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Comics and Philosophy

John Lent explores three dimensions of philosophy in 2D comics.

The interrelatedness of comic art to philosophy is both long-lived and far-ranging. The three areas I’ll survey are: philosophies about life embedded within comics; depictions of formalized philosophies in comics; and theorists’ and cartoonists’ philosophies about the comics profession.

Gems of philosophy have permeated comics almost from their beginnings. Memorable to me are the stances of Popeye (1935-present): “no matter what I yam – I yam what I yam an’ that’s all I yam”; or of Beetle Bailey (1950-present): “Whenever the urge to work comes over me, I lie down until it goes away.”

Calvin and Hobbes (1985-1995) creator Bill Watterson strove to make his strip philosophical and psychological in tone, the characters’ very names calling to mind 16th Century Protestant reformer John Calvin and 17th Century social philosopher Thomas Hobbes. One observer wrote, “Thus, as Calvin humorously evokes John Calvin’s view of people (as creatures ruled by appetite and living in a brutal natural world) his stuffed tiger at times suggests a comic strip version of natural behavior in the world according to Thomas Hobbes” (James E. Caron in ‘A Call from the Wild: Tigers, Monsters and other Beastly Fantasies’). Skippy (1925-1945), drawn by Percy Crosby, was a curbside philosopher. Crosby was very polemical, filling Skippy balloons, and 14 books, with his fulminations on the soul, cosmology, war, art, the church and other topics. He paid a heavy price for his preaching, as he lost his strip, wealth and marriage, and after a suicide attempt ended up in a mental institution, where he spent the last 20-plus years of his life.

Charles Schulz addressed philosophical, theological, and psychological questions aplenty in Peanuts (1950-2000), sparking Robert L. Short to write two very lucrative volumes of theological commentary – The Gospel According to Peanuts (1964) and The Parables of Peanuts (1968). Naturalness and natural morality were among the philosophical themes of Walt Kelly’s Pogo (1950-1974). Norman Hale pinpointed the thinking of the Pogo gang of animals as: “We all feel the instinctive desire to eat each other, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling it. We’re all potential food… But that doesn’t mean that you’re entitled to eat me whether I like it or not. Maybe I want to live. If I do, then my right to live is more important than your desire to eat me” (All Natural Pogo, 1991, p.23).

Edward Shannon attributed to Krazy Kat (1924-1944) a “postmodern denial of truth… that readers of the strip depend on for its meaning” (in ‘That We May Mis-unda-stend Each Udda’: The Rhetoric of Krazy Kat’). Anthony A. Harkins said that Milt Caniff’s Steve Canyon (1947-1987) and Terry and the Pirates (1935-1972) were laden with ‘Confucian dialogue’ for humorous effect, but also to make the Chinese communists look antiquated and incapable of matching American weaponry and personnel (‘Comics, H-Bombs, and the National Security State: The Cold War in the Comics’). David Manning White credited Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie (1925-1979) with a “Nietzschean contempt for regularly constituted authority” (The Funnies: An American Idiom, 1963, p.115). The dreamland strips of Winsor McCay, the most famous of which was Little Nemo in Slumberland (1925), were “moralistic panoramas… pictorial allegories… sermons on paper” according to Thomas Inge (‘The Comics’). Comic strip collector and author Richard Marschall also said of McCay: “Like the Old Testament prophets, McCay exhorts, warns, and teaches: he deals in eternal truths, calling up his gifted imagination and powers of expression to bring old lessons to new generations” (Daydreams & Nightmares: The Fantastic Visions of Winsor McCay, 1988, p.31).

No cartoonist has been as successful in depicting formalized philosophies as Taiwan’s Tsai Chih-chung. Taking on the gargantuan task of explaining the ancient Chinese philosophies of Confucius, Laozi, and Zhuangzi in cartoon form, Tsai has sold tens of millions of copies of his comic books. In its first eight years, Zhuangzi Speaks alone came out in 114 editions. Tsai works to convert mystic and abstract thoughts into understandable and interesting stories while avoiding distortions, and he includes the original text and notes on every page.

Anant Pai did something similar on a smaller scale in India during the 1970s and 80s, publishing his popular Amar Chitra Katha (Immortal Picture Stories) with the intent of familiarizing Indian children with their national traditions. In English, Action Philosophers has recently graphically dramatised many thinkers.

Islamic comics, meant to present moral guidance in Islamic terms and to treat other Islamic topics, have appeared in strips and in books. Tunisia’s Ioussef Seddik published several volumes of Quranic comics; periodicals such as Zam Zam and al-Firdaws carried stories of early Islam; and al-Riyǎd, serialized a comic strip adaptation of the Arabic text Mavy ibn Iaqsǎn, written by a 12th Century philosopher/physician. Christianity has also made use of comics to teach the Bible and to evangelize.

Philosophies of cartooning, meaning theories of the art form, stretch back centuries, to the ideas of da Vinci, Hogarth, Rowlandson, Daumier, Grose, and Topffer. But it has only been in recent times that a more unified, formal philosophy of comic art has been attempted through works by E.M. Gombrich, Will Eisner, Scott McCloud, and others.

Some cartoonists themselves have been steeped in philosophy. The founder of China’s cartoon tradition, Feng Zikai (1898-1975) has been called ‘the philosopher artist’, and Christoph Harbsmeier credits Feng’s cartoons with “the fresh artistic lyricism, the unmediated artistic frankness that had its deep roots in his philosophical Buddhism.” (The Cartoonist Feng Zikai, 1984, p.10). He also said Feng’s style is unique for its “combination of light-heartedness, relaxed artistic form with philosophical and almost religious semantic depth and seriousness” (p.20).

India’s leading political cartoonist R.K. Laxman said, “the philosophy I had learned [in university] helped me to face with courage the economic and political situations I am put in almost every day. It also helped me satirise situations good humouredly with respect and irreverence” (‘Laxman on Comics’).

A favorite question asked of cartoonists is, “What is the philosophy of your work?” Answers run the spectrum from “I have no philosophy” or “Why would you even ask that question?” to long-winded lectures that have more philosophical depth than the cartoonist’s entire body of work. There are far more of the former answers than the latter.

© Dr John A. Lent 2009

John Lent is the author or editor of 70 books and hundreds of articles, and is also the founding editor of The International Journal of Comic Art, launched in March 1999.

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