From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels. The Formal and Functional Development of the Graphic Narrative in America

Diploma Thesis, 2012

120 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1 Introduction

2 The Era of Invention
2.1 Formallnnovations
2.2 Social, Political and Cultural Criticism
2.3 To "Have a Misheen": The Ambivalence of Technology in George Herriman's Krazy Kat
2.4 The Impact ofthe Formal Development on Comic Criticism

3 TheEraofDiversification
3.1 Formallnnovations
3.2 Social, Political and Cultural Criticism
3.3 "This is not a Funny Story": Will Eisner's Exploration ofthe Human Condition in The Spirit
3.4 TheImpactoftheFormalDevelopmentonComicCriticism

4 The Era of Independence
4.1 Formal Innovations
4.2 Social, Political and Cultural Criticism
4.3 "Hung up, Strung out, up Tight": Countercultural Ideals in Robert Crumb's Fritz the Cat
4.4 TheImpactoftheFormalDevelopmentonComicCriticism

5 The Era of Ambition
5.1 Formal Innovations
5.2 Social, Political and Cultural Criticism
5.3 "Who Watches the Watchmen?": Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's CriticalApproach to Vigilantism
5.4 TheImpactoftheFormalDevelopmentonComicCriticism

6 Conclusion

Works Cited


1 Introduction

Between 1827 and 1844, the Swiss teacher Rodolphe Töpffer became a pioneer in the early development of the modern graphic narrative by creating a number of fictional stories employing the medium of sequential art. These innovative stories aroused considerable attention among contemporary writers and intellectuals. Most distinguished, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe evaluated the potential of Töpffer’s narratives in graphic form. In a letter to Johann Peter Eckermann, he expressed: “If, for the future, he [Töpffer] would choose a less frivolous subject and restrict himself a little, he would produce things beyond all conception” (328).[1] Thus, the German writer hinted at the untouched potential soon to be explored in the future evolvement of the graphic narrative.

Throughout the history of the modern graphic narrative in America, its format has extended from short newspaper comic strips to the substantially longer graphic novels of today. During this physical evolution, the stylistic features of the art form such as panel composition, page layout and narrative structure were gradually broadened, as well. Defining creators like George Herriman, Will Eisner and Alan Moore repetitively transcended the formal characteristics of the art form, hence, establishing and constantly enriching a variety of narrative tools. Simultaneously, the cultural acceptance of comics as an acknowledged form of expression has also undergone a major shift. As the scholars Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith state, comics were often regarded as “cheap, disposable artifacts of popular culture that are not worth serious reflection or investigation” (13). Today, however, authorities and institutions of highbrow literature are increasingly starting to recognize recent ambitious comic books as sophisticated works. Since the emergence of the graphic novel in the mid-1980s, popular media notes that “The Comic Book Grows Up” (Salomon) and celebrates a new generation of “Not Funnies” (McGrath). The New York Times currently separates three bestseller lists for graphic books and numerous local bookstores are currently presenting their graphic literature sections to comic book enthusiasts and less familiar readers promoting distinguished graphic novel selections.

Within the last twenty years, even recognized literary institutions outside of the comic book field have honored exceptional creators for their outstanding achievements. Most notably, the second volume of Art Spiegelman’s Maus earned the Pulitzer Prize Special Award in 1992. In 2005, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen entered the Time Magazine’s list of the hundred best novels in English since 1923. Especially after the publication of Will Eisner’s pioneering theoretical work Comics and Sequential Art (1985), discussions on the art form have lead to steadily growing academic interest. Scholars and creators followed Eisner’s approach and systematically analyzed the form such as Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics (1993). Academic publications including The Comics Journal became platforms for critical examinations on theory and content and a number of American colleges have offered classes dedicated to comics. Hence, the art form has slowly gained social respectability.

The majority of mainstream critics mainly praised today’s graphic novels for their social, political and cultural relevance. However, the graphic narrative has a long tradition in fulfilling this criterion of culturally appreciated literature. By advancing the medium’s formal means of expression, the era- defining creators widened comics’ potential to critically reflect upon contemporary issues, confront controversially discussed questions and challenge established norms and values. The following analysis tests this thesis by chronologically approaching several periods of comic history. This work follows Duncan and Smith’s historical periodization, as they respect crucial changes in both form and function (22-24). Considering four historical stages of creative proliferation, this thesis regards comics’ evolution from newspaper-bound comic strips to independent comic books and its ultimate transition to the graphic novel. Each of the four chapters first analyses significant changes in the format, industry and culture of comics before determining the period’s major stylistic innovations. Subsequently follows an approach to the social, political and cultural criticism during the particular era in relation to the historical context in order to investigate comics’ functional development. The end of each chapter evaluates how the changes in format and production as well as the stylistic innovations influenced comic creators’ ability to formulate their disapproval.

In order to thoroughly explore the evolvement of the American graphic narrative, this work will additionally analyze four sample comics that defined their era in terms of form and content. The first analysis approaches George Herriman’s newspaper comic strip Krazy Kat (1913). One of the era’s most critically acclaimed cartoonists, Herriman introduced stylistic innovations such as shifting settings and symbolic density. Thematically, the artist regularly expressed social critique reflecting, for example, upon modern technology. The subject of the second analysis will be Will Eisner’s landmark comic The Spirit. Among other stylistic inventions, these detective stories introduced introductory splash pages and innovative modes of page layout. Eisner tackled a variety of themes in a critical way such as the human condition. A further analysis will regard Robert Crumb’s underground comic Fritz the Cat. Relying on anthropomorphic characters and visible aesthetics, Crumb addressed controversial issues such as the thriving counterculture of the 1960s. Eventually, the series of analyses closes with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s postmodernist graphic novel Watchmen discussing the legitimacy of vigilantism.

2 The Era of Invention

Comics’ “Era of Invention” roughly refers to the years between 1842 and 1934. Suggested by Duncan and Smith, this period “established the characteristics of the art form . . . and the medium” (23). Overall, the creators of the era were highly innovative although comic book publisher Shirrel Rhoades reduces the graphic narratives before 1933 to “proto-comics” (6). Rhoades along with comic historian Mike Benton both begin their comic­book-focused approaches with the publication of the first comic books. Even in this respect, however, the initial formal characteristics of the medium and the art form become elementary. According to critic Douglas Wolk, “For the first part of the twentieth century, stylistic expressiveness in cartooning happened more in comic strips than in comic books” (37). Consequently, this chapter mainly focuses on the cartoonists’ achievements through the creation of newspaper strips. The genesis of the first comic books, however, will be approached when considering significant changes in format.

2.1 Formal Innovations

For the purpose of this thesis, it is useful to begin the approach of comics’ formal evolution with the early graphic narratives of Rodolphe Töpffer who is considered “the father of the modern comic” (McCloud, Understanding 17). According to comic scholar Jean-Paul Gabilliet, the Swiss produced copious slapstick tales of which an English-translated edition entitled The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck was first issued in America in 1842. The forty-four-page- long bootleg reprint of a British version was sized[Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten] Ά by nine inches (3). Thus, its format already resembled the modern American comic book.

One of Töpffer’s stylistic innovations was his simplified, iconic drawing. As McCloud notes in Understanding Comics, Töpffer had already employed the technique of cartooning (17) causing “amplification through simplification” (30). According to the comic artist and theorist, this dynamic provokes four major results. First of all, the simplification process of cartooning reduces and neglects aspects of reality but the artist also stresses characteristics which he claims significant. Therefore, cartoons enable the artist to focus the readers’ attention on particular ideas (30-31). Secondly, cartoon imagery bears a universal appeal: “The more cartoony a face is, for instance, the more people it could be said to describe” (31). Thirdly, the conceptual simplicity of cartoons results in a strong reader identification. Since human beings are constantly aware of their own faces, their “sense of general placement” is attracted by cartoons’ universality causing a reflection of people’s own face in the drawing (36). Lastly, McCloud distinguishes human experience into the domain of concept and of the senses. Cartoons resemble the essential, minimalistic form of conceptual thoughts (39). Consequently, the style enables artists to portray “the world within” which appeals to the readers’ intuitive identification (41). Whereas Töpffer did not utilize McCloud’s listed effects to their full advantage, his stories introduced a basic technique that would be extensively employed and refined.

The Swiss comic pioneer also installed captions of text into his panels thereby providing meaning to the sequential drawings. McCloud recognizes Töpffer’s manner of word-picture combination as interdependent (Understanding 17). According to the comic theorist, in this mode “words and pictures go hand in hand to convey an idea that neither could convey alone” (155). Töpffer, hence, immediately interpreted comics as neither pictures nor text but as a combination of both (17). Regardless of whether the early cartoonist was aware of his groundbreaking contribution, he initiated comic artists’ future exploration of the art form.

At the turn of the century, comic history experienced a highly fertile period of stylistic innovation. As arts journalist Roger Sabin points out, newspapers gradually enlarged their sections of black-and-white comics from single-panel cartoons to “full colour supplements usually between four and eight pages in length” (Sabin 19-20). Due to their mostly humorous content and their regular Sunday appearances, people began to label them Sunday funnies, funnies or synonymously comics. Scholar Jared Gardner adds that a subsequent generation of newspaper comics emerged in form of serial strips appearing on a daily basis (46). Among the defining creators of the period were four cartoonists, namely Richard Outcault, Frederic Burr Opper, Winsor McCay and Lyonel Feininger, who significantly added to the formal repertoire of the graphic narrative.

Firstly, Richard Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley had humorously depicted the adventures of impertinent slum life children on a weekly basis since 1896. While the strip violates the concept of graphic narrative in the sense of sequential panels as it only consists of a single drawing, Hogan’s Alley is still widely recognized as the first popular newspaper strip. According to N. C. Christopher Couch, the strip holds this position mostly due to “the witty and visually rewarding combination of text and drawing into a continuous narrative unit extended over many weeks in a newspaper” which proved the existence of a readership for sophisticated graphic narratives (Yellow Kid 74). Its most popular character, the Yellow Kid, wore a yellow-colored nightshirt which due to technological progress the newspapers were finally able to print in color.[1] Logically, the comic became the first color colored strip in a newspaper (Benton 14). This technologically pushed innovation enormously widened the possibilities for future creators enabling them to present and emphasize their ideas through color. As McCloud elaborates, “In black and white, the ideas behind the art are communicated more directly. Meaning transcends form. Art approaches language. In flat colors forms themselves take on more significance, the world becomes a playground of shapes and space” (Understanding 192). Newspapers would largely take advantage of the expensive but lucrative production of strips in color (187). Cartoonist and critic Robert C. Harvey notes that by 1906 even minor papers were able to feature full colored cartoons through comic strip syndication (Funnies 68). Moreover, the Yellow Kid character “became the chief source of dialogue, and the dialogue appeared not in a word balloon but written on his nightshirt” (Duncan and Smith 27). Thus, Outcault directly connected the character to the kid’s utterings. Hogan’s Alley’s revolutionary techniques and its mass appeal ultimately led to the publication of the Yellow Kid Magazine in 1897 which marked the first American comic strip collection (Benton 14). Subsequently, other cartoonists applied and refined Outcault’s advances.

The first newspaper strip that combined all essential characteristics of the modern comic was Frederic Burr Opper's Happy Hooligan in 1900 (Harvey, Funnies 8). Telling a graphic narrative by means of juxtaposed images, the panels of the strip contained dialogue encircled by word balloons (7-8). Originated in Mayan friezes (Eisner, Comics 24), the introduction of the word balloon contributed an opportunity that is unique to the graphic narrative. As Harvey explains, “in all other graphic representations, characters are doomed to wordless posturing and pantomime — but in comic strips, they speak” (Funnies 8). Balloons would not only become intensively utilized but also refined in diverse ways in order to add meaning to the graphic narratives.

In 1905, another popular contemporary comic was published that stood out from its competitors. Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay supplied newspaper strips with an unprecedented level of creative artistry. Illustrating the wild dreams of a middle-class child, McCay's drawings blended Art Nouveau and Surrealism and his imagery skillfully employed perspective and color (Sabin 20). In his fine art approach to comics, the cartoonist hinted at the stylistic variety of the graphic narrative. Sabin also notes McCay's inventive page layouts as his panels typically expanded to contribute additional dramatic impact (20)[1]. The creator's methods highlight the playfulness of the early comic artists whose creativity was not yet limited by approved standards. In terms of narrative, “Nemo was the first strip to offer consistent characters in an ongoing, open-ended serial narrative” (Gardner 41). Although each strip ended with the familiar routine of the protagonist's rude awakening, the subsequent Sunday installment would resume the adventures at the according place in Slumberland (40). While the weekly appearance of Nemo maintained a temporal difference between narrative and reader, later daily strips such as Bud Fisher's Mutt and Jeff and Sidney Smith's The Gumps started to fully exploit the open-ended seriality of the newspaper medium (41, 46). This point marks the fragmentation of the comic strip into the two genres of gag strips and continuity strips (Harvey, Funnies 11). [1] ' Open-ended serial storytelling marked a groundbreaking innovation since the storytelling form simply could not be found in any other media before the turn of the century (Gardner 47). Hence, McCay tested comics’ fine art potential and provided the basis for the serial narrative that would become increasingly influential not only in the comic medium.

An equally original approach to dream-like cartoons came from the German-American fine artist Lyonel Feininger in 1906. His Kin-der-Kids cartoons contained elegant panel compositions and inventive page layouts (Kendricks F6). While aimed at children, the strips were appreciated by adults for their expressionistic rendering: “Buildings yawn, the sun flexes its ray-like hands and trees dance; all are rendered in a beautifully sombre palettes” (Sabin 20). His approach validated comics’ ability to incorporate diverse drawing styles and the unique features of different art movements. Comic scholar Neil Kendricks points out that the creative advances of Feininger and McCay built the foundation for the art form’s proliferation (F6). As the first comic books were collections of newspaper comic strips, the medium initially suffered from a lack of innovation. In terms of format, however, the early comic books are significant to comics’ formal evolvement.

While their popularity pushed publishers towards original content, the typical physical characteristics of comic books were instituted in this period. Comic historians typically date the birth of the modern comic book with the publication of Funnies on Parade by Harry I. Wildenberg and Maxwell Charles Gaines of the Eastern Color in 1933[2]. The title featured “a magazine format; sequential art that told a story; and four-color printing” (Rhoades 10).

'[1] The format was realized by printing “two Sunday comic pages side by side on one tabloid page . Then, by folding the pages in half and binding them together,” Benton explains, ”they [Eastern Color] could use their existing color presses to produce an economical, eight-by-eleven-inch, full-color book of comics” (15). At this historical point, two essential goals for comics’ future development were achieved. The term comic books referred to a specific and independent physical medium and their contents were now comprised of original cartoons.[2]

2.2 Social, Political and Cultural Criticism

Regardless of their publication as an independent medium, the early comic books of the Era of Invention did not feature much serious content. Their lack of critical reflection can be traced back to the popularity of comics as merely humorous entertainment (Harvey, Funnies 7). Among the newspaper comic strips of the time, however, were a number of cartoons that went beyond their entertaining function. Although even here, “the really popular, and extensively syndicated, stories tended to be more lightweight, with an emphasis on slapstick” (Sabin 24). The major historical evolvement that triggered off critical reflection was the urbanization and its induced consequences. At the turn of the century, the city population gradually increased outweighing the rural by 1920 (Boyer et al. 541). Gardner claims that the modern newspaper strip originated in its approach to the severe implications of contemporary city life (12-13). Several strips indeed embedded serious content or subtext. As the scholar justifies, comic strips “became the space where those facts [of modern life] were presented graphically and energetically, and where the humor and pleasure emerged in part from the lack of either clear convictions or hysterical arguments, and the promise that against all odds pleasures could be found and bodies rebound” (12). In this rather mild manner, the era’s more critical creators reflected upon contemporary issues of class and race.

First of all, Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley critically reflected upon the urban phenomenon of poverty by depicting the misfortunes of lowlife children. Although humorous in tone, the slum-based urchins conveyed a serialized commentary on “the social injustice and hypocrisy they perceive in the city dwellers” (Crocker). Especially the initial strips of Hogan’s Alley amplified prevalent class divisions (Wood, Class). “The New Restaurant in Casey’s Alley” from 1895, for instance, depicts a number of children in front of a delicatessen restaurant. As the group yearningly investigates the menu, one kid predicts: ”Dat eatin’ store ain’t goin’ter succeed, fer no one in dis district ever et such truck as dose — an besides, if dem tings is as hard on der stummick as dey is ter pernounce, dey’ll kill surer’n Coney Island whiskey. See?”. Seemingly hypnotized by their longing for (such) food, however, the rest of the children defy a response. Other episodes of Hogan’s alley ridiculed prominent customs and values of the New York upper class such as leisure activities (“Golf - the Great Society Sport as Played in Hogan’s Alley”, “The Horse Show as Reproduced at Shantytown”) and highbrow art (“Grand Opera in Ryan’s Arcade” and “In the Louvre - The Yellow Kid Takes in the Masterpieces of Art”). While recognizing class distinctions, Outcault exploited race and ethnicity as noted by scholar Mary Wood. Imitating the contemporarily popular minstrel shows, the cartoonist drew black children “as if they were wearing blackface makeup, with very dark skin and large lips (that are sometimes white, sometimes red)” and fostered the racial stereotype of the Irish through the street toughs’ slum dialect (Race). In the early newspaper strips, racial tendency proved to be rather common.

Likewise, Frederick Burr Opper’s Happy Hooligan seems to promote the stereotype of the Irish greenhorn. First appearing in 1900, the strip’s repeated scenario depicts an Irish immigrant’s attempts to overcome his poverty and move upwards in society. Eventually, either bad luck or the crooked police obstruct his efforts. The thorough revisit by Gardner, however, reveals the long-term effects of the strip. The scholar considers that, on the one hand, the main character does have simian characteristics but, on the other hand, the more decent characters share these visual features. Furthermore, he notes that Happy’s dialect clearly emphasizes his low status. Yet his utterances are generally more elaborate than those of the strip’s authority figures. In addition, Gardner regards that Happy habitually becomes the victim of racial violence by the police and is imprisoned on false allegations. In conclusion, the professor argues that the “serialized responses to repeated structures - narrative, environmental, social - responses that, over time and through the subtle variations that emerge with each new beginning of the same old routine, accord to the stereotype an identity (and a trademark)” (13-14). Opper, therefore, deployed the racial stereotype in order to subtly undermine its justification.

In contrast, the extremely popular domestic comedy strips did not necessarily feature an urban setting. Nonetheless, Sabin notes that “these stories had political undercurrents, and articulated the class tensions of the day” suggesting Bringing up Father by George McManus (1913) as a typical example of this genre (24). The domestic soap is centered on the marital difficulties of an immigrant Irish couple who won a million dollars. The wife, Maggie, consequently elevates her social status but her rebellious husband, Jiggs, sticks to his working-class origins as he habitually reunites with his old comrades and visits the local bar. Further class-conscious domestic comedies include Sidney Smith’s The Gumps and Frank King’s Gasoline Alley (1918). According to comic scholar M. Thomas Inge, both cartoons are about the troubles of Midwestern middle-class families in realizing the American Dream and resonated with Americans that had to cope with the same problems (qtd. in Sabin 19). Upward mobility, thus, became a central motif in domestic comedy strips.

2.3 To “Have a Misheen”: The Ambivalence of Technology in George Herriman’s Krazy Kat

In 1913, Krazy Kat became one of the most critically acclaimed comic strips of all times. The comic is an anthropomorphic exploration of a triangular love- hate-relationship. Allowing for slight variations, its repeated plot builds around the feline Krazy that is deeply in love with Ignatz Mouse. The mouse, however, is far from returning Krazy’s affection but enthusiastically tosses bricks at its love-blinded rival which the feline interprets as an expression of love. For violating the law, the canine Officer Pupp, in love with Krazy, ultimately puts Ignatz in a brick-constructed jail. Throughout its thirty-one- year-long run, the strip repeatedly questioned the increasing impact of technology on contemporary society and its intrusion into private life. In this respect, the 1920s experienced crucial advances including the introduction of the automobile and electrical appliances all of which heavily altered daily life and provoked mixed responses (Boyer et al. 541, 556). Sharing the philosophy of “determinism and naturalistic despair” (Inge, Krazy Kat 52), Herriman constructed various “subplots entailing the characters’ adjustment to new technologies” (Crocker). The following analysis regards one strip in particular to investigate the formal means the cartoonist employed in order to implant his social critique.

Herriman’s comic from 1921 depicts Ignatz flying an airship towards Krazy’s house in order to make the cat jealous. The puzzled Krazy has problems locating the mouse on the ground which Ignatz solves by throwing an anchor (instead of the characteristic brick) on Krazy’s head while landing. Impressed by the aircraft, the cat offers Ignatz to place the airship in the garage that he is currently building, and invites the mouse into its house. While both are having tea, a weary dog lies down to sleep in the garage below the airship. Favored by the dog’s snoring, the airship takes off and pushes the garage towards the sky leaving its foundation and the dog behind. The strip closes with Krazy and Ignatz agreeing on a deal that permits Krazy to occasionally ride the Ingatz’s airship, who, in turn, is allowed to use the cat’s garage. Both unaware of the ship’s unplanned departure, their agreement, ultimately, proves fruitless.

In this episode of Krazy Kat, Herriman deployed a non-depicted, heterodiegetic narrator who directly addresses the readers and guides them through the story. In panel 10', the narrator comments on the oddity of an airship stored in a garage. Herriman’s narrative voice hints at the absurdity of owning aircraft for personal transportation thus contributing to the moral appeal of the strip. The cartoonist also uses the character of Krazy Kat to formulate his critique. Resembling childlike, unprejudiced adoration (Inge, Krazy Kat 44), the cat admires Ingatz’s airship. Both Krazy’s appreciation and jealousy reveal the aircraft’s true nature as a status symbol since the cat immediately refers to its physical traits. The airship’s symbolic meaning of the automobile gets revealed. During the 1920s, many Americans indeed could not afford the luxury of owning a car (Boyer et al. 542). The fact that the cat is building a huge garage hoping to obtain a vehicle at some point in the future underlines Herriman’s critical view of technology’s commercial logic. Moreover, Krazy’s language becomes an effective device bearing the cartoon’s message. The cat typically speaks in a “bastardizes, perhaps unique dialect drawing on all the varieties of English” from Shakespearian rhetoric to Hollywood slang and Brooklyn Yiddish (Inge, Krazy Kat 49). In this strip, Krazy features its idiosyncratic malapropisms. Praising the airship as “wundafil” and “niftish” (panel 5), the feline character resembles the unbiased naivety of children thus triggering off a critical reflection in the alert reader.

Another formal device of Herriman is his characteristic drawing style. The cartoonist employed line with an exceptional subtlety. According to McDonnell, O’Connell and de Havenon, Herriman knew “how a few sparse scratchings could become a lonely tree or cactus” (61). In the sample cartoon, Herriman’s subtle linework is especially apparent in the clouds and rock formations that form the background in panels depicting outdoor scenery. The foreground, on the other hand, contains more bold strokes and complex illustrations of the characters, their actions and immediate surroundings. Consequently, the readers’ focus is deliberately shifted to follow the main plot and avoid possible distractions. A further quality of Herriman’s drawings is “the delineation of the character’ personalities” (McDonnell, O’Connell and de Havenon 63). In the sample strip, Krazy’s body postures constitute a chief element as they contribute to the understanding of the character and the development of the plot. In panel 5, for example, the cat admiringly holds on to the edge of the airship’s boat part. Inspired by curiosity and wonder, its tail is partially erect. Krazy’s postures in this panel add perfect meaning to the cat’s words. In order to design particularly coherent and dynamic visual storytelling, Herriman allowed Krazy (as well as his other characters) a high frequency of movement even within a single panel as the cartoonist “had the innate ability when drawing a body to create kinesthetic illusion” (McDonnell, O’Connell and de Havenon 65). In panel 3, for instance, Krazy is in a frenetic mood as the cat anticipates but cannot locate Ignatz. Herriman surpasses the static of the picture by deploying the motion line technique, which enables him to visually represent Krazy’s exact mood and hence enrich the complexity of his characterization.

The typography in this comic is unique to Krazy Kat. Herriman’s words look blunt and are intentionally hand-written. Their placing is irregular, almost scattered. Resembling the typeface of an informal, personal letter, the reader feels personally addressed which, again, sharpens his focus on the strip’s critical message. As Eisner explains, “personal calligraphy assures that no two letters will be exactly alike and thus adds a recognizable ‘human’ quality to graphic stories” (Comics 26). In addition, the individual position of each letter visually destabilizes the reading, which matches the thought-provoking moral of the cartoon.

As reflected in Krazy Kats landscapes, Herriman adored the American Southwest. Throughout his life, he frequently visited the Navajo country'[1] taking artistic inspiration from the characteristic landscape and Native American culture (McDonnell, O’Connell and de Havenon 68-76). The strip is set in Coconino County, an isolated settlement in the desert. Herriman, thus, utilizes the symbolic meaning of the frontier. By selecting a setting that represents the ultimate clash of nature and culture, the cartoonist constructs a solid basis for placing his criticism of modern technology. Throughout the entire Krazy Kat series, the cartoonist made “extensive use of their [Navajo] designs and motifs” (74). In the sample cartoon, one can find Navajo-style ornaments on the front of the airship as well as on Krazy’s chair and teapot, considerably shaping the overall appearance of the comic. Reflecting upon Native American philosophy, the inclusion of Navajo elements forms a strong contrast to modern technology best exemplified by the rather unusual look of the airship.

Moreover, the strip’s page layout is typically “Herrimanesque” (McDonnell, O’Connell and de Havenon 67). The artist often alternated between “dark and light areas . . . to break up the page and introduce variations in the action” (61). In the sample strip, the first three panels illustrate this exact technique. Here, the first two panels serve an introductory function. Panel 1 familiarizes the reader with the cartoon’s main attraction and object of desire, the airship, which is flying in a predominantly white sky. In the second panel, a panoramic establishing shot of Krazy’s house and the surrounding area introduces the setting. Here, the sky is black. In panel 3, the sky has suddenly turned white. This alerts the reader to the actual beginning of the action since, here, the main character emerges and cat and mouse are about to confront each other. Hence, Herriman employs the interspersion of black and white panels to augment his story. The comic creator also alternates his use of panel borders creating a similar effect. Panel 10, arguably the strip’s most dramatic one, is completely enclosed. Its importance is visually underlined by the preceding six panels all of which lack consistent panel borders. In this manner, alternation becomes an effective tool for focusing the reader’s attention.

Another feature that stresses Herriman’s intension is the relatively small size of his characters compared to the vast expanse of the desert. The second panel in particular displays how, in this case, Krazy’s remote habitat is exposed to nature. Considering the continuation of the panel towards the left and right page borders, the character’s isolation becomes even more apparent. The cartoonist underscores his point even further as he alters his setting from panel to panel constructing a “strictly irrational landscape in perpetual metamorphosis” (Cummings 323)[1]. In the sample strip, panel 6 and 10 show different rock formations while displaying the exact same setting. Herriman expresses that his characters are inadvertently subject to the constant change of the desert (McDonnell, O'Connell and de Havenon 27). He suggests culture's eternal subordination to nature.

Summing up, Herriman used various formal devices to construct a comic that is able to embed his cultural critique. Most of all, he took advantage of comics' creative independence from reality. His cat-and-mouse approach allows the cartoonist to bear critical content as the metaphor helps readers to distance themselves from humanity, regard the story from a remote point-of-view before eventually realizing that the anthropomorphic characters refer to contemporary problems of human life. Especially considering the strip's parable-like ending, Herriman crafted a mild warning “against uncritical acceptance and overdependence” (Crocker). His means of utilizing a wide range of innovative maneuvers to formulate his critique sophisticate the naturalistic ideology proposing the powerlessness of civilization regardless of technological progress.

2.4 The Impact of the Formal Development on Comic Criticism

During the Era of Invention, popular newspaper strips cautiously expressed social as well as cultural criticism. As Harvey explains, “For the first twenty years of their history, American comic strips were largely humorous in intent” (Funnies 11). Nonetheless, several influential cartoonists such as Richard Outcault and Frederick Burr Opper reflected upon the implications of growing urbanization. Varying in explicitness, they created a number of comics that highlighted class tensions but, at the same time, fostered racial discrimination and stereotyping. The latter, however, must be regarded in its serial context that, as in the case of Happy Hooligan, ultimately provoked a destabilizing effect. Embracing both urban and rural population, George Herriman questioned the cultural impact of technology.

Comics and newspapers were bound in a “marriage of convenience” (McCloud, Reinventing 15). Harvey notes that since contemporary local newspaper widely paralleled each other in their treatment of news, comics marked a distinguishing characteristic that centralized their role in boosting the papers’ circulation.[1] ' Cartoonists profited from the papers’ integral position in the daily lives of Americans vice versa (Funnies 7). Gardner adds that the nationwide distribution of syndicated newspapers implied a “newly reimagined community” embracing the entire United States (13). Comic strips were thus able to reach a vast audience. The funnies’ weekly or even daily publication also allowed comparatively quick reactions to current events.

Moreover, the persistent repetition of serial newspaper strips instituted an effective mechanism for embedding criticism. In reference to Krazy Kat, writer Umberto Eco explains that the cartoon’s “poetry originated from a certain lyrical stubbornness in the author, who repeated his tale ad infinitum, varying it always but sticking to its theme” (40). This mode of storytelling does not only enable the cartoonist to enhance his narrative artistically, as Eco argues, but the alternation subordinated to a constant concept permits the artist to emphasize those aspects that mark its variation. Hence, the seriality of newspaper strips contributed to the critical potential of the art form. Moreover, the storytelling mode partially compensated for the limited length of newspaper strips. When read in their entirety, ongoing serial narratives allowed for in-depth critique through recurring motifs as future cartoonist Will Eisner would explore. The graphic narrative’s extension towards comic books would not maintain the ongoing seriality of some newspaper strips but follow the serialized anthology format of pulp[10] magazines. However, the ongoing serial narrative would be revisited and intensified during the 1960s Era of Independence.

The flipside of the coin is that the strip’s primary function of selling newspapers degraded the comic as a dependent meta-medium. “Newspaper comics weren’t so much an industry of their own as they were a craft within the newspaper industry . . .” (McCloud, Reinventing 65). The editor could simply refuse to print a strip that bears a critical message. Even the syndicates were able to prevent its circulation. In addition, the subordination to newspapers had harmful consequences. As Harvey points out, the huge success of Hogan’s Alley sparked the circulation battle between the newspaper empires of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer who both used cartoons as a tool to boost their sales. For the comic medium, this had two antagonizing results. On the one hand, the excessive demand of strips proved both its appeal and power (Funnies 6). On the other hand, however, the commercial nature of this conflict “embodying reprehensible ethics and sensational appeals to baser emotions, the new art form was associated with only the lower order of rational endeavor” (6-7). Logically, this effect thwarted the graphic narrative in becoming a medium for critical reflection. The lack of radical contemporary newspaper strips further proves that cartoonists’ dependence on newspapers hindered drastic criticism.

Furthermore, the content of newspapers was merely recreational and not meant to be disturbing. As Harvey notes, “it was an anodyne: by informing and entertaining, and distracting its readers, it soothed and comforted” (Funnies 7). In addition, the disposable nature of newspapers also counted for comics (Wolk 37). Compared to the lasting achievements of books, cartoonists faced a lack of incentive to employ their medium as a platform for lasting criticism since the strips lost both their validity and influence the day after their publication. Comic books “had a slightly longer half-life, since they could be traded or passed around” (Wolk 37). Despite these superior conditions of the comic book format, the initial content of the infant medium widely lacked critical approaches. The key question for the subsequent era would be if and how critical creators could profit from the revolutionary circumstances of the new format.

Nonetheless, comics’ Era of Invention was a fruitful phase of progressing craftsmanship by creators of newspaper strips. Building upon the essential achievements of comic pioneer Rodolphe Töpffer, innovative artists such as Richard Outcault, Winsor McCay and Lyonel Feininger developed an assortment of narrative tools for future creators to explore and refine. Their cartoons introduced color, featured various drawing styles and reflected upon contemporary art movements. The cartoonists experimented with panel size and shape as well as with page layout. Moreover, this first generation of professional cartoonists proposed the open-ended serial narrative. In Krazy Kat, George Herriman utilized and sophisticated the inventions of his predecessors to express his cultural criticism but he also enriched comics’ stylistic inventory with his own innovations such as advanced characterizations and a new dynamic in depiction motion. Due to these numerous stylistic achievements, the cartoonists of the Era of Invention laid a stable foundation for future creators to confront controversies and question established mores. According to McCloud, “even when American newspaper strips were in their infancy, there were artists willing to challenge the status quo and exploit comics’ great untapped potential” (Reinventing 15), which the cartoonists of the subsequent period would continue to explore

3 The Era of Diversification

Duncan and Smith propose the “Era of Diversification” ranging from 1940 until 1952 (23). The comic scholars also suggest an earlier period entitled “Era of Proliferation” from 1934 until 1940. The following chapter, however, embraces the formal and functional evolution of the earlier stage into the larger context of prolific genre expansion during the Era of Diversification. In terms of historic dates, this approach follows Rhoades’ periodization as he considers the phase from 1938 until 1955 as the “Golden Age of Comics” (20).[1] After the appearance of the first modern comic books that contained collections of previously unpublished strips, the young medium resumed to increasingly feature original material. While by 1938 most comic books consisted of reprints (Benton 21), original comic books dominated the newsstands by 1940 (27). Moreover, comic books gradually developed from rather loosely linked collections towards anthologies focusing on a central, instituted character that gave the comics their title.[2] Sociologist Paul Lopes traces this practice back to comics’ inherited logic of pulp fiction (6). The resemblance of comic books and pulp magazines was also evident in their physical shape regarding their “four-colored glossy covers and pulp paper pages” (10). As comic books also obtained a considerable amount of content from pulp magazines, pulps and newspaper strips form the two major precursors of the modern graphic narrative in comic book form. According to Lopes, the standard comic book during the Golden Age was sized 11 % by 10 % inches and a had an average length of sixty-four pages dropping down to thirty-two pages after the war. On average, one story was ten pages long (10). Although the scholar remarks significant variations in length, this average reveals such a considerable expansion that one standard graphic narrative in a comic book now surpassed an entire typical newspaper supplement of the early twentieth century.

The comic book industry prospered throughout most of the era. Gabilliet notes a rapidly increasing number of publishers evolving from one in 1933 to more than fifty in 1935. The number of comic book releases rose from three in 1933 to 322 in 1939 (17). In 1954, the young industry reached its climax. In this year, Benton reports six hundred and fifty published titles as well as annual revenues of ninety million dollars (53). Generally, the thriving comic book business followed the industrial means of production and organization of pulp magazines (Lopes 26). Production predominantly relied on collaborative labor. Typically, the creative process was fragmented into the collective efforts of writer, artist, inker, letterer and colorist under the control of a supervising editor (Gabilliet 111). As Duncan and Smith explain, the largest part of early comic book production was created by means of a shop system. Due to most publishers’ lack of corporate creators, they ordered studios, which employed various artists, to create entire comic books (33).[1] Resembling assembly-line production, these so-called sweatshops enabled the publishers to react to the increasing demand for comic books (Gabilliet 111). In addition to the often harsh, fragmented production process of the shop system, “the majority of early comic books gave no writer or artists credits” (Duncan and Smith 33). Overall, comic book production during the booming years of the Golden Age appeared to be mainly quantity-oriented and specifically designed to generate profit.

3.1 Formal Innovations

Despite the industry’s sharp focus on revenues, the creators of the period widened the formal inventory of their art form. The defining artists both deployed and refined the inventions of their predecessors but also contributed various formal innovations. Due to the strong impact of pulp magazines on comics, the adventure genres emerging during the Golden Age bore various stylistic features of the pulps. According to Sabin, the publishers favored “bold, figurative art with strong colours, though as artists became more ambitious, they increasingly challenged traditional ‘chessboard’ layouts’” (57). Apart from the innovative page layout, the adventure genres generated a wide range of inventive devices thereby enlarging comics’ artistic vocabulary.

1938 marked the beginning of the superhero genre when comic book publisher National issued Action Comics #1. As the title suggests, the comic book was a compilation of action-oriented graphic narratives. Its most significant feature was one particular comic entitled “Superman, Champion of the Oppressed!” by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. After recognizing comic readers’ strong resonance to the super-powered character, Superman received his own title in 1939 (Lopes 19). Despite its tremendous commercial success and the resulting impact on comic books’ future content, Superman delivered few stylistic innovations. Nevertheless, Siegel and Shuster’s work established the characteristic cover page of superhero comics. Inspired by pulp magazine, the cover of Action Comics #1 combined primary colors with a dazzling red title (Wright 31). Duncan and Smith explain the publisher’s uncertainty caused by the extraordinary appearance of the title page: “When Harry Donenfeld [CEO of National] saw the first Action Comics cover, with Superman holding a car over his head, he thought it was just too wacky” and Superman vanished from the cover of Action Comics for the following five issues (32). As soon as the publisher had noticed the potential of the newborn character though, Superman consistently appeared on the cover of every future Action Comics publication. Initiated by this title page, the primary-colored display of muscular men wearing catchy costumes engaged in heroic deeds became the typical cover of mainstream superhero comic books up to the present day.

The publication of Superman Comics #1 [1] also ended the custom of placing previously published strips and characters into comic books. As Benton points out, “it demonstrated that original material, original characters, and original concepts would be the future of the comic-book industry” (26). Consequently, the title completed the transition of the popular graphic narrative from newspaper comic strips to comic books resulting in an independent, self-containing medium. Summing up, the impact of introducing Superman to comic books was crucial. However, the character’s far-reaching influence also caused a synthesis of form and content in the general imagination. According to Duncan and Smith, Superman “assured that the comic book medium would be forever (well, at least so far) associated with adolescent power fantasies of muscular men in tights” (32). The genre evolution during the Era of Diversification and its succeeding periods would need to prove the diversity of graphic narrative genres.

In 1939, National introduced their nocturnal superhero[1] Batman in Detective Comics #7. According to Benton, “writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane created a super detective: a Sherlock Holmes in cape, possessing the athletic prowess of Tarzan and the dramatic flair of the successful ‘pulp’ character, the Shadow” (24). Stylistically, the early Batman comics largely stood out due to their mysteriously dark settings. Sabin notes the “gothic tone” rendered through Finger’s “’noirish’ use of bold blocks of black ink” (61). Moreover, Kane underscored Batman’s nightmarish atmosphere by designing highly imaginative, surreal characters such as Two Face, Catwoman, the Penguin and the Joker. Additionally, National’s two major superheroes Superman and Batman possessed contrasting personalities, which perfectly complemented each other: “Supernatural versus super­athlete, strength versus wit and day versus night” (Benton 62). In the long term, the publisher’s formula proved to be highly effective as both characters became institutions of American popular culture.

Recognizing the enormous success of the Superman comic book, publishers subsequently installed a number of titles that imitated the superhero paradigm as noted by Lopes. The majority of these newly added comic books did not challenge stylistic conventions but followed a “recombinant logic” that mainly replicated Superman (17). However, a few exceptions exist. In 1941, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created the patriotic Captain America. Receiving superpowers by the military, Captain America fought his own villains as well as various political conflicts for his country. In order to convey the excitement of the abundant panels depicting combat, Kirby “experimented with panel layouts to inject more movement into the balletic fight scenes” (Sabin 63). According to Duncan and Smith, he “drew characters in their most extreme positions and then choreographed the action that followed” (237). Reinforcing this effect, the artist stretched particularly powerful moments within the choreography of his characters from regular panel size to double-page spreads (Rhoades 34). By violating the conventional size and rigid arrangement of panels, he enriched his intricate method of conveying motion. In addition, Rhoades remarks Kirby’s innovative “use of dynamic perspectives and cinematic technique” (34). The artist still utilized the classical motion lines in order to depict movement within a single panel. However, Kirby’s lines were highly stylized creating the impression of actually existing objects as compositional parts of the panel (McCloud, Understanding). His approach of emulating motion adjusted George Herriman’s kinesthetic illusions to the demands of the action-oriented superhero genre.

An extraordinarily creative approach to superheroes surfaced in 1941 when Jack Cole’s Plastic Man was first featured in Quality Comics’ [1] Police Comics. A former crook, the comic’s protagonist Eel O’Brian turns into a powerful crime fighter after he discovers his shape-shifting ability caused by exposure to acid chemicals. Cole pictured the adventures of O’Brian as Plastic Man in a surreal style. “Most of the plots are as twisted and swervy as Plastic Man himself,” Art Spiegelman elaborates in a profile of Cole. “They’re convincing enough in their mad, moment-to-moment flow, but they’re as hard to reconstruct and elusive as dreams, with their vividly improvised incidents” (4). The artist used several elaborate techniques in order to visualize his imaginative narratives. His main character appears in extremely diverse postures allowing for an abundance of original sight gags (Duncan and Smith241). According to Spiegelman, Cole also inserted as many characters as possible into his panels thereby increasing the complexity and conveyed information per panel. Moreover, the cartoonist rendered the frenzied movement of the superhero by kinetically interconnecting different panels of a single page. “Your eye is guided as if it were a skillfully controlled pinball, often by Plastic Man himself acting as a compositional device” (3). Similar to Jack Kirby, Cole resumed to explore comics’ ability to represent motion resulting in a complex page layout. Lastly, since Plastic Man challenged its readers in terms of density, Cole ensured the comic’s consistency by structuring the plot after the supposed curiosity of his readers (Spiegelman 3). Thus, the artist achieved an overall constancy that prevented confusion. As Cole combined his artistic maneuvers, he was able to illustrate the inventive narratives and provide the superhero genre with stylistic originality that was both unprecedented and unusual. Nonetheless, the era’s genre burst also sparked several innovations in other comic book genres.

During the early 1950s, comic books resumed to widen their scope towards adult-oriented genres. Beginning in 1951, horror comics became increasingly popular which lead to an exponential rise of horror titles during the subsequent years. The genre’s growing popularity was triggered off by the launch of Entertaining Comics’ New Trend line in 1950. William Gaines, who had renamed EC from Educational Comics to Entertaining Comics in 1947, utterly transformed the original publishing concept. [1] Among two science fiction comic books and a war title, Gaines’ New Trend featured the popular horror comic books Vault of Horror, Crypt of Terror and Haunt of Fear[2]. Besides the pioneering accomplishment of these three titles in terms of establishing the horror genre in the comic book field, they also contributed to the sophistication of the art form in narrative and artwork.

The graphic narration of EC’s horror comics is exceptional. The majority of the stories were written by publisher William Gaines and Al Feldstein.


[1] Goethe is also quoted in Duncan and Smith’s The Power of Comics (25).

[2] The newspaper responsible for printing the Yellow Kid in color was The New York World as they tested their new yellow ink on the character’s nightshirt (Benton, Comic Book 14).

[3] McCay's cinematic technique can be traced back to his work in film animation (Sabin 21).

[4] Continuity strips were also responsible for introducing the cliff-hanger as an almost natural device of serialized storytelling (70). The two strips that introduced the technique were Charles William Kahles’ Hairbreadth Harry (1906) and Harry Hershfield’s Desperate Desmond (1910) (Harvey, Funnies 11).

[5] Benton and Rhoades consider Funnies on Parade the first modern comic book (15; 10).

[6] According to Benton, the groundwork for the publication of Funnies on Parade was laid in 1929 when the Dell Publishing Company printed the first comic book in full color that was sold at newsstands. Their tabloid-sized collection entitled The Funnies contained original comics that had not been published in newspaper before (Comic Book 14). The first comic book to exclusively feature original strips was National Allied’s New Fun in 1935 (18).

[7] Gabilliet notes that by 1936, “eight comic books appeared regularly. Half of them primarily published reprints . . . while the other published original material” (12).

[8] Referring to the second to last panel, the counting respects the text-only panel as a panel in its own right.

[9] The Navajo country „includes the settlement of Kayenta as well as Monument Valley and straddles Arizona and Utah“ (McDonnell, O’Connell and de Havenon 69).

[10] McDonnell, O'Connell and de Havenon discuss that despite the setting's irrational appearance, “most of the backgrounds are realistic depictions of the rocky outcroppings and vegetation of the valley” and Cummings' noted metamorphosis can be traced back to “the changing light playing over these huge rock formations” (73).

[11] As Harvey points out, “as a testament to the circulation-building power of comics, . . . the compendious Sunday editions of most metropolitan newspapers began to be wrapped in the comics section” (Funnies 7).

[12] Rhoades follows the terminology of comic fandom that originally coined the term (71).

[13] In 1936, Detective Comics pioneered as “the first anthology comic book devoted to one subject” (Benton, Comic Book 19-20). Three years later, Superman Comics #1 became the first comic book entitled after its protagonist (26).

[14] Gabilliet lists three major shops namely Chesler, Eisner-Iger and Funnies Inc. (115).

[15] According to Rhoades, “Most historians cite the 1938 appearance of Superman as the beginning of the Golden Age of Comics” (18). Formerly known as National Allied, National Comic Publications would eventually become DC Comics in 1977 (Benton 101-2).

[16] Operating merely by his highly skilled but merely human abilities, Batman is technically no superhero but a vigilante.

[17] Plastic Man became a distinct comic book in 1943.

[18] The son of the pioneering comic book publisher Maxwell Charles Gaines, William Gaines had inherited Educational Comics after his fathers’ death in 1947.

[19] In 1950, EC changed the name of Crypt of Terror to Tales from the Crypt.

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From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels. The Formal and Functional Development of the Graphic Narrative in America
Martin Luther University
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Comics, Graphic Narrative, History of Comics, Superheroes, Superhero Comics
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Nico Reiher (Author), 2012, From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels. The Formal and Functional Development of the Graphic Narrative in America, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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