In Praise of Pulp

Ivan Kreilkamp

Like so many other once-disreputable cultural forms before them, comics over the past several decades have gradually shed many of their debased associations to become a respected aesthetic practice. It’s a familiar dynamic, as that which is first scorned as a low-minded entertainment for degenerates is then rehabilitated as worthy art. Think of the novel; film; television; jazz; rock ’n’ roll; punk.

Although scholars disagree about where best to locate the historical beginnings of the modern comic, one plausible point of origin lies in the 1890s New York newspaper wars between media magnates Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. As Robert C. Harvey explains in “How Comics Came to Be,” in 1896 Hearst stole away Richard F. Outcault and his popular Yellow Kid comic, which featured a gap-toothed waif, his head shaved to prevent lice, always dressed in a bright yellow shirtfront that reproduced well on the pulp newspaper stock, living in the slum squalor of New York’s fictional Hogan’s Alley. A typical strip, “An Old-Fashioned Fourth of July in Hogan’s Alley,” from July 5, 1896, features a riot of fireworks splashing the page’s print, children dangling from apartment railings and falling to the sidewalk, terrified dogs with firecrackers tied to their tails, and the Yellow Kid standing with a bandaged foot at the center of it all, mutely laughing at the brutal urban spectacle.

“An Old-Fashioned Fourth of July in Hogan’s Alley” by Richard F. Outcault, star ink-slinger of first one turn-of-the-century media magnate—Joseph Pulitzer—and then another—William Randolph Hearst.

Pulitzer responded to Hearst’s poaching of his star cartoonist by hiring a new artist to continue drawing the same comic for his Sunday World. The phrase “yellow journalism” itself, as a marker of competitive cheap-print sensationalism, emerged in these years, credibly in reference to Outcault’s Kid—and comics took a long time to begin to shed their associations with the lowbrow. The 20th century’s single most influential work of comics criticism was probably Seduction of the Innocent by German-American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, the 1954 book that led to the defensive creation of the Comics Code Authority (analogous to the movies’ Hays Code) by a comics industry volunteering to police its own publications. Seduction of the Innocent argued—out of what now seems risible Cold War paranoia—that comics, with their wish fulfillments and Manichean conflicts, were inherently fascistic. “The Superman type of comic books tends to force and superforce,” Wertham wrote, approvingly citing a colleague who declared that they “present our world in a kind of Fascist setting of violence and hate and destruction.” Comics, he concluded, glorify “delinquency and sexual abnormality,” in effect performing acts of “cruelty” upon the children who read them. A typical comic was, in Wertham’s summary, “an orgy of brutality, crime, ‘dope selling,’ men tortured, girls with half-bared bosoms, pictures of men stabbed in the stomach.”

Is there still room for an antisocial, pulpy “comics” within the newly canonized and pro-social “graphic novel”?

At least in the US (elevation arrived sooner in France), comics continued to operate mostly under the high-cultural radar for most of the 20th century, at best rising to the status of raffish counterculture. The most dramatic sign that the form’s fortunes were rising occurred when Art Spiegelman’s Maus became the first work of comics art—by then beginning to be rebranded as the new genre category “graphic novel”—to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize, in 1992. Then came international acclaim for subsequent works such as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2003), Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006), and Chris Ware’s Building Stories (2012). These works, along with neo-noir, neo-superhero comics by Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and others finally erased any doubt that comic art should be recognized as aesthetically complex, emotionally resonant, and culturally significant. All of the graphic novels mentioned are now regularly taught in college courses—the Open Syllabus project ranks Maus just below Oedipus Rex and Leaves of Grass on its list of most-assigned books. And an increasingly sophisticated academic field of study has risen to study comics and graphic novels, as exemplified by the likes of Jared Gardner’s Projections: Comics and the History of Twenty-First-Century Storytelling (2012)—and his many contributions to Public Books about comics and graphic novels—and Hillary Chute’s new Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form (2016).

No fan of the genre can complain about such a turn of events—and yet, surely something is also always lost in this kind of upward-mobility success story. Alison Bechdel observed a few years ago that “one of the reasons I became a cartoonist was so that I could write and draw free from the kind of critical scrutiny that I was sure would wither me if I dared to enter the lists of the fine art or literary writing worlds. Comics was a dark, disreputable place … You could do what you wanted here.”  

Is there a risk now that highbrow success will wither too much of the life out of comics? Is there still room for an antisocial, pulpy “comics” within the newly canonized and pro-social “graphic novel”? Amid all of the nuanced accounts of adversity, self-realization, and historical conflict in comics form, there is, fortunately, still no shortage of cruder stuff aiming for less high-minded effects. The work of cartoonist Simon Hanselmann, author of the two collections Megahex and the new Megg and Mogg in Amsterdam (and Other Stories), for example, comes to mind. Hanselmann says of his childhood in Tasmania (the island state at the bottom of Australia, which he describes as “haunted by convicts’ ghosts”),“I was raised by my bar-working mother. My biker father left her, and she raised me on her own while doing a lot of drugs … [She was] a hardcore junkie … regularly passing out in the bathroom, overdosing.” Hanselmann, who calls himself a “‘cross-dresser’/‘transvestite,’ whatever you want to call it,” with a fluid gender identity, says he fell in love with comics as a young child after reading a Spider-Man comic that he found “strangely sexual.”

The comics that he’s known for revolve around the shiftless, profoundly pointless and repetitive lives of advanced 20-something roommates Megg and Mogg and Owl, loosely based on characters in a 1970s British children’s book series that was later made into an animated TV show. Megg is a green-skinned witch; Mogg, a black cat, is her familiar (and lover); Owl is a tall, ungainly, comparatively earnest anthropomorphized owl. Other characters include the depraved Werewolf Jones, and Booger, a strange “gender-illusionist” being with leaf-patterned skin. Almost all of the comics revolve around the friends’ daily routines of buying, consuming, and running out of drugs; having (usually awkward, if not positively shame-filled) grubby sex; and occasionally leaving their house on either ill-fated, or else deeply boring, excursions.

Megg briefly rouses Mogg from an <i>iCarly</i>- and drug-induced stupor.

Comics artist Daniel Clowes’ ambivalent endorsement of Hanselmann’s first book collection, Megahex, accurately evokes something fundamental to their effect: “Hanselmann … captures that stoner stay-at-home life so accurately that I actually find his comics really depressing—and thank god I don’t ever have to hang out with anybody like that ever again.” Many of the strips revolve around experiences of bodily shame, embarrassment, boundary violations, and disgust, with such rawness and bleakly ironic humor as often to seem pointlessly cruel. In one typical strip, Owl returns home in a hurry and, finding the door locked, bangs on the window to get Megg and Mogg’s attention: “I forgot my keys and I’m about to shit myself!” Megg and Mogg exchange a glance and, always ready to pull Owl’s chain, decide to refuse to let him in. Owl finally, in desperation, defecates behind a tree while his amused friends peer out from the window. A dog enters the yard and begins to eat Owl’s shit. Owl, horrified, tries to chase the dog away; when the dog attacks him, Owl falls, hits his head, and passes out, his soiled rear end visible. “That is pretty messed up,” Megg comments from behind the window; “Oh well … show’s over.” Megg and Mogg fall asleep on the couch.

Part of what makes even the most nihilistic of the strips queasily compelling is their perfect mirroring of form and content. These are stoner comics, written and illustrated by a stoner (Hanselmann admits in a 2014 interview to smoking pot almost every day from age 15 “until like now”). The strips seem to be exactly the kind of thing the characters depicted would most enjoy, inasmuch as they can truly enjoy anything. The characters, based on characters in stories for children, often sit stoned for hours, watching children’s TV. In one episode, Megg rouses Mogg after realizing, “We’ve been watching iCarly for 8 hours. This is really wrong … I feel weird. I need to get out of this. This is a brutal iCarlyhole.” At the end of this (Möbius) strip, after a series of typically debauched events, the friends rent an iCarly DVD from a store and head home to watch it.

Roommates Megg, Mogg, and Owl head home to watch <i>iCarly</i> after getting kicked out of a video store.

These comics serve as a bleakly ironic, deadpan commentary on the death-drive tropism of our cartoonish mainstream media forms, always tending toward stasis, repetition, idiocy, and cruelty—without at all escaping that tendency themselves. Rather than elevating or seeking to redeem the tendency of the comics form toward pratfalls and cruel hijinks, Hanselmann’s work submits to it like an addiction too deep-rooted to shake.

Hanselmann’s work would probably be just too unpleasant to stomach if it didn’t also offer, amid all the nastiness, more resonant subtexts hinting at underlying pathologies and sadnesses motivating the terrible behavior. Megg and Mogg and Owl all suffer from depression; Megg and Mogg’s spontaneous holiday to Amsterdam takes a grim turn when they realize that they have forgotten their supply of antidepressants.

One of Hanselmann’s gifts is a capacity to use the seemingly crude elements of his art to brilliantly evoke psychological unease. His unforgettable two-page strip from Megahex, “Megg’s Depression,” begins with seven virtually indistinguishable head shots of Megg lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, her eyes bloodshot pink, the static sequence implying the slow passage of time in her depressed insomnia. The perspective next pulls out to reveal, over several panels, that Megg in bed is surrounded by three frightening, enormous floating women’s heads—perhaps avatars of herself, but their hair jet black instead of Megg’s greenish yellow—resembling female ghosts from a Japanese folk tale, or a Hayao Miyazaki film. Their vivid, slackly wide-open pink mouths, “cartoonishly” drawn in anguished wavy lines, now begin to emit drips—soon rivers—of what appears to be black ink, identical in hue to the floating tendrils of hair surrounding the heads. The ink flows from the mouths in torrents, filling up the room, covering Megg and her bed—and finally, in a terrifying conclusion, filling the entire panel such that the comic ends with one full pitch-black square. I can think of no more powerfully concise visual evocation of choking depression, with the possible exception of Goya’s El sueño de la razón produce monstruos.

Depression swallows Megg’s bed, body, and bedroom.

But tempting as it may be to call attention to the strips’ redeeming insights and sophisticated subtexts, it seems best to admit that, at the end of the day, much of their pleasure derives from the same qualities that so exercised Fredric Wertham about comics in the 1950s: their dumb, often brutal or obscene fun, rooted in the shame and vulnerability of the body and the cruelties of the antisocial mind, and indifferent to bourgeois recipes for improvement or uplift. Wertham’s description of postwar comics—“an orgy of brutality, crime, ‘dope selling,’ men tortured, girls with half-bared bosoms, pictures of men stabbed in the stomach”—serves surprisingly well as a summary of Hanselmann’s.

The modern comic strip began with a gap-toothed, neglected child living in an unhealthy slum, and the form remains inextricable from the gutter journalism that it helped to finance and the low-quality paper stock that turned “pulp” into a synecdoche for cheap thrills. Even as we now grant comics the depth and sophistication implied by the “graphic novels” label—and now that we often read them either on high-quality stock, or online, where many of Hanselmann’s were first published on his Tumblr page or on Vice.com, rather than on actual pulp—we shouldn’t forget the unruly energies of their pulp origins.