Last week everybody got really upset at Frank Miller for making a critical statement about the Occupy Wall Street movement -- one in which the comics great sounded more like one of his macho, trigger-happy characters than an informed or reasoned political commentator. It's the kind of statement a lot of people have come to expect from the increasingly conservative Miller, but it was my immediate thought that comics shouldn't be surprised when this kind of reactionary thinking emerges from anyone associated with the medium.
The sequence above is from half a week of Frank King's classic, influential Gasoline Alley strip in 1927. It's neither the first nor the most famous instance of King poking fun at the post-World War I, pre-Depression modernist arts scene: in a much-reprinted Sunday page from a few years later, the strip's father-son duo Walt and Skeezix take a dreamlike meander through a post-Impressionist landscape they see in a museum canvas and emerge decidedly unimpressed. "That was an awful dream!" Skeezix exclaims in the strip's final panel, after being told by one of the painting's distorted inhabitants that "there is no way out". "Or was it a dream at all?" the boy muses to a knowing audience.
The politics behind King's critiques of modernism are interesting enough to warrant some unpacking. In Gasoline Alley's golden era of the mid-'20s through early '30s, comics were still very much a "low", populist art, with a few Gilbert Seldes paragraphs on Krazy Kat about all the form had to show as far as cultural cachet goes. King, an engaged observer of the modern arts, was doubtless aware of his status as an artist for the masses rather than the privileged few -- a status all cartoonists of his day shared, and all but enough to count on one's fingers do today as well. While it's unclear whether or not King himself resented this, he certainly got mileage for his strip by tapping into a kind of populist resentment of a high-art scene that was making rapid strides away from relatability and depictive realism toward theory, formalism, and personalized expression.
King himself was an experimentalist, pushing the formal boundaries of comics in ways that still echo today in the work of cartoonists from Ware to Quitely and beyond, so perhaps it's unfair to paint him too heavily as the reactionary artistic conservative. But then again, his conflation of Einsteinian physics with the modern literature he satirizes hints at a real unease with the changes occurring in the wider world around him, not just its high art. It's easy enough to do a reading of the homespun, quiet Gasoline Alley as a staunchly conservative "family values" strip, and the answer to Skeezix's question about whether early 20th-century modern art might all just be a bad dream has implications for the wider form of comics, not just King himself. That answer, of course, is a resounding "No" -- since the Sunday strip in question's publication in 1930, figurative painting and drawing have only receded further into the background of the contemporary arts, and literature has suffered a near-total loss of its pre-eminence as a storytelling medium.
King's criticisms of abstracted modernism as a resolutely figure-based, humanist artist-in-comics are almost prescient: as painting has moved further and further toward the theoretical, comics have stood out in greater and greater contrast as the last refuge for the great figurative draftsmen to ply their trade in. A similar phenomenon can be seen in comics' relationship to prose fiction, perhaps best exemplified by the major chain bookstores' reliance on comics to stay solvent as the printed book went the way of the dinosaur. The conventional action of comics comes close to insisting on the story and the figure, and where it doesn't the market certainly does. As comics have grown from a medium of simple stories intended for children into one patronized by amateur historians and archivists wary of any idea that breaks the continuity of the perceived smooth progression from its past to its present, works in which theoretical or abstract concerns are more prominently displayed on the page than figurative ones have routinely been met with outright hostility, a retrenching of comics' self-policed borders: we don't have any room here for that. The fact of such works' publication and popularity with a small specialty audience means little. They have not caught on. They have not changed the mechanics of the comics world the way modernism changed literature and the fine arts.
If comics are not quite the final bastion of figurative art and novelistic storytelling, they are not too far away from it either. They are at the very least a place for traditional artistic values that have been discarded elsewhere thrive. Of course, comics' acting as a repository for lost wisdom doesn't preclude its ability to function as a progressive site for innovation as well; but it makes things harder. When a medium grows a preservationist focus, a simultaneous focus on expansion both becomes more difficult and can constitute a challenge to the relevance of what is being preserved. Viewed from this angle, it seems very much that comics is just a conservative artistic space. The community's slight lean toward political liberality (common enough in artistic circles) aside, comics more than any other medium during the past hundred years has been built on nostalgism and resistance to change. Artists' total failure to push back against their editorial overlords and stand strong for a space in which they could have a proper means of artistic expression is the story between the lines of the universally accepted statement that "reduced strip sizes killed newspaper comics". And the newspaper strip's replacement as the medium's most popular delivery mechanism -- the pamphlet genre comic book -- has undergone only one serious challenge to its hegemony over the past seven decades: the small-press underground comic, whose intense popularity in the mid-to-late 1960s rivaled that of the superhero books for a period that lasted perhaps a thousand days in total.
The narrative that the comics community has spun as a counter to this idea is one of increasing freedom of content and artistic virtuosity: comforting thoughts, and not unsupportable ones either. But audience acceptance of the work that gives this narrative its merit has been patchy -- so much so that the vast majority of the artists whose work functions as its evidence are unable even to make a living from their comics alone. The people who read comics and give comics their money have never been comfortable with material that goes beyond the look and feel of canonized past works. How bizarre and unhealthy is it that "artistic growth" in comics is and has been almost totally restricted to finding different ways of working within the same set of formal boundaries that have remained in place since the 19th century? People have to see those better, braver comics for the notion of their very existence -- let alone their growing prominence -- to have any currency. And they don't. Comics, by and large, wants more of the same, and if it reminds us of some rose-colored and distant past, so much the better.
All this being said, however, it's difficult to know where to go from this point. While a few comics have successfully discarded the figurative and the narrative to break new ground for the form, few would argue that these works are as satisfying or engaging as the best of the medium's more conventional stories. Personally, I even find it difficult to imagine that the kind of concerted exploration that painting gave abstraction and hard theory a century ago would yield results as valuable as the works of a Picasso or a Duchamp in comics. For me, and for almost every other participant in the comics industry I've spoken about these issues with, comics are inherently narrative, inherently figurative, and while work done outside these boundaries can be interesting, it can never get at the highest potentials for excellence the medium offers. Perhaps the only thing that can be done with this opinion is to admit that the notion of inherence, of nature determining form, is the bedrock of the conservative mindset -- to acknowledge that just because you can see there is a problem doesn't mean you aren't a part of it too.
I fail to see anything surprising about Miller's statements -- neither as the views of an individual or a statement made on the behalf of comics as a whole. Artistic conservatism is cultural conservatism. Miller merely speaks a politicized version of the mindset that's been a part of comics from the cradle.