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.