Cartoonists, Editors Debate Comic Strips
The ASNE morning session April 22 1950 was devoted to a discussion of the question, “Are We Making the Best Use of Our Comic Space?” Felix R. McKnight, Dallas Morning News, was chairman of a panel which included: Milton Caniff, creator of “Steve Canyon;” Al Capp, “Li’I Abner;” Leslie Turner, “Wash Tubbs;” Norman Isaacs, St. Louis Star-Times; and James S. Pope, Louisville Courier-Journal. A digest of the discussion follows:
Mr. McKnight: I came today to get a few answers about comics. I am afraid that too many do not know the answer.
I cannot speak for the rest of you, but I took a recess from rather exhaustive budget discussions to come to this meeting. I would suspect, however, that there are others in this room who have been giving their operations more than a casual eye the past few months.
Romance for Reporters
Most of the romance in the newspaper business now belongs almost exclusively to the reporters. Editors must keep an eye on page 1, the other on mounting costs and space limitations born of one factor, production costs.
So it is that comics have become something more than just a brief interlude of so-called amusement each day. Comics to me as an editor mean about $60,000 in my budget and close to ten columns of very precious space in every edition, space that also must be counted in those same dollars and cents.
It means that in most American newspapers comic pages, through insistent circulation department demands and similar shouts from the public, now consume more reading matter space than opinion-molding editorial pages.
Shouldn’t we be considering seriously what we are trying to do with that space? The primary purpose of comics is to entertain, but are there different levels of entertainment? Can we—or should we try to do anything more than entertain? Can comics, perhaps, effectively perform some other service, too? Is there any truth to the charge of some critics that there is too much blood and crime, too much sex for juvenile appetites?
Good questions to be answered, and today we hope to dive in head first and come up with concrete conclusions. We want it clearly understood that, regardless of the course this discussion might take, we are discussing an over-all problem and not endorsing or condemning individual features.
Some 70 million readers are daily entertained by approximately 100 cartoonists in this important field. In searching around for concrete material for the discussion, I came upon a piece written by the Baers, “Comic Cartoonists,” that proved up rather pertinent points. One concerned the ever-present problem child, the crime strips.
It was their contention that to get around the censors (or their own consciences) the writers and producers of crime strips assume that, if the guilty man receives his due reward in the end—either being killed by a G-man or going to jail — the story is justified. Meanwhile, however, scenes are carefully laid to show children how clever crimes are planned and committed.
To the juvenile or the adolescent mind, the Baers contend, the endings of crime strips are inconsequential. All that the child understands is that the tough guy is exciting and has exciting adventures. The murderer or thief may even become almost a hero to the child. The juvenile mind, contend the Baers, absorbs only the thrills of the story.
No writer of a comic strip, crime comic strip, today can ignore the recent agitation against these cartooned crimes and criminals.
A Public Indictment?
Four out of every five adults read comic strips, in addition to the children. It is a huge slice of this American way of life. It is a tremendous responsibility the American cartoonist and editor now carries. And it is probably time for both of us to face up to it. Let’s not kid ourselves about this matter. Producers of comic strips and complacent editors have some thinking to do, or we will face a public indictment charging dereliction of duty.
Lest it be said that I stand only as a prosecutor, I hasten to say that some comic strips and their artist creators have done exceedingly fine jobs in the field of entertainment. Some function rather nobly as good public servants in the furtherance of worthwhile projects. And some actually inject humor into the so-called funny papers of today.
We, as editors, are also to blame for much of the agitation. Frankly, I think few of us are qualified judges of comic strips.
I am going to call on an artist to open the discussion. Leslie Turner, the artist who draws “Captain Easy,” in early 1949 did something which 600 American newspapers and a good part of the public acclaimed. He created, in an expert manner, a tremendously successful episode on Alcoholics Anonymous in “Captain Easy.”
He did exhaustive research to get authentic material and the response was terrific. Today we have asked Leslie Turner to give us a ten-minute slide presentation of that alcoholic episode which demonstrates, rather powerfully, that a comic strip can be a potent instrument for the public good.
Mr. Turner: (Slide pictures of continuity.) The continuity ran 16 weeks in the newspapers. I’d like to point out that this was written in the spring of 1949, when mounting objections to certain comic books had many of the newspaper comic strip artists on the defensive. I wanted a human interest story with a strong appeal to women, that would help answer this criticism. Obviously, my problem was to unite Cathy with her father and bring about his rehabilitation. But so far, I had not committed myself definitely on what Gig Wilty’s weakness was to be. If he had been just a bum or a weakling, it would have been hard to make his sudden rehabilitation convincing, and would have lacked novelty. An alcoholic, on the other hand, could be a fine person, basically, who was temporarily down. I had known several cases intimately, and I thought I saw dramatic and human interest possibilities, as well as opportunities for a really constructive effort, so I made my decision at this point.
At first I was afraid only of the taboo on liquor as a subject for comic strip narration. Later, after I had studied my material, I feared the presentation of certain facts, necessary to understand the character, might make dull reading. And while I was thoroughly sold on the good that Alcoholics Anonymous was doing and felt it was an uncontroversial subject that deserved publicizing, I knew that first of all I had to get an interesting story together.
Problem of Alcoholic
Another problem I had was to avoid offending either wets or drys, and to create sympathy for an alcoholic even on the part of those whose natural inclination is anything but sympathetic to anyone who uses liquor. So I had to make it clear that the alcoholic (in contrast to the average drinker) does not always drink from choice, and thus cannot quit on his own initiative without the right kind of help. And this information had to be put across without the sacrifice of narrative interest.
When it came to gathering my material, I first went to the secretary of an AA group in my home town of Orlando, Florida, and got an armful of pamphlets and books, pamphlets from the Yale Plan on Alcoholism, from the Yale Laboratory of Applied Psychology, from the Alcoholic Foundation, from doctors and ministers. Later I interviewed a number of AA members.
I soon saw that the subject was too complex to boil down for a comic strip without sacrificing much that should be said for a clear understanding. But there was a possibility that the smattering I used might create sufficient interest in a few to make them dig deeper for themselves. And the greatest compliment that I had on the handling of the chief character, Gig Wilty, was the large number of AA members who wrote to me asking if I weren’t a member, too.
Wolf Girl’s Diet
Chairman McKnight: Our second artist guest is a pretty good-sized chunk of America. He is known the world over and he has gained this reputation through phenomenal success of perhaps the most original comic strip in all history. He has introduced many an idiom into the English “slanguage” and he has entertained millions with his Dogpatch doings.
Not even in rugged Texas have we acquired cannibalistic tendencies. So it was that a few years ago even our toughest Texans winced a couple of times when they saw one of Al Capp’s characters, the muscular Wolf Girl, casually grazing on the posteriors of some of her victims.
We are not against good sirloin out in the cattle country, but the Wolf Girl’s lusty appetite was a little too much for our strong readership in the Bible Belt. The letters promptly piled in and I promptly baled them up and sent them along to Mr. Capp. Apparently the same reaction had set in, even in the vegetarian sectors, for the Wolf Girl soon changed menus.
Mr. Capp: The reason I draw a strip like “Li’l Abner” is because there is an atmosphere in America today that makes me afraid to do any other kind of strip. The kind of strip I could have drawn twenty years ago, the kind of strip I could have drawn even ten years ago is impossible today. Ten years ago I lovingly blasted the pants off of big business, big labor, big political windbags. Ten years ago I could lovingly kick whatever was kickable in American life, and nobody screamed that I was attacking the very foundations of American life—everybody just laughed. Twenty years ago Will Rogers could say, “America never lost a war or won a conference” without being damned as undermining public confidence in this Republic. All we did was laugh at what he said, love him for saying it and ruefully admit that he was right.
Fifty years ago Mark Twain could attack the hypocrisy of certain established American moralities. He could ridicule whatever was ridiculous in American Government. He could ask for pity for the helpless and the inarticulate. He could call a fake a fake, even if it was an important fake. All that happened to Mark Twain was that he was beloved, honored and made rich.
Mark Twain could not exist today. Will Rogers could not speak today as he spoke twenty years ago. I’m afraid to draw the kind of comic strip today that I drew ten years ago because I’m afraid that America is losing its most precious freedom – a freedom more unique and truly American than all other freedoms. I call it the Fifth Freedom, the freedom of Americans to laugh at themselves. As one who is in the business of laughter, I think that a nation that is willing to laugh at itself is a nation confident in its strength, its future and its rightness.
We have not lost that freedom here. We mustn’t lose it. We mustn’t lose the confidence in our rightness, our decency, and our strength that we as a nation had when Mark Twain, Artemus Ward, Petroleum V. Nasby, Tom Nast, Finley Peter Dunne, George Ade, Will Rogers – that whole great tradition of magnificent, shrewd, hard-hitting, hilarious American humorists looked at America, loved it, kicked it in the pants where it needed kicking, and were beloved for it.
These delightful and disrespectful and useful citizens didn’t have to be afraid that, if they created a Shmoo, a perfectly ordinary li’l animal that both laid eggs and gave milk, both grade A, of course; a li’l animal that tasted like chicken when it was fried and came out steak when you broiled it, that this poor li’l critter would be suspected by labor of being an attack on the honest workingman (Capp, that black-souled capitalist) or an attack on big business by Capp, that dangerous liberal. They didn’t have to be afraid, like I am, that if a character in “Li’l Abner,” who eats regularly, owns his own business, employs people, turns out to be a stinker, it is a concealed attack on free enterprise.
What in thunder are we nervous about? We’re a great and strong and good nation. We’re so rich in strength and greatness and goodness that we can afford the luxury of laughing at ourselves. Let’s not bankrupt our humorists. Let’s not take away from them the privilege of making fun of the ridiculous and wonderful things that constitute American life.
Honestly, I’m so scared of offending anybody in the present atmosphere of American humor that I won’t kid anybody at all that’s real or can be twisted into meaning. I am so scared that I created a whole mythical world, that of Lower Slobbovia. I did that to protect myself. It’s safe to kid them in Lower Slobbovia because they ain’t.
Let’s not so terrify our humorists that they don’t dare poke fun at anything except Slobbovians, California weather and Bing Crosby. Let’s give America back to ’em. And don’t be afraid that the humorist has any bias – social, political or ideological. If he had any bias, he couldn’t be a humorist. The humorist is a free-wheeling soul. He finds his fun in the entire American scene, in the highest places and in the lowest, in all kinds of people and ideas and groups and ways of being. The humorist finds the ridiculous wherever it is and laughs at it, and we laugh with him. And we’re better for it. We’re stronger for it.
America is one of the last countries where we can still enjoy the Fifth Freedom, the freedom of laughing at ourselves. Let’s not lose that freedom, because, without it, the other freedoms aren’t any fun.
Chairman McKnight: There is case No. 1 for the artists. The first batter up on the editorial side is one of the country’s most able editors – a man who has devoted much of his life to sane editing and constant work for the betterment of the American press.
Mr. Pope: In this animated comic strip Marse Felix has whomped up for you, I suspect the only part I can play is that of a fine old Kentucky gentleman- Weakeyes Yokum. I stumble through this comic business with my hands out in front of me, bumping into hillbillies, heroes and gangsters, without being too sure which is which. As a matter of fact, the only way I can tell Daisy Mae from Three-Gun Carson is just simply a matter of arithmetic.
I queried a group of top editors around the country to see if there was a comic strip problem and what they thought it was. I am going very briefly to run over for you the problems that seem to be on their minds and quote one or two of the comments.
No. 1 is the matter of sex.
Somewhat to my surprise I found less concern about the treatment of sex in comic strips than I expected. Perhaps one of my correspondents had the answer because he seemed to think that sly and smirking references to sex and dude drawings had been greatly improved during the last few years, maybe by the weight of editorial and public opinion.
That may be perfectly true. I might say it doesn’t quite satisfy me. I think maybe we are all afraid of seeming prudish if we complain about sex in comic strips.
I believe Mr. Caniff has been quoted as saying that they draw for the eye not of the managing editors, but of the circulation managers. Maybe one trouble is (and I don’t mean this about Mr. Caniff at all) that they draw for either of us. God knows this group is beyond redemption. I don’t think any comic strip can hurt us. But there is a time when boys and youngsters are supposed to have some reverence for females of the opposite sex.
I don’t want to injure anybody’s fun, but I still think there is a point we have to watch. Those kids in their teens are going through a period in which they are trying to find out about this explosive business and what it is all about, and sex is pretty tough on them. I just do not think we should make it any harder on them.
One of my correspondents said, “I really think comics have improved along the sex line. There was a time when the drawing was pretty extreme and we had to throw out some material in the bedroom line. Our worst offender is Al Capp. He seems to take delight in putting over a double meaning.”
The second problem I ran into, of course, is that of torture and murder. One editor said: “I’d rather leave the gangsters, gun molls and murderers to radio.”
I’m sure he’ll make room there for television. I think television, with its facilities for realism, is going to put us out of the torture-murder racket, and I’m glad. All artists will have to resort to more originality and imagination in that field. Another editor said: “I think the crime and violence comics are the worst. We carry no crime or detective strips.” That really surprised me. It is an immensely successful newspaper and I had an idea you had to carry crime and detective strips to be successful.
Here is the sleeper problem, to me at least – propaganda.
I expected some passion about one type of propaganda – an artist trying to peddle his own personal opinions through his character – but I found (and I was surprised at the extent and fervor of the feeling, in many cases) a sort of uprising against all propaganda in comic strips for any purpose.
The worthiness of the cause seems to be irrelevant. The idea is that they do not think propaganda belongs in a comic strip. The artist thinks that his characters belong to him and he can promote anything he wants, but the editors who will look calmly on while the hot-blooded Brooklyn girl tries to rape Li’l Abner and feel no compunction for their readers when the crudest sort of physical torture is being inflicted, will blow their tops completely if they see a torch being held up in a comic strip for, say, a cancer fund or any kind of propaganda at all.
I think that is something that they should think about. Here is a sample:
“Our comic and adventure strips have gone sour when their creators start carrying a torch or delivering a great message. When Ham Fisher or Al Capp undertakes to publicize a venture or movement unconnected with the continuity of his strip, he falls flat on his face. Example: ‘Notice in a Palooka strip that Tonite on behalf of the Runyon Cancer Fund, Humphrey Pennyworth and H.F. will discuss the coming Joe Palooka – Humphrey title fight on the Jack Smith Radio Show’.”
Another says: “The artists seem to think they’re better than the newspapers they serve. A group of them will get together and decide to support a bond drive. The bond drive is all right, but it’s up to the individual paper what it does about drives.”
My own complaint is a little different than those. I do not like to see my comic friends commercialized. I do not like to see any of them recommending some soap flake or some breakfast food.
The last point I have is this, and it is more or less a summary: “Comic strips should be comicker.”
Here is a comment of the managing editor of a top national newspaper:
“I am in favor of anything that will bring comics back to the funny pages. Readers want it, too. I have proof in our latest Continuing Study Survey. Our No. 1 comic is a daily humorous panel about women, but no accent on thighs or busts. No. 2 is a clean but amusing account of daily domestic trials. No. 3 is a perennial, corny but still funny (Mutt and Jeff). The killer-dillers were close behind these.”
A Sunday editor’s seminar at Columbia showed 42 percent of comic-strip readers want something light and funny; 24 percent, just over half, prefer adventure, like Canyon, Tracy, Terry, etc.; only 12 percent prefer tear-jerkers like Orphan Annie; and 12 go for slapstick. Li’l Abner, I suppose, is slapstick, but actually no label will hold it. Its appeal goes far beyond that of the conventional slapstick.
I guess what I actually resent about comics is that the artists are so much smarter than we are. We have all these polls that show that comics are so popular. We have to deal with life, with no limitations; yet we haven’t been smart enough to take that material and find the technique for presenting it in a way that will compete with these ersatz drawings of people who go through rather wooden motions. I think we ought to worry about it. I would like to see ourselves getting a little closer to being the smart guys.
Mr. Caniff: I think we know our trade and one of the reasons I think we know our trade is because of the way we came into it. I wasn’t so conscious until this morning when I looked at the people here how much I had reached my present job by way of picking the brains of men like you.
Our job is with you because it is a fact that we are not just people sitting in New York drawing pictures for you to syndicate and to pay us for, but to use us as local cartoonists. The minute we forget the fact that we are local cartoonists engaged in selling your newspapers, then we have missed our point altogether, because there is just no excuse at all for a low-priced or a high-priced comic strip being in the newspaper unless it sells tomorrow’s paper. It is true of the cliff-hanger thing; it is true with Li’l Abner or Blondie. We have to try to get the nickel for tomorrow’s paper or we have not justified our existence.
Never in the history of the newspaper business has the feature been as important as it is now. Our function of holding interest is to offset the fact that the news flash is no longer important. You do not sell extras on the street as you once did. The television news-reel has taken away the headline qualities of the newspaper’s pictures. It becomes necessary for us to appear in the paper to hold the reader’s interest. We are the liaison between you and your reader in the twenty-four hours between his purchases of your newspaper. That is what we attempt to do.
I do not attempt to attribute to the comic strip qualities they do not deserve. No comic strip has ever come close to that of a given news story or that of a given picture on a given day in human interest, but the greatest story or the most vivid photographic beat finally runs its course and, though well remembered, sooner or later ceases to have value to the publication as a certain holder of circulation.
It always gives me pleasure to hear some latter-day Anthony Trollope complain that “one cannot travel about America without encountering the veddy same little pictures in each newspaper.”
Far from indicating assembly line thinking, it demonstrates the unity of basic markets that has enabled motor car manufacturers in Detroit to produce cars with interchangeable parts, obtainable at the remotest filling station 3,000 miles away without payment of duty, where gasoline and oil are chargeable on a credit card good in any state in the Union.
The sectionalized and localized differences in reader interest seem negligible when one considers that no syndicate has a written a rule or style sheet to guide the new cartoonist.
Granting this initial interest and his obvious value to the individual newspapers to which his feature is sold, the cartoonist is bound on his part to produce an entertainment device that is a vaudeville of attractions. Great humor strips such as “Blondie” and “Li’l Abner” seldom need more than the one facet to recommend them, but, as with any novelist, we who do the narrative cartoons have the use of all the human emotions to vary the fare and make ourselves valuable to individual clients in each city. It does not matter why the person buys the strip – for humor or for adventure or for escape or for the pleasure they get out of it – as long as he pays his money and we cause him to pay his money we have justified our existence in your newspaper.
Mr. Isaacs: I think there is a good deal wrong with comic strips. I do not say all comic strips – and I do not even say many comic strips. But I think there is enough wrong with enough comic strips to be a matter of grave concern to all of us here.
I speak for scores of my colleagues, many of whom have talked with me earnestly in the corridors adjoining this room and in some of the other retreats in this building. They are all concerned. Most of us devote about 10%, more or less, of our total news content to comic strips. That is a tremendous proportion given over to one, single type of presentation. Monopoly cities, of course, can get away with less space, but in competitive newspaper situations, it is generally true that the percentage runs higher – in some cases as high as 12%.
I suppose that is the greatest endorsement of comic strips possible. We consider them vital and necessary. Among the people here who have talked to me, one of their big complaints is that the comics are no longer funny. That has been answered in part today by the observations of what the people want being an adventure or escape comic strip. I am willing to agree. But the biggest complaint seems to center around the fact that in many comic strips the function of editorship has been surrendered to the syndicate and to the comic strip artist.
Mr. White on this platform yesterday during his magnificent picture demonstration spoke about prudery in news picture judgment, and I agree with him on many, many points; however, what is true in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles or St. Louis is not necessarily true in Sedalia, Missouri, or Crawfordsville, Indiana. These daily newspapers in cities of that size and larger cities are not edited by prudes, but I think it is fairly safe to say that the readership is not as sophisticated.
What recourse has an editor in these small cities or in even some of the larger ones when he thinks that the comic strip artist has gone over the line? He writes a letter to the syndicate. The question is: How is that letter treated? Usually he gets a nice placating answer saying that they are taking it up with the artist and that they hope to do something about it, but what they do with it, of course, is file, fumble and forget.
I think all of us are interested in the problem of the youngsters. The comics in many instances are their first introduction to mediocrity. Somehow, in some way, we are going to have to do something about this mental marijuana we feed our kids.
I am glad that Milt Caniff was on this panel because I can say that he is one comic strip cartoonist with a real sense of responsibility. I hope that Milt can convey to his fellow cartoonists in their society the need for some kind of responsible editing. Unfortunately, there are not very many in the cartoon business with that attitude, because we have other cartoonists about which I have written a good many letters which have been filed, fumbled and forgotten.
It seems to me that too many newspaper editors in this country and too many newspaper cartoonists are shutting their eyes to the agitation in many responsible organizations about comic strips, and I am not talking about comic books. I think many of you know about the diligent efforts made by the Criminal Law Section of the American Bar Association to come to grips with this matter. A good friend of many of us here is James V. Bennett, Director of Prisons of the Federal Government, who serves as Secretary of the Criminal Law Section of the American Bar Association. He is here in this room today. Jim has spent years studying this whole general problem and he sent me a letter and a lot of material showing the kind of things that are going on in the country. I would like to read a part of Jim’s letter to you.
He says that he has heard debates on the same issue and lots of times there is a good deal of banter and wisecracking to put across the ideas of the comic strip cartoonist, which usually is to the effect that kids are pretty realistic people and are not taken in by the stuff they read in the comics, nor do they try to imitate the sort of things that are depicted in the script.
Here I quote directly:
“My feeling is that the best sort of answer to this type of approach is that some comic strips are in no sense harmful and give the young reader an escape from the sometimes stuffy and not infrequently sordid stories appearing in news columns, but to insist that the comics be carefully chosen, given careful editorial scrutiny, be not used as a propaganda medium as is frequently the case (e.g., “Little Orphan Annie”), and keep out of them realistic blood and thunder that can be imitated by young people. I think that the comics are very vulnerable on the point that none of them I have ever seen are really character-building, contain any attractive characters that the young person can hero-worship, or have any literary value. Most of them are trash from the literary standpoint, usually contain very little humor and not infrequently are a mark and measure of editorial and news standards.”
It seems to me what the comic strip artist in America has to realize is that we and he are a team, that we deserve some voice in the editing or at least that we deserve an earnest hearing. What we need is a reform on the editing level. Newspaper cartoonists, generally speaking, have to grow up, and I think we have had enough of what amounts to a very bad case of progressive retrogression.
Richard Clarke, New York Daily News: I want to take exception to one of Mr. Isaacs’ comments. He says that letters of complaint about comic strips are filed and forgotten. I cannot presume to speak for syndicates generally, but I can speak for one and we do not get many letters; not as many as we should get. But when we get them, we see that they go to the artist and we make a few editorial comments ourselves if we think the complaint is justified. As I said, we do not get enough letters and I think the editors who have thoughts on these matters would help us a lot if they would take a little more time to write.
Paul S. Walcott, Greenfield Recorder-Gazette: Would it be in order to ask for an expression of sentiment here on the question that was raised with respect to these commercial promotions. Do they help the strip or not?
Chairman McKnight: We will have a show of hands first on the “Li’l Abner” characters sold commercially as dolls by those who object.
[There were three.]
Chairman Mcknight: Now a show of hands by those who object to the use of “Li’l Abner” characters in advertising campaigns.
[There were approximately 40 to 50.]
Chairman McKnight: On the first issue you are out in the clear. On the second one it is fairly well divided.