Notes on the Midwestern School of Comics


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Comics Journal 300 carries a conversation between Kevin Huizenga and Art Spiegelman. During the course of the interview, Kevin brings up the idea of a Midwester school of cartooning, something that I’ve discussed in various essays on Little Orphan Annie and Gasoline Alley. The conversation goes like this:

Huizenga:In one of the recent Annie reprints, Jeet Heer talks in the introduction about this idea of a Midwestern, or Chicago school of cartooning that was more preoccupied with everyday life and the quiet rhythms of everyday life. The style was quieter and more repetitive. I think you can definitely see how Ware fits in that tradition, and also he’s called more attention to that kind of cartooning. Visually, it might look boring, at first, to some people, but it’s a form that’s fitted to content. What they’re doing is comics about mundane things like talking to your wife, or whatever — the “little things.”
Spiegelman:I guess. But I think rather than just Midwest, I would make it Protestant, you know. Like they don’t have those ornate crucifixions.
Huizenga:I have those two strikes against me, I guess, here. [Laughter.]
Spiegelman:It’s definitely suspicious of ornament and exuberance…

A few points can be added to this discussion. I elaborate one what I mean by the Midwestern comics tradition in an interview with Tom Spurgeon in the Comics Reporter, where I talk about this school of art and how it links together Harold Gray and Chester Brown. Here’s a relevant part of that interview:

The geography of rural Illinois left a strong mark on Gray’s imagination, as can be seen if he’s compared to his Wisconsin-born colleague Frank King. In King’s work, the country-side is always rolling and sloping, with cars constantly sputtering up hills or flowing down valleys. In the early Little Orphan Annie strips, by contrast, once our heroine leaves the city, the countryside is as flat as a quilt spread out on a bed, each acre of farmland its own perfect square, with stacks of hay and isolated silos the only protrusions on the land. The flatness of the prairies, the prostrate manner in which the horizon spreads out as far as the eye can see, spoke to something deep in Gray’s imagination: it perhaps explains his sense of the isolation of human existence, the persistent feeling of loneliness his characters complain of, and their commensurate need to reach out to Annie and create strong (although temporary) families, with the orphan as their child.

Brown of course didn’t grow up in the prairies, which are the setting for Louis Riel. His childhood was spent in the very different landscape of Quebec. But I do think that appropriating Gray’s style helped Chester capture the landscape of western Canada, especially the flatness and isolation of the region. I do think there is a tradition of mid-western cartooning, a family tree that is rooted in John T. McCutcheon and extends to Clare Briggs, Harold Gray, Frank King (with a crazy branch that includes the grotesque approach of Chester Gould and Boody Rodgers). The latest branch of this tree is the alternative comics of Chris Ware, Ivan Brunetti, and Kevin Huizenga. Brown is interesting because he’s not from the mid-west at all, in fact is not even an American, but has absorbed the aesthetics of this

A few other points:

1. Spiegelman is on to something when he says that this is a Protestant tradition. What I’d say is that the tradition of Midwestern comics brings together various strands: partially regional tradition of vernacular, low-key literature (the line of George Ade, Sherwood Anderson, Ring Lardner) with its focus on small town life, partially from the low church Protestant tradition of plainness, partially out of the Chicago Tribune’s populist stance. So I prefer the more expansive term Midwestern cartooning, which seems to bring most of these things together. But perhaps we could also say that this is Midwestern Wasp cartooning?

2. If we were doing a genealogy of ideas, credit for the concept of Midwestern catooning should go to Gilbert Seldes, who talked about the “Chicago school” in his 1924 book The 7 Lively Arts. In the 1980s, Richard Marschall revived the idea of Midwestern cartooning in a few scattered essays in Nemo magazine. I’ve tried to give a third life to the idea by linking up the great Chicago Tribune cartoonists of the 1920s with their modern counterparts like Ware and Huizenga.

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15 Responses to “Notes on the Midwestern School of Comics”
  1. BVS says:

    and interesting idea. what then do you make of Wally wood and CC Beck. both Minnesotans.both boys from rural Minnesota. and from the early comic book field rather than the newspaper world. CC Beck definitely fits into this group.
    naturally I think you will have some who develop a artistic style in direct opposition of the regional aesthetic they grew up with. I think that is the case with Wally Wood. that makes him sort of like Prince, but with no ass less pants.

  2. BVS says:

    stylistically I can see a bit of the simple and plainness of Harold Grey and Frank King In CC Beck, but it gets re purposed for use in super hero comics rather than comics about day to day life. and Fawcett Publications was based out of Minneapolis. "captain Billy" wanted to be publishing the kind of lurid pulps and later cheap comics that Harry Donenfeld had at national periodicals. but that simple midwestern Diagram like sensibility of Harold Grey was still sort of present.

  3. Devlin Thompson says:

    Isn't it GILBERT Seldes? It's been years since I read The Seven Lively Arts at the library (actually, I think I just read the comics part).

  4. afdumin says:

    Yeah, it's Gilbert Seldes. I find this "Midwestern School" idea really fascinating. Would Charles Schulz fit in with that tradition?

  5. Lucius says:

    Is there a Catholic school of cartooning?

  6. Jeet Heer says:

    I've corrected George Seldes to Gilbert Seldes. George Seldes was actually the brother of Gilbert; both were well known writers in their time, George a muckraking journalist and Gilbert a pioneering critic of popular culture.

    I think a lot of European comics, particularly the French and Italian ones, do have a Catholic sensibility. It's hard to define but it does have something to do with a greater comfort with elegance.

  7. Lucius says:

    Are there any specific cartoonists you could point me toward? I don't have much experience with European comics, unfortunately. Thanks Jeet!

  8. dddoofus says:

    there does seem to be a similar family tree of repressed catholic raised American cartoonists. Justin Green, R.Cumb,Ivan Brunetti, and Johnny Ryan.

  9. Jeet Heer says:

    For European Catholic cartoonists I think the top of the list would include Herge, who basically created Tintin for a church publication under the advice of a priest.

    In America, I ageee with the tradition of Crumb, Green, etc. I would add Joe Matt to the list.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Manara = Catholic sensibility

  11. JT says:

    I do think that Chester Gould could fit in here. For an inner city crime strip based on Chicago his focus is very much on the street level scene, not so much the ornamented skyscrapers that are characteristic to the town. Would this classify him in Midwestern School through his style of simplified depiction even though his subject matter is gritty, urban, and complex?

    Architecture in the Prairie School carries a nearby but not quite urban sensibility (FLW, Sullivan, Griffin) and I get this same feeling from looking at Gasoline Alley. Sometimes dealing with architecture albeit simplified, King's page structures can have a striking resemblance to a Wright design, which owes to the flatness of the landscape and the simple family life.

    Is there a possibility of a midwestern school of undergrounds? i.e. Lynch, Kinney, Williamson, Hansen, although the material seem stylistically derived from kurtzman, funny animals, and other non-chicago sources (they were all pretty unique) the subject matter does sometimes carry a theme based on Chicago local politics/scenery.

  12. James says:

    You could add Kevin Nowlan, the setting of his Jack B. Quick stories with Moore reflect his own location in Kansas.

  13. misterjayem says:

    Ivan Brunetti ain't no Protestant.

  14. Jeet Heer says:

    It's been pointed out to me that Lucy Caswell, of Ohio State University's superb Cartoon Research Library, has also been investigating the Midwestern school, although her focus is more on political cartooning rather than comic strips.

    And of course Ivan Brunetti isn't a Catholic. If I were writing a fresh essay, I would talk about how Ivan is a great synthesizer who brings together many traditions (the doodling of Milt Gross, gag cartooning, Kurtzman's bounding line, the Midwestern school, etc).

  15. Warren says:

    Lucy Caswell of OSU has written about a Midwestern School of Political Cartooning, embracing the themes of small town, hard work, focus on the middle/upper classes, not too biting in their commentary, etc. I recently used this idea for my lecture on Herblock (born and raised in Chicago) at The Library of Congress, so your blog post on the same subject, but different branch of cartooning struck a chord.

    I believe there is only 1 Midwestern School and it encompassed not just the strip cartoonists you and Spiegelman refer to, but also Lucy Caswell’s universe (Billy Ireland, Opper, John T McCutcheon and Jay “Ding” Darling amongst others). They cannot be separated historically, especially during the first 20 years of the 20th Century. One reason is the deep influence of McCutcheon. The second is, at that time, there were no intellectual or professional "silos" that prevented cartoonists form moving from strips to single panel and back again.

    As proof, Frank King, Sydney Smith, Fontaine Fox, Clare Briggs and H T Webster all did political cartoons as well as their slice of life cartoons. In the case of King and Smith (as well as Herriman, for that matter), their single panel work well preceded their strip work. Looking at all of these cartoonists early single panel work, you clearly see the influence of McCutcheon, down to Webster stealing McCutcheon's dog mascot, along with the above themes of a Midwestern origin.

    I posit that the world of the above early strip cartoonists cannot be understood without looking at their newspaper single panel work and that indeed there was one Midwestern School of Cartooning.

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