Funnybook Babylon

April 24, 2008

FBB Ten Cent Plague Convo Part 1: Bring Us Out A Bottle, We’ll Have Some Laughs

The Spirit, by Will Eisner.

David Hadju’s Ten Cent Plague is likely to be the most talked about cultural studies book of this year that discusses the art form that we all love. At some point in the future (i.e., when Joe and Chris read the book), we plan on having a Very Special Podcast dedicated to a discussion of the book. But I’m a very impatient man. So, I’m jumping the gun a bit with the first in a series of posts that will discuss some of the themes, and interesting things in the book. So far, it’ll be between me and Pedro. The idea is to do something like those Slate conversations about the Wire, except, you know, good.


I have a weakness for origin stories. It started with a desire to know the roots and motivations of characters and fictional worlds, and developed into an interest in the origins of nations, cultures, and industries. On a superficial level, this is one of the elements of Hadju’s book that I found intriguing as I read it. He writes a broad, but detailed sketch of the foundation of the comics industry, including the moment when comic books diverged as an art form (and as a commercial enterprise) from comic strips, and the evolution of its dominant genres. Interestingly, Hadju doesn’t dwell on the superhero “genre”(1), which is rather refreshing. He gives us a look at the beginnings of the horror, romance and crime genres, all of which were central to the ensuing uproar over the suitability of comics for children.

We also get a series of charming anecdotes about some of the ‘founding fathers’ of comics, from the entrepreneur and the creator side. One of the things that struck me was how nebulous and interchangeable those two categories were at that time. A lot of creators, from Will Eisner to Al Feldstein, flourished in a largely unnoticed art form produced by a still-developing industry.

On the other hand, I think that the ‘sweatshop’ production model implemented by most early publishers seemed to take advantage of the youth and inexperience of the creators. Creators had a strong desire to be accepted by an artistic community, and publishers provided that, at a steep price. Consider the work environment created by the Junior Gaines. On the surface, it was congenial, like a club house for creators who were shunned and mocked by the outside world. But at the same time, it was an effective tool for discouraging dissent, or at its worst, a sham used to cheat creators out of their hard earned paychecks (as in the cases of Feldstein and Sheldon Moldoff), and mislead them about the nature of the workplace.

As Hadju writes, “[a] few others saw Gaines’s conditional benevolence as manipulation. The late Harvey Kurtzman . . . objected strongly to his publisher’s claim to familial privilege and made the point by declining one of Gaines’s gifts. ‘Bill wanted to be Big Daddy, and Harvey resented it,” according to his widow, Adele Kurtzman . . . ‘Harvey said, ‘I want to be paid for what I do, I don’t want a gift’.”

There are some obvious, albeit less odious parallels in the mainstream comics industry today. Unlike other similar art forms, the traditional vision of the comics industry remains very similar to the sweatshop model established in the ’30s and ’40’s. There are very real similarities between the EC Comics gang and the Marvel Bullpen of the ’60’s, complete with a sense of jocularity masking inner conflict. Although comics are the one mass media art form that does not necessarily require large sums of money (and the requisite interference) that only a large corporation could provide, the most profitable and common ways of producing them still involve some version of the sweatshop workplace.

This reminds me of one of the counterfactuals favored by Joe and Douglas Wolk. If the comics industry didn’t have to deal with the War on Comics, would we still look back on ‘bullpens’ with a smile? I know, I know. That doesn’t happen anymore. But doesn’t the view of the comics publisher as kindly father acting as an intermediary for his ruly loveable kids come from this? The more we view the publisher as the arbiter of the comics one should buy, the less we focus on the creator. A lot of that has changed over the years, but there are still lot of people (including me) who will sometimes fall into the trap of buying a book because they trust the vision of the editor in chief. Is that ok? Should publishers be more like they are in books? I couldn’t tell you who Don Delillo’s publisher is, and I’m not loyal to Random House (even though I have undying loyalty to the fine folks at McGraw Hill). I care about authors.

Maybe if the War on Comics never happened, we would be closer to thinking that way. And maybe if cats barked, they’d be dogs. But that’s one of the things I was thinking about. What do you think?

(1) I don’t really know if super-hero comics are a genre.

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