures prominently in each of the titles mentioned, and Kunzle in his own right has become considered a father of sorts to scholars of comics, and has had a surprising and unexpectedly substantial impact on the way comics are being perceived today.

So it may seem impertinent to ask: is Kunzle's undeniable accomplishment really a history or pre-history of the comic strip? Does it do justice to the pre-twentieth-century material Kunzle studies to be considered primarily as comic strips or precursors to comic strips? What are Kunzle’s motivations for claiming the term “comic strip” as his rubric, and would his material have been better served by another term, such as “picture story”? What effect has Kunzle’s work, and his assimilation of his material to the modern comic strip, had on comics (both on its scholarship and the art form)? Would it be more productive, in fact, for comics scholars and artists to think, not of earlier graphic (printed) picture stories as latent comic strips (or comic books or graphic novels), but of comics as a particular formulation or solution to the problems presented by the graphic picture story? Would it be more productive for twenty-first century creators to consider the creative potential of combining words and pictures freely, with the entirety of the history of culture offering suggestion, rather than reducing the history of all previous words-and-pictures experiments down to a teleological, evolutionary drama narrowly concerned with the perfection of a specific, marketable form of picture story?

The reference room of the Frick Fine Arts Libary, University of Pittsburgh, which holds a copy of Kunzle’s History of Comics Volume I (not pictured).

An informal search Google N-Gram search and search of databases at my disposal suggests that the term comic strip did not emerge as a term of description for the American newspaper feature we now know by that name until probably the mid-1910s. All the material Kunzle studies in his four major works dates from prior to the twentieth century. The few times that Kunzle mentions twentieth-century newspaper comic strips throughout this corpus, it is with at least mild disdain; he seems to regard the more popular successors to his material as an attenuated if not fallen and debased artform when compared to the earlier material he finds more richly varied as to subject matter and political and social viewpoint and consequently so much more engrossing. So why does he so emphatically embrace the term comic strip by placing it firmly in the titles of all his works, and why does he so earnestly want us to view the narrative strips, picture stories, broadsheets, and other material under scrutiny as comic strips?

Kunzle acknowledges more than once that his project was inspired by the art historian Ernst Gombrich, who published his ground-breaking Art and Illusion in 1960 (which is still on some required reading lists).[7] Gombrich is the first to make the connection between early print picture stories (and specifically the work of Töpffe) to the modern newspaper comic strip form. Gombrich asserts, “to Töpffer belongs the credit, if we want to call it so, of having invented and propagated the picture story, the comic strip.”[8] Gombrich views Töpffer’s combination of words and pictures as especially prescient, “In view of what has happened during the last decades,” presumably a reference to the rising popularity of newspaper comic strips and children’s books (Gombrich was writing in the 1960s).[9] Gombrich, however, does not elaborate on the distinctions or definitions of the terms “picture story” or “comic strip,” let alone recount the evolution from one to the other. 

Enter Kunzle, Gombrich’s student, who does explore this terrain, and also assumes the elder scholar’s identification of Töpffer as a key figure in the development of the form(s). Kunzle also, at least at the outset, also assumes Gombrich’s terminological ambiguity (“the picture story, the comic strip”). Kunzle himself claims to “use the terms picture story and comic strip indifferently,” although he frequently refers to “the development of the picture story and comic strip,”[10] along with other terms, quite often, as if they were separate and distinct forms demanding the covering of all bases.

Kunzle establishes his use of the term comic strip in the Introduction to History of the Comic Strip Volume I, although he never justifies or explains his choice, or indeed, that he is making a choice. In the opening section, Kunzle considers a range of terms used to describe the twentieth century newspaper feature, particularly foreign variants such as Italian fumetti, the French bandes désinées (drawn strip), and the German term Bilderstreifen and Bildergeschichte (literally, picture strip and picture story, respectively), and the French term bande dessinée. Kunzle blandly asserts, “Of all these terms, ‘comic strip’ is the most commonly used for the newspaper strip,” which he describes as “an artistic phenomenon.” He writes,
All over the Western world, the comic strip has become a major form of mass communication, a potent force in molding public opinion, an international language […] understood and enjoyed by the literate and semi-literate alike.
But Kunzle offers no rationale as to why the term “comic strip” should be favored in describing this phenomenon, let alone why it should be applied retroactively to graphic material prior to the advent of the American daily newspaper. 

The clear inference is that Kunzle is saddled with the term “comic strip” whether he finds it appropriate or not for the pre-twentieth-century material he is studying. And indeed, he finds in completely inappropriate, arguing, “only the English language […] insists that ‘drawn strips’ are comic,” while in fact
the truly comic strip [Kunzle’s emphasis] does not emerge until … late eighteenth-century England. At this stage of its development, however, I have preferred to use the phrase “caricatural strip” …. [Therefore] I never refer to the pre-caricatural (i.e. pre-1780) strip as the “comic strip,” even when it contains an element of humor. I generally use the terms “narrative strip” or “narrative sequence,” “picture story” or “pictorial sequence” (depending on the format involved) in order to stress the narrative role of the medium, which I consider primary.[11]
Kunzle finds formal similarities between the material of his study and twentieth-century newspaper comic strips sufficient to justify the connection previously made by Gombrich, and constructs a definition of the term “comic strip” broad enough (most notably by not being dependent on the word balloons) to justify its application to his material.[12] However, Kunzle never again employs the term “comic strip” in History of the Comic Strip Volume I following the Introduction.

Further, Kunzle’s anachronistic application of the term “comic strip” to the material of his study is all the more puzzling, since he seems to have little knowledge or interest in twentieth-century material, or in discussing “comic strips” per se. Indeed, Kunzle rarely discusses twentieth century newspaper strips throughout his oeuvre, and then only generally and vaguely, usually only with broad reference to their popularity, and often with a good deal of disdain for what he sees as an artistic devolution from the rich social commentary and propaganda of his favored era into banal soap opera and gags of the time of his writing. Kunzle is also dismissive of the historically uninformed “Compilers of books on the twentieth-century comic strip” and their “potted” histories.[13] For example, Kunzle blasts a biography, “that modern stalwart, Milton Caniff,” for the name-dropping pretentions of its subtitle (“Rembrandt of the Comic Strip”), and the author’s ignorance in conflating Renaissance cartoons (preparatory drawings for paintings or tapestries) with the modern graphic form.[14] Kunzle expresses no interest in extending his own research into twentieth century material, to write a corrective history of twentieth century comic strips, or even to compare examples of the pre-1896 material of his study with more recent examples. 

In fact, Kunzle seems to have regretted his choice of placing the term “comic strip” in the title of his history of broadsheets and picture stories. In the Preface to History of the Comic Strip Volume II (1996), Kunzle goes on an extended, unscholarly rant about the problems the term “comic strip” has created for the reception of his scholarship in the intervening two decades.
As a respectable academic I have, I suppose, sought to give the comic strip academic respectability. I doubt that I have succeeded yet. The “scientific literature” of my discipline (art history) has tended to pass by Volume 1, The Early Comic Strip, no doubt because of its frivolous title, which has not convinced even the (nonacademic) celebrants of the genre in the 20th century that there is indeed a comic strip worthy of the name before the Americans “invented” it in 1896 or so. I was recently sent a script for an ambitious television series on the (20th century) comic strip, for which funding was being sought and to which I was nominated a “scholarly advisor.” The script started with the assertion that the first comic strips appeared in American newspapers at the end of the 19th century. Of course. By now I should have learned that to deny in the face of the U.S. media that the United States invented the comic strip is about as pointless as denying that the United States invented freedom and democracy. So I look once more to academe, which should understand that the real title of the present volume is “The acquisition and Manipulation of New Sites of Comoedic [sic] Narrative Discourses and Significations by Volatility-prone Social Sectors.” A big book should have a big title anyway.[15]
Kunzle further laments that his two-volume prehistory of the comic strip “has been a lonely endeavor in many ways, just how lonely I can now measure, in retrospect, as I enter the well-established field of 17th century Dutch art.”[16] More well established, and presumably more academically respectable. 

Fischer von Erlach’s Entwürf einer Historischen Arkitektur (inventive history), 1721, showing the Halikarnassus plate.

Nonetheless, Kunzle retains the term “comic strip” for the title of his second mammoth volume, and more freely and boldly uses the term in discussing nineteenth-century material, even while acknowledging its anachronism. He muses,
 The comic strip in the 19th century, for all its popularity, is without a recognized name. Töpffer called his comic albums either “picture novels” or, deprecatingly, “little follies.” In the trade they were called “caricatural albums,” or the “série Jabot,” after the initiating title. Töpffer himself pretended anonymity, which the pirates all too scrupulously observed. It is as if Jabot, the social upstart, having forced himself and his upstart graphic genre upon the public, was forever to be denied the dignity of a distinct literary or artistic category.[17]
Kunzle, to his credit, would stick with his guns, and even more boldly assert the term “comic strip” in the titles of his two subsequent publications on Töpffer.

But why did Kunzle initially adopt the term “comic strip” in the early 1970s? Kunzle seems to have made the pragmatic calculation that labeling his research on broadsheets and picture stories a “history or pre-history of the comic strip” would be of benefit to his scholarship both academically and in terms of landing a publisher for what was no doubt a prohibitively expensive undertaking. In the post-war era, after cinema and jazz, the comics strip seemed next in line as the American art destined for academic validation and publishing success. Several decades had elapsed since Coulton Waugh’s The Comics (1947), but in the first half of the 1970s, the first of a new wave of comic-strip histories were beginning to appear, or were being readied for publication. These included Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson’s anecdotal anthology All in Color for a Dime (1970)[18]; Les Daniels’ Comix: A History of Comic Books in America (1971)[19]; Marvel artist Jim Steranko’s two-volume The Steranko History of Comics (1970, 1972)[20]; Arthur Asa Berger’s sociological study The Comic-Stripped American: What Dick Tracy, Blondie, Daddy Warbucks and Charlie Brown Tell Us About Ourselves (1973)[21]; and Jerry Robinson’s The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art (1974)[22]. Kunzle may even had been aware of Maurice Horn’s The World Encyclopedia of Comics (1976), then in preparation.[23]

 

An important hint may lie in the fact that the Preface to History of the Comic Strip Volume I, dated 1968, contains no reference to or use of the term “comic strip” all, only “picture story” (twice).[24] But the volume was not published by the University of California Press until 1973, a five-year interval encompassing not only the publication of most of the comic strip histories listed above, but also Kunzle’s translation of the Lacassin article for Film Quarterly, also a UC publication (1972). The titling of the History of the Comic Strip Volume I and the writing of its Introduction, which uses the term “comic strip” more than 30 times (nowhere else in the volume does the term appear) may have taken place only after the Preface and body of the volume had been complete in 1968. The foregrounding of the term “comic strip,” for which Gombrich had already paved the way, may have belatedly occurred to Kunzle or been suggested by his publisher in recognition of  a “comic strip” trend in publishing that had emerged since 1968. Such a move would not have been merely a cynical ploy to make the publication of the mammoth volume more feasible, but could have also been a sincere effort to connect Kunzle’s rather obscure study of broadsheets and picture stories to more current (and more sexy) scholarly discourses, particularly cinema.


Back dustjacket flap of Kunzle's History of the Comic Strip Volume I: The Early Comic Strip—Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c.1450 to 1825, at the Special Collections room, Hillman Library, University of Pittsburgh.

This is most emphatically suggested by Kunzle’s 1972 translation of Lacassin for Film Quarterly. The introduction to the article, set in large bold italic that upstages the body text, presents the article not only as a precursor but also an unprecedented plug for Kunzle’s forthcoming History, and explicitly ties Kunzle’s work to the “intellectual respectab[ility]” belatedly emerging for comics that had been established for film “three or four decades ago.” The notes added by Kunzle, “which qualify some of Lacassin’s findings,” are half as long as Lacassin’s text.[25] Kunzle begins,
This is not the place to quarrel with Lacassin’s assumption, which is so widely shared, that the comic strip and cinema were born at the same period. Since the material has simply not been available hitherto, critics cannot know that, in fact, the narrative picture strip reached a certain maturity in German, Dutch, and English broadsheets in the seventeenth century. In my book, which the University of California Press will shortly publish, I reproduce an extensive corpus of these remarkable early picture stories, which will thus become available for analysis and discussion. Nor need we at this point question by what feat of logic Lacassin makes the “birth” of the comic strip postdate by two generations one of the recognized “fathers” of the art (for Gombrich, the father), Rodolphe Töpffer.[26]

Whatever his reasoning or motivation for declaring his work “a history or pre-history” of the comic strip, Kunzle stuck to his guns, using the term “comic strip” in the title of two more scholarly publications on Töpffer. It is now common, in fact, to see references in academic art historical publications and museum exhibition catalogs to Töpffer as  father or inventor of the comic strip.[27] But as Geoffrey Batchen reminds us in the case of the history of photography, such determinations are suspect. He remarks that historians
continue to squabble over which of them was the first to discover the one, true inventor of photography. […] [T]his is invariably an argument as much about virility and paternity as about history, as much about the legitimacy of both photographer and historian as historic primogenitors as about the timing of the birth itself.[28]
To the extent that Kunzle’s work is seen as foundational to comic strip and comic book scholarship, his legacy is a mixed bag. The unfortunate example of Kunzle’s snarky Preface to Volume II, mentioned above, as well as its Introduction which dwells at length on the status of nineteenth century picture stories as a “childish genre,”[29] suggests that a cloying desire for “academic respectability” has been passed down to more recent scholars who continue to openly bitch, “Why Are Comics Still in Search of Cultural Legitimization?”[30] On the positive side, as David Carrier attests, “I admire Kunzle, a bold and original scholar, for gathering these materials, without which my own philosophical study [on comics] could not have been conceived,” but departs from Kunzle on the issue of word balloons.[31] The more substantial implication being that Kunzle’s scholarship is not about comics at all, but something that predates comics historically, and if anything chronicles part of a pictorial and textual tradition that is larger than comics.

To the extent that Kunzle’s scholarship is a rebuke of twentieth and twenty-first century comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels (and there is plenty of ammunition for such an argument throughout Kunzle’s four major works on pre-twentieth-century picture stories),[32] and a prompt to live up to the larger pictorial and textual tradition that is Kunzle’s concern, this admonition might be stated in a more effective way. Instead of saying comics should be better than they are, one could simply say, stories told in words and pictures don’t have to be comics. Perhaps that is the far greater lesson to be derived from Kunzle’s work.

[1] David Kunzle, History of the Comic Strip, Volume I: The Early Comic Strip—Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c.1450 to 1825 (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1973).
[2] David Kunzle, History of the Comic Strip, Volume II: The Nineteenth Century (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1990).
[3] David Kunzle, ed., trans., Rodolphe Töpffer: The Complete Comic Strips (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007).
[4] David Kunzle, Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer (Jackson : University Press of Mississippi, 2007).
[5] Francis Lacassin, “The Comic Strip and the Film Language,” trans. with additional notes by David Kunzle, Film Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 1, (Autumn 1972), pp. 11-23. Kunzle’s footnote on p. 11 reads as follows: “Translated from Lacassin’s Pour un neuvième art: la bande dessinée (Paris: Union Generale, 1971) and his preceding article “Bande dessinée et langage cinematographique,” Cinema ‘71, (September1971), by permission of the publishers. The material has been slightly abridged from its longer version in the book, but incorporates the refinements Lacassin made in the book.” Kunzle’s additional notes occupy the final 4 ½ pages of the article, set at the same type size as translated text, pp. 19-23.
[6] For brevity, these works will be referred to hereafter as History I and II, Complete, Father, and “Lacassin.”
[7] See Kunzle, History vol. 1, preface, and Father, p. ix.
[8] Ernst Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, 3rd ed. (Princeton: Bollingen, 200 [1960.1968]) p. 336.
[9] Gombrich, p. 337.
[10] Father, quotes from pp. xi and 53 respectively.
[11] History I, p. 1.
[12] History I, p. 2-3. David Carrier, among others, takes issue with Kunzle, claiming “The speech balloon is a defining element of the comic [strip].” See David Carrier, The Aesthetics of Comics, (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), pp. 3-4; quote p. 4.
[13] History I, p. 1.
[14] History I, p. 2.
[15] History II, p. xix.
[16] History II, p. xx.
[17] History II, p. 6.
[18] Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson, eds., All in Color for a Dime (New Rochelle NY: Arlington House, 1970).
[19] Les Daniels, Comix: A History of Comic Books in America (New York: Bonanza Books, 1971).
[20] Jim Steranko, The Steranko History of Comics, vols I and II (Reading PA: Supergraphics1970, 1972).
[21] Arthur Asa Berger, The Comic-Stripped American: What Dick Tracy, Blondie, Daddy Warbucks and Charlie Brown Tell Us About Ourselves (New York: Walker, 1973).
[22] Jerry Robinson, The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art (New York: Putnam, 1974).
[23] Maurice Horn, The World Encyclopedia of Comics (New York: Chelsea House, 1976).
[24] History I, Preface [n.p.].
[25] The introduction or abstract of the article reads, in bolder and larger type than the article, “The comic strip is now becoming intellectually respectable in somewhat the same way that film did, three or four decades ago. Studies of contemporary strips abound; serious artists are using the form for their own purposes-often, of course, satirical purposes. As the French historian Francis Lacassin argues in the pioneering article below, the “language” or syntax of the comic strip shows many similarities to (and certain historical priorities over) the language of film. The article has been translated by David Kunzle, author of the forthcoming The Early Comic Strip: Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet, c. 1450-1826—a sociocultural history of the first mass medium’s origins—and he adds notes of his own which qualify some of Lacassin’s findings and extend them even further back in time.” See Lacassin, p. 11.
[26] Lacassin, p. 19. The Lacassin article and its influence on comics scholarships merits a discussion of its own, which in fact I first essayed on an earlier incarnation of this blog around 2005. I plan to revisit that article and repost soon.
[27] See for example Laura Hoptman, Drawing Now: Eight Propositions (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2002), p. 129.
[28] Geoffrey Batchen, Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1997), p. 35.
[29] History II, pp. 2-4.
[30] Thierry Groensteen, “Why Are Comics Still in Search of Cultural Legitimization?” in Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester, eds., A Comics Studies Reader (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi Press, 2009), pp. 3-11. [I discuss this article in a previous post on this blog.]
[31] Carrier, pp. 3-4; quote p. 3.
[32] Not to mention Kunzle’s translation of Dorfman and Armand Mattelart’s 1973 Para leer al pato Donald into English as How to Read Donald Duck in 1975, suggesting that if Kunzle were to regard modern comics at all, their status as capitalist commodities would be foremost in his critique.

Back dustjacket flap of Kunzle's History of the Comic Strip Volume II: The Nineteenth Century, at the Special Collections room, Hillman Library, University of Pittsburgh.