Class and Comics: Labour Day Notes
by Jeet Heer
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
1. In the R. Crumb Handbook, the creator of Mr. Natural writes: “Some of the other comics that Charles and I liked, Heckle and Jeckle, Super Duck, things of that ilk, featured very primitive stories on the crudest proletarian level….The super-hero comics of the 1940s also had this rough, working class quality. A cartoonist like Jack Kirby is a perfect example. His characters – Captain America, for instance – were an extension of himself. Kirby was a tough little guy from the streets of New York’s lower east side, and he and he saw the world in terms of harsh, elemental, forces. How do you deal with these forces? You fight back! This was the message of all the comic strips created during the Great Depression of the 1930s, from Popeye to Dick Tracy to Superman.” Crumb as usual is right: I’d add that the anti-comics movement of the 1940s and 1950s had a class dimension as well. Genteel, middle-class Americans were shocked by the plebian violence, crude sexuality and general spirit of irreverence of the early comic books.
2. In 1966 Nat Freedland in New York magazine described Jack “King” Kirby in these terms: “The King is a middle-aged man with baggy eyes and a baggy Robert Hall-ish suit. He is sucking a huge green cigar and if you stood next to him on the subway you would peg him for the assistant foreman in a girdle factory.” Here is Freedland’s description of Stan Lee: “Stan Lee, 43, is a native New Yorker, an ultra-Madison Avenue, rangy lookalike of Rex Harrison. He’s got that horsy jaw and humorous eyes, thinning but tasteful gray hair, the brightest-colored Ivy League wardrobe in captivity and a deep suntan…” The class dimensions of these descriptions should be obvious: Lee is a slick suburbanite, a character who would fit well into the cast of Mad Men. Kirby by contrast is a lower-middle-class yokel. No wonder writers like Freedland were more comfortable around Lee than Kirby, and were happy to publicize Lee as the genius behind Marvel comics. There is a class angle to the Lee/Kirby feud that needs to be highlighted: Lee was management, Kirby the hired help (albeit the hired help who more or less created the company). If you don’t understand how social class works in America, you can’t understand Jack Kirby’s anger.
3. History is sometimes the story of what doesn’t happen. The great non-event in the history of comics is the inability of cartoonists to form an effective professional guild, unlike their counterparts in journalism, film, and television. There were serious efforts to organize. In the comic book field, Bernie Krigstein tried to create a guild in the early 1950s and Neal Adams made another stab in the 1970s. The story in comic strips is also interesting: despite his later-day reputation as a reactionary, Al Capp was a labour agitator in the 1940s and 1950s. He wanted to turn the National Cartoonist Society into a guild that would fight for the rights of artists against the syndicates. Ironically this attempt was resisted by liberals such as Walt Kelly, who wanted to keep the NCS as an old boy’s club (which is what it remained, although they now let women in). In the introduction to The Complete Little Orphan Annie volume 5, I discuss another unexpected labour militant: Harold Gray, who thought that the cartoonists were being mistreated by the newspaper syndicate and wanted to organize a movement for direct action. But Gray, like Capp would become disillusioned, stating: “Any one would be an idiot to try to organize the artists. They are as jealous as a bunch of whores.”
I’d love to see a serious labour historian look at these failed attempts to organize. What went wrong? I think a crucial fact might well be in the social isolation of cartoonists, the fact that so many of them work from studios at home. This must have made it hard to get together and form collective demands. Compare the production of comics to the production of movies or tv shows, art forms that require many people to come together in one place.
And is it possible that Krigstein and Adams left comics (for the most part) because of the failure to organize? For that matter, could Capp’s turn to the right in the 1960s be partially motivated by his disappointment in the failure of artists to unite in the 1950s?