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How comics matter

My first memory, and I have no idea how young I was at the time, is of sitting in one of those infant chairs, strapped in but able to rock back and forth as if in a rocking chair.  I had been planted in front of the television and remember I was watching an episode of Superman, the old black and white version where (and this I only saw later) you could actually see the wires.  I was too young, of course, to have any real idea of what was going on but I could see the man with the cape was flying.  My memory is of stretching my arms out as if I was flying too.

The power of fictional characters to ignite our fantasies and evoke our most fundamental impulses about truth and justice, and, well, you know the rest, has evoked considerable suspicion among the arbiters of high culture, and for a long time.  And the comics, at least from the mid-century mark, have been thought to exert an especially subversive force in the nation’s life that continues today given zine culture and gay superheroes but that goes back at least as far as Mad Magazine (certainly for me a childhood pleasure but one I inherited fair and square from my father, who also used to find it funny).

David Hadju’s new book, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) recounts a full history of the near-panic induced by the comics, going back at least as far as 1941 (Hadju quotes one critic that year as arguing that comic books were “furnishing a pre-fascist pattern for the youth of America”).  The larger point of the book, which is a great read, is both to celebrate the artists who have worked in the industry but also to note the two-way relationship between comics and the broader culture (where comics have as much reflected the broader culture and its concerns as challenging them), all while reproducing some of the overhyped anxiety about those dime-store magazines.

The concerns expressed by an older generation, perhaps not that unlike those expressed today by critics of video games, had a surface plausibility for many given both the wide readership levels (by the end of the 1940’s, roughly 100 million comic books were being purchased in the United States every month) and their often graphic depictions of violent subject matter.  In one Missouri town, and probably elsewhere, Girl Scouts were sent around to gather comic books so they could be burned.  The Comics Code, itself a product of this absurd angst, shut down many of the most artistically interesting (but also wild and grotesque) publications circulating back in the mid-1950’s.  Mad survived and could be converted into more subversive fare because it could be grandfathered into the new regulations.

But back to me.

I’ve been reading one of those graphic novels, a very high quality two-set, that recounts the Ring story, which I’ve never really understood and the ignorance of which has prevented me from ever taking advantage of those long performances of the operatic version offered on stages worldwide.  I find myself curiously conflicted about this.  I’m grateful to have been referred to these books – they are smart and visually stunning and they are teaching me one of the classic stories of western culture.  But I also feel a little ashamed that this is my mode of approach.  How hard would it have been to actually watch the opera, or read the source material?

And so there I sit, rocking back and forth just a little with my arms extended before me, reaching out again to grasp more fully the myths that have shaped and shape our culture. An innocent again, if only for a moment.


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