Comics as their own thing (Campbell was right)

As a kind of bible of pure comedy, the early Mad falls remarkably short of perfection however influential. Where is the personal slander, the rambunctious sex, the mad philandering, the sublime depravity and the political skewering we expect of the richest sources of comedy? Over two millennia ago, Aristophanes was brilliantly mocking the tragedies of Euripides (Women at the Thesmophoria) and risking prosecution with forthright attacks on the leaders of Athens. Contrast this with what we get in Mad. In place of Aristophanes’ unrestrained invective, Shakespeare’s poetic discursions on self-delusion, Wilde’s acute observations of social norms, and Monty Python’s Dada flavored madness we get parodies of superheroes and pulp characters.

It’s somewhat ironic that Ng Suat Tong uses such high-Grothian criticism to put the boot into EC Comics, one of Gary Groth few sacred cows. Groth might have also invoked Aristophanes to skewer some quickly forgotten piece of pseudo art, some DC or Marvel pretense at doing literary superhero comics. There’s something very Pseuds Corner about this litany of unassailable comedic, literary giants being called to the stand in the case against EC Comics, as silly as Stan Lee calling on the shades of Michelangelo and Shakespeare (again) in defence of comics in one old Bullpen Bulletin column.


I like Chris Mautner’s summarisation of Ng Suat Tong’s position better:

In an essay that ran in issue #250 of The Comics Journal – and was recently republished on the Hooded Utilitarian website – the critic Ng Suat Tong took to task one of the comics’ most sacred cows, EC. In the essay, entitled EC Comics and the Chimera of Memory, Suat argues that nostalgia has blinded critics and readers to EC’s many faults; that while the house that Bill Gaines built might have influenced many and laid the groundwork for the underground era, the stories themselves rarely deserve the lofty reputation they have attained.

To which Gary Groth of course had to respond:

In the impoverished cultural context of comics publishing at the time, the EC line was an astonishing achievement; Gaines’s EC came as close as a mainstream comics publisher could to being the comics equivalent of Barney Rossett’s Grove Press. What other comics publisher would even think of adapting stories from the Saturday Evening Post, use stories by Guy de Maupassant, or steal from the best — Ray Bradbury?

Which, compared to Ng Suat Tong’s list comes off decidedly middlebrow. What’s significant though is, that again these are all literary examples, with art not getting a look in. Both miss Eddie Campbell’s point, in his “literaries” essay:

Writing comics is a special skill quite different from writing prose. But before you take it all apart, ask: can you take the pictures out of a sports cartoon, or reduce a clown’s circus performance to its plot? Can everything about a musical performance be conveyed in a stave of notes, or can everything about a film be known from its shooting script? Sometimes, while everybody else was watching the clock, the clown, the actor, the singer, the cartoonist, the writer even, because writers never have as much freedom as we think they have, have slipped their own story in between the tick and the tock.

You can’t judge comics by their writing, their plots alone, you can’t separate the art and writing that easily and judge either in isolation. What makes comics art is not the writing or the art, it’s both as whole. As everybody quoted here does, we’re still judging comics too much in terms of other media, in how well it lives up to our expectations of literay worth, or how well it resembles film, but we rarely look at comics holestically and as their own thing.

It doesn’t really matter whether or not EC Comics was entirely as good and revolutionary as mainstream comics history has it, or whether it was as overrated as Ng Suat Tong would have it: what matters is that it hasn’t been appreciated and critically evaluated in terms of its own thing, but always in terms of other media.

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