Class and Comics: Labour Day Notes


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Reid Fleming: Working Class Hero

Labour Day is coming up, so let’s talk about social class:

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?

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

13 Responses to “Class and Comics: Labour Day Notes”
  1. Deco says:

    “the anti-comics movement of the 1940s and 1950s had a class dimension as well.” not to mention a race dimension (which is generally impossible to separate from class aspects anyway): as David Hadju (sp?) notes in “10 cent Plague” (excellent), the early comic strips had a lot of immigrant / inner city elements, and the anti-comics attitude dates from as early as that (it’s the crime and ec comics + the 50s conservatism where the spark catches fire, if you will). And of course the Jewish angle (which doesn’t account for the labor-mgmt division generally, but does affect how “the comics” were seen from “the outside”).

    Super-interesting comments about the labor angle

  2. patrick ford says:

    Kirby often spoke of labor management conflicts, and of the business culture Harvey Kurtzman described so well in maybe the greatest work of his career.
    Kurtzman was satirizing Magazine Management in his story “Organization Man in the Gray Flannel Executive Suite.”
    Kurtzman met his wife Adele (who was Stan Lee’s “girl Friday” in the early 50’s), while working for Timely (The comic book divison of Martin Goodman’s Magazine Management.
    Kurtzman’s Goodman character is named Lucifer Schlock.
    Goodman/Schlock wouldn’t fire an editor. Instead he would try to make them quit by subjecting them to humiliation, marginalizing them, and taking away their staff. This is exactly what was happening to Stan in the late 50’s. By 1958 Lee was a one man opperation sitting alone on a stool in a tiny cubicle.
    Larry Lieber: Back then Marvel was Timely Comics. At the time I worked there, Magazine Management was big when the comics were big… it was small when the comics were small. At one time in the late ’50s it was just an alcove, with one window, and Stan was doing all the corrections himself; he had no assistants.
    Dick Ayers: ” Things started to get really bad in1958. One day when I went in Stan looked at me and said,”Gee whiz, my uncle goes by and he doesn’t even say hello to me.” He meant Martin Goodman. And he proceeds to tell me, “You know, it’s like a sinking ship and we’re the rats, and we’ve got to get off.”

    In Kurtzman’s story Lucifer Schlock drives a long-time editor to suicide. When the editor takes his own life by leaping out a window Schlock calls his secretary.

    LS: “Mr. Eolith has just jumped out the window. Notify the proper authorities immediately.”

    Miss Verifax : “I’ll notify the police, and the hospital is there anything else?”

    LS: “What about the accounting department!!! You don’t think I’m going to keep a dead man on payroll! First things first Miss Verifax!”

    Kirby spoke often about labor management situations.
    Here are some quotes taken from interviews.

    “I wouldn’t want to be in a position of leadership where I could hurt somebody, because I feel that I’m capable of it. It’s done every day in business. One man will “kill” another and cut off his salary or eliminate his job. And that guys kids wont eat. That guys wife must retrench. Life will become harder. The guy that cuts off his job never thinks about that. Things are going to be better for his family.”

    Kirby on the look of the 50’s Gray flannel America.
    “People looked like hard plucked chickens. They’d been bred for a Mexican fighting cockarina.
    Sometimes the times themselves—they’ll run away with you…it’s like a flood, you just try to keep your head above water. Gradually it subsides in some manner. You start to function again.
    One man will kill another, cut off his salary, or eliminate his job. And the fact that that guy’s job is eliminated means that guy’s kids won’t eat. That guy’s wife must retrench. The guy that cuts off the job never thinks about that. Things are going to be better for his family. His kids are going to get more advantages. That’s what competition means: One man symbolically killing another.”

  3. Bryan says:

    Jeet, interesting your last post was about Gottfredson. The Journal issue with the Gottfredson interview was an eye-opener for me. As was the article in the same issue about the Disney strike.

  4. Uland says:

    I think it’s a stretch to attribute the over-appraisal of Stan Lee as a matter of class bias. I think it’s far more likely that they simply weren’t able to conceive of Kirby as the prime-mover— Well, why would they? Did they have an eye that no one really had at that point, and were somehow able to see the impact Kirby’s work would have?
    I find this lionization of working class cartoonists/comics odd. It’s almost like it’s safe cause those people are all dead. It’s not like you’re writing freelance pieces on the Insane Clown Posse, praising them for not having parents who made as much money as The Shins parents did..

  5. patrick ford says:

    The “over-appraisal” of Stan Lee is due to people who have either never read his work, or haven’t read it in 50 years.
    Stan is Henry Morgan in the “Wizard of Oz” floating aloft in the balloon; always in character except for a brief aside heard only by himself, “Poor kid, I hope she gets home alright.”

  6. patrick ford says:

    Make that Frank Morgan as the great and powerful man behind the curtain. I confused him with Uncle Henry.

  7. Daniel C. Parmenter says:

    In Eisner’s “The Dreamer” there is a brief scene involving an early attempt at a union. But the participants take note of how easy it is to be a scab by simply signing a different name. This is another aspect of the isolation factor that you touched on, but I think it’s worth mentioning.

  8. Jude Killory says:

    I should probably be doing a better job of picking my battles but @Uland I’m not sure I understand your point. “I think it’s a stretch to attribute the over-appraisal of Stan Lee as a matter of class bias. I think it’s far more likely that they simply weren’t able to conceive of Kirby as the prime-mover— Well, why would they? Did they have an eye that no one really had at that point, and were somehow able to see the impact Kirby’s work would have?” So then why did the journalists/writers give Stan Lee the nod as the “prime-mover”? Kirby had been in the business for a while at that point and had achieved a level of success; the creation of Captain America is one example. What did Stan Lee have under his belt that gave the writers the confidence to claim that this man was truly the creative force behind Marvel Comics? You complain about Jeet Heer writing about lionized working class cartoonists, is this really a problem? I don’t see a lot written about class and comics, are you implying that any topic that has anything remotely Marxist connected to it is inherently vulgar in a capitalist society? Last question why do you want Heer to write about music? If he is discussing a class issue shouldn’t he stick to his area of expertise?

  9. EH says:

    Another fascinating piece of that history that I came across recently is Mark Badger talking about trying to build the Graphic Artists Guild into a union (even getting a local chapter to affiliate with UAW!) and how that all came crashing down:

    He doesn’t talk about class explicitly but he does talk about activism and basic issues like lack of healthcare for freelancers.

    One of my teachers used to rant: “People say Jack Kirby didn’t own anything, and that’s not true… he owned a house and a car and….”– his point was, while not having any intellectual property rights, working for Marvel or DC or other big companies back in the 40s 50s and 60s let cartoonists lead comfortable middle class existences with nice houses, let them put their kids through college.

    When your a starving independent artist, you may have your dignity and your copyrights but you don’t have that class security.

    One could say cartooning used to be a job, y’know, a profession, with all the upward mobility that promised. Now its art, with all the “bohemian” privilege that entails.

  10. wayne says:

    Maybe that’s ta big problem with comics – the will to ‘art’ with all it’s class connontations. This attitude extends to consumers too – gone are the days when poor kids read comics en masse – or they were a cheap form of entertaining kids for poor families. The more discerning adult reader is priced out of a lot of stuff, if they’re lacking large reserves of disposable income. Yesterday’s 10 cent ‘New Gods’ is today’s ultra-pricey four-volume shelf ornament.

    Also interesting to note how conservative (if not far-right) mainstream comics became (in attitude and assumptions about audience’s attitudes) since the early 80s. Gone was Captain America or Green Lantern grappling with patriotic doubt or being forced to confront ghetto hardship – in with the Miller-esque middle-class ‘urban avenger’, brutally kicking underclass ass and asking questions later. From Kirby’s well-meaning Black Panther to the belligerent Punisher, going from villain to hero within a generation. More stark a contrast than Spidey going uptown with Romita.

    Then there’s a whole story about changing economics since the 80s, the widening gulf between target audiences’ income brackets (coinciding with the supposed collapse of high and lobrow), with the rise of upscale ‘art’ comics/limited editions/graphic novels/hardbound collections etc. etc. Let’s just say this 80s teen preferred Weirdo to Raw because I could actually afford the former!

  11. PL says:

    Indie comic artists in the 80s & 90s were also communicating from a point of class, or at least their work could be interpreted that way. The rise in underdog heros (Grendel, Nexus, fiercely independent Cerebus, even Faust?), alternative work being produced by people in the animation industry (again, Steve Rude & nascent Jim Woodring), then the flood of semi/autobiographical work by the likes of Pete Bagge, Julie Doucette, Fantagraphics et al. I picked those titles up because they spoke to me. Oddly, I even found the efforts of Image comics sort of punk, despite their glossy presentation and style. Even if I didn’t like the entire comic there was something powerful in how they (McFarlane, Lee, Larsen etc) were trying to wrest control away from Marvel. The RAW artists struck me as a synonymous response to fine art/performance art/music that was going on in NYC at the time, much like SF Underground comics of the 60s emulated the SF scene. But you’re right in pointing out the more direct approaches by earlier cartoonist to address class issues… were any cartoonists targeted by McCarthy?

  12. John says:

    what are you referring to with the phrase “anti-comics movement of the 1940s and 1950s.”

Leave a Reply