[C]AR – 1. CONCLUSION: WHAT WE FAIL TO CONTEMPLATE CONTEMPLATES US – PT. 5

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For a casual reader of the ILN, though, one likely not to have access to archives, reprint collections of historical photographs, and other artifactual detritus of the past, such an understanding of an etching/engraving/line art as derivative of some other more “original” form is all but impossible.  Moreover, it may have mattered very little to her, as the image might have been merely utilitarian, to get a sense of what this man or that process or some battleship looks like, and not the object of deep critical investigation and analysis.  Such is the wanton privilege of a scholar and not an ordinary reader—I assume, since the interpretive proclivities of any given reader are unknowable beyond a largely misleading aggregate.  This means the best we can hope for in determining how this any given might make sense of her textual landscape lies at the level of print texts themselves, particularly the heterogeneous things that are print periodicals and not some abstracted and largely hypothetical unified textual object extrapolated therefrom.

"Comic" (funny?) outfits from the 1920 Sears catalogue

“Comic” (funny?) outfits from the 1920 Sears catalogue

Certainly, periodicals of a bygone era hypothesized different kinds of reader of the same text, what with the proliferation of so-called “Ladies’ Pages” in various newspapers.  The primary visual focus of these pages—for the content might otherwise delve into any affair of interest to “ladies,” whoever they are—is fashion, in particular the latest, most expensive dresses that were the high fashion of the day.  Beside detailed line art of taffeta ball gowns and velvet evening wear, one could read of the plight of the queen(s) or the changes in the rights of women in lands as disparate as the United States, France, or Japan.  Of course, the ladies’ pages were not the only place an enterprising lady of the house might hear of trends in design, there was also the more practically minded print institution of the mail order catalogue, pioneered in the U.S. by Aaron Montgomery Ward, even though it was Ward’s rival, the Sears and Roebuck Company, who became better known nationally.  The images included in the earliest mail order catalogues had both a utilitarian and entertainment function: utilitarian, because, particularly when purchasing clothes, one wants to see what she is getting, though, of course, the catalogues were not limited to clothes, and entertaining, because, like the high fashions in the ladies’ pages that a working class reader of the ILN could never in her life afford, the images of proper ladies and well-dressed children were also aspirational, a necessary diversion from the drudgery of wage and domestic labor.  As Richard Rovere notes in the epigraph to this very chapter, the Sears Roebuck Catalogue served as a reminder of the comforts of home over against the horrors of marching toward one’s death somewhere in the Ardennes.  The possibility that a soldier in the trenches could place an order for a tin of beans or a pair of spats was non-existent, so his readerly consumption of such a text was limited to anything but its intended purposes.  Just as with the masturbatory fantasies of young boys and girls over the semi-nude bodies depicted on the underwear pages, before the age of ubiquitous online pornography, what the text can be is largely a function of how it is read.

Wirgman's remarkably [comic]-like diagram of Japanese tea cultivation for the ILN

Wirgman’s remarkably [comic]-like diagram of Japanese tea cultivation for the ILN

The major fault in Kunzle’s argument, such as it is, is how, once [comics]-in-periodicals exist as a widespread phenomenon, his arguments from resemblance to earlier image/text forms begin to break down.  One of the more common types of visual/narrative sequence one encounters in print media of the latter half of the 19th century is diagrammatic: graphics detailing the several moving parts of a steam engine or how Indian cotton is woven into textiles or how the Japanese prepare and serve tea.  In purely visual/formal terms, there is little to distinguish these clearly paneled sequences from the seemingly established form of the [comic] strip in Puck or Life or Judge or any of a number of newspapers throughout the world.  Yet, such distinctions likely were made by contemporary readers, despite obvious resemblances.  How this can be has much to do with the heterogeneous nature of print periodicals themselves and the necessary distinctions any given reader would have to make between its several kinds of article, image, advertisement, and what not.  While it might entertain the high flights of theoretical fancy to assume that any spatial juxtaposition on the page is meaningful merely by virtue of being present on the same page, this logic, if rigorously applied, would swiftly run up against the problem of having to make sense of so many juxtapositions of so many things.  For a newspaper or magazine is a particularly haphazard textual object, in which decisions regarding where to print what have as much to do with practical concerns over space as with authorial concerns about what A might mean when placed next to B.  Admittedly, this does not prevent a reader from drawing some significance from the placement of a [comic] panel amidst advertisements, but this interpretive behavior is always in tension with the practical need to get through a text without driving yourself nuts with relations to relations to relations to relations ad infinitum.

The question of [comic] textuality, then, cannot be answered simply using predetermined, decontextualized, isolated [comic] texts whose conceptual form neatly matches that of the comic book.  In fact, the tendency of [comic] scholars to think of these texts in terms of relative isolation (and only thereafter their “context”) seems to stem from the assumption of the [comic] book as a conceptual base that can be projected back onto the past, which might explain, say, the valorization of Rudolph Töpffer’s works over broadsides or any other printed media both preceding and contemporaneous to him.  Additionally, the problem of embeddedness has ramifications for visual texts other than [comics].  Sontag, for instance, refers to the printing of a photograph in a book as the “image of an image,” according to a certain Platonic approach to the representation of forms, and, in so doing, cannot give up a lazy sense of material textuality and let praxis speak to the very point she is making.  Photomechanical methods do not work from a photochemical print—the product of the ever elusive dark room—but from negatives.  A photo as printed in a newspaper may never have been printed chemically.  News photographers regularly worked directly from negatives, due to the speed with which work needed to be completed.  With the advent of digital photography, the need to produce a medial print image is even less pressing, because a file can be “read” on a computer in a manner analogous to looking at a negative over a light table.  The “photo” need never be materially realized before arriving at its intended destination in a book, magazine, or what have you.  What this means is that the photomechanical print of an image in a book is not subordinated to but is of the same textual order as a photochemical print, just like, say, two manuscripts of a classical text copied from the same, now lost, archetype.  A textual critic might favor one over the other in choosing her copy text, but that fact in no way means that the one is a “mere image” of the other.  Theoretical speculations on the nature and meaning of visual texts matter very little, if they remain unattentive to the practical minutiae of the media they seek to conceptualize.

3. Picto-Fiction

I can imagine a likely objection to what I have said so far pointing out my own emphasis on [comics] being produced within a discursive framework thereof and how advertisements and photographs, while they may have come into being within the context of a broad print culture that included [comics], this fact alone does not necessitate their being read as such.  Despite the formal overlap between Buster Brown, Mary Jane, and the shoes they were made to hock, there is no necessary relationship between Outcault’s strip in the New York Herald and the ads that bore the characters’ likenesses.  Granted, sometimes an ad is just an ad, but I would cling to the notion that the onus of making a distinction or non-distinction lies with a reader and not with the text[s], for the best any text can do is bear a likeness to some other.  It cannot compel the attribution.

One sees this even within the context of an overt [comics] discourse.  In Anglo-American [comics] history, the mid 1950s live in infamy, remembered largely for Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocents and the legislative investigations into comic books that eventually culminated in the Comics Code.  William Gaines, the editor-in-chief of EC Comics, testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954, as a result of which he is now remembered as a staunch advocate of anti-censorship, even though he was vilified in the media at the time.  His company tried to adapt to the heightened scrutiny of [comics] in a number of ways.  Mad switched to a magazine format, in which it has remained to this day, and a new line of [comics] were launched under the banner New Direction as well as four short-lived “picto-fiction” magazines.  Though it ran for only two issues [a third was printed, iirc], Crimes Illustrated is a perfect example of how [comics]-as-reading works even within an explicit [comics] discourse framework, for the whole point of these magazines was not to be read as [comics], despite clearly drawing on the very graphic content that brought Gaines and EC before the disapproving gaze of the Senate subcommittee.

"Fall Guy for Murder" as [comic]

“Fall Guy for Murder” as [comic]

A bold color block on the cover of each of the four new magazines read, “PICTO-FICTION: a new form of ADULT ENTERTAINMENT,” meant in the particulars to divert one’s attention away from regarding it as a [comic] book.  It is “picto-fiction” and not “comic,” a “new form” completely distinct from EC’s earlier titles, and “adult entertainment,” so it does not matter if the content is particularly graphic or alarming, because it is not meant to be juvenilia in the way [comics] were presumed to be.  Even the letters page contributes to this “not a [comic]” reading.

I see that you have dropped your comic line.  I’m pleased by this, because we all know, your latest efforts were much too juvenile for your mature fans… You couldn’t have chosen a better time to put out adult “Picto-Fiction,” because, judging by myself, many of your fans have outgrown comics and are now reaching the adult stage of their development.  You will not only gain new readers by this move, but will also retain many of your old ones, I’m sure.

Whether this letter is genuine or, as was common practice with letters pages, so I have been told, a figment conjured by the editor, picto-fiction was itself an interpretive fiction meant to elude censorship even as Gaines and Feldstein went about doing the same old same old.

"Fall Guy for Murder" as "picto-fiction"

“Fall Guy for Murder” as “picto-fiction”

The [comic] stories Gaines and Feldstein re-purposed as “picto-fiction” are markedly different not just in format (a much larger magazine size for the “picto-fiction”) but also in terms of layout and visual style, the latter of which, admittedly, can be accounted for somewhat by the employ of different artists.  Nevertheless, the gross overlap of [comic] book and magazine formatting suggests that the picto-fiction magazines were meant to be the true heir to the old EC [comics], even as they played upon a sense of difference necessary to elude increased calls for censorship.  The complete title Crime Illustrated: Adult Suspense Stories is eerily reminiscent of the [comic] Crime SuspenStories, and the magazine even reused stories (with new illustrations) from the earlier [comic]: “Fall Guy for Murder,” “Mother’s Day,” “Screenplay for Murder,” and “Pieces of Hate.”  The change in format, as with Mad, and the change in terminology are meant to cast a veil over what, to any half-discerning eye, is obviously the same old EC [comic] book content repurposed.  The fact that the recent reprints of the picto-fiction magazines by Gemstone Publishing, a [comic] publisher, are shelved right alongside [comics] in libraries would seem to indicate that, despite the ruse, no one was fooled for long.

The movement of these texts from [comic] to picto-fiction to picto-fiction-as-[comic] demonstrates the all-too-determinative role that how-you-read-something has in establishing what kind of text any given textual artifact is and that this comes about as a result of how it appropriates or, in this case, is appropriated by other forms.  In order to see this more clearly, it is necessary to examine those texts that, for any number of reasons, break with conventional thinking about [comics] rather than those that easily conform to formal expectations.  It is the breaks—those texts that are perhaps a [comic]/perhaps not—that show where the limits of conventional thinking are and how high-minded theoretical speculation overlaid onto a particular textual landscape has the unfortunate habit of inventing and not just finding its object[s] of analysis.  With that in mind, the following chapter will examine the “early” period in [comics] history alluded to so far not from the perspective of Punch or Puck or Le Rire but from the perspective of the Japanese magazines that appropriated them, especially Kitazawa Rakuten’s Tokyo Puck, in the hope that by doing so we might see the how of [comics] and that thing called [manga] in an entirely new light.

NEXT: Intermissive 1 – Allen Say’s Drawing From Memory

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3 comments

  1. I have to apologize for the tardiness of this post. Car catastrophes have left me running about (by bus) like a chicken with its head cut off for the past few days.

  2. Rudolphe Töpffer

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