Comic-stripped!

Unearthed in my giant pile of books, Arthur Asa Berger’s The Comic-Stripped American: What Dick Tracy, Blondie, Daddy Warbucks, and Charlie Brown Tell us about Ourselves (1973), an early piece of cultural criticism based on the comics:

(#1)

(That’s Mutt and Jeff on the cover.)

Berger on p. 1:

this is the first book I know of which deals with the way comics reflect our [American] culture.

If not actually the first, certainly a pioneering book.

Berger (born 1933) is Professor Emeritus in Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts at San Francisco State University. (Wikipedia link), and Comic-Stripped seems to be his second book, after this 1969 book (a revision of his Minnesota Ph.D. thesis in American Studies):

(#2)

On amazon.com, a Midwest Book Review piece on the 1994 edition of #2:

Southwest literary humor and Yiddish humor collided in the ever-popular comic strip “Lil Abner”. From 1936 to 1977 (when it ceased publication) this comic strip entertained, annoyed, riled, and amused legions of readers. Li’l Abner, Daisy Mae, Mammy and Pappy Yokum, Moonbeam McSwine, Marryin’ Sam, and Sadie Hawkins became pillars in American popular culture, and Dogpatch became a symbol, an emblem and a community in mainstream U. S. A. Li’l Abner: A Study in American Satire, originally published in 1969, is made available again with a new afterword by the author. It is a model of how the comics (sometimes snubbed as “culture for the common man”) can be given earnest and well deserved analytical attention. Here in great detail are discussions of the place of “Lil Abner” in American satire, of Al Capp’s narrative technique, his use of dialogue and grotesquery, his use of self-caricature, and of the significance of social criticism and the pictorial image. As a mirror of national values and conflicts, “Lil Abner” had a special place not only in the funny papers but also in the consciousness of America.

In Comic-Stripped, Berger duvides American comics into three generations and gives case studies from each era:

first generation: The Yellow Kid, The Katzenjammer Kids, Mutt and Jeff, Krazy Kat

second generation: Little Orphan Annie, Buck Rogers, Blondie, Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, Superman, Batman, Pogo, Peanuts

third generation: The Fantastic Four and other Marvel [superhero] Comics, Barbarella and other eroticomics, Mr. Natural and other underground comics

Berger is most focused on the second generation (and seems actively unsympathetic to the third generation).

From the second generation, I pick out one of my favorite adventure comics, Flash Gordon, which I wrote about here in a 11/14/10 posting “Flash Gordon over the years”. From my somewhat yellowed copy:

(#3)

Excerpts from Berger:

p. 137: To be sure, the strip relied on clichés, as most comic strips do. The language is purple and overly dramatic, the figures tend to be uni-dimensional, and [artist Alex] Raymond’s use of science might be rather simple-minded. But the notion that the individual makes a difference, despite everything, as well as Flash Gordon’s mission – spreading democracy – are parts of the American ethos, and the strip is, in this sense, a truly American document. The notion of the omni-competent individual and the sense of mission are fundaental in the American mind, according to [scholar of American democracy] R.H. Gabriel, and the leap into outer space may have been necessitated by a belief that this was a new frontier for us. We had already fought, and won, a war which was to make the world safe for democracy.

The frontier, so to speak, was settled; we needed new vistas, and outer space provided them [hence, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon].

p. 141: Flash Gordon is actually a study in the triumph of the democratic will.

(and a ripping yarn too).

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