views updated May 18 2018


Comic strips and comic books have been two mainstays of American culture during the entire twentieth century. Comic strips rapidly became a defining feature of modern American culture after their introduction to newspapers across the nation in the first ten years of the twentieth century. Likewise comic books captured the imagination of many Americans in the late 1930s and early 1940s, particularly after the appearance of costumed heroes such as Superman, Batman, and Captain Marvel. From the beginning, comics produced distinct, easily recognized characters whose images could be licensed for other uses. Comic characters united entertainment and commerce in ways that became ubiquitous in American culture.

Although the origin of comic strips is generally traced to the first appearance of the Yellow Kid—so named because the printers chose his nightshirt to experiment with yellow ink—in the New York World in 1895, the antecedents of comics are somewhat more complex. When the World began a Sunday humor supplement in 1889, it did so to attract the audience of American illustrated humor magazines such as Puck, Judge, and Life. These magazines had drawn on European traditions of broadsheets, satirical prints, comic albums, and journals such as Fliegende Blätter, Charivari, and Punch to create a sharp-edged American style of satirical visual humor. The appearance of the Yellow Kid—in the Hogan's Alley series—was not a particularly startling moment but rather grew out of an international and local tradition of illustrated humor. What set the Yellow Kid apart from previous versions of the city urchin genre of illustrated humor were his distinct features and regular appearance in large-scale comic panels.

In October 1896 William Randolph Hearst launched a humor supplement to the Sunday edition of his New York Journal and contracted the services of Richard Outcault, the Yellow Kid's creator. In addition, the Journal employed Rudolph Dirks and Frederick Opper. Although the Yellow Kid established the importance in comic art of a regularly appearing, distinctive character, Outcault did not use with any regularity two other important features of modern comics—sequential panels and word balloons, both of which had been used for centuries in European and American graphic art. Dirks and Opper introduced and developed these features in the pages of the Journal. Between December 1897 and March 1901 Dirks's Katzenjammer Kids and Opper's Happy Hooligan brought together the essential features of modern comics: a regular, distinctive character or cast of characters appearing in a mass medium, the use of sequential panels to establish narrative, and the use of word balloons to convey dialogue. More often than not Dirks's and Opper's strips used twelve panels on a broadsheet page to deliver a gag.

Between 1900-03 newspaper owners and syndicates licensed comic strips and supplements to newspapers across the country. This expansion was tied to broader developments in American culture including the establishment of national markets and ongoing developments in communication and transportation. Comic supplements were circulation builders for newspapers, and by 1908 some 75 percent of newspapers with Sunday editions had a comics supplement. For most newspapers the introduction of a comic supplement saw a rise in sales. The development of daily comic strips, which started with Bud Fischer's Mutt and Jeff, first published in November 1907 in the San Francisco Chronicle, added another dimension to the medium. In 1908 only five papers ran daily comic strips; five years later at least ninety-four papers across the country ran daily strips. By 1913 newspapers had also begun to group their daily strips on a single page. In a relatively short space of time comic strips moved from being something new to being a cultural artifact. Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890-1945 quotes surveys showing that by 1924 at least 55 percent and as high as 82 percent of all children regularly read comic strips. Likewise it showed that surveys by George Gallup and others in the 1930s revealed that the mean average adult readership of comic strips was 75 percent.

The daily comic strip's four or five panels and black-and-white format as opposed to the Sunday comics' twelve color panels was the first of many thematic and aesthetic innovations that fed the popularity of strips. An important development in this process was the blossoming of the continuity strip. Comics historian Robert Harvey has argued that Joseph Patterson, the proprietor of the Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News, was instrumental in establishing continuing story lines in comic strips through his development and promotion of Sidney Smith's The Gumps, a comic strip equivalent of a soap opera with more than a hint of satire. The continuity strip gave rise to adventure strips such as Wash Tubbs and Little Orphan Annie, which in turn led to the emergence of science fiction strips like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. Even gag strips such as the working girl strip Winnie Winkle adopted continuous story lines for extended periods. The continuity strips led to comic art styles less caricatured in appearance, which for want of a better expression might be dubbed realistic strips, although the story content remained fanciful. No one style of strip ever came to dominate the comics pages, where gags strips, adventure strips, and realistic strips still appear side by side.

From the start, the existence of distinctive characters in comics had offered commercial possibilities beyond the pages of newspapers. The image of the Yellow Kid was used to sell cigars, crackers, and ladies' fans, to name but a few of his appearances. Theater producer Gus Hill staged a musical around the Kid in 1898 and continued to produce comic-strip-themed musicals into the 1920s. Doll manufacturers likewise produced comic strip character dolls. Buster Brown gave his name to shoes, clothing, and a host of other products including pianos and bread. The Yellow Kid's adventures had been reprinted in book form as early as 1897, and throughout the first two decades of the twentieth century publishers such as Cupples and Leon, and F. A. Stokes issued book compilations of popular comic strips. In the early 1930s the commercial dimensions of comic strips were expanded further when advertising executives realized that the mass readership of strips meant that the art form could be used in advertising to draw consumers to a product through entertainment. In 1933, following this strategy, the Eastern Color Printing Company sold a number of companies on the idea of reprinting comic strips in "books" and giving them away as advertising premiums.

After producing several of these advertising premium comic books, Eastern published Famous Funnies in 1934, a sixty-four-page comic book of reprinted strips priced at ten cents. Although the company lost money on the first issue, it soon showed a profit by selling advertising space in the comic book. Pulp writer Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson saw an opportunity and joined the fledgling industry with his all-original New Fun comic book in February 1935. Wheeler-Nicholson's limited financial resources necessitated a partnership with his distributor, the Independent News Company, run by Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, and the three formed a partnership to launch Detective Comics in 1937. By 1938 Donenfeld and Liebowitz had eased Wheeler-Nicholson out of the company. Shortly thereafter the two decided to publish a new title, Action Comics, and obtained a strip for the first issue that M. C. Gaines at the McClure Syndicate had rejected. Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster appeared on the cover of the first issue dated June 1938. The initial print run was two hundred thousand copies. By 1941, Action Comics sold on average nine hundred thousand copies. The company followed this success with the first appearance of Batman in Detective Comics in May 1939.

The success of Superman and DC Comics, as the company was now known, led other comic book companies to introduce costumed heroes in the late 1930s and early 1940s including All American's (DC's sister company) Wonder Woman and The Flash; Timely's (later Marvel) Captain America, the Human Torch, and the Submariner; and Fawcett's Captain Marvel. Comic book sales increased dramatically and, according to Coulton Waugh, by 1942 12.5 million were sold monthly. Historians such as Ron Goulart have attributed the boom in superhero comic books to Depression-era searches for strong leadership and quick solutions, and the cultural and social disruption brought on by World War II. Moreover, comic books often served as a symbol of America for servicemen overseas who read and amassed them in large numbers.

America's entry into the war also derailed a campaign against comics begun by Sterling North, the literary editor of the Chicago Daily News. In 1947 the sales of comic books reached sixty million a month, and they seemed beyond attempts at censorship and curtailing their spread. But in 1948 a New York psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham, began a campaign that led eventually to a Senate investigation on the nature of comic books and the industry's establishing a Comics Code in a successful attempt to avoid formal regulation through self-censorship. Wertham's 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent was the culmination of his attempts to mobilize public sentiment against the danger that he believed comic books posed to children's mental health. Wertham's ideas were picked up by the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency and its prime mover Senator Estes Kefauver. A prime target of the subcommittee's hearings was William M. Gaines, the publisher of EC Comics, which had begun a line of horror comics in 1950. Wertham's attack and the introduction of the Comics Code are often blamed for the demise of a "Golden Age" of comics, but historian Amy Nyberg argues that only EC suffered directly, and other factors such as changes in distribution and the impact of television account for the downturn in comic book publishing.

Whatever the impact of Wertham, the comic book industry shrugged it off relatively quickly. In 1956 DC relaunched its character The Flash, which began a resurrection of superhero comic books. In 1960 DC published the Justice League of America, featuring a team of superheroes. According to Les Daniels, the good sales of this book prompted DC's competitor to develop its own team of heroes, and in 1961 Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four appeared under the Marvel imprint. The resulting boom in superhero comics, which saw the debut of Spiderman and the Uncanny X-Men, is referred to by fans as the Silver Age of comics. In the late 1950s and 1960s these fans were particularly important in shaping the direction of comic books and comics history. These fans were interested in comic art and story construction rather than simply the entertainment value of the comic books. That many of these fans were young adults had important ramifications for the future direction of comic books. Likewise, their focus on superheroes meant that these comic books have been accorded the most attention, and books from publishers such as Harvey, Dell, and Archie Comics figure little in many discussions of comic book history because their content is held to be insignificant, at least to young adults.

Perhaps the first publisher to recognize that comic books directed specifically at an older audience would sell was William M. Gaines. When Wertham's campaign put an end to his horror line of comics, Gaines focused his attention on converting the satirical comic book Mad into a magazine. Mad's parodies of American culture influenced many young would-be artists. In the late 1960s a number of these artists, including Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, and Gilbert Shelton, began publishing underground comics, or comix, which, as the x designated, transgressed every notion of social normality. Nonetheless, the artists demonstrated a close familiarity with the graphic and narrative conventions of comic art. Discussing these comix, Joseph Witek has suggested that they should be seen as part of the mainstream of American comic history not least of all because comix helped transform comic book content and the structure of the industry.

A major shift in the industry occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s when entrepreneurs following the example of the undergrounds set up specialist comic shops, comic book distribution companies, and their own comic book publishing companies in which artists retained ownership of their characters. These changes led to more adult-oriented comics at the smaller companies and at the two industry giants, DC and Marvel, which between them accounted for about 75 percent of the market in 1993. DC and Marvel also responded to changes in the industry by giving their artists more leeway on certain projects and a share in profits from characters they created. These changes took place during a boom time for the industry with the trade paper Comic Buyer's Guide estimating increases in comic book sales from approximately $125 million in 1986 to $400 million in 1992.

This comic book boom was related to the synergies created by the media corporations that owned the major comic book companies. DC had been acquired by Warner in the 1960s for its licensing potential. In 1989 Warner's Batman movie heated up the market for comic books and comic-book-related merchandise. DC, Marvel, the comic book stores, and distributors promoted comics as collectibles, and many people bought comics as an investment. When the collectibility bubble burst in the mid 1990s the industry encountered a downturn in which Marvel wound up bankrupt. Marvel's difficulties point to the necessity of large comic book companies diversifying their characters appearances along the lines of the DC-Warner endeavor. On August 29, 1998, the Los Angeles Times reported in some detail the frustrations Marvel had experienced over thirteen years in trying to bring Spiderman to the screen.

As the century draws to a close the art form remains strong in both its comic strip and comic book incarnations. The development of the Internet-based World Wide Web has seen the art delivered in a new fashion where strips can be read and related merchandise ordered on-line. At the close of the twentieth century, then, the essential feature of comics remains its distinctive characters who unite entertainment and commerce.

—Ian Gordon

Further Reading:

Barrier, Michael, and Martin Williams. A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981.

Blackbeard, Bill, and Martin Williams. The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1977.

Daniels, Les. Comix: A History of Comic Books in America. New York, Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, 1971.

——. DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes. Boston, Bulfinch Press, 1995.

——. Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics. New York, Abrams, 1991.

Gordon, Ian. Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890-1945. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.

Goulart, Ron. Over 50 Years of American Comic Books. Chicago, Publications International Limited, 1991.

Harvey, Robert. The Art of the Funnies: An Aesthetic History. Jackson, Mississippi, University Press of Mississippi, 1994.

Krause Publications. Comic Buyer's Guide 1993 Annual. Iola, Wisconsin, Krause Publications, 1993.

Marschall, Richard. America's Great Comic Strip Artists. New York, Abbeville Press, 1989.

McAllister, Matthew Paul. "Cultural Argument and OrganizationalConstraint in the Comic Book Industry." Journal of Communication. Vol. 40, 1990, 55-71.

Nyberg, Amy Kiste. Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code. Jackson, Mississippi, University Press of Mississippi, 1998.

Sabin, Roger. Adult Comics: An Introduction. New York, Routledge, 1993.

Waugh, Coulton. The Comics. Jackson, Mississippi, University Press of Mississippi, 1990, [1947].

Wertham, Fredric. Seduction of the Innocent. New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1954.

Witek, Joseph. Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar. Jackson, Mississippi, University Press of Mississippi, 1989.


views updated May 21 2018


The comics had been a familiar daily distraction for Americans ever since Richard Outcault's The Yellow Kid debuted in Joseph Pulitzer's New York World in 1896. But it was during the Depression decade that they truly earned an enduring place in American culture, not only in the newspapers but also in the pulp magazines known as comic books. Still commonly known as "the funnies," comics of the 1930s actually branched out into genres of adventure, crime, and superhero fantasy. Generally dismissed as escapist entertainment of little social value, comic books in fact exerted a powerful influence on the popular imagination. They confronted the politics, contradictions, and social dislocations of the Great Depression in a way that young readers especially responded to. They presented a means for those readers to purchase entry into uniquely appealing fantasy worlds. And in the process they helped to invent the concept of commercial youth culture.

With a daily audience in the millions, newspaper comics were the property of powerful and mostly conservative syndicates like the Chicago Tribune, United Features, and William Randolph Hearst's King Features. Popular funnies such as Popeye, Mutt and Jeff, and Joe Palooka dealt in apolitical slapstick humor, sometimes with vague populist undertones. But the Tribune's serialized adventure strip Little Orphan Annie featured the benevolent corporate billionaire, Daddy Warbucks, and rankled the Roosevelt administration with its attacks on the New Deal. Other comic strips, such as Buck Rogers, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, and The Phantom, offered heroic fantasies set in future times, distant worlds, and remote jungles—places where injustice could be redressed and order restored without challenging the status quo at home.

But there was plenty of domestic disorder elsewhere in the comics page. Based on the FBI's popularized crusade against organized crime, Chester Gould's Dick Tracy was an unusually streetwise strip featuring an angular-jawed detective and a wonderfully grotesque rogues gallery. The quintessential Depression-era comic strip, Dick Tracy picked up where the Hollywood gangster films of the early 1930s left off, and it played to the popular taste for urban violence and mayhem.

In 1933 the Eastern Color Printing Company published the pioneering Funnies on Parade. Featuring reprinted newspaper comic strips on pulp paper bound together under a slick cover with a ten-cent price tag, it launched a new publishing trend soon to be called comic books. By 1935 some comic books began to feature original material not owned by the syndicates. None of these made much of a commercial impact until 1938, when National Periodical's (later known as DC Comics) Action Comics hit the newsstands featuring on its cover a costumed superhero named Superman. The creation of teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman immediately broadened the popularity of comic books and gave the medium its distinct identity. Within a year, Superman's comic books were selling close to a million copies per month. His success led very quickly to a proliferation of costumed heroes, including Batman, Captain Marvel, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and Captain America.

Unlike their more conservative elders in the newspapers, comic books proved very adaptable to idealistic, absurdist, and culturally subversive material aimed directly at youth sensibilities. Most creators working in the industry were young urban sons of immigrants with liberal politics and populist social values. Based in and around New York City, the fledgling comic book industry comprised novice but enthusiastic artists and writers, experienced illustrators down on their luck, and businessmen who shared an "anything-for-a-buck" philosophy of publishing. Resulting from this unusual association was a comic-book image of Depression-era America, crude and outrageous, yet oddly sincere and hopeful as well.

The superheroes symbolized American ideals filtered through the cynical reality of the 1930s. Typically cast as "champions of the oppressed," colorfully costumed heroes aligned themselves squarely on the side of common people. Batman apprehended crooks who eluded the police and the courts on technicalities. Superman's enemies included greedy stockbrokers, heartless mine-owners, and wicked munitions manufacturers. The Green Lantern protected poor citizens from malicious corporate leaders and their crooked lawyers. By acting as a benevolent outside force to redress the power imbalance between virtuous common people and abusive corporate interests, superheroes championed the interventionist and collectivist spirit of the New Deal. Comic books implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, endorsed President Roosevelt's leadership and identified the enemies of the New Deal as the enemies of the nation.

Garish and direct, the entry of comic books into American discourse was the cultural equivalent to a sock on the jaw. Whereas adults generally read and adored the newspaper funnies—some of which were already being hailed as national treasures—comic books had a polarizing effect on the public. Even as they won legions of young fans, comic books sometimes left their parents bewildered and concerned. Critics accused them of inducing eye-strain, degrading cultural sensibilities, and desensitizing children towards violence. Comic books thus pointed toward a new era of "generation gaps" divided along lines of cultural preference. Initially regarded as a fad for young people in need of Depression-era escapism, few would have predicted that these comics would still be a vital part of American culture into the twenty-first century.



Benton, Mike. Superhero Comics of the Golden Age: The Illustrated History. 1992.

Chabon, Michael. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. 2000.

Feiffer, Jules. The Great Comic Book Heroes. 1965.

Gordon, Ian. Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890–1945. 1998.

Goulart, Ron. The Adventurous Decade. 1975.

Gould, Chester. Dick Tracy: The Thirties, Tommy Guns, and Hard Times. 1978.

Harvey, Robert C. Children of the Yellow Kid: The Evolution of the American Comic Strip. 1999.

Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. 2001.

Bradford W. Wright


views updated May 29 2018


COMICS are a series of drawings, usually arranged horizontally on the page of a newspaper, a magazine, or a book, that read as a narrative. The drawings carry the story, but words may appear to enhance the narration. Text, when included, often relies on the use of conversation to convey information and on onomatopoeic sounds, such as Wham! Pow! Slam!, to complement the action. The Yellow Kid (1895) was among the first to regularly employ text within the narrative frame by writing words on the shirt of "the Kid." Since the late nineteenth century, comics have usually featured a regular cast of characters, and contain either a complete story or a series of episodes.

Modern comics have several forms: the single-frame story, in which one picture conveys the entire tale, relies heavily on familiar characterization and sequence of spatial relationships within the frame; the gag strip, made up of three or four pictures with a joke in the last frame, such as Sad Sack (1942); the serial strip, which shows a new piece of the story every day or once a week, such as Terry and the Pirates (created in 1934 by Milton Caniff); and the comic book, in which complete stories are contained within the pages, the first of which, Funnies on Parade, was published by Procter and Gamble in 1933 and sold for ten cents. By the late 1940s, more than 50 million copies of comic books were sold a month. The first comic strips were syndicated in 1914, and any small-town newspaper could purchase them. By the mid-twentieth century, Chic Young's Blondie was the most highly syndicated comic strip in the world, and Mort Walker's Beetle Bailey, which displayed an American irreverence to military authority, was syndicated in more than fifty countries.

The modern comic emerged from three forms of visual art: mural arts, humorous cartoons, and the photo-graphic arts. As an art form of social commentary, the modern comic strips are also a direct outgrowth of the nineteenth-century humorous cartoon, which was often a political or social comment. Thomas Rowlandson (1757–1827) pioneered political cartooning with the creation of a regular character, Dr. Syntax. George Cruikshank (1792–1878) introduced dialogue within the frame, usually included in balloons. The narrative sequences of William Hogarth (1697–1764) translated caricature into an art form and showed the sequence of narrative pictures featuring a regular cast. For portrayal of action, comics are indebted to Eadweard Muybridge's "Study of the Body in Motion," a series of photographs of a galloping horse, which became the foundation for the creative depiction of basic elements of action. Other historians credit the Swiss artist Rodolphe Töppfer (1799–1846) with the first awareness of the expressive qualities of line that allow a wide range of exaggerated facial expression in his collection of picture stories, Histoires en estampes (1846).

Changes in technology furthered the development of the comic. The invention of photoengraving in 1873 made newspaper illustration relatively inexpensive. In addition, the size of the reading public grew, and at the turn of the

nineteenth century, a wide range of comics became a staple in American life. In 1892, James Guilford Swinnerton's strip for the San Francisco Examiner was among the first to include continuing characters in a daily newspaper. In 1893, Joseph Pulitzer's New York World published its first full-page color comic, and in that same year the New York Recorder also featured a color page of comics. By the early 1900s, regular strips were appearing in the newspapers of major cities throughout the United States. Comics could be original or adaptations of literary works: in 1929, Harold Foster adapted Edgar Rice Burrough's 1914 Tarzan of the Apes for distribution by the Metropolitan Newspaper Service.

Not everyone viewed the comics benignly. Frederic Wertham's The Seduction of the Innocent (1954) maintained that comics exercised a bad influence on young people and led to an increase in juvenile delinquency. This attack led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority in 1955 and the Newspaper Comics Council, in an effort to police the content of comic books and strips.

As an instrument of popular culture drawing on the fine and literary arts, comics have successfully reflected social frustrations, like their eighteenth and nineteenth century predecessors. Rube Goldberg's The Inventions of Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts (1914) described revolt against the tyranny of machines, and Goldberg received a Pulitzer Prize for Professor Lucifer and for Boob McNutt (1915) in 1948. Gary Trudeau's Doonesbury (1970) depicted campus unrest of the 1960s and 1970s, and Trudeau won a Pulitzer Prize for his work in 1975. Berkley Breathed created a satirical comic, Bloom County, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987.


Aldridge, George Perry, and Alan Aldridge, eds. The Penguin Book of Comics: A Slight History. Baltimore: Penguin, 1967.

Boxer, Sarah. "When Fun Isn't Funny: Evolution of Pop Gore." New York Times (1 May 1999).

Gagnier, S. Richard. "A Hunger for Heroes." School Library Journal 43, no. 9 (1997):143.

Marschall, Rick. "100 Years of the Funnies." American History 30, no. 4 (1995):34.

O'Sullivan, Judith. The Art of the Comic Strip. College Park: University of Maryland Department of Art, 1971.

Silverman, Francine. "Tracing the History of America's First Comic Character." Editor & Publisher 127, no. 48 (1994): 16–19.

Springhall, John. "Horror Comics: The Nasties of the 1950s." History Today 44, no. 7 (1994):10–13.

Ruth A.Kittner

See alsoLiterature: Popular Literature ; Newspapers .


views updated Jun 08 2018


In his two volumes Maus: A Survivor's Tale and Maus: A Survivor's Tale II, Art Spiegelman narrates the fate of his parents, a Polish Jewish couple who survive Auschwitz and the Holocaust. The most striking feature of the books is the trivial fact that they are comic strips in which the Jews are represented as mice and the Germans as cats. This metaphorical depiction of Nazi-Jewish relations is not a genuine animal fable, because it is much too complex. Various aspects of meaning are given in the cartoons, and there are different ways of conveying those meanings. They entail, for instance, the narratives of Vladek, the narrator's (Artie's) father, as a single male and how he and his wife Anna are separated and reunited. The narration follows the increasing severity of Nazi persecution and also describes the inner conflict a member of the post-Holocaust generation faces. The flexibility of the comic strip as a medium facilitates a reflective manipulation of the different events in time.

The presentation of a human being as an animal or with some animal features is adopted in political cartoons in order to denigrate, for instance, a political opponent or social group. Its traditional intention is to transfer some negative animal characteristic, such as laziness or stupidity, to the victim of the cartoonist and thus create and/or emphasize a negative stereotypical trait. This, however, is not the case in Maus. In this cartoon, on the contrary, two separate mental spaces, that is, the space of human beings and the space of animals (mice, cats, dogs), are blended, creating anthropomorphic creatures who represent real people, for example, Artie, the protagonist and narrator, Vladek, his father, and Anna, his mother. They are drawn with human bodies and appropriately sized mouse heads. The faces are drawn in a neutral way and show very few expressive and distinguishing features.

This creation and blending of two separate mental spaces are everyday features of verbal language. In statements such as "If I were in your shoes, I would quit my job," the speaker takes over the role of the listener and states how he would act in that hypothetical space. Such a blending process activates at least four mental spaces: a generic space, the source space, the target space, and the resulting blended space. The generic space contains a skeletal structure, which reflects the commonalities of the two input spaces.

In the above example, the generic space would be represented by a sentence such as "An agent takes a decision." The first input space would read: "The speaker quits his job" and the second input space would read, "The listener quits his job." The blended space integrates selected parts of the structure from the input spaces and would read: "The speaker quits the job of the listener."

As is seen, the blended space integrates selected parts of the structure from the input spaces. The effect of alienation (Verfremdungseffekt) has two causes: Even if readers are familiar with anthropomorphic creatures in comic strips such as Spiderman, combining Spiegelman's hybrid creatures with Nazi terror and the Holocaust may seem strange and the meaning of such a blend is open to interpretation. The meaning potential of this pictorial blending can be described as follows: the generic space contains a relative assessment of human beings together with other mammals. Depending on people's convictions, mammals do or do not have a distinct personality, dignity, a right to live, and they are or are not regarded as vermin. The first input space allots the positive qualities and rights to human beings and the second input space denies mice these qualities and rights. In the blended space the anthropomorphic mice, who represent the Jews, are denied these qualities and rights.

Because the readers of Maus know that Spiegelman is a Jew himself, it is very unlikely that they will interpret the blending in this way. It is clearly an ironic pictorial of Hitler's statement that Jews are vermin. When it is obvious that someone slips into the role of another person and acts in that role, irony is created. Thus, readers are constantly reminded of the ironic stance that the author adopts. He does so because the genocidal atrocities of the Nazis are beyond comprehension and, what is more, beyond description.

SEE ALSO Art as Propaganda; Art as Representation


Fauconnier, G., Mental Spaces. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hünig, Wolfgang K. (1974). Strukturen des comic strip. Hildesheim: Olms.

Hünig, Wolfgang K. (2002). British and German Cartoons as Weapons in World War I. Frankfurt: Lang.

Rohrer, T. (2001). "Even the Interface Is For Sale: Metaphors, Visual Blends and the Hidden Ideology of the Internet." In Language and Ideology, ed. R. Dirven, R. M. Frank, and C. Ilie. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Turner, M., and G. Fauconnier (1995). "Conceptual Integration and Formal Expression". Metaphor and Symbolic Activity 10:183-203.

Turner, M., and G. Fauconnier (2002). "Metaphor, Metonymy, and Binding". In Metaphor and Metonymy in Contrast and Comparison, ed. R. Dirven and R. Pörings. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Wolfgang K. Hünig


views updated Jun 11 2018

comics form the branch of the press and periodicals industry generally seen as providing children's entertainment. In their early days though, in the 18th and 19th cents., comics were very much an adult affair, often at the cutting edge of political reform struggles. Early examples include the satirical caricatures of Hogarth, Gillray, Rowlandson, and Cruikshank, often gathered together in ‘strips’ (with Rowlandson's Dr Syntax becoming one of the first cartoon heroes), or published in monthly magazines, such as the Comick Magazine (1796).

Influenced by European publications, broadsheet or tabloid ‘picture sheets’ appeared through the 19th cent., such as the Glasgow Looking Glass (1825); with the most famous satirical magazine Punch starting in 1841, and its later rival Judy (1867) launching the most popular Victorian cartoon character Ally Sloper.

The standard ‘comic’ format was pioneered by James Henderson's Funny Folks (1874), an eight-page black-and-white tabloid weekly mixing text and pictures and selling for 1 penny. This format was exploited by Alfred Harmsworth, whose turn of the century Amalgamated Press revolution included the launch of the most successful of all comics, the half penny Comic Cuts (1890), with the perennially popular Weary Willie and Tired Tim. As part of the ‘half penny boom’, more comics offered sections for children, leading to a pre-First World War ‘golden age’ with comics like the Rainbow, and popular characters like Tiger Tim and the Bruin Boys. ‘Twopenny coloureds’ tended to be favoured by middle-class parents, while ‘Penny Blacks’ were the choice of the working-class reader. A famous entrant to the comic market in the 1930s was Dundee's D. C. Thomson, with the Beano and the Dandy gaining lasting popularity, while Amalgamated Press's Film Fun (1920), and Mickey Mouse Weekly (1930) showed the early influence of the cinema.

The comics industry was revolutionized from the 1930s and 1940s with the popularity of American ‘comic books’, especially Action Comics' superheroes such as Batman. A post-war ‘moral panic’ over some of the more lurid horror imports led to a temporary ban on US products, and a resurgence of the wholesome British tradition in Eagle (1950) and Lion (1952). The main phenomenon of the 1980s was the return of the ‘adult’ comic, with the success of the broad comedy of Viz, and the politically and ideologically complex world of 2000 A.D. and Judge Dredd, reminding the public that comics were not just for kids.

Douglas J. Allen