Saturday, 21 September 2019

BARRY PEARL PRESENTS - U.S. COMICS AND CULTURE IN 1972 (BY ARTHUR ASA BERGER)...


Copyright MARVEL COMICS

Another guest post provided by the Bold-but-Bashful BARRY PEARL, Criv-ite chums.  Straight over to Barry to explain things in his short intro.

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As a comic book “Discoverer” I enjoy finding new things, even if they are old.  In 1972, Arthur Berger discussed how comics were then being recognized as part of the American culture.

He is right that in 1972 comics were mostly ignored and there were few books about them, though  I very much disagree with his views on Spider-Man and one of my favorite Fantastic Four comics, “This Man, This Monster!”  I don’t think he got the “humanity” of the story.  I edited down the 4,000 words, eliminating his comments on comic strips, but the essence of his article about comic books remains.

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From “Side Saddle on the Golden Calf: 1972 Social Structure and Popular culture in America”.

COMICS AND CULTURE - Arthur Asa Berger, 1972.

…there were a few books on the comics.  There were also occasional articles in literary magazines and news magazines, but for the most part comics have been neglected.

There is a widespread misconception about who reads the funnies.  Many people assume that they are essentially a "lower class" phenome­non, and the essential reading fare of juveniles and quasi-illiterate adults.  This is wrong.  The funnies are read by all classes, but essentially by mid­dle and upper class families for the simple reason that middle and upper class people read more of everything.  Young people do read comic books in great numbers, as the following statistics demonstrate:

Age Percentage:

5-7 82%

8-10 92%

11-14 94%

18 60%

Youth are the primary readers of comics, though certain books such as Marvel Comics are now popular with high school and college students.  Readership figures for comic strips in newspapers run into the hundreds of millions each month.

The comforting thing about the comics is that we are always certain of the resolution of the adventure; we don't know the means by which it will be resolved, but we do know that "Tracy will win," for example. Thus, what the comics do is raise moderate levels of anxiety which they then satisfy.  We keep coming back for more, getting our daily emotional charge, but it is not intense enough to do much more than make us want to read the strip the following day.
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Probably the most significant innovation in comic books is the devel­opment of humanized, occasionally neurotic, multi-dimensioned charac­ters, instead of the bland superheroes who were found in the comics of the "old days".  The Marvel Comics Group, which publishes The Amazing Spider Man, The Fantastic Four, and The Silver Surfer (among many many others) probably saved the comic book when it introduced this kind of "real" character.  Ben Grimm, one of the Fantastic Four, looks like a jigsaw puzzle and is often shown as angry and upset over his looks.  In this series women become pregnant and have babies, and frequently biting political comments are made, usually as asides, during the course of the adven­tures.

There has been an interesting change in the looks and character of Peter Parker, The Spider Man.  In the earliest issues he was shown as a rather "square" type of individual with thick glasses.  The whole strip actually was rather crudely drawn.  In current adventures he looks some­thing like Elvis Presley, rides a motorcycle and is always in the company of beautiful and sexy young women.  There are many Negroes in the strips along with much talk about drugs and other social problems.

The comic books have gained a new audience - high school and college students - have become "relevant," and now deal increasingly with social and political issues. Marvel Comics has an American Indian hero, Red Wolf, and two black heroes: The Falcon and The Black Panther, while Superman, Batman and Robin, and many other characters have be­come modernized and more realistic.  If there has been some kind of revo­lution in American culture, or in American youth culture, this revolution is reflected graphically in these comic books.


It has been argued by Lindsay and Lawrence Van Gelder, in an article appearing recently in New York magazine, that the comics have become "radicalized":

'. . . the recognition of the limits of powers among the superheroes, and beyond that their accelerating social consciousness, their deep­ening anxiety, the proliferation of their neuroses, their increasing involvement in issues with no clear solutions, and most of all, their burgeoning radicalization, have restored excitement, interest and merit to a once crippled industry.'

The changes that have taken place in these heroes are significant in many ways not directly related to the present social problems and con­flicts of American society. The diminution and humanization of the super­heroes suggests a new and emerging conception of the role in our culture.  We have, in effect, rejected the old version of the superhero as the strong father who rescues the weak and powerless from the forces of evil.  When one realizes that there isn't any superhero who can intervene at the last moment and straighten everything out, one is on the road to maturity.  The weakening of the powers of the superheroes reflects, correspondingly, a new sense of strength in our own abilities and capacities.  In addition, the comics generally show a new conception of the rela­tionship between the individual and society.  The old idea of the self-reliant "individualistic" hero who can do everything on his own, with no help from anyone else - who can save the world because he is a Superman, for example, has been replaced by a view of each one's fate being related to the fate of everyone else.  It is a much more complex and sophisticated view of man and society than we found in the "caped crusader" comics of the forties and fifties.

The subject of machines and technology is important, and one about which the comics have much to say.  There is a considerable difference in attitude, as far as science and technology are concerned, in the works of our elite artists and popular artists in extremes such as the novel and the comic book.  The dominant thrust of "high" literature has been a sense of revulsion against science and the machine.  For some reason our novelists and poets see science and technology almost invariably as a threat to humanity.  They recoil against the machine in panic.  Thus many contem­porary novels are dystopias, which see societies of the future as totali­tarian and antihuman.

This is due in part to a bias in our higher arts which have traditionally looked toward nature for a source of inspiration and wisdom.  The Fantas­tic Four reflects a much different attitude towards science and the ma­chine.  Although the various villains are able to use technology for their evil purposes, they are always defeated by heroes who are superior morally and technologically.  Rather than refusing to face the contemporary world and returning to the older and simpler days of the pastoral, many comics use science and technology as their subject matter.  The victories of the "good guys" (who now have faults of their own) may be, in part, an ex­pression of a fundamental optimism which is said to infuse American cul­ture.  The triumph of the heroes reflect an awareness of the potentialities for good and evil in machines and a faith in man's ability to control them - that is, a realism and an awareness of the moral dilemma posed by science and technology.

We can see this if we look at a Fantastic Four adventure entitled This Man . . . This Monster! (#51 June).  Here, a machine is given an entire page.  There is a sense of threat from the very size of the device, a "radical cube" which dwarfs the figures who are to use it, and from its function - sending people into "subspace".  But the purpose of the experiment with the radical cube is to gain information on the "space-time principle" which is needed to defend the human race and the earth, so the size of the machine be­comes of secondary importance.  The Fantastic Four are, in their own way, larger than life, so the cube becomes even less menacing.

The machine sends Reed Richards, the "leader" of the Fantastic Four, into subspace, which is represented by a rather magnificent full-page spread of worlds, galaxies and space. The presentation of landscape in The Fantastic Four is particularly interesting, with brilliant panoramas of gothic castles and modern super megalopolis.  The settings for the adven­tures tend to be extreme - either urban or primitive - however, urban ad­ventures tend to dominate, reflecting the readers' acceptance of the city as the environment for modern man.

It has been suggested that these comic books, and perhaps science fiction in general, play around with technological gadgetry but do not really exhibit the kind of thinking found in science or an understanding of what science is really about.  I'm not so sure such is always the case.  But what is at issue is not whether comic book science fiction writers under­stand science but how they and their public feel about it.  A radical cube may be bad science; however, it reflects an attitude about science and technology that is quite positive - though not worshipful.  Science can be manipulated by dedicated scientists or mad fiends.  Progress is a function of moral character as well as intelligence.

… the comics reflect a basic confidence in man's ability to dominate the forces of technology and industrialization.  For every fantastic monster or problem we find an ingenious solution and remark­able hero.  Despite the violence and terror in the comics, they display an underlying confidence about man's possibilities.  We may question, then, whether this really is an age of the antihero?  It may be for some elements in society, but it does not seem to be the case for millions of Americans who read comics - even though the heroes of Marvel Comics and their imitators are "flawed".

It should be obvious by now that clichés about comics being useless dribble cranked out by commercial hacks and fit only for wrapping garbage are not valid.  Nor were they ever valid.  The comic strip and comic book are art forms, and as such they have served people of genius as well as of mediocrity.  I would argue that though there have been only a handful of first-rate comic strip artists, the same can be said about novelists, poets and artists in every medium.

The fact is, comics are a distinctly American idiom and are one of the few things that we all have in common - one of the few things in our soci­ety that cuts across class barriers (for the most part), regional differences, ethnic distinctions - whatever you will - to give us a communality of experi­ence and of reference points.  There have been major changes in the fun­nies and the comics, just as there have been significant changes in Ameri­can society.  We have now become urbanized and industrialized, and our comic book heroes have taken on new personalities in the face of new functions which they serve.

There is more than meets the eye in the comics; the fact that increas­ingly large numbers of people are beginning to read them and study them is, strange as it may seem, a sign of intellectual sophistication and cultural maturity… thanks in part to the youthful rebellion and the various counter-culture movements, as well as a sudden curiosity about the significance of many everyday aspects of our daily life, we are beginning to mine our own treasures. It's about time.

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And thanks once again to Barry for providing this article first posted over on Facebook.  Be sure to let him know what you think in the comments section.

2 comments:

Colin Jones said...

The splash page of "This Man, This Monster" is an undoubted classic but I notice that the credits don't mention the colourist. In modern comics the colourist is considered to be so important that he/she is named on the cover alongside the writer and artist.

Kid said...

Some comics publishers even name the letterers on the covers now, CJ, which is weird, as lettering is now less of an 'art'than it once was, on account of it now being done with computer fonts. Many of today's so-called letterers couldn't letter by hand if their lives depended on it.

Also, once letterers and colourists eventually were credited in the comics, the credits ran like this: artist/penciller/inker/letterer/colourist - now the colourist gets listed before the letterer.

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