Farber on Comics
by Jeet Heer
Thursday, April 29, 2010
As I noted before, Manny Farber had many ties to comics, going back before he could even read. Richard Thompson once opened an interview with Farber with the following anecdote: “In one of his baby pictures, Manny Farber has the costume and the face of The Yellow Kid; as he explained, ‘Our parents used to dress us in costumes from all the comic strips.’” In 1944 and 1951 Farber wrote two brief but extremely perceptive essays on comics (which can be found in a volume Kent Worcester and I co-edited called Arguing Comics). In these essays Farber was among the earlier writers to appreciate Harry Tuthill, Ernie Bushmiller and Stan MacGovern. Farber woud go on to be an early champion of the Warner Bros. cartoons. He also served as an important inspiration to Donald Phelps, whose quirkily written and deeply perceptive essays are among the greatest body of comics criticism we have. And as a painter, Farber incorporated comic strip elements in his work.
It would be great if someone would do an essay about “Farber and Comics” tracing all this, and also gathering together all the stray comments about comics in his film criticism (and I imagine also in his as yet uncollected art criticism).
In lieu of that essay and mini-anthology, here are a few tidbits from Farber on Film:
“Sturges’ films come very close to the energetic sadism of primitive comic strips like ‘The Katzenjammer Kids,’ and they are a fine pleasure.” p. 141
“The message is enclosed in the kind of balloon used in comic strips for dialogue; the tail of the balloon drips down to the sign below and points to the kiss shown there between Dorothy McGuire, whose head is shown against a touch of orange sunset.” p. 241
“The most powerful gangster is ‘Dum-Dum’ (Jack Lambert), who reminds you of Dick Tracy characters (he is four stories high and all muscle, dog-faced, uses a long cigarette hold, and it appears inconceivable that the investigator could hold him off with a small revolver, as he does in one scene).” p. 290
“Johnnikins is supposed to be the perennial collegiate from College Humor, Judge, John Held Jr. drawings and Harold Teen, with his porkpie hat, dirty cords and arrogant slouch, but the performance by Conrad Janis brings him closer to a sort of jiving, energetic lunge lizard with a touch of earnestness and warmth.” p. 296
There is a lot more where that came from. It would be interesting for someone to put it all together and figure out what it adds up to.