A Journal of the Plague Year


Wednesday, April 9, 2008

As a lot of you probably already know, great writer-about-comics Jeet Heer recently got into a small disagreement with another great writer-about-comics, Michael Chabon, in response to a piece Heer wrote about David Hajdu‘s new cultural history of the crusade against violent comics, The Ten-Cent Plague. I don’t have too much to say about it, other than that in his Slate article, and in several other recent pieces, Heer has been making a worthy attempt to depict the complexity of the 1950s comic-book scare. (That second link, a discussion between Heer and Fredric Wertham biographer Bart Beaty, is particularly interesting.)

I wish the same could be said of the ongoing debate about the book between Hajdu and Douglas Wolk at The New Republic (to which both are frequent contributors). Wolk’s a smart guy, and as evidenced by the Jeet Heer links above, there’s a lot of potentially meaty topics to discuss in Hajdu’s book, so why waste this opportunity with a lot of talk about how comic books are too taken seriously!? Hajdu’s answers aren’t particularly enlightening, but I can’t really blame him after Wolk starts with that bizarre hobbyhorse tangent inspired by a stray Newsarama (!) interview question that has little or nothing to do with the subject of Hajdu’s book. Can we ever lay off this tired “are comics sufficiently recognized?” stuff? Anyway, the exchange isn’t over yet, so there’s time for things to get more cogent. It would be great if Wolk followed up on some of the questions obviously posed by Heer and Beaty’s writings.

UPDATE: The second round of questions is up, and it’s really not much better. I’m curious to see if Hajdu can make more sense out of them than I can. (And Bernie Krigstein‘s artistic accomplishments should be judged only by how many of his stories are famous? Really?) Oh well.

UPDATE II: Since Tom Spurgeon linked to this post this morning calling these comments “unkind”, I wanted to point out that I have found Wolk to be a very likeable person in all of my encounters with him — he very generously gave me advice before a panel I moderated at SPX (something I’d never done before), for example. This is simply meant to be friendly argument. That may not need saying, but I’m weak and can’t help myself. (I like Tom, too. I like everybody!) All the same, I really think that Wolk could (and should) have done a better job with this.

UPDATE III: In the final round, Hajdu gives it the old college try, and quite rightly defends Krigstein, but understandably gives up on answering Wolk’s weirdest question: “If there hadn’t been a conflict over morality in entertainment going on, how do you think the comic books of the ’50s might have been received at the time?” That one stumps me, too. Actually, upon further reflection, it doesn’t: I’d say about the same, but with fewer bonfires.

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35 Responses to “A Journal of the Plague Year”
  1. Frank Santoro says:

    I just hope that Wolk and Hajdu can maybe talk about something beyond the 25 year old stale-ass retort that comics are art. Again? (Get over it, Doug!) What about how the censorship of fantasy, let’s say horror comics, can have an adverse effect of “society’s” ability to differentiate fantasy and reality? I’m reading Umezu’s work right now (Japanese horror comics) and I can’t imagine it being published in the US (in it’s original serial form and in 1972, I mean, I know it’s being published now in 2008 by VIZ.) Anyways, thinking about Umezu lead me to think of studies I’ve read about where Japanese society’s “healthy” fantasy world encourages a more realistic approach to one’s life.??

    Hajdu: “We process art very subjectively, and people of differing generations–or differing cultures, and the two generations involved in the events in my book constitute two cultures–don’t have the tools to decode and understand the popular art of other generations all that well.??

    “That said, I think some of the crime and horror comics were extreme–and dangerous to readers of all ages in their portrayal of violence as play.”??

    Okay, so what about cultures where horror comics did act as tools to de-code violence and did not turn children against their parents or evil teachers like in Umezu’s “The Drifting Classroom” –which is great by the way.

  2. Dan Nadel says:

    Well, I’m a latecomer to this one — just catching up, really. But I do think it’s ironic that the debate between Hajdu and Wolk contains so many historical fallacies. Wolk rightly called out Hajdu on the laughable (but, um, a little scarily foolish — I mean, how does a guy write a book about comics history and come up with that. It’s like writing a book about 1950s cinema and casually noting that Douglas Sirk invented motion pictures. Deranged.) notion that Matt Baker drew one of the first graphic novel, but then throws Krigstein to the wolves. Krigstein, as anyone engaged in 1950s comics history knows, was an innovator on all levels. Master Race is a good story that’s been championed by Spiegelman but it’s actually just one of many great stories he did for Atlas and EC. Likewise, um, guys, I know we’re all supposed to love Eisner, but his overly sentimental goopy stories have almost nothing to do with sophisticated and personal work by the likes of Katchor, Ware, et al. Eisner, to me, represents a separate lineage that runs towards other goopy stuff (like Persepolis and other triumphs of subject matter over quality), but if you ask the RAW generation (artists like Mark Newgarden, for example) about him, most will note that he was considered schlocky and more of an impediment to art rather than an inspiration. Sorry! The Spirit was awesome for a bit, but, um…. the rest is pretty junky hallmark card stuff. He’s just an easy name to throw into signify quality. In fact he represents the opposite to many artists and historians, including myself.

    And then there’s Wolk’s query about Fletcher Hanks. Hey everyone, I know the Hanks book is great, but Art Out of Time answered the question “is there more stuff of this caliber”. The answer is yes. Why, it’s even in print and available in bookstores everywhere! To me, the comics in the 40s and 50s were often schlocky, yes, but the best by the likes of Cole, Hanks, Carlson, Boody Rogers, Krigstein, Wood, Whitney, and so many others are at least as good as the B-movies by the likes of Samuel Fuller that we now lionize. None of this stuff is Proust, but who cares? It’s inspired art making and is vastly more interesting and diverse than Wolk or Hajdu seem to know. What I’d like to see is a critical context developed for this work, a la Godard and Truffaut’s appreciation of American pulp cinema. It would help things a lot and save us from the narrow vision of history so frequently presented.

  3. Douglas Wolk says:

    Believe me, I’m totally fine with people disagreeing with me, especially when they’re as smart and thoughtful as the Comics Comics crew; no disclaimers necessary. I should point out, though, that the kind of discussion I had with Hajdu on the New Republic’s site is probably considerably different from the kind of discussion I’d have with him in a venue aimed more at people who are very familiar with these issues.

    Dan, I really like “Art Out of Time,” & probably should have mentioned it as another example!

  4. Dan Nadel says:


    I like you, too. But! I understand the constraints of writing about somewhat obscure subjects for a mainstream publication, but I guess I’m not sure why that’s a pass not to probe someone further. Unless it’s really just meant to be a nice promo softball debate, In which case we’re jumping on your back and giving you a noogy over something you’re not even that into. But otherwise, I dunno man, I’d like to see writers stop perpetuating these hoary old critical and historical fallacies in even casual writing. I think an honest, unsentimental appraisal of Eisner’s legacy is way past due (Gary Groth’s has been the best and only one yet, but everyone ignored it), as well as a reckonining that there is not a “first” graphic novel, proper, and Eisner did not coin the term, no matter what he insisted. Same thing with the idea that Hanks was such an anomaly. I just find the lack of historical context rather frustrating.

  5. T Hodler says:

    Hey Douglas —

    I promise — no more disclaimers!

    In any case, obviously there’s room to disagree, but I have to take issue with you when you say, “the kind of discussion I had with Hajdu on the New Republic’s site is probably considerably different from the kind of discussion I’d have with him in a venue aimed more at people who are very familiar with these issues.”

    Not that what you say there is wrong, but that that is precisely why I pointed out the Jeet Heer pieces that ran in Slate and the Globe & Mail, publications which aren’t markedly different from TNR in terms of audience. Spending so much time talking about whether or not comics are getting their critical due seems to me to be of interest more to people on the Newsarama board than they would be to a New Republic reader.

    Hajdu’s book is about the comic book scare, not whether or not Will Eisner has gotten sufficient respect. And, in my opinion, there’s much more potentially interesting meat (both for general and educated audiences) in the implications of the scare itself than in one more run-through of in-crowd insecurity over the cultural place of comics.

    In any case, thanks for the comments and the compliments.

  6. Bill Randall says:

    Frank, this is a slight tangent, but you mention “Japanese society’s ‘healthy’ fantasy world.” I’ve heard this before as praise for more extreme manga/anime, but I’m not sure it’s evidence of health or disease. I can say, though, that Japan has pervasive social controls on everyday behavior– “the nail that stands up gets hammered down,” as they say. So maybe people aren’t acting on crazed fantasies because they don’t act on everyday dreams, either. In the West, we have so few social controls, it seems more reasonable that extreme art could lead to extreme behavior. Hell, the US is so screwed up just driving a car leads to madness!

    But sociologists have totally whiffed on explaining this stuff. So when you wrote, “What about how the censorship of fantasy, let’s say horror comics, can have an adverse effect of “society’s” ability to differentiate fantasy and reality?” I’m curious for more. Perhaps a future post?

  7. Frank Santoro says:

    Hey Bill

    Yes, I’d love to investigate the differences in social mores and how it all relates to art, specifically comics. It’s a really interesting area of this discussion that gets glossed over. I’ll ask my japanese friends and get back to you, might be awhile. Thanks.

  8. Bill Randall says:


  9. Frank Santoro says:

    Did you misunderstand me, Bill?
    I said yes.
    I even emailed my friend Takahiro about it.
    I’m confused.
    What does “ouch” mean?

  10. Bill Randall says:

    Frank, sorry– I totally misread that. “Ouch” means I’ve lately spent way too much time on the TCJ boards, so everything I read seems like it’s taking the piss. Best–

  11. Frank Santoro says:

    thats funny.
    no, we like to be straight-ahead with our bullshit seriousness here.

  12. Heidi M. says:

    >>>Anyways, thinking about Umezu lead me to think of studies I’ve read about where Japanese society’s “healthy” fantasy world encourages a more realistic approach to one’s life.??

    Hm, I want to know what your Japanese pal says, too, Frank! I wouldn’t doubt that American and Japanese society are equally “unhealthy”…certainly Japanese society has some oddities that we would consider “unhealthy” (young men who won’t leave the house for instance.)

  13. Jeet says:

    I agree with Dan that “an honest, unsentimental appraisal of Eisner’s legacy is way past due (Gary Groth’s has been the best and only one yet, but everyone ignored it)” but its worth pointing out that one critic that has offered an honest appraisal of late period Eisner is Douglas Wolk (whose chapter on Eisner and Miller in Reading Comics was quite good).

    If we ignore the non-issue of what is the first graphic novel, then I think we’ll find that there is a fair bit of agreement between us in agreeing that there were some really interesting comic book artists in the late 1940s and early 1950s outside the Eisner/Barks/Kirby canon who are worth reviving.

    I for one am increasingly impressed with Jesse Marsh and John Stanley.

    Dan’s idea of a Godart/Trauffaut-esque apprecation of these comics sounds great, perhaps that should be the intro to the promised sequel to Art Out of Time.

    I’m curious as to what Tim, Dan and Frank think of Matt Baker, whose work I’ve been re-evaluating upwards (more for the romance comics than It Rhymes With Lust).

  14. Frank Santoro says:

    Hey Heidi

    It may just turn out to be an apples vs oranges kind of thing, but I do marvel at how my Japanese friends’ fantasy worlds (like what they read, watch) appears way RICHER than my American friends or even my own. A super over-generalization I know, but my american friends (and me as well) seem more obsessed with “reality-based” art and its trappings.

    Say what, Frank? Yeah, I don’t know, it’s weird. I mean look at the Murakami show that’s in NY (Brooklyn Museum) right now. It’s almost alien when compared to the “street” and “downtown” art that is popular in art schools these days (from what I can tell)

  15. Bradley Susumu says:

    I’m going to derail this a bit, sorry in advance (Jeet said the magic words ‘John Stanley’).

    I’ve wanted to ask the Comics Comics guys (and Jeet) what they think of John Stanley’s sometimes partner Bill Williams. I might like his art more than Stanley’s own, at least for the teenage stories of Dunc and Loo.

    For anyone curious, here are two short Dunc and Loo stories:




    The second one has some cool layouts (to Stanley’s credit, I presume), but I especially love this page:


  16. Dan says:

    Jesse Marsh and John Stanley, both of whom, I hope, will be in the next Art Out of Time, are indeed fantastic cartoonists. I suppose what I find frustrating is that Marsh, Stanley, Baker and even Rogers have been written about and praised since the 1960s, so it’s not so much that they need to be revived, but that more writers and historians need to just plunge and actually spend some time reading about the history of their chosen subject. Pick up any Ron Goulart book, or damn near any fanzine from the 60s and there it all is. All of this stuff is out there — it’s not hidden. As for Matt Baker, I think he was a great, luscious drawer. Not the most expressive cartoonist, but I love the fleshy and modeled look to his work. Harry Lucey and Pete Morisi are a bit more interesting to me, in general. Formulating a critical language with which to write about them is going to take some time… but it’s the kind of project that, for me, would justify and, in a way, need a conference or long meeting with a bunch of peers…the comics comics comics history conference. ha ha.

  17. Dan says:

    Oh, and I love Bill Williams. Wonderful goofy elastic drawing paired with Stanley’s expert layouts.

  18. Frank Santoro says:

    What was that Stanley horror comic you found in San Diego, Dan?
    You know, Jim Shaw’s favorite comic?
    Man, THAT is a comic book.

  19. Jeet says:

    Is the Stanley horror comic your thinking about Ghost Stories? Or is there another one?

    About Stanley and Bill Williams — a great collaboration but I’m a bit of an old school auterist so I prefer the few rare stories where Stanley illustrated his own work. If he had drawn all his own stories, I think Stanley would be as well known as Barks.

    About Dan’s comment: “Formulating a critical language with which to write about them is going to take some time… but it’s the kind of project that, for me, would justify and, in a way, need a conference or long meeting with a bunch of peers…the comics comics comics history conference. ha ha”

    You know, I actually think I know how to organize such a conference — I’ll look into it. It would be great.

  20. Dan says:

    Ghost Stories is the one, yes. It’s illustrated by… damn, I can’t remember. But it was edited and with a cover by L.B. Cole! Crazy.
    Anyhow, that’s my favorite Stanley story of all time. And, yes, Jim Shaw told me it’s his favorite comic book.
    It’s a total masterpiece of comic book layouts. All airy suspense and wide open, scary vistas.

  21. Dan says:

    And Jeet, that would be lovely if you want to help. Thanks!

  22. Tom Spurgeon says:

    I wonder if the supposed pernicious veneration of Will Eisner is the bigger myth at this point. That may have been true 20 years ago, but now he’s more ignored than overpraised. Can anyone point to a half-way weighty hagiographical anything written about Eisner since the run of obituaries (not the place you go for serious critical evaluations) — or from ten years before his passing? Eisner awards acceptance speeches don’t count.

    I say any misplaced, leftover resentment towards Eisner’s work and the status afforded him should be fueled toward crushing this nascent* movement toward salvaging the reputation of Matt Freakin’ Baker.

    Plus, does anyone who’s not a total dumbass think that Eisner invented the graphic novel or did anything other than popularize the term and give it a certain kind of legitimacy within a certain stratus of comics culture? We all know Columbus didn’t really discover the New World, either.

    And maybe I’m being stupid, but what’s wrong with the English language to describe Rogers and the rest of the Art Out of Time gang? Did anyone really read those Fletcher Hanks reprints and think, “This is awesome, but I don’t know why”? I think it was pretty clear why those comics were great.

    However, if Dan’s renting a lakehouse somewhere, I’m up for the Comics Comics conference and cookout. I can drive a boat and I can make adobo chicken.

    * word learned from X-Men #143

  23. Dan says:

    Well, Tom put the stranglehold on and landed the crushing blow. Broadly, I think you’re right, but I think the “dumb-ass” theses were basically our point: as in, why are two people writing about comics in this dumb-ass way? Maybe we over-discussed it. Anyhow, duh, English will do just fine (tho French would make me feel way cooler), but I think you know what I mean: A way to discuss these comics with a toolbox of critical terms that recognize what they were, what their context was, and what works (and doesn’t) about them. Since recognized “authorities” on comics still think Hanks was somehow anomalous or refer to him as the “Henry Darger of comics”, it seems like come kinda critical framework would be helpful. As for Eisner, maybe you’re right: but then why, in so many articles, like the one we’re writing about, is he still held up as the great exemplar? Dunno…

  24. Frank Santoro says:

    This might be better left for another post but I wonder if I should I funnel my (in Spurge’s wordz) “leftover resentment towards Eisner’s work and the status afforded him” into my “leftover boredom” with Schulz?

  25. Kevin H says:

    Funnel it into trying to draw comics stronger than both.

  26. Frank Santoro says:

    yah, easy for you to say, champ.

  27. Tom Spurgeon says:

    I was trying to be funny more than deadly accurate, so everything Dan says in response is correct. Although I’m never quite sure what people mean when they say critical framework, so it’s nice to have that unpacked in this instance.

    Also, if someone wanted to say so, there was both a highly complimentary biography of Eisner and a documentary of Eisner that have come out in the last few years.

    I just wrote an introduction for one of the Spirit Archive editions I can’t afford, and I like most of Eisner’s work. I think he worked in broad strokes and overwrought melodrama and trafficked in sentiment, but I think a lot of novelists who are out of favor did the same thing in a way that I find compelling (John P. Marquand, for instance). I’m not sure Eisner always did, but I know he did at times, and I’d like to re-read his later work so that I can figure it out for myself. I’m not sure that my suspicion that a good portion of comics culture right now is as unfavorable to sentiment (see: the beatings given Blankets) as it was inclined to celebrate it in the early ’80s (see: every sappy comics moment from every comics series of the indy comics movement) is enough to get me off of my fat ass, though.

  28. Bill Randall says:

    Tom, I couldn’t answer your call for examples of recent Eisner hagiography, but I did nod my head at Dan’s initial salvo. I expect retrospectives anew with the Spirit movie’s PR. Also, in writing for a general audience, Eisner’s life is seductively convenient. You get Golden Age heroes, Jewish identity and art comics in one fell swoop. And New York– that always helps.

    And Dan, while I hope for a refinement of critical vocabulary in comics, I think with Hanks the problem’s not so particular? A scrupulous commitment to context should do the trick, and critics’ resolve not to get seduced by easy comparisons. And an anti-Hanks=Darger blogathon. I’d add that popular notions of The Artist come from Romanticist models (tortured hero, crazy genius), and while they describe Byron & Van Gogh just fine, for most artists they’re overkill. Now artists have guides to personal finance, for pity’s sake.

    Also, I would recommend The System of Comics to all comics critics, so we can sound cool tossing around Gallic plums like “tressage.”

    Eisner’s tressage is nonpareil, by the way, despite the schmaltz.

    Finally, should any critical symposium hit a lakehouse, I can mix drinks and load guns.

  29. Marc Arsenault says:

    I have to suspect any cookout will be on the Gowanus… But, hey, you bring the boat and the grill, and I’m there.

  30. Marc Arsenault says:

    It should be (but apparently is not) impossible to write about Eisner’s history in comics without discussing his role in the business end of it, and that from a political/historical view. From his role in establishing the studio system (for better or worse, and for whom), to working for the pentagon to positioning himself (absurdly, really) as an underground cartoonist, and his later roles as an educator and partner in Kitchen Sink (I’m guessing here on his actual involvement… maybe they just published him… honestly, I dunno). I think his art and stories hold up better than much of the rest of his legacy.

  31. Dustin Harbin says:

    I’ve always thought of Eisner as easy to lionize, as Bill said, because of his entertaining and easy to sum up bio. Sure he’s schmaltzy and overwrought a lot of the time, but for one thing he was an incredible artist at a time when that was not the norm in comics, outside of strips–I mean, come on. Put 40’s Kirby next to 40’s Eisner and do the math.

    As for the who-invented-graphic-novels question, right, it’s boring. But I think that, for good or ill, Eisner’s big contribution was legitimizing comics for mainstream audiences. Sure, Dropsie Avenue will never be as great a “graphic novel” as Adolf or even Cages, but his run of 80’s books really did a lot to solidify comics beginnings in mainstream culture as a viable and interesting artform. Not to mention all the guys he influenced, who did go on to make some really great, innovative books.

    I say this as a waning Eisner fan, though–even as I’m typing I’m looking up at the 19 volumes of the Spirit Archives I’ve purchased over the years, maybe 2 of which I’ve actually read. Maybe the real problem is that Eisner’s work is out of sync with now; while he was amazing when you compare him to other cartoonists in the 40’s and 50’s, how well does he stack up against something Louis Riel for sheer adult cartooning? And doesn’t this backlash occur with all young artforms, as they outstrip their formative years and move into artistic adulthood? Have you watched Citizen Kane lately? Kinda bombastic. Will Eisner’s work is like comics’ awkward early 20’s, when all its ideas were very Important and Vital, but without the kind of depth and poise of a more mature time.

    Say, after some divorces.

  32. Frank Santoro says:

    The bottom line is:
    I’d rather read a 10 page story from some old ACG comic by a relatively unknown artist and just ignore Eisner all together. And remember Hajdu’s book is about hundreds of artists who never got to work in the field again after the Senate hearings. Eisner, Eisner, Eisner, blah, blah, blah. I don’t even want to talk about WHY people don’t like Eisner. Lets instead talk about any of the hundreds of people listed in the back of Hajdu’s book that have never been studied at all.

  33. Dustin Harbin says:


  34. Jeet says:

    A few quick points.

    1) Is Eisner still overpraised? Well, take a look at the November 26, 2007 issue of the New Yorker where a review of Eisner’s Life in Pictures states “every page page is sure-handed, carreid out with subtlety, grace and wit.” Those three words — “subtlety, grace and wit” — are surely false; whatever Eisner’s virtues he didn’t have subtlety or grace or wit. And consider all the good cartoonists that don’t get reviewed in The New Yorker.

    2) There is a difference between saying Eisner is over-praised and saying he’s worthless. He has a lot of merits as a cartoonist but his flaws need to be more honestly talked about.

    3) There is a difference between sentiment and sentimentality. Chris Ware’s work, if your open to it, is very emotional and full of sentiment; Eisner all too often fell victim to sentimentality.

  35. Frank Santoro says:

    “Slowly I turned,
    step by step,
    inch by inch…
    Niagara Falls!”

    but yah, I hear you guys,
    Dustin, Jeet, right on

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