There’s Money In Comics
by Jeet Heer
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
1. In 1947 Stan Lee was virtually unknown, except to the few perverse readers who paid attention to the credit lines of 3rd rate knock-off comics. But Marshall McLuhan, who himself was years away from fame, had a great radar for what was happening in popular culture. He noted a 1947 issue of Writer’s Digest where Lee wrote an article arguing “There’s Money In Comics” (which turned out to be very true for Lee, although much less true for Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko). In his 1951 book The Mechanical Bride, McLuhan used Lee’s article as a jumping off point for talking about middle- and low- brow art.
Here is what Lee wrote in Writer’s Digest:
DON’T WRITE DOWN TO YOUR READERS! It is common knowledge that a large portion of comic magazine readers are adults, and the rest of the readers who may be kids are pretty sharp characters. They are used to seeing movies and listening to radio shows… a great deal of thought goes into every story; and there are plenty of gimmicks, sub-plots, human interest angles….
Here is McLuhan’s comments on Lee’s essay:
This happens to be true. In the matter of intellectual quality there is little to choose between Dare Devil Comics and Gone With the Wind and between the claims made for the romantic movie of our day, just as in the emotional pattern there is little or no difference between the ‘middle-brow’ and the ‘low-brow.’ The difference is mainly in the amount of lush verbiage and opulence of turnout. There is no question of perception or taste in the genteel movie or novel or in the pulps. But the superiority of the pups is in their absence of pretentiousness, and the readers of this form of entertainment are altogether undeceived by it. They are never under the impression of having bought or read anything with ‘class.’
Much could be said about this encounter in the late 1940s of two writers, then obscure but on their way to great fame in the 1960s. It is noteworthy that at least as early 1947, Lee was making the argument that “adults read comics too”, a spiel he would perfect as the spokesman for Marvel comics in the 1960s and 1970s. And McLuhan’s arguments for the merits of low-brow art can be usefully compared to that of other essayists of the period like Manny Farber, Robert Warshow, and Leslie Fiedler, all of whom found some merit in forms such as the pulps and roughneck movies.
2. I was in Montreal last week and had the honor of giving a talk at the Drawn and Quarterly store. You can listen to the talk here:
(this is an MP3 recording).
A few thoughts on my Montreal trip:
An essay could be written comparing the offices of Fantagraphics with the headquarters of Drawn and Quarterly. The Fanta office, at least on my one visit there, really did look like something out of Animal House, a ramshackle frat boy abode with papers and books flung everywhere. The D&Q office, by contrast, was very orderly and serene. I think something of the philosophies of the two publishers can be seen in how their offices are kept. Fanta remains an outgrowth of the 1960s/1970s counterculture, with a let-it-all-hang-out spirit. D&Q came along at a later point in history and really is a boutique operation.
The same can be said of the D&Q store: the traditional comic book store has a club house atmosphere where books and toys are scattered helter skelter. Like a few other stores that have opened up in the last decade (including, if photos are to be trusted, the Fantagraphics store), the D&Q store puts much more thought into creating an inviting, relaxed space. The store really is an oasis of culture. There has been a new development in comics retailing, which deserves notice and celebration.