Comics: Newspaper Comics in the United States
First Things First...
This lesson plan covers American newspaper comics from their inception in 1895 to the present. Comics have not traditionally been considered worthy of incorporation into art historical narratives, a prime example of the privileging of high culture over mass or popular culture. These hierarchies have been extensively interrogated and debunked in the past three decades, but these distinctions nevertheless remain, albeit in attenuated form, among both scholars and within larger culture. The continuing exclusion of comics from art history is just one example of how these distinctions remain in effect. Yet despite this ongoing bias, comics are an important part of modern visual culture, are consumed by far more people than visit museums or galleries, and can be used to illuminate aspects of society and culture not generally accessible to high art. Comics also have aesthetic values of their own that differ from those of high art, which the instructor should explain as an example of the contextual rather than universal nature of aesthetic conventions. Incorporating comics into your class will help redress this situation, creating a more balanced version of art history and visual culture.
Newspaper comics are one of the three main formats of modern comics, the other two being comic books and graphic novels (see the Glossary below for definitions of these terms). Newspaper comics are much shorter than comic books and graphic novels, occupying at most one full page, which places a limit on how complex their narratives can be. This was compensated for from their first appearance in 1895 until World War II, when a comic would frequently occupy a full tabloid-sized newspaper page, especially on Sundays. The great newspaper comics took full advantage of this opportunity to create miniature panoramas that were accessible to workers and the poor in a way that high art was not. Sadly, after World War II the full-page newspaper comic disappeared, replaced by much smaller strips, which shrank even further in the twenty-first century as the newspaper industry as a whole went into decline.
It’s important to realize that newspaper comics were just one part of a larger field of mass print and visual culture that included dime novels, pulp magazines, films, posters, and more. Since little to none of this material is incorporated into art history textbooks or curricula, newspaper comics are decontextualized from their original visual context when presented in an art historical context. Teaching newspaper comics in an art history course therefore requires being aware of and addressing this missing context as much as possible in the time available.
This lesson plan focuses on the more challenging and innovative newspaper comics, which offer more material for discussion and are more easily compared to high art. Some examples of historically important but less artistically interesting comics such as The Katzenjammer Kids and Flash Gordon are also included to give some indication of what the majority of the comics found in a newspaper would have been like.
The relationship between newspaper comics and modernism is complicated. On the one hand, the low-culture status of comics made them attractive to modernists and avant-gardists seeking “primitive” or “authentic” expressions. On the other hand, comics and high art remained segregated in different spaces, administered and presented by different institutions, and accessible to different audiences. The instructor should analyze comics both on their own terms and as they both diverge from and converge with modernism and other forms of high art. The following quote from Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik’s High and Low catalogue may be helpful in putting the relationship between comics and high art in a larger perspective. Although it’s quite sweeping and rather idiosyncratic, it gives a much-needed longview of the relation between comics and high art. The final sentences in particular offer a useful conceptualization of the overall relationship between comics and high art:
“The story of the comic strip and modern painting…is a story of convergent development rooted in a common ambition: to make art a serious game. If you stood back far enough from the history of modern visual expression, it might almost seem as if, sometime in the Romantic era, two similar dreams of a new, universal language for art came into existence, and each began to work out its own possibilities. The low, popular form of the comics tried to arrive at a unifying common language by telling stories; the high form of what would become modern art tried to get there by completely eliminating storytelling. These two tracks, however—narrative and antinarrative—turned out to be less like two streets that lead off from a fork in the road, in opposed directions, than like two paths that lead into a maze from opposite sides. For long periods the two parties of wayfarers on the paths are completely unaware of each other; then at times they become obsessed with the noises they can just make out coming from the other side of a hedge; and at times they stumble right over each other.”
Instructors should modify this lesson plan and slideshow to suit their needs. You can choose to use just a few slides, or to combine slides on newspaper comics with others on mainstream or underground and alternative comics. There is no standard way of teaching comics in an art history curriculum (or really any curriculum at this point), so go ahead and experiment.
Key themes and aesthetic concerns in the early history of newspaper comics can be explored in an hour and fifteen minutes through a variety of examples, including:
- Thomas Nast, “Something that Did Blow Over,” Harper’s Weekly, November 7, 1871
- George Luks, “The Open-Air School in Hogan’s Alley,” Hogan’s Alley, October 18, 1896
- George Luks, Allen Street, c. 1905
- Robert Delaunay, The Cardiff Team, 1912-13
- Rudolph Dirks, The Katzenjammer Kids, June 2, 1912
- Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland, November 19, 1905
- George Herriman, Krazy Kat, September 12, 1937
- George Herriman, Krazy Kat, May 24, 1936
- Joan Miró, Dialogue of Insects, 1924-25
- Öyvind Fahlström, Performing K.K. No. 11 (Sunday Edition), 1962
- Flash Gordon magazine cover, December 1936
- Advertisement for Flash Gordon movie serial, 1936
- Alex Raymond, Flash Gordon, February 11, 1934
- Walt Kelly, Earth Day Poster, 1971
- Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes, n.d.
- Alison Bechdel, “The Rule,” Dykes to Watch Out For, 1985
Comic book: A comic book is a self-contained pamphlet containing comics and is distinguished from the much shorter comic strip, which is usually limited to at most one full page, and the much longer graphic novel, which is typically at least 100 pages. American comic books are staple-bound and pamphlet-sized, with 24–32 pages being standard, but they may be as short as a few pages or as long as 64 pages.
Comic strip: A comic strip is a short comic that fits on a single page. The most common place in which comic strips are found are newspapers, but they may also be incorporated into advertisements, posters, books, or websites. Comic books and graphic novels are not considered comic strips because of their greater length.
Comics: The exact definition of what makes something a comic has been a matter of some dispute among comics scholars. A rough definition is that comics use a combination of words and images in sequential panels to tell a story. Comics are differentiated from illustrations, in which the narrative is conveyed primarily through the text and the text and images are visually separated; comics interweave text and images and rely equally on both. Comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels are all examples of comics.
Graphic novel: A graphic novel is a lengthy, book-sized comic. Most graphic novels are originally published as comic books and then collected into anthologies (sometimes known as trade paperbacks).
Gutter: The gutter is the space between panels. In Understanding Comics, a classic analysis of the comics medium, Scott McCloud argues that the gutter is the most distinctive aspect of the comics medium and is essential to its semiotic and aesthetic operation.
Panel: The panel is the basic unit of organization of the comics page. Panels are typically rectangular, framed by an outline, and arranged in a grid, but other types of panel and panel organization can be used to alter the pace, mood, or aesthetics of the page. Panels can have irregular or unusual shapes, can lack borders on some or all sizes, can have colored or textured outlines, and more free-form structures can be substituted for the grid.
Syndication: Newspaper comics quickly adopted syndication as a distribution model, in which syndicates offered the work of cartoonists to any newspaper that wanted to print them. Getting a comic strip accepted for syndication was thus key to achieving widespread distribution of a comic.
At the End of Class...
The end of class is a good time to ask students to lead a discussion reflecting on the relation between comics and high art and on their own experiences with comics based around the following questions:
- Do they relate to comics more easily than to high art, either in general or in relation to the specific newspaper comics studied in class?
- Why haven’t comics been considered a legitimate art form?
- Do they deserve to be?