Peddlers and Poets
The Lyric Clowns Who Captivated the Intelligentsia
Unabashedly commercial, comic strips have traditionally been a mass medium of the crassest sort. Introduced as circulation-building devices, comic strips were designed to appeal to the largest possible audience. They had to sell; therefore, they had to be popular. This coupling of imperatives is perhaps what makes comic strips so decidedly American. The comic strip was not invented in America, but the American way fostered the medium's rapid growth and development to an extent not achieved elsewhere. Propelled by the capitalistic impulses of the marketplace in free enterprise competition, the comic strip bloomed and flourished in a great variety of genres and styles. And despite its catchpenny function as commodity, the medium was capable of artistic achievements of a very high order. Popeye, as we've just seen, was such a creation--a complex expression of one man's artistic and moral sensibility. But Popeye was scarcely the only comic strip to qualify as high art.
That the crucible of commercial competition produced artistic as well as materialistic successes is beyond question. But it is the medium rather than the marketplace that is responsible. Comic strips are extraordinarily susceptible to individual creative impulse. A cartoonist is a kind of one- man band. Or, to employ a cinematic metaphor, a cartoonist is scriptwriter and story editor, casting director and camera operator, prop man and makeup artist, not to mention producer and director and actor and actress. Not all comics are produced by a single creative intelligence, but the medium readily permits such individual productions. And most of the greatest strips have been the expressions of a single creative vision, as unique with their creators as Popeye is with E. C. Segar. Among the most individual comic strip creations are the achievements of George Herriman and Walt Kelly.
These cartoonists are the lyric clowns of the medium. Their creations were bursts of poetry. Poetry in the literary tradition is a kind of word game: its great appeal lies in the sound and rhythm of the language and in the nuance and interplay of metaphor and meaning. Poetry is a game for the mind, an intellectual sport. And the creations of Herriman and Kelly--Krazy Kat and Pogo--are likewise divertissements for the mind. Their humor is intellectual rather than intestinal: we laugh in our heads not in our bellies.
In his 1924 book, The Seven Lively Arts, art critic Gilbert Seldes called Herriman's comic strip about an allegedly lunatic cat "the most amusing and fantastic and satisfying work of art produced in America today."1 This accolade and the accompanying lengthy analysis of the strip by one of the foremost critics of the day gave social and artistic respectability for the first time to the erstwhile