Comedy Minus Time


by

Thursday, December 2, 2010


“The overwhelming part about tragedy is the element of hopelessness, of inevitability.”

—J.A. Cuddon, The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms

In his 1987 essay “What’s so Funny about the Comics?” (reprinted in Comics as Culture), the scholar M. Thomas Inge defends the validity of the term “comics,” despite the fact that so many of the art form’s admirers express resentment for the pejorative connotations of that name, by basically claiming that the term is literally true, and implies very strongly that all comics are comedies.

He accomplishes this primarily by appealing to a fairly broad definition of comedy:

Not all things “comic” are necessarily funny or laughable. Comedy implies an attitude towards life, an attitude that trusts in man’s potential for redemption and salvation, as in Dante’s Divine Comedy or Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Since comic strips always conclude with resolutions in favor of morality and a trust in the larger scheme of truth and justice, they too affirm a comic view of the social and universal order. While Krazy Kat and Smokey Stover may appear absurd, they do not reflect on the world around them as being irrational or devoid of meaning, as in the drama of the absurd. Comic art is supportive, affirmative, and rejects notions of situational ethics or existential despair.


Inge’s definition is obviously a bit idiosyncratic—not least in that Hamlet is generally considered a tragedy—but his larger point is an intriguing one. The essay was written some twenty years ago, before many of the comics that might be said to disprove his argument were made, but even now I find myself struggling to come up with examples of comic strips or stories that express a truly tragic, as opposed to comic, view of life.

This all leads me to wonder three things, two of which I will share with you now:

This doesn't count.

1. Was Inge right? Was it true even at the time of his writing that there were no tragedies in comic form? Inge himself brings up the most famous possible counter-example, Maus, but seems to reject it as tragedy on the grounds that Spiegelman uses “the satiric tradition of animal fable and the imagery of funny animal comic books and animated cartoons.” In my mind, a more pointed reason not to define the book as tragedy can be found in its subtitle, “A Survivor’s Tale”.

But satire is certainly different than tragedy. As Inge puts it, “To satirize life and institutions is to believe in a better mode of conduct which people fail to live up to, and humor may serve as a gentle but sometimes bitter or angry corrective.” Until recently perhaps, satire and black humor have been (along with absurdism) the premier genres of “serious” cartoonists. Clowes, Crumb, Doucet, Brunetti, et cetera: No matter how dark their subject matter and tone of their stories might sometimes be, they aren’t tragedians.

I have a few comics in mind that might legitimately be considered tragic, but will save them for another post. Nominations are welcome, though. Perhaps things are different in Europe?

2. To the extent that Inge is right (if he is), just why would that be so? Is there something inherent to the art form that makes it so? (I personally doubt it, though Inge claims that “all comic art draws upon and clearly belongs to the tradition of caricature and comic exaggeration. There is no such thing as realism to be found in the comics, either in the photographic sense or the sentimental sense of a Norman Rockwell.” Inge includes Hal Foster and Noel Sickles in that assessment, by the way.)

I think it more likely comes down to historical and commercial reasons, but it does make you wonder. It’s not as if the twentieth century wasn’t represented by a boom in tragedy in other arts.

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29 Responses to “Comedy Minus Time”
  1. Brian Nicholson says:

    “It’s not as if the twentieth century wasn’t represented by a boom in tragedy in other arts.”

    Really? There’s no shortage of despair, certainly, but “tragedy” is a pretty classical form.

    To my mind, the defining movement of the second half of the twentieth century would be post-modernism. Which, at least in literature, is closely related to black humor by many of its earliest practitioners. (This conversation then leads to discussions about comics and modernism previously had on this blog.)

    Inge’s argument strikes me as being primarily a semantic one.

    • T. Hodler says:

      That last line may be among the sloppiest I’ve ever posted, and you definitely have a point. I was thinking of the fact that, at least in the theater, the twentieth century featured a return of full-blown tragedy (O’Neill, Williams, Miller, Odets) after a very long absence. And film certainly has its share in that same historical moment.

      (I don’t want to argue too much about post-modernism, mostly because I agree with that great “post-modern” novelist William Gass: outside of architecture, I don’t know what the word means. Everything implied by the term in literature can be found in Don Quixote or Laurence Sterne.)

      But your larger point is still right, I think. Tragedy wasn’t really a dominant mode elsewhere. And perhaps the rise of black humor and modernist absurdism in literature explains the prevalence of that mode in comics as well. Inge, I think, is implying more than that, however: that comics by their very nature can’t be tragic. But I may be overreading him.

      • Alec Trench says:

        “… Don Quixote …”
        Yes. At last my tentative theory has been indubitably proven.
        Don Quixote is exemplary “post-modernism.”

        As for post-modern architecture: a brownstone with a non-functioning tv antenna?
        Cheap ornament + Brutalism = insult + injury.

        Post-modern graphic design, though, that’s something.
        well, maybe just annoying.

        That was off topic, so i’ll say…

        “The Ballad of Halo Jones” is a tragedy, not really the heaviest though.
        It’s unfinished (another tragedy, the publisher gave no creator-rights so the writer wont do any more) but each “act” is tragic and all three are infused with an inescapable hopelessness.
        Thinking about it does me in, a bit.

        “Play it again, Yortlebluzzgubbly.”

  2. mr.pants says:

    I don’t know if this is too soon for consideration, but what about Acme #20? Do sprinkled bits of black humor (for brevity’s sake) prevent the final outcome and story to be considered a tragedy? Then again, with its stylizations and jumps, jerking the reader around just enough, it might prove that Inge is right.

    In any case, I don’t agree with him. Caricature is used to appeal to the reader, draw them in and feed their emotions. They are not real. We know that, but the idea they plant in our minds is. That’s what aeffects us and connects to the piece. All art works this way. Grave of the Fireflies still makes me cry.

    Would he still include Foster and Nickles if they weren’t involved with comics (due to its history), but instead in “fine art”? Are Hopper or Freud tragic?

    I nominate Tatsumi’s shorts and Briggs’ Where the Wind Blows.

  3. Matt Seneca says:

    Tragic comics today: Driven By Lemons. From Hell. Simmons’ Cockbone and Batman, and House too actually. Maybe even the Darwyn Cooke Parker books.

    Tragic comics from yesterday are tougher, but I think Steranko’s works show nothing of inherent good or “rightness” to the universe. It’s all just howling into the void. Some of the more brutal Kanigher war stories — been a while since I read it but I’m thinking especially of Enemy Ace. The best of Krigstein’s EC stuff: Master Race, Catacombs, the ones with the satirical or self-parody elements stripped away where dudes just wade into blackness and die.

    I’d argue against characterizing the new Acme as tragic — I personally think the last two pages show it was all worth it in the end, but it’s certainly open to interpretation.

    • T. Hodler says:

      I haven’t yet read Driven By Lemons, though I clearly really need to. From Hell may get closer, though its cast is so broad that I’m not sure it really features the intensity and focus I associate with tragedy.

      Horror in general is an interesting genre to compare to tragedy—it often offers the same feeling of doom in an indifferent or malevolent universe, but it differs in that (1), in many examples of the genre, at least one of the potential victims manages to defeat whatever evil is at hand, (thus implying there is hope), and (2), it also tends to replicate some of the features of satire, at least in so much as it implies “a better mode of conduct which people fail to live up to.” I think the EC stuff you mention falls into this character.

      I also don’t think Steranko gets anywhere near tragedy, though maybe you can point me to a particular story. Simply being cynical about fate isn’t enough — a tragedy tells a story about a man or woman’s downfall, usually brought on by themselves (though often due to some character trait they obviously have no control over).

      Anyway, great comment. Thanks, Matt!

      • Matt Seneca says:

        The Steranko story I was specifically thinking of was “Who Is Scorpio” in Nick Fury #1 — not the superhero action in the A story, but the “human interest” B story, where a compulsive gambler/failed standup comic twists his way through a net of Mafia assassins before getting blown to bits by a supervillain he’s got mysterious ties to. That specific end isn’t something the guy brings on himself, but you can tell from the beginning of the story that his inability to master himself (you first see him flubbing a punchline) is going to bring about his doom.

        But actually, I think “Today Earth Died” in Strange Tales #168 is a better example. It doesn’t focus too much around specific characters, which might (?) disqualify it, but it’s very definitely about the world’s tragedy — the masses accept an alien conqueror as master because they need so badly to believe some extranormal force, rather than change from within, will ultimately save them. Then it’s all humanity’s downfall, the apocalypse on the page, and it’s an apocalypse that wouldn’t have happened if we only had more cynicism and faith in ourselves.

        This is all me reading between the lines of those stories pretty heavy, but I do think the stuff is definitely there…

        • T. Hodler says:

          Hmm. It’s been a while since I’ve read either of those, and I’ll take a look at them this weekend, but I have to admit I’m pretty skeptical. There are pretty major differences between science-fiction fable and tragedy. (Action stories are different, too, which reminds me that I forgot to explain a major reason the Parker comics are definitely not tragic: Parker wins.) But I’ve forgotten the particulars of these Steranko storis, so maybe I’m wrong.

          Thanks in any case.

  4. Matt Seneca says:

    (that is, taking Inge’s statements as Total Fact… I too disagree with some of his points but the exercise is fun…)

    • T. Hodler says:

      I still haven’t read more than the first half of this book (another gaping hole in my reading), but will say that my impression is that Fun Home is not a tragedy, for the simple reason that it seems to be at least as much if not more about Bechdel’s journey as it is about her father’s. But I may be way off.

  5. Lastworthy says:

    Re: Hamlet- I haven’t read the article, so sorry if this is total retread, but It sounds like he’s using the Greek definition of tragedy (vs. British/modern) which has very specific requirements that almost no media today would fit. Greek tragedies call for a uniformity of tone that doesn’t allow for the level of comic relief Shakespeare (and Kentaro Miura) use.

    Personally, I don’t think that’s an effective filter for viewing modern works in any format. A lot of us don’t live in direct mortal fear of nature/fate in the quasi-religious way the old tragidies ask for, although Hubris is still a pretty effective .
    Also, there’s a lot of anguish in being the only guy in the scene not laughing. A lot of “Modern pain” centers around that shift in dynamics, either things not being as good as they were before, or a character being out of sync with the good around them. I dunno.

    • T. Hodler says:

      These are all good points, but I don’t think Inge was using Aristotle’s definitions of tragedy and comedy, but rather very idiosyncratic ones of his own. Unfortunately, he doesn’t describe in any specifics (except in the excerpt published above) why he excludes Hamlet.

      You are definitely right that later tragedies differ in any number of ways from the ancient Greek originals. Aristotle’s definition fully applies to only a very slim number of works.

  6. Lastworthy says:

    or, ya know, just like there are real, terrible, hopeless lives being led there are real, funny, bumbly people living in the background, and the contrast only makes things seem more brutal.
    I’m still not sure I’ve said what I mean.

  7. DerikB says:

    Aristophane’s Conte Demoniaque is in no way comedy. It is bleak and ends with no moral rightness. Amazing book.

    • T. Hodler says:

      Ha! It took me several reads before I realized you weren’t talking about some long lost play by the ancient Greek Aristophanes … It was kind of exciting to see someone so deeply devoted to the unconventional opinion that he didn’t write comedy!

      But thanks for the tip — Another book I really need to read. I’ve heard great things, and actually had this in the back of my mind as a possibility when I wrote that maybe the situation is different in Europe.

      • DerikB says:

        I could say Aristophanes isn’t comedy because I dont find him particularly funny, but that’s using a different definition. I prefer the tragedians anyway.

        If you can manage the French, track down a copy of Conte Demoniaque. Even if you can’t manage the French, the images are great. Check out the First Second translation of Zabime Sisters to get an idea, thought I think Conte is more visually powerful.

  8. R.M. Rhodes says:

    A historical comic that contained a serious chunk of tragedy was Terry and the Pirates. Caniff killed off a major character in October of 1941. The impact of this event was so signficant to the readers that Caniff actually had to go on the radio to defend the decision. For years afterwards, he got cards of condolence on the anniversary of her death.

    • T. Hodler says:

      Inge was definitely aware of Terry and the Pirates and cites it specifically in the essay as a strip essentially comic in nature. He doesn’t address the storyline in question, but I gather he would argue that the strip still displays “resolutions in favor of morality and a trust in the larger scheme of truth and justice.” It’s an important point, though — forms other than tragedy can and do tackle issues such as senseless death and misfortune.

      • R.M. Rhodes says:

        There are any number of comics that contain elements of tragedy, but are not explicitly so. Ditto comedy. Ditto action. Etc.

        One comic that is very explicitly tragic in nature is David B’s Epileptic.

  9. Jeet Heer says:

    I don’t think Inge’s point of reference is the classic Greek tragedies. In talking about “situational ethics or existential despair” he’s probably thinking about the classic bleak writers of the mid-century: Sartre, Camus, Beckett. Perhaps also Kafka. If that’s his point of comparison then I’d say there have been some counterparts in comics: someo of Crumb (who even adapted Kafka and Sartre), Ware, Brunetti, S. Clay Wilson. Really the whole tradition of “black” humor in comics.

    • T. Hodler says:

      I don’t think Inge was thinking about black humor or the artists you mention, Jeet, though I may be misinterpreting him. (And I stupidly left the book at home, so I can’t consult it until tonight to see if I’m wrong.) I definitely agree that black humor can be found in the work of almost all major twentieth-century cartoonists from the 1950s on, though.

      I am not equipped to exactly delineate the differences between black humor and tragedy, but the distinction my gut likes is that black humor aims for uneasy laughter, while tragedy means to inspire the audience’s “pity and fear.” These are probably porous categories though, and maybe I’m making too much out of one aspect of a twenty-year-old essay.

  10. Uland says:

    I think there might be something inherent in the form that demands resolution. “inherent” in the sense that our psychology urges us to make the first panel “A”, but “A” can’t be “A” until “Z” has been placed in the last panel. I might be overstating it, but it’s a very regimented, orderly form; even in the reading, you’re turning the neat little page unit to the next and starting with the correct sub-unit, they’re usually labelled with nice little numbers, so you even know where to put them in your long boxes, etc..
    So maybe the form doesn’t lend itself to disorder or discomfort . Even the work of Ware provides a pretty comforting view of misery; ultimately, if the author can invent and control these little figures that operate within this coherent system of pages and panels, so the reader believes he can too. In text-only literature, there is no insistence on associating a fleeting, or unresolved thought, with an object .Even if you’re making an “abstract” comic, you’re associating an idea with an image, something that I think provides some kind of sense of comfort-through-order.
    I don’t know any comic readers that don’t experience a feeling of comfort when they’ve got a stack next to them while they read, and – make of this what you will— you can’t escape the association comics have with childhood. even if you didn’t read comics in childhood, I think the urge to read them is related to a desire to re-experience elements of childhood, but this time on your own terms.
    I’ve tried to formulate an argument that comics are essentially conservative, but haven’t quite worked it out. There is something about ostensibly “transgressive” comics that seem really lame, almost to the point that they defy their apparent goals by presenting “dangerous” ideas in such a safe form. I sometimes grate against how buying comics feels like such a “boutique” experience —or a non-experience, really— because it’s such a controlled and safe deal, where the social doesn’t even seem to exist..
    I’m rambling..
    I really liked the post, Tim.

    • T. Hodler says:

      I have to think about all of this, Uland. I’m not sure comics are really more inherently ordered than other art forms, but I need to consider it a bit. Thanks.

  11. Uland says:

    By “conservative”, I think I actually mean bourgeois, but affectionately so.

  12. Uland says:

    Clearly, you just need to give it some more thought.

    • T. Hodler says:

      Ha ha. What gave you that impression?

      (Sorry my reply sucked — I wasn’t up to it yesterday, brain-power-wise, and am out the door to the BCGF today –)

  13. Uland says:

    Lame attempt at humor, sorry. I’m not convinced of my own thesis here, so I’m making fun of myself here..

  14. eddie campbell says:

    as usual, as soon as everybody chips in it becomes a complete muddle.

    re Terry and the Pirates and Raven Sherman: a piece isn’t a tragedy just because a death takes place. it’s a tragedy because the hero dies and his death can in retrospect be seen as inevitable from the outset (Hamlet), or he is doomed as in Oedipus where the whole mess is predicted by the Oracle at the beginning. In fact the subject of the whole thing is the hero’s inevitable doom. Epileptic isn’t a tragedy either. nether is From Hell, which doesn’t have a ‘hero’. Somebody once said to me that ‘comic’ is particularly a misnomer in relation to From Hell, and i replied, ‘I have never thought so’. Maus is comic in every sense.

    In Elizabethan terms, putting it simplistically, in tragedy the hero dies, in comedy he ‘gets the girl’.
    Reading the Inge quote, he appears to have made the whole thing too confused before he was even finished his essay.
    I can’t think offhand of a true tragedy in current popular culture, (though I’m sure I could by lunchtime). Nowadays the hero gets to have his vengeance without any moral comeuppance (Hamlet gets his vengeance but in doing so commits murder and the moral balance of things makes his own death unavoidable.) And to suggest that Parker is tragic is balonious in the extreme. In fact attempting to apply the concepts of a bygone age to our own age is jnot constructive.