Nov 28, 2011

Reclaiming History: The Encyclopedia Americana Entry on Comics, 1958

Welcome to a new installment of Reclaiming History, an ongoing series where the Comics Cube! tries to balance out what the history books say and what actually happened! Click here for the archive!

A few months ago, I was at a friend's house, and he had a complete set of the 1958 edition of the Encyclopedia Americana. Out of curiosity, I picked up one volume and flipped through the "Comics" entry. And then I took pictures of it so I can share it with all of you!

This is written by Harvey Zorbaugh, who was then the chairman of the Department of Sociology of the School of Education in NYU.

Here are some notable bits.

The first thing that jumps out at me is the first paragraph, in which comics are defined: "As distinguished from the single cartoon, comics consist of a series of pictorial representations telling a story, developing a situation, or at least presenting the same character in varied circumstances." This predates Will Eisner's definition of "sequential art," as given by his book COMICS AND SEQUENTIAL ART, by 27 years, and the more famous definition by Scott McCloud from UNDERSTANDING COMICS — "Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the reader" — by 35 years.

Personally, I feel that the definition of comics as having at least two images is a device for convenience — it lets us leave out more things that are clearly not "comics" than include more things that may be considered as such. For example, I would call FAMILY CIRCUS a comic, even though it's only made up of one panel. However, the thing is, if we include single images, then something like the Mona Lisa could be called "a comic, " and it's not. It should be noted though, that Zorbaugh makes a provision for the "Family Circus"–type cartoons in his definition by saying "at least the same character in varied circumstances." It's the serialized nature of the publication that comes into play. (After all, if you placed two FAMILY CIRCUS comics together, you'd pretty much fit McCloud's definition.)

One more reason I think this is good to note is that a lot of comic book armchair scholars tend to treat McCloud as the be-all, end-all of comics debate — something he never intended — without acknowledging that Eisner preceded him (despite McCloud continually mentioning Eisner in his book). Turns out that comics have been defined as having at least two pictures in sequence since at least  1958. (I say at least because I'm sure this was written before 1955 — there's no mention of Fredric Wertham and the Senate hearings in the entry.)

In addition, it does state that comics don't need word balloons or narration boxes or words at all, so whoever is still arguing that point really ought to let that go.

More bits and the full article after the jump.

On comics as being a socially and academically acceptable medium: "Comics have attained such extraordinary popularity as to have merited considerable study as a local phenomenon."

On Captain Marvel and the Shazam Family: The entry mentions Captain Marvel quite a bit, which isn't surprising as he was one of the two biggest superheroes of the previous decade and a half. However, it must not have been so prevalent as, despite the many mentions of Captain Marvel, a basic error still managed to make it past the writer and the editor: it's stated that Captain Marvel is the "crippled newsboy who, by saying the magical word 'schazam'." Not only does that describe Captain Marvel Jr. and not Captain Marvel, but it misspells "Shazam." I'm very surprised to see such a glaring error. Nonetheless, he is named as one of the three most successful comic book characters, along with Superman and Batman. (It does name Superman as number 1. Again, that depends on when this was written.)

On the origins of comics: In 1942, the American Institute of Graphic Arts held an exhibition called The Comic Strip, its History and Significance. They traced the origin of comics to a drawing in a rock shelter in Cogul, Spain, which depicted a buffalo hunt, all the way through Egyptian tombs and sequential stories done via caricaturists in the Middle Ages. So again, McCloud wasn't the first to do this — comics studies have existed for decades. I guess the Comics Code and the Senate hearings took out more than we thought.

On the financial draw factor of comic strips: "It has become a truism of the newspaper business that, next to front page news, the comics sell the paper." It goes on to state that 98% of men and 97% of women read the front page, while 83% of men and 79% of women read the comics. Think about that for a second, folks, and then think about how many people read the papers today at all.

On the varied nature of comics' audience: It seems that back then, there was already the stigma that comics were the "working-class medium," but Zorbaugh notes that intellectuals read comics as well, naming George Herriman's KRAZY KAT and Crockett Johnson's BARNABY.

On the impact of comics on our culture: This article is just a treasure trove for my It Came From Comics feature. Not only did Crystal City, Texas, the heart of spinach country, erect a monument to Popeye, and not only did Little Orphan Annie and Daddy Warbucks criticize the New Deal, but it also names many things that were popularized from comics. Among them are "heebie-jeebies" and "time's a-wasting" from BARNEY GOOGLE, "goon" and "jeep" from POPEYE, and "bodacious," "twerp," and "banana oil" from other comics. Sadie Hawkins Day, the one day of the year that girls ask boys to the dance, also came from comics. It also mentions that comics were often used as educational tools, which solidifies my theory that this entry was written pre-1954.

The first published comic is: Obadiah Oldbuck, so not much of a surprise there. Not a mention of the Yellow Kid, though. That's curious.

On readership: Are you ready for this? As of 1944, "of children 6 to 11, 95 per cent of boys and 91 per cent of girls read comic books regularly. Of adolescents 12 to 17, 87 per cent of boys and 81 per cent of girls were regular readers. Regular readers among adults numbered 41 per cent of men and 28 per cent of women between the ages of 18 and 30, 16 per cent of men and 12 per cent of women 31 and over (with another 13 per cent of men and 10 per cent of women occasional readers). Of men in training camps in the United States during World War II, 44 per cent read comic books regularly, another 13 per cent read them occasionally. At post exchanges, comic books outsold The Saturday Evening Post, Life, and The Reader's Digest combined, by a ratio of 10 to 1."

Depressed yet?

On escapism: "The childlike quality of many of the characters, which do the things the children would like to do, appeals to youthful imagination. It has been pointed out by psychiatrists that life is seldom as active or meaningful as children would like it to be; thus their need for real living and doing finds vicarious satisfaction in the exciting adventures of the comic personalities. Children also readily identify themselves with animals; they do not find it incredible that cats and dogs or ducks and mice behave and speak as men."

There's more interesting stuff in there, guys. Check out the pics for the full article!

(Sorry for the poor photo quality, folks. It was late.)


Kid said...

Apparently, the first thing ever published that would qualify as a comic was published in Scotland. I'll supply you with the info as soon as I can.

Duy Tano said...

That'd be awesome!

Kid said...

From Deadline blog:

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

Posted by Clare Carswell

Glasgow publication claims to be first ever comic book
By Clare Carswell

INVENTORS of the television, penicillin and the telephone, Scots may now also be able to claim the comic book too.

The billion dollar comic book industry has been traced back to an early 19th century Glasgow publication, The Glasgow Looking Glass.

According to a documentary due to be broadcast later this year, Scotland’s Amazing Comic Book Heroes the colourful book paved the way for Our Wullie and Spiderman.

The Looking Glass, founded by John Watson made a number of innovative developments including the use of “To Be Continued” – which according to experts is essential to any comic strip – it was also responsible for adding “word balloons” to the format.

This Glasgow publication has a strong case to claim the place in history as the world’s first comic book, a view that was supported by esteemed comic book historian, Denis Gifford.

The first edition was printed on 11 June, 1825, 16 years before London’s Punch, another contender for the title of ‘father’ of the comic book.

While America is famous for bringing super heroes to the world through comics, the earliest cartoon publication from across the Atlantic was The Monthly Sheet of Caricatures in 1830.

John MacLaverty is the producer and director of the forth coming documentary which looks at how many Scottish cartoonists, such as Mark Millar, Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely became some of the most influential names in American comics.

The programme’s producer and director said: “I think Glasgow’s role in the invention of the comic book should be much better known. There should be a tourist industry around it. Glasgow has a long history of literary innovation and this is one of the earliest cases.”

John McShane, founded AKA Books & Comics in Glasgow which was once a favourite haunt of Morrison and Millar. In the documentary he said: “John Watson was the originator of what is the first regular comic magazine in the world. It’s time for a plaque to one of Glasgow’s greatest sons.”

At the time The Glasgow Looking Glass was produced, Watson worked for Thomas Hopkirk, a Justice of the Peace from Dalbeath who owned a lithographic press and ran a Glasgow based printing press.

The characteristic words “to be continued” were first used in the second issue of the Looking Glass, dated 25 June 1825.

It was the tenth issue of the publication when the first artist linked those famous three words into a comic strip this was William Heath with his story Life of a Soldier.

By issue 13 the publication was renamed The Northern Looking Glass, expanded circulation to Edinburgh and introduced word balloons.

Unfortunately the lifespan of The Looking Glass was short and it folded in June 1826. A letter housed in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library states that Heath left the city two year later. The letter says that Heath found “little encouragement in Glasgow” and “left that city and remo0ved to London in 1828, where he is now the most popular caricaturist of the present day”.

Heath re-launched the publication in London on January 1 but this lasted just six months and Heath died aged 55 in 1840.

Millar was named by Time magazine as the global comic book writer of the decade and created the comic book which was the basis for the popular film Kick-Ass. He was thrilled that Glasgow was so integral to the comic book form.

He said: “I have to point out that I’m a proud Coatbridge guy and not actually a Glaswegian. But Glasgow is my adopted home and if the comic book really did start here it pleases me no end. It’s something I can lord over all the American writers and artists I work with, along with the phone, television, penicillin and Tarmac.

“It also explains why there’s such a disproportionate number of comic book creators from Scotland with Glaswegians producing all the biggest books for Marvel and DC in New York. I guess it’s in our blood.

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