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The Spirit of Comics

by Charles Natoli

[Popeye creator] E.C. Segar was very good in his time; but times have gotten worse, and he is even better in ours.

The Depression, dictators on the march, world war, genocide – viewed against this backdrop, the 1930s to mid 40s were more like Hesiod’s ultra-violent Age of Bronze than a time that could be an idyll while it lasted and an oasis for memory afterwards. But for the readers of comic strips, it was the very heyday of an age of gold that had begun in the 20s. Not since the (often illustrated) serializations of Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, and Dumas had readers of popular publications had it so good. A small boy whose imagination was destined to captivate generations of science fiction readers vividly evokes the joy of a whole nation of small boys and girls – and of many of their elders for that matter:

“The most beautiful sound in my life, dearly recollected, fully remembered, was the sound of a folded newspaper kiteing through the summer air and landing on my front porch… The door burst wide. A boy, myself, leapt out, eyes blazing, mouth gasping for breath, hands seizing at the paper to grapple it wide so that the hungry soul of one of Waukegan, Illinois’ finest small intellects could feed upon:

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY…

That small boy still uses my soul for a trampoline.”

So wrote Ray Bradbury in his introduction to The Collected Works of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1977). And so can anyone feel today, even if they were ill-fated enough to have missed comic strips’ golden age the first time around. For what is usually a modest sum, you can get multi-volume collections, often hardbound, that may cover a strip’s entire run. Not only is sci-fi hero Buck Rogers back in print, but so are most of the rest that you are lucky enough to remember – or unlucky enough to have missed. The darling denizens of the daily strips are back – wisecracking and wise speaking, questing and querying, finding and losing, fighting and loving, riding and roping, daring and having nervous breakdowns. In short, holding up a mirror, not to nature, but to human life. For us, these classic strips can provide much more than mere entertainment; more even than stimulus to wonder; or than the uplifting of the heart. By virtue of the values and standards they embody, and which they presuppose on the part of their readers, the strips’ panels serve as tiny windows into the souls of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. They provide plenty of food for thought, too. Maintaining values in a hostile environment? Prince of illustrators Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant showed, with broad humanity and wry humor, a precarious Camelot where armed decency is perpetually struggling to hold its own, as the chivalrous standards emerging from King Arthur’s court mean struggle at a continual tactical disadvantage against stick-at-naught villainy. The rights of criminals? The Dick Tracy of the early 30s is conspicuously free both from his times’ tendency to romanticize crooks – who can’t sympathize with bank robbers like Dillinger when there’s a Depression on? – and our own day’s tendency to sanitize even horrific acts by explaining them away in terms of ‘root causes’. Not that Tracy is wholly unaware of criminals’ claims on society’s forbearance. As he breaks down a door full into the face of a pistol-packing moll, he takes time to mutter that, though of course you shouldn’t hit a woman, “This is no time for conventionalities.”

As well as the reprints of classic comic strips, we are seeing a renaissance and development of the comic form today through angsty, nuanced comics and graphic novels. Again they reflect our fears and hopes, and provide a space for exploring questions of moral choice, good and evil, and personal identity – as we shall see in this issue of Philosophy Now. Comics have risen to the status of an art-form and there are even experiments in aesthetic realism, such as American Splendor [see article]. Meanwhile the comicbook superheroes have gone to Hollywood and become the hottest movie genre of the moment. (See our review of The Dark Knight.)

Comics have always attracted detractors. The old comics are seen by some as politically incorrect. Some have dismissed them as funny books for children, although Batman film producer and academic Michael Uslan pioneered the study of them in serious university courses, as he describes in this interview. But are comics a worthwhile source of moral reflection? Perhaps the last word may be best left to comic strip giant Mort Walker, honored creator of Beetle Bailey:

“Popeye, to me, was the first super-hero. Not only did he possess super-strength but he exhibited super honesty. He was as basic and down to earth as mud. “I yam what I am and that’s all that I yam” is a piece of Philosophy that stands besides Aristotle’s ‘Know thyself’… I loved Popeye. He was good, he was powerful, and he was funny. … I wrote Segar a fan letter in 1934 and received a reply. It was a drawing of Popeye and Wimpy with the inscription, “To me fren Mort Walker.” It has hung on my wall for over 70 years filling the room with its friendly glow… Who knows what influences take a part in making a man what he is? I like to think that Popeye had a positive effect on my upbringing. At least I preferred him as a role model over Dillinger and other prominent citizens of the Depression.”

© Dr Charles Natoli 2009

Charles Natoli is head of Philosophy & Classical Studies at St John Fisher College, Rochester, NY. He is the author of Nietzsche and Pascal on Christianity (1985) and Fire in the Dark: Essays on Pascal’s Pensées and Provinciales (2005).

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