Saturday, July 02, 2011

Comic Strips

In general comic strips try to have two attributes: funny and makes-you-think -- sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both. Comic strips are, after all, witticisms in pictures. And setting aside soap and adventure comics, which by their nature have only long story arcs over a number of strips, it has to be done, of course, in a few panels. This is a pretty difficult thing to do consistently, and yet amazingly there are strips that consistently do it -- the two grand masters, of course, being Watterson and Schulz. You can pick almost any Calvin and Hobbes or Peanuts strip and it's one of the two, usually both. I was browsing some classic Peanuts recently and was struck by how funny they were -- not usually rolling-on-the-floor-laughing funny, but somehow funny. There was one (this one, in fact) which was very simple -- it consisted almost entirely of Snoopy being hit repeatedly by a water sprinkler -- but nonetheless just tickled me pink. It was funny precisely because it's the type of funny thing you might see a dog do in real life, and the strip just summed up that whole type of experience. And there are just endless numbers of things one could say about this Calvin and Hobbes.

There really should be some philosophical work done on comic strips in the way that people have done philosophical work on novels or horror movies -- not, I mean, philosophy inspired by them, but the philosophy of them, looking in more detail at what makes comic strips funny and thought-provoking. But I don't think I've ever come across it.


  1. Dave M7:40 PM

    Classic Peanuts is indeed great, but I find that my idea of when that period ended keeps getting earlier and earlier.  Along these lines I once read a fairly convincing argument that the strip's long decline actually began in the 60s, when Snoopy started to take over from the kids.  In fact re: grand masters I would go for Kelly over Schulz.

    Also, maybe Scott McCloud's work (e.g. Understanding Comics) isn't philosophy exactly, but it's very good on how comics work.

  2. branemrys9:09 PM

    I find my assessment is exactly the reverse; my idea of when the period ends gets later and later. I also think that criticisms of the later Schulz tend not to be very coherent as a group -- different people will make mutually exclusive accusations, for instance, and even individual criticisms are often damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't criticisms. I've ceased to give any credence to them. I didn't find the Caldwell piece, which I think is the one you mean, convincing at all; it seemed to me the sort of critical nonsense that if taken seriously would stifle all real artistic experimentation -- which is what Snoopy's fantasy life was. (And I suspect there is a bit of snobbery to it, too; after all, what Caldwell criticizes is precisely what most people have found most striking and memorable about the strip. There are several statements in the essay that strongly suggest a correlation, in Caldwell's head at least, between the popular and the stupid. In addition, he clearly shows an incapacity to understand other aspects of the strip, for instance, Schroeder, whose characterization as Charlie Brown's best friend and sometimes only consistent supporter, was apparently too subtle for Caldwell to figure out.)

    Kelly certainly is a grand master, though. I'll have to look at McCloud.

  3. Dave M7:37 PM

    Yes, I thought it was Caldwell, but I wasn't sure.  I can't speak to his elitism, but it is not in general true that what most people find striking and memorable in something cannot, seen in retrospect, turn out to be the ultimate cause of what most people agree to have been an artistic decline, even if only manifested later on, and I think that's what Caldwell was saying.  I myself don't have any problem with the flying ace (that's WWI, btw, not WWII; WWII is the cat who lives next door), but I was never a big Woodstock fan.  You're right about Schroeder, who as his batterymate has a closer connection with Charlie Brown than others do; but since I don't remember what Caldwell said about him that doesn't help.

    For myself (admittedly from other contexts), I find that someone really needs to rub their elitism in my face before I will call them on it, as in my experience anti-elitists often have a hard time distinguishing between "not [popular = bad]" and "popular = good" or even "not-popular = bad".  Not that that justifies it, but there it is.

  4. branemrys10:27 PM

    I think as a matter of theories of taste, no theory of taste is tenable that does not hold that popular=good where the popularity in question is maintained over a long term. Critics who can't see the good of the enduringly popular are by that very fact incompetent critics; evaluations of quality have to rise above mere personal preference and this requires being able to recognize what everyone else likes, regardless of whether one appreciates it oneself. This is especially true in arts whose raison d'etre is being able to speak popularly, of which comic strips certainly are. In this case we're talking about comic strip images, normally highly ephemeral, lasting literally for decades, and likely to last for quite some time longer. Any critical response that does not recognize this as at least prima facie reason to regard it as of good quality (at least for its kind) is simply not a reasonable critical response -- I mean that literally, i.e., it is a critical response that is basing itself on nothing other than private taste and not on any objective or intersubjective standard. And this is particularly true if the negative arguments are weak or incoherent, as all the ones I have seen in this case are; in general, the evidence for the 'decline' tends to be weak to nonexistent, and to amount to no more than the fact that Schulz experimented with some new things. That is never on its own a sign of artistic decline even if the results are judged unsuccessful -- and I don't think it's clear that in this case they really were unsuccessful.

    In any case, I also think that when we're dealing with someone like Schulz we have to ask what 'decline' really means. Let's assume there was some sort of decline in the strip itself. The question still remains, what was the quality of the strip compared to other strips of the period? Was Schulz in 'decline' really on par with or worse than Garfield and Heathcliff and Shoe, well-known strips that started up in at the time this 'decline' was going on? If not, then what we're talking about when we're talking about a 'decline' is something abstracted from many of the real qualities of the strip. And if so -- well, I've never actually seen anyone give an argument for that claim, so I'd have to see the reasoning.

    Thanks for catching the WWI typo.

  5. branemrys11:18 PM

    I suppose, re-reading my comment, that I could put my protest against Schulz's critics in a nutshell: over and over again they at best fail to make their argument, because over and over again they fail to distinguish between genuine decline in artistic quality and artistic excellence making missteps in covering new territory, or trying to discover new territory. The two can be hard to tease apart, but they are radically different. That an artist tries something that doesn't work, or even a series of things that don't work, isn't itself a sign of declining artistic ability; sometimes it is a sign of just being an innovative artist. And the thing of it is, is that Schulz was undeniably an innovative artist: he was always trying new things and worked in a medium in which, quite literally, you make things up and try things out as you go along.


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