Wonderful words from our past.

*I'd like to take some time out today for a few pearls of wisdom from Mr. Coulton Waugh - teacher, Dickie Dare artist, decorative mapmaker and student of comics history. In 1947, he wrote a seminal book on the status and impact of the comics form, titled simply The Comics. It was focused mainly on newspaper strips, but the very last chapter took a special look at a still-recent social phenomenon:

"We had better add comic books to the list of important discoveries made in the world in the last ten years. This hurts many people; it doesn't seem possible that anything so raw, so purely ugly, should be so important. Comic books are ugly; it is hard to find anything to admire about their appearance. The paper - it's like using sand in cooking. And the drawing: it's true that these artists are capable in a certain sense; the figures are usually well located in depth, they get across action... But there is a soulless emptiness to them, an outrageous vulgarity; and if you do find some that seem, at least, funny and gay, there's the color. Ouch! It seems to be an axiom in the comic book world that color which screams, shrieks with the strongest possible discord, is good. Even these aspects of comic-book art are mild and dull when contrasted with the essence of it: the layout, the arrangement of ideas; and that goes, too, for the ideas themselves."

Waugh goes on track the history of the comic book, enthusing over its potential for as "the most influential form of teaching known to man," while lamenting the dominance of "super-screamers" on the stands; so-called 'hooded' superheroes are compared to the Ku Klux Klan (which instantly brings Rick Veitch's Brat Pack to my mind), so diametrically opposed to the orderly, established processes of law they are, although elsewhere in the book Superman is conceded to be perhaps the most worshipped and adored national figure of the day, leading into a short burlesque of WWII-era public delight in superheroes ("This is it; here is the one who will do a job for us. Yippee! Get crackin', kid; sock that Japanazi in his yellow slats..."). A general sigh of relief is puffed in the direction of the genre's decline in favor of teen and funny animal comics:

"These human torches and hornet men seem to have little connection with the sound values which the American people, generally speaking, strive for; and it seems that the people, in a number of ways, have been gradually making this clear to the publishers."

Hell yes, motherfucker. Waugh is also bowled over by the rise of clean learning comics, delightfully identifying one locus of startling progress as M.C. Gaines' Educational Comics (let's just call it 'EC'), a veritable phoenix of mental nourishment risen from the ashes of sensationalism. But not every man and woman of that time was hopeful for comics. As the editorial page of the Burlington, Vermont Daily News put it, quoted by Waugh:

"Every once in a while this paper gets literature promoting 'wholesome' magazine comics to wean the younger idea away from the lurid picture magazines portraying murder, mayhem, thievery, conspiracy, intrigue, cannibalism, barratry, malfeasance, nonfeasance, and felonious assault.

"The promoters would like to have us say something pretty about the 'wholesome' magazines, which offer the lives of 'real' heroes supposedly as laden with deeds of inspiration and derring-do as the best efforts of Superman.

"Somehow we don't react. This writer in his brattish days grew fat on a diet of scalps, knives in the back, Indians biting the dust, blood-curdling screams at midnight, slinking and sinister Chinamen, haunted houses a-clank with chains, and all the other paraphernalia of the old-time thriller, which certainly needs take no back seat for Buck Rogers or the Phantom.

"The leading sequence in the current 'wholesome' outing is a pictorial life of Franklin D. Roosevelt. We have a good deal of respect for F. D., but Mr. Roosevelt can't leap a thousand feet into the air and bring down a warplane with his bare fists. Superman can."

A lot of questions jump out from that. For example: did the editor mean maritime barratry or judicial barratry? And has a comic ever contained both types? I guess the latter might naturally follow the former, although it could go the other way too.

Anyway, it's a worthwhile book to get ahold of. Waugh is a colorful and often very funny writer, and engages with a wide variety of strips from the half-century preceding his text. Being an early wide study of comics, the book carries with it a real, almost starry charge of enthusiasm over the potential of the medium, and a certain unpredictability of analysis; a recurring concern for the favor of "illustrational" art over looser styles remains pertinent today, if unique for its context.

"These lithe, sexy young people, if apparently made of flesh from the outside, have an empty look - one feels that a cross-section would show little inside their hearts and heads."

Nothing new under the sun...