[Comics] as Reading – Chapter 3 – Discipline, Langue, and Play in the Discourse of [Comic] Studies pt. 6

PREVIOUS: Chapter 3 pt. 5

3. Divergence Culture

At the risk of repeating myself in different terms, one of the most fundamental problems with all formalist approaches to [comics] (or any medium/genre, for that matter) lies in the fact that while quite often broadly empirical, they are not, strictly speaking, descriptive.  Something—or a range of somethings—is first taken to be a [comic], which broken down into salient if not essential features that are thereafter projected onto a much larger textual landscape so as to identify what might be obviously and “unconsciously”/prototypically a [comic].  McCloud’s rather peculiar definition (“juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”) is a good example of how this process works: a definition quite clearly derived from a particular kind of [comic] text—recall McCloud explicitly rejects single panel [comics] for rather mystifying reasons (“no sequence!”)—is used to identify a number of ancient artifacts as [comics].  Criticisms of McCloud are so numerous as to blot out the sun, so I will not bother to rehearse them here, but it is worth looking back to Freud, who, in his The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, may be the first to identify (long before Potter Stewart) the underlying anxiety attendant to working from particular expressions to general principles of form.

Now is the opportunity to make a – not unimportant – confession.  We are engaged here in an inquiry into joke-technique based on examples, so we should be sure that the examples we have chosen really are proper jokes.  But it looks like as if in a number of instances we have been hesitating as to whether the example in question can be called a joke or not.  Indeed, we do not have a criterion at our command until our investigation has yielded one; linguistic usage is unreliable, and itself requires scrutiny; in deciding, all we have to lean on is a certain ‘feeling,’ which we may interpret to the effect that, in judging, our decision is being made according to certain criteria that are not yet accessible to our knowledge.  For us to appeal to this ‘feeling’ will not be admissible as a sufficient explanation. […] We simply do not yet know what goes to make the character of the joke. (trans. Joyce Crick p. 50)

The determination of form is itself, and not merely in the hallowed cloisters of scholarly critique, a hermeneutic process, one which must always come to terms with an incipient doubt as to whether one’s object of analysis really is what she happens to be treating it as.  Yet, Freud might also show us the way forward from this non-bind, for doubt can, in fact, be productive.  We might reconfigure analysis as a form of radical skepticism, rather than a methodology for the establishment of meaning or significance, in which any given sense of a text, both in terms of what it might be and what it might represent, is provisional and, as a result, preliminary to further interpretation, to furthering the discourse of analysis and, thus, of what comics might be said to be.  The demands of a form of analysis in which doubt reigns over relative certainty are quite steep, for a critic/reader must replace her relative ease of method with a nigh paranoid attention to a wide range of particulars whose artifactual residue might be quite insubstantial and murky.

It is funny, though, how even those who would agree that attention to textual condition, mode of publication, or what have you is of the utmost importance can fall short when actually attempting to examine it.  Ole Frahm’s reading of Sidney Smith’s Old Doc Yak in his “Weird Signs” essay is particularly instructive for how theoretical does not quite equate to practical sophistication.

The Big Stiff holds Old Doc financially accountable not only for the house in which he lives but also for the panels in which the story of his poverty is told.  And Old Doc Yak cannot afford his existence in this double sense.  He cannot pay the price for the white space in (or on) which he lives.  It is this double reference that constitutes the weird reality [!] of characters in comics.  Their reality is not only in the logic of the story told, but also in the logic of their conditions of publication: the mass reproduction of printed characters on white newspaper sheets which are repeated differently from panel to panel, day to day, next to profitable advertisements.  Old Doc Yak appears in all of the panels of the last four strips before his final disappearance.  This marks the material quality of his ‘wooden identity’ as a comic-strip character.  As the blockhead repeats his threat, its textual ambivalence reveals to us Old Doc Yak’s double existence.  A comic-strip character’s identity is inevitably disrupted. (“Weird Signs: Comics as Means of Parody” in Comics and Culture: Analytical and Theoretical Approaches to Comics, p. 183)

I too have tried to understand the logic of the conditions of publication, but what is bothersome here is that Frahm’s “newspaper” is a purely hypothetical construct and an unnecessary one, since the actual conditions of Old Doc Yak’s publication in the Chicago Tribune are still, thankfully, artifactually available.  Here too we can see the far-reaching effects of bookthink, for Frahm’s object of analysis, despite his speculative understanding of “newspaper sheets,” is not five [comic] strips as they appear in five separate issues of the Tribune but as they appear together as a unified text on two facing pages (72-73) of Blackbeard and Williams’ The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, a text which, because the condition of these strips’ initial publication is not at all present and thus thoroughly obscured, leaves Frahm free to hypothesize a general newspaper whose vague features might serve other speculative flights of fancy.

I do not mean to suggest that these vagueries are entirely worthless, but in those cases where the particulars of a textual condition do survive, as with Doc Yak, they become susceptible to a vicious sort of historicist backlash.  For Frahm is not interested exclusively in speculations concerning mode of publication, for which he might be forgiven, but also in the ontological claims concerning [comics] that might be derived from them.

Although the character is called by the same name, it is, owing to material repetition in space, from panel to panel and from drawing to drawing, as well as in time, from day to day, not the same but another alike.  Being another, the character has to be repeated to preserve its continuity. […] He is threatened with terminal disruption of the daily repetition of his identity.  He is threatened with permanent disappearance into the non-discrete white, and ultimately, for all of his volatile appearance, with falling into oblivion. (“Weird Signs,” pp. 183-84)

Frahm concludes his reading of Doc Yak by presuming it to be his (i.e. Doc’s) ghost that haunts the house in the final panel of the first strip of The Gumps, which replaced Old Doc Yak at the head of the sports page.  An interesting reading of Doc Yak as it appears in the Smithsonian Collection, perhaps, but it does poorly with the realization that Doc Yak continued to appear in the Sunday [comic] insert until it finally disappeared from the Tribune two years later in 1919 (only to be brought back many years later in 1930 as a topper to The Gumps’ Sunday page before making a final final disappearance in 1934).

The ontological claims about repetition, continuity, and identity are tenuous at best.  The figure of Doc Yak was repeated from Sunday to Sunday without really falling into the narrative continuity of the daily strip, a non-relation of weekly and daily iterations of newspaper comics that is, even today, quite common.  Between the Sunday and daily Doc Yak’s we might have something akin to what Frahm refers to as “another alike” and thus a shared identity, but because they are also, in a sense, distinct, an existential threat to the one, be it material or metaphysical, does not necessarily translate to the other, and so the character’s “identity” remains.  What we appear to have here, then, is not a simple identity-in-repetition but rather difference despite repetition, identity despite difference and vice versa.  Furthermore, even if Frahm’s claims were not undermined by Doc Yak’s particulars, it is difficult to see how the identity-in-repetition or self-referentiality he identifies could be understood as peculiar to or even emblematic of [comics].

Again, Doc Yak and its particular situation in the Chicago Tribune is the key to seeing just how far astray Frahm has gone from realizing a logic of the mode of publication, for Doc Yak, over the entire course of its run, exists in a state where it both observes its material condition, as Frahm rightly notes, and is observed/commented upon by the other constituencies of that condition, since, after all, a newspaper is a heterogeneous text, filled with reportage, entertainment, etc. of various kinds.  For the newspaper, like any print periodical (sing.), is both an historiographic and historical event, meaning it is both partial record of a contemporaneous discourse, so-called current events that with the passage of time become history, as well as participant within that discourse.  So too with the comics that appear within newspapers: the mere fact of self-referentiality does not set them apart from media or the world at an aloof, critical distance but may, in fact, be the clearest sign that comics are profoundly embedded in the very milieux they might presumably re-present.

Old Doc Yak in The Chicago Tribune, February 10, 1917

Old Doc Yak in The Chicago Tribune, February 10, 1917

Earlier, with regard to Smolderen’s reading of a Hogan’s Alley [comic] in line with a “carnivalesque” trajectory proceeding from Hogarth, I noted how one might trace an alternative complex of signification from a simple posted bill on one of the exterior building walls playing background to the ruckus in the foreground.  So too might we glean an alternative understanding of the ontological (read: textual) condition of Old Doc’s “final day” on Saturday, February 10, 1917, from a sign hanging on the wall—in this case only apparently a sign but in reality [sic] Doc’s license plate bearing that number well known to regular readers, 348.  I say “in reality” not as a reflexive use of a well-worn idiom, but because in 1916 the “fictional” character—who, it must be noted, at the time was often identified with Sidney Smith himself—received 348 as his own license plate number.

According to Secretary of State Louis G. Stevenson, who sent the tag to Sidney Smith, creator of Old Doc Yak, about 500 persons tried to get the “goat” of “The Sunday Tribune’s” comic hero by applying for license no. 348, which Old Doc Yak has held and enjoyed for several years.  Secretary Stevenson refused to be a party to any conspiracy against Sid Smith’s popular hero. (The Chicago Tribune, March 3, 1916, p. 11)

Smith’s acceptance of the very real registration of Doc Yak’s car with the Illinois Secretary of State’s office shows that the boundary between the world, that is the world of our daily sensual experiences, and the world of the [comic] is not merely murky but not there at all.  Not only does this fail to rise to the level of the uncanny, as Frahm asserts at greater length in Die Sprache des Comics, but both the reportage of the Tribune, as evident in the article quoted above, as well as the residents of Illinois want to get in on the joke constellated among Sid Smith’s “reportage” on the goings-on in Doc’s world, which, as Frahm rightly says, reflect upon the real situation of the daily strip’s imminent replacement, The Gumps, and the newspaper’s reportage on the “real events” that, not coincidentally, have clear ramifications for the situation of the strip’s world in that all too real world from which one might presume it to be aloof.  But, of course, there is more than one, two at the very least, strip-worlds, the daily and Sunday [comic].  In the daily, the license plate has been left behind hanging on the wall, its official correspondence to the “real world” left behind just as Doc Yak leaves behind his old hut—a fitting end to the daily strip’s run, if you consider how, when Smith moved Doc from the Evening Journal to the Tribune in 1912, exactly five years earlier to the week, Doc had built the very hut he leaves behind especially for that space.

Doc Yak in the Tribune, February 6, 1912

Doc Yak in the Tribune, February 6, 1912

NEXT: Chapter 3 pt. 7


  1. […] rather than a formal construct, functions also as a form of engagement with and in that world, in the manner of Doc Yak at the close of chapter 3. So too, the failures and eventual suppression of the student protest movement came to be reflected […]

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