[Comics] as Reading – Chapter 3 – Discipline, Langue, and Play in the Discourse of [Comic] Studies pt. 7

PREVIOUS: Chapter 3 pt. 6

Old Doc Yak‘s reality is not, strictly speaking, fictive but rather an uneasy–no, an all too easy overlay of fiction and non-.  Frahm is not wrong to identify an underlying material reality of newspapers latent in Doc’s “last” week of daily strips in the Tribune, even if that reality is, as I have asserted, rendered in overly hypothetical terms, but, if anything, his sense of Old Doc’s material conditions is far too narrow, for even the simple movement to considering the actual newspaper in which Old Doc Yak appeared points a careful (as careless?) reader toward a material base far broader than the newspaper itself, one which encompasses the governmental institutions of the state of Illinois, as above, but also, as below, a variety of entertainment media, animated films in particular.

The Chicago Tribune, June 14, 1915, p. 10

The Chicago Tribune, June 14, 1915, p. 10

As early as 1915, The Chicago Tribune was soliciting ideas from Old Doc’s readers for animated weeklies to be projected at local theaters and to that end offered a cash prize of fifty dollars to the winner whose idea was chosen for development.  Neither the fact of reader solicitation nor of a contest to interest readers in a particular property is all that novel, but a number of aspects of this particular solicitation relate specifically to the questions of textual ontology previously broached and to where one might locate (or, perhaps, willfully refuse to locate) those relationships within and with the textual artifacts that survive to us.  Though I began from the premise that it was the Tribune which had solicited reader submissions, given the advertisement used to disseminate this call, it might be more or at least equally appropriate to speak of Doc himself as making the solicitation.  In an advertisement (to the left) hearkening back to the [comic] form of ads appearing in the Illustrated London News (considered at length in chapter 2), Doc stands atop a bag of cash with a megaphone asking in his characteristic idiolect whether “ya” would like to make fifty dollars.  In fact, most of the ad copy is presented “in his voice:”

If you’ve got a good idee fer one of my movin’ pitcher cartoon stunts, shoot it in t’ Sid Smith at th’ Chicago Tribune.  The Trib’s gonna give $50.00 in new gold [!] money fer an idee ev’ry week.  If your idee is used ya git th’ fifty bucks n’ besides it’ll be shown in


But the ad does double duty, soliciting both fresh ideas for “pitchers” and fresh butts for the seats of the theaters in which these animated weeklies were to be shown.  Again, in Doc’s voice:

Didja ever see these funny cartoon movin’ pitchers of me?  If ya ain’t seen ’em yet, put on your sunbonnet ‘n go over t’ any swell show house ‘n ask t’ see ’em.  I’m doin’ my best to show ya a good time.

This is followed by a listing of theaters at which Doc’s films might be seen that very day as well as a letter attesting indirectly to the popularity of “his” films by way of correspondence between a theater owner and the Central Film Company which produced them.  To the immediate left of this ad on page 10 is printed some self-interested reportage on the premiere of the Old Doc Yak film “Under the Sea,” which was, as you might imagine, dear reader, as smashing a success as the letter at the bottom of the advertisement proclaims in parallel: “[t]he success of this new venture was instantaneous.  Audiences in seventy theaters last week applauded the films with enthusiasm.”  Here, the seemingly shameless coordination between advertisement and reportage, which would seem to violate one of the sacrosanct rules of contemporary journalism, not only betrays the lie of any strict division between the responsibilities of a newspaper to make money and to make the public aware of current events but also demonstrates a palpable non-distinction between the realities of [comic] and “real” worlds.  What might be presumed from the beginning to be plural may, in fact, be one in the same and any sense of their divergence a function of the hermeneutic appreciation of “them” as distinct, meaning an after effect of interpretation, and not of an objective reality in which media and modes are verifiably discrete.

The whole notion that media converge to produce what Henry Jenkins has referred to as “transmedial storytelling” is based in the presumption that they are a priori distinct and only thereafter come together toward some common goal, in his terms,  as “the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, the search for new structures of media financing that fall at the interstices between old and new media, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who would go almost anywhere in search of the kind of entertainment experiences they want” (Convergence Culture p. 322).  At first glance, Jenkins’ account of media intermixing might serve as an adequate accounting of Old Doc and his function as content flowing across media (print and film in this instance) which audiences might seek out in their consumptive transmigration, in search of others alike.  Yet, the advertisement above and the parallel reportage of Old Doc’s recent success as animated [comic] hero also show why the multiplicity of media is something of a useful lie.  They might appear distinct, according to a certain reading, but they also, according to another, diverge from a common source, the Tribune, which is itself already plural, in terms not only of its inclusion of a number textual units (e.g. [comics], columns, advertisements, box scores, etc.) that might be read as separate or in concert but also the several individuals involved in the composition, editing, layout, printing, etc. of any given issue.  The “lone” textual artifact, a print periodical (sing.), the product of but “one” medium among many, itself already diverges into a material polysemy analogous to the linguistic polysemy identified earlier in this chapter.

[T]he newspaper was an open-ended serial form, as the pioneering publishers of the penny press had discovered in the previous century [i.e. the 19th].  Each day readers turned to the newspaper to find out what happened next in the trial of the murderer, the campaign for high office, the brewing tensions between two imperial powers, and so on.  The newspaper story was by definition one that never ended; but it was also a form that could guarantee no continuity, as stories were regularly dropped, threads lost in the cacophony of events and political upheavals. (Jared Gardner, Projections, p. 46)

As Gardner rightly notes, the openness of the periodical press is a double-edged sword but is also, nevertheless, particularly adept at wielding the power of provisional re-presentation that bookthink has such a difficult time adequately comprehending.  I arrive, then, as close as I can come to a definition of alter-textuality, only to shortly depart hereafter, one in which form itself is susceptible to a number of readings, interpretations which lie not merely in the higher order of exegesis, i.e. the determination of meaning, but also in a lower and therefore more fundamental order where reading determines, provisionally but also necessarily, what a given text is at all.  As readings multiply, so too, potentially, do determinations of form, in accordance with any number of overlapping and ever developing logics: social conventions, constraints of differing contexts, idiosyncrasies of reading, material modes–a cacophony of textual conditions none of which is necessary or sufficient but all of which demand greater attention.

Release flier for the first Selig Doc Yak animated film from 1912

It is worth noting that the Tribune‘s “new venture” in animated weeklies was not entirely novel, for, as Gardner has shown, the earliest filmmakers turned to comics as an established mode for imitation with regard to “the serial” as early as 1900 in the Edison and Biograph companies’ adaptations of Opper’s Happy Hooligan (19).  They were not even the first Old Doc Yak films, for the Selig Polyscope Company had produced the very first Doc Yak films 3 years earlier in 1912.  Unlike the later animated weeklies, the Selig films used a mix of conventional cinematography, in which the offices of the Tribune are depicted as well as Smith himself drawing the very character named in the title and “originating” in his beloved daily strip, and of cell animation, in which, as the flier says, Doc’s “face comes to life and its contortions are wonderfully amusing.”

A mix of modes, of film photography and cell animation, is already encapsulated in this one film (as well as those that followed), which re-presents in ostensibly fictive form both the realities of Doc’s world and the world of his [comic] strip’s production.  On the level of the simple material conditions of the cinematic text, be it film strip or projection, there is no distinction between the reality of Doc and Smith, an eerie reminiscence of the identification of Smith with Old Doc noted earlier, and any elaboration upon the divergent modes of their “two” worlds emerges only within a reading of difference and its features back onto a text materially indifferent to them.  I do not mean to suggest that the reading of difference is at all inappropriate–one can quite easily speak of Doc and Smith as discrete entities–but difference ought not to be privileged over equivocation, especially when equivalences of this sort so often get short shrift in the critical literature.  For, in the all too common rush to hold [comic] ontology and ontogeny, textual being and historical development respectively, at arm’s length from one another, any sense of the alter-textuality of which [comics] are emblematic swiftly gets lost.

The prominent image of Sidney Smith surrounded by a number of Old Docs in various [comic] antics can show just how these divergent readings might come about and how, though they at times may seem to contradict one another, these divergences do not need to be resolved into a convenient critical synthesis.  On the one hand, we might read Smith and the halo of Docs as representations of two modes that, in terms of their means of production, originate in two media: the line art of Smith’s pen and still photography.  Likewise, because the photo is of Smith, we might presume at least two “artists:” Smith himself, who likely drew the various Docs framing his portrait, and the unnamed photographer who took the picture used in said portrait.  Again, with attention to the means of production, we might posit a number of other, casually invisibilized “artists:” the designer who chose the layout, the compositor who actually put the layout together, the printer who prepared the final composition for putting ink to paper, the people who handed out the fliers, the passers-by who read them or threw them in the trash, and so forth.  As the “one” textual artifact moves through the stages of its production, any number of divergent hands begin to appear.

Yet, on the other hand, on the order of the image presented here, itself already a re-presentation of a hypothetical object in  the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences Library whose most immediate source, for this text before you, dear reader, is Wikimedia Commons, all of these artists are equally invisible and their appearance here a function of my reading them into being.  I am drawn back, then, to a point made near to the very inception of this serial “book,” that what a textual artifact is is a complicated function of the thing itself, quite often hypothetical, to be sure, but also the discourse into which it enters as a result of its being read.  One might lament the degrees of abstraction by which this thing, be it the flier or its hypothesized film, arrive in this moment, a lament for the loss of some long desired “original,” but I would assert that this very abstraction is itself worthy of thinking, for by considering it rather than taking it for granted, by understanding how we as readers bring it into being, we might begin instead from a sense of alter-textuality that is resistant, because of its fundamental openness, to the problems that so often attend to considerations of [comic] form.

Motion Picture Classic, September 1920, p. 69

Lastly, in an advertisement from the September 1920 issue of Motion Picture Classic, by way again of Wikimedia Commons, itself by way of the Internet Archive, we see Smith and his creations, this time hawking a drawing course rather than a film or contest, but the substance of the ad interests me very little.  By way of concluding this chapter with a further complication, consider the image of Sid Smith drawing Min Gump with her husband Andy to the one side looking over Smith’s drawing table.  The image seems especially ripe–and so it did to me when I first encountered it–for the kind of equivocating reading I layout above, because Andy appears to look on at Min in the same way Smith might presume to in drawing her, if he were not, at this moment, facing away.  Yet, upon close inspection of the composite image, you might notice, dear reader, that the drawing of Min does not seem to originate in the photograph of Smith at his table.  His arms float somewhat awkwardly over a drawing that, if it had been photographed along with Smith, would likely bear shadows from his hand and forearm.  The equivocation of photography and line art (in their reproduction) is encouraged here by the composite layout we see in the ad but ultimately results from our reading of it as such, a reading that must overlook clear signs to the contrary.  What this means is that even the reading of form as equivocating among modes that otherwise might be read as divergent is itself a feature of the textual artifact’s divergence.  Try as you may, there is no escaping the hermeneutic circle.

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