Friday, December 16, 2016

Prole Art Threat: The Gong, Time, Work-Discipline, and the Revolt Against Industrial Capitalism in Batman #55

The Guides, the Wardens of our faculties, 
And Stewards of our labour, watchful men 

And skilful in the usury of time,
Sages, who in their prescience would controul 

All accidents and to the very road
Which they have fashion'd would confine us down
Like engines...

 (Wordsworth, The Prelude)

by BK Munn

The origin of Ed Peale, alias The Gong. He’s shaped like a bell! Comic book supervillains were originally working class rebels, of course. Let's see how millionaire Bruce Wayne teams up with the cops to discipline The Gong’s revolt in ‘The Bandit of the Bells!’ (Batman #55, reprinted in Batman #198) –art by Charles Paris, 1949.

I've written before about how the villains are the only truly revolutionary --or even proletarian-- figures in superhero comic books, and here is another great example.

Here we have a supervillain after my own heart, a rebel against the false industrial time-disciplines of the school and factory punch-clock; an autodidact scholar and historian who schemes to befuddle millionaire do-gooders, banks, and the forces of order. And here we see the delicious class conflict at work within the industrial structure of DC comic book sweatshop production as well. The uncredited writer (probably the great Bill Finger) and artist Charles Paris --both working as "ghosts" for Batman creator Bob Kane, who's signature is on the title page of the story but who had nothing to do with the day-to-day creation of the comics by his "studio"-- are clearly engaging in a bit of fun with their own deadline-controlled world. The ticking clock and figurative bells of all sorts make great villains and what young reader hasn't chafed against their restrictions as against Dickens' Gradgrind? 

But the battle between student/worker goes beyond the schoolyard. The Marxist historian E.P. Thompson wrote eloquently on this conflict, in an essay called "Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capital":

"In all these ways - by the division of labour; the supervision of labour; fines; bells and clocks; money incentives; preachings and schoolings; the suppression of fairs and sports —.new labour habits were formed, and a new time-discipline was imposed.) It sometimes took several generations (as in the Potteries), and we may doubt how far it was ever fully accomplished: irregular labour rhythms were perpetuated (and even institutionalized) into the present century, notably in London and in the great ports.

Throughout the nineteenth century the propaganda of time-thrift continued to be directed at the working people, the rhetoric becoming more debased, the apostrophes to eternity becoming more shop-soiled, the homilies more mean and banal. In early Victorian tracts and reading-matter aimed at the masses one is choked by the quantity of the stuff. But eternity has become those never-ending accounts of pious death-beds (or sinners struck by lightning), while the homilies have become little Smilesian snippets about humble men who by early rising and diligence made good. The leisured classes began to discover the "problem" (about which we hear a good deal today) of the leisure of the masses. A considerable proportion of manual workers (one moralist was alarmed to discover) after concluding their work were left with
"several hours in the day to be spent nearly as they please. And in what manner ... is this precious time expended by those of no mental cultivation . . . We shall often see them just simply annihilating those portions of time. They will for an hour, or for hours together ... sit on a bench, or lie down on a bank or hillock ... yielded up to utter vacancy and torpor ... or collected in groups by the road side, in readiness to find in whatever passes there occasions for gross jocularity; practising some impertinence, or uttering some jeering scurrility, at the expense of persons going by ... "
 This, clearly, was worse than Bingo: non-productivity, compounded with impertinence. In mature capitalist society all time must be consumed, marketed, put to use; it is offensive for the labour force merely to "pass the time". "

These sound like some of the same critiques levelled by Wertham against the hooky clubs of juvenile delinquents who spent time away from school reading comics books!

Thompson wraps up with a glorious, utopian vision of so-called leisure time and the revolt aginst a puritan view of time-keeping:

"And there is a sense, also, within the advanced industrial countries, in which this has ceased to be a problem placed in the past. For we are now at a point where sociologists are discuss- ing the "problem" of leisure And a part of the problem is: how did it come to be a problem ? Puritanism, in its marriage of convenience with industrial capitalism, was the agent which converted men to new valuations of time; which taught children even in their infancy to improve each shining hour; and which saturated men's minds with the equation, time is money.128. One recurrent form of revolt within Western industrial capitalism, whether bohemian or beatnik, has often taken the form of flouting the urgency of respectable time- values. And the interesting question arises: if Puritanism w a s a necessary part of the work-ethos which enabled the industrialized world to break out of the poverty-stricken economies of the past, will the Puritan valuation of time begin to decompose as the pressures of poverty relax ? Is it decomposing already ? Will men begin to lose that restless urgency, that desire to consume time purposively, which most people carry just as they carry a watch on their wrists ? 

If we are to have enlarged leisure, in an automated future, the problem is not "how are men going to be able to consume all these additional time-units of leisure ?" but "what will be the capacity for experience of the men who have this undirected time to live ?" If we maintain a Puritan time-valuation, a commodity-valuation, then it is a question of how this time is put to use, or how it is exploited by the leisure industries. But if the purposive notation of time-use becomes less compulsive, then men might have to re-learn some of the arts of living lost in the industrial revolution: how to fill the interstices of their days with enriched, more leisurely, personal and social relations; how to break down once more the barriers between work and life. And hence would stem a novel dialectic in which some of the old aggressive energies and disciplines migrate to the newly- industrializing nations, while the old industrialized nations seek to rediscover modes of experience forgotten before written history begins."

Heady stuff for a children's Batman comic book, but this is the genius of The Gong!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Umberto Eco On Fascism and His Introduction to U.S. Comics, or, "Is Dick Tracy Fascist or Not?"

Dick  Tracy on the cover of Super Comics #71, April 1944

by BK Munn

I recently came across this great concise summary of Umberto Eco's list of 14 characteristics of fascism. When you follow the links, you get the full original essay from The New York Review of Books, in which Eco talks a bit about growing up in Italy in the '40s under Mussolini and the liberation of his small town by partisan rebels and U.S. soldiers: 

"A few days later I saw the first American soldiers. They were African Americans. The first Yankee I met was a black man, Joseph, who introduced me to the marvels of Dick Tracy and Li’l Abner. His comic books were brightly colored and smelled good."

Chester Gould's Dick Tracy comic strip was translated to comic books many times. During the years of World War II it was reprinted in Dell's Super Comics alongside other funny pages cohorts like Little Orphan Annie. Perhaps this is how Eco first encountered the strip? Likewise, Al Capp's L'il Abner was a regular feature in Tip Top Comics during the same period. 

I wonder, by mentioning them here, is Eco hinting at the weird right-wing politics of Gould and Capp and their comic strip tough-guy counterparts? Or is he simply conflating his budding awareness of the wonders of U.S. pop culture with this primal example of the democratic nature of post-Fascist society?  As usual with Eco and his playful essays, there is probably a lot more going on than it seems on the surface. 

Is Tracy fascist? Eco starts his piece by wondering why the Italian "Fascist" became the default term for describing any and all varieties of totalitarian strongman, from dictator or president right on down the line to your friendly neighbourhood cop on the beat.   

"During World War II, the Americans who took part in the Spanish war were called “premature anti-fascists”—meaning that fighting against Hitler in the Forties was a moral duty for every good American, but fighting against Franco too early, in the Thirties, smelled sour because it was mainly done by Communists and other leftists. … Why was an expression like fascist pig used by American radicals thirty years later to refer to a cop who did not approve of their smoking habits? Why didn’t they say: Cagoulard pig, Falangist pig, Ustashe pig, Quisling pig, Nazi pig?"

Tracy is a cop, and his tough-guy, decades-long merciless war on crime was calcified and largely out of favour by the time the late-60s counter-culture was in full bloom (although it didn't stop Underground cartoonists like Jay Lynch and Robert Crumb from seeking an audience with Gould in his Herald-Tribune office in 1968). Cantankerous conservatives Gould and the acerbicly satiric Al Capp (think of Capp vs John Lennon and Yoko Ono), and the comics they created, were labeled fascist by 60s observers, just like 80% of the mainstream culture of the time. But it's a big leap from "asshole" to "fascist" and so much of this seeming cultural change can be explained away as adolescent posturing and inter-generational iconoclasm. But the shift in tenor on both right and left during the Cold War was also very much a reality. Outside of an increasing graphic/artistic weirdness, and the occasional patronising stab at "with-it" trendiness, Tracy and Gould were out of step with their surrounding culture. (This was true of the Underground vs Mainstream dialectic everywhere. For left-wing intellectuals like Art Speigelman in the 60s and 70s, it didn't matter that the Jewish creator of Captain America had personally shot Nazis during the War.  1960s Captain America had turned to fighting communism in the comics and in the era of Vietnam and the draft, that made Kirby and Marvel the enemy.)

This was not always the case. 1940s Tracy in the comic strips was a big supporter of the U.S. war effort and, as part of the frontline of comic strip propagandists, fought his fair share of Nazis, most notably in a well-known continuity begun in 1944 and featuring The Brow, an Axis spy who bedevils Tracy and the gang for months, escaping a variety of the usual Gould-ian deathtraps (and even a romance with Gravel Gertie!) before finally being impaled on a flagpole flying the U.S. flag.

Eco wraps up his famous essay with a plea for vigilance, noting that "Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes." What comics fan doesn't remember that the name of Gould's strip was originally "Plainclothes Tracy" until it was changed by the publisher Captain  Joseph Patterson to the tougher, slang-ier-sounding "Dick Tracy"? Certainly the past few years have seen a reassessment of our relationship with police of all stripes, in popular culture and in real life, and we can only wonder what having actual neo-Nazis (Bannon, et al) in the White House will mean for this horrible trend.

"We must keep alert, so that the sense of these words will not be forgotten again. Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world. Franklin Roosevelt’s words of November 4, 1938, are worth recalling: “I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.” Freedom and liberation are an unending task."

Anyway, here's the shortened list from the article mentioned above. Some of these track to Tracy, but there is more Trump here than Chester Gould:

While Eco is firm in claiming “There was only one Nazism,” he says, “the fascist game can be played in many forms, and the name of the game does not change.” Eco reduces the qualities of what he calls “Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism” down to 14 “typical” features. “These features,” writes the novelist and semiotician, “cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.”

1. The cult of tradition. “One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements.”
2. The rejection of modernism. “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”
3. The cult of action for action’s sake. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.”
4. Disagreement is treason. “The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge.”
5. Fear of difference. “The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.”
6. Appeal to social frustration. “One of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”
7. The obsession with a plot. “The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.”
8. The enemy is both strong and weak. “By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.”
9. Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. “For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.”
10. Contempt for the weak. “Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology.”
11. Everybody is educated to become a hero. “In Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.”
12. Machismo and weaponry. “Machismo implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality.”
13. Selective populism. “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.”
14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”

(Super Comics #74, July 1944)

(Tip Top Comics #106, April 1945)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Notes: Towards A Short History of the Cartoonist Guild

I had a nice Thanksgiving mini-holiday and of course bought some old comics, including a couple issues of The Little Scouts by Roland Coe. The series was published by Dell in the 1950s and is kind of a milder version of Little Lulu. Very charming. It was based on the magazine cartoons by Coe, who was well-known for his very family-friendly advertising and gag panel work. He died in 1954 and so is not widely-known among old-time comic art fans, but digging into his life it seems he was sort of an interesting guy and maybe even a pivotal figure. As a result of this digging, I've started researching the short-lived (1936-1939) Cartoonist Guild of America, a leftist grouping of mostly New York City magazine artists that organized to standardize payment rates for gag cartoons, etc. It predated the more conservative National Cartoonist Society by about a decade but seems to have embodied the same spirit of fraternity and good-time hijinks the Society is known for. The Guild was also quite militant, with many members marching in protests and engaging in other forms of activism. They published a blacklist of low-paying magazines, picketed College Humor magazine*, and some were even arrested, as reported in the New York Tmes and in some of the stories below.  The group published its own magazine/newsletter, called OK, copies of which I have not seen. I hope they exist!

There is not much easy-to-find info about this group; its membership eventually numbered in the hundreds before World War II threw everything into chaos. The Guild was part of a large wave of labour movements taking place during the Depression, and mirrored what was happening among other culture industry folks like newspaper workers (Newspaper Guild) and workers in the animation industry (the Screen Animators Guild led historic strikes against Warner Bros and Disney in the 30s). 

Union agitation was on the defensive during the post-War/Cold War, with organizers branded as communists and blacklisted.  What happened to the comic book industry in the 1950s is well-known, as are attempts by Neal Adams and others to unionize comic book creators in the 60s and 70s. There was another Cartoonist Guild that started up as part of the anti-war movement during Vietnam and included many underground and even New Yorker cartoonists but its reason for existing seemed to fizzle out in the 70s. 

It's heartening to learn of cartoonists (many of whom are among my all-time favourites) who did manage to effect postive change through group action, even if it was 80 years ago now.

I've dug up some anecdotal quotes and articles that mention the Guild. It seems that Vernon Greene, a journeyman cartoonist who eventually took over Bringing Up Father from George McManus in the 1950s, was involved in the Guild (as well as its successor, the NCS) and there are some Guild records among his papers at Syracuse University, which I would love to examine some day. 

Here's what I've found so far:

"Janice Duncan was as politically left as her husband, and both were strong supporters of workers as they fought to form unions in the 1930s. Gregor Duncan had been a founding member of the Cartoonists’ Guild, a precursor to the National Cartoonists Society, in March 1936. The Cartoonists’ Guild, led by President Roland Coe and Vice President Ned Hilton, fought for better working conditions for artists, including a $15 minimum fee for magazine cartoons. The guild also kept a watchful eye out for “scab cartoonists” who would take the place of one of their own who went out on strike in sympathy with the unions. One of Duncan’s best friends, New Yorker cartoonist Charles E. Martin, who signed his work “CEM,” was also a member of the guild, along with another friend, Gregory d’Alessio. Duncan was an active member of the guild, both politically and through his contributions to OK, the official publication of the organization. He contributed ink and litho crayon portraits of Gregory d’Alessio, Garrett Price and Fritz Wilkinson to the “Thumbnails” feature of the magazine in 1937, as well as a lithographic image titled “Longshoremen.” The magazine regularly featured fine art examples of the cartoonists’ work, such as Duncan’s lithograph. The Cartoonists’ Guild patterned its constitution after that of the American Newspaper Guild, cofounded by journalist Heywood Broun. The two groups often met together, in support of causes that affected their respective memberships." --Tom Heintjes

"Here's the story I was told about Syd Hoff and his mother's three little words that signaled her acceptance of his career:
Bronx-born Syd sold his first cartoon at the age of 17 and didn’t waste any time joining The Cartoonists Guild. The Guild, run by then NY Post cartoonist extraordinaire Roland Coe, was founded as a union for its members. (This is before the existence of/no relation to the current animators' union, also referred to as The Cartoonists Guild.)
When Syd joined in 1930, the prevailing New York City-based magazine gag cartoon rate was between $3 to $5. The Guild had mailed a letter to all of its cartoon markets. The letter asked magazine editors to sign it, pledging a uniform pay rate of $15 per cartoon. Most of the magazine editors acquiesced.
However, College Humor magazine refused to sign. College Humor was an important, major cartoon market. So Coe, Ned Hilton, Colin Allen and other Guild members picketed in front of the College Humor offices. College Humor called the police. The cartoonists were hauled away.
That night, Syd’s mother was at home, oblivious to all this, cooking dinner. The radio, as usual, was tuned to the six o’clock news. She hear the announcer's voice: “There was a demonstration this afternoon. Among the demonstrators arrested was Sydney Hoff.”
And Syd’s mother fainted.
As Syd told it to Bill, it was many hours later; late that night, when Syd was released from the Manhattan holding cell. Syd took the long subway ride back home, and walked back to their dark apartment building. Upon entering, his mother, who had recovered and was waiting up, calmly announced to her son, “Your dinner’s cold!”
Bill would always laugh out loud at this moment of motherly resignation. Syd was, for better or worse, a cartoonist from that point on." --Mike Lynch

"Yet, Syd’s mother didn’t find anything humorous about the day when Syd wound up in a holding cell at the local police station after supporting fellow members of the local Cartoonists Guild in a protest against below-scale rates paid by College Humor Magazine.* Although Syd’s prices were at scale, he decided to support his friends and join the protest march on the corner of 48th Street and 5th Avenue – until a police officer decided to haul them off to jail for obstructing pedestrian traffic. As they sat in the holding cell, the group sang “Solidarity Forever,” the popular union anthem originally written for the Industrial Workers of the World. Unfortunately for Syd, this made the evening news, which his parents heard over the radio while preparing dinner. “Among those cartoonists arrested was Sydney Hoff.” My grandmother immediately fainted. Later that evening, Syd was released from jail, and after a long subway ride home he walked through the front to be greeted by his mother’s welcoming words – “Your dinner is cold.” His kid sister, one of his great supporters, was quick to follow, asking “How’s Alcatraz?” " --Carol Edmonston

Ned Hilton was a founding member of the Cartoonists Guild of America in March 1936. According to the Times, June 7, 1936, the guild blacklisted six magazines: College Humor, Rockefeller Center Weekly, The Voyager, Promenade, Movie Humor and Real Screen Fun. These magazines refused the guild’s demand to pay a minimum of $15 for comic drawings and to pay for the drawings within thirty days of acceptance. At the time, Hilton was vice-president of the guild.

Eleven days later, Hilton and seventeen other cartoonists for arrested for picketing outside the College Humoroffice. According to the Times, the police confiscated 45 pencils from the cartoonists. After five hours at the police station cells, the cartoonists spent another four hours in the night court detention room. The magistrate dismissed the charge.---Alex Jay

The Buffalo Courier-Express, January 3, 1937, covered Coe’s guild presidency:

Artist Leader
Roland Coe Heads Guild

Former Buffalo artist first president of cartoonists: We have with us all kinds from John L. Lewis, champion of industrial unions to Robert Montgomery who captains the glamorous hosts of Hollywood in the Screen Guild. Now a new leader arises, Roland Coe, former Buffalo newspaper cartoonist, to fight the battles of his brother artists as first president of the Cartoonist Guild of America.
March, 1936, in New York City, seven men, headed by Mr. Coe, organized to force from national magazines a minimums price per drawing, second rights, and payment on acceptance. Growing from seven to several hundred in nine months the membership includes well-known men like Sidney Hoff, Frank Owen, William Gropper, Whitney Darrow, Jr., Ned Hilton, Charles Adams and Garrett Price.
So far most of the editors have signed the Guild contract agreeing among other things to a minimum price per drawing and of the guild. --Alex Jay


"First Exhibit of the Cartoonist Guild of America A rival of our own International, loaned to Pittsburgh for one week by the Cartoonist Guild of America original cartoon drawings, cover designs, and sketches by Howard Baer, A. Birnbaum, Roland Coe, Gregory D'Alessio, Whitney Darrow, Jr., Jaro Fabry, Hoff , Jay Irving, Melisse, Frank Owen, Garrett Price, Carl Rose, and many others. All of the drawings are complete with "gag" lines, and many have appeared in leading publications such as The New Yorker, Esquire ,-Life, Judge, Saturday Evening Post and Colliers. Take a few minutes this week for an exhibit of rare humor and interest." --ad in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Nov 16 1936 pg 11

*"College Humor Disputes Guild".  The New York Times. June 10, 1936.

1930s political cartoon by Syd Hoff (signed "A. Redfield")