Rocco Versaci talked a little bit today about his new book, This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics as Literature, and particularly honed in on Harvey Kurtzman and E.C. comics’ depictions of war during the Postwar and Cold War era.
According to Versaci, comics employ a unique graphic language, which leverages the complex interplay between word and image to portray a singular vision. An innately self-conscious medium, comics always let the reader know that the author is there through word balloons, a vivid color palette, or an artists’ iconic style. This keeps the reader aware of the fact that what they’re reading is an interpretation, and offers a lot more leeway in terms of putting forth an unorthodox point of view than, say, film or the written word (where the medium gets out of the way of the reader, and makes it easier for the reader to take the material in as a ‘true story’. Versaci used the case of James Frey’s fabricated memoirs as a perfect example of this phenomenon in effect).
Additionally, Versaci stated, comics’ powerful marginality–the low regard in which they’re held by mainstream culture–gave creators ample room to voice their more controversial opinions without the heavy hand of censorship quashing their message, particularly during the days of Harvey Kurtzman and E.C. Comics, before the Comics Code Authority was established. Since comics weren’t taken seriously, creators were freer to be more daring. Versaci used the example of Simple Jay Malarkey, a scathing caricature of Senator Joe McCarthy that appeared in Walt Kelly’s Pogo a full year before Edward R. Murrow began his journalistic crusade which culminated in the censure of McCarthy. Syndicated by the Hearst publishing empire, Pogo went into millions of American homes, and Kelly’s sharp critique went along with it, under the radar of the mainstream censors of the time.
Versaci then went on to compare the war comics that Kurtzman produced during the early 1950s to some of the war-themed films which were released during the same time. Two Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, both by Kurtzman for E.C., were extremely effective in subverting the cold war mentality, and they portrayed war in a much more complicated fashion than most films of the time. Part of the reason for that, Versaci argues, is that since film is essentially a collaborative medium which relies on large sums of production money and specialized technology, it’s much harder for a singular vision to emerge in the final product, particularly if it’s a controversial one. Comics, on the other hand, remained the more free and idiosyncratic media, shaped by editors and artists, with little time in their breakneck production schedules for heavy editorial interference. Additionally, Two Fisted Tales and Frontline, particularly, were the brainchild of Harvey Kurtzman,who wrote, edited, researched, and broke down the layouts for every story himself. His painstaking research is legendary.
In all, a fascinating lecture on a topic which, as comics become more and more mainstream, deserves much more scrutiny. The medium has a long and storied history that ties in very closely to the social forces which have shaped modern Western society, and although it’s been well documented by many scholars, it’s important to maintain this rich pedigree at the forefront, so that those new to the medium can enjoy and appreciate the efforts of those that have gone before, and benefit from the lessons of the past.