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Tag Archives: Mark Twain

Get the Picture?

I used to regard illustrated or graphic novels as literature for the illiterate; comic books as condescending to the callow.

Perhaps it’s because we live in a post-literature culture1, but I’ve grown to appreciate graphic novels as a medium unto themselves for telling a story and connecting to an audience. A recent article in the City Journal quotes William Eisner, creator of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle and the Spirit in the 1940s:

“The comic strip… is no longer a comic strip but, in reality, an illustrated novel. It is new and raw in form just now, but material for limitless intelligent development. And eventually and inevitably it will be a legitimate medium for the best of writers and artists.”

Illustrators have contributed their craft to storytelling since paleolithic cave paintings. Perhaps these projected early human fears and desires in an uncertain world; perhaps they were just early interior decoration. ; – )

Cave painting from Lascaux, France, ca 35,000-30,000 BCE

During the Middle Ages images in gothic cathedrals emphasized to uneducated peasants who was in charge.

Chartres Cathedral

Chartres Cathedral

 In the 19th century Dickens’ collaboration with various artists made the characters in his serialized novels come alive.

Dickens’ Dream, Robert William Buss

Ironically, illustration as a means of storytelling came into its own for a mass audience just as print culture was evolving to electronic culture with radio and film. Newspapers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries carried intricate, full-color surreal extravaganzas like Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo to a mass audience.

George Herriman’s Krazy Kat , appearing in 1913, anticipated the surrealist and Dadaist movements.

In the 1950s, the age of television and the gray flannel suit. Walt Kelly and his compatriots subversively explored parody and satire in the midst of (supposed) conformity.

As the cellphone and cable explosion began in the 1980s, Sam Watterson’s brilliant Calvin & Hobbes captured the truth of boyhood in the way perhaps no one else has since Mark Twain.

Bill Watterson’s Incomparable Calvin & Hobbes will always remind me of of my son. I miss it greatly. (Image copyright Bill Watterson.)

Alas, the exigencies of the newspaper industry spelled at end to the strip. Watterson and Calvin packed up their marbles (and Hobbes) and went home.

Lately, as the publishing industry has struggled and tried to capture our attention with e-books, the graphic novel has ascended to respectability.

Graphic novels lend themselves to our fragmented attention span and reading habits in the age of tweets and text messages. As life is increasingly conducted online, they create a bounded world of coherence and context in the midst of disparate words and images that bombard us daily. In an age preoccupied by our attempts to control the world through science and technology, many graphic novels and comic books dance on the edge of or immerse themselves metaphysics and fantasy. Several of these, such as the X-Men and Superman have been turned into film with varying degrees of success. A skilled illustrator and story teller creates a secondary world2 that transcends the rules of the world we know to provide a more satisfying (or at least distracting) alternate universe. Many of these, such as the Watchmen and Neil Gaiman’s the Sandman, explore adult themes and existential experience, turning the mythology into exotic reinterpretations that are, like our lives, dark and threatening, absurd, exuberant, whimsical or just plain funny.  — Chuck Lanigan


1By this I mean not illiterate, but one in which the ability to read (and write) sustained, thoughtful discourse is made irrelevant in a society overrun by soundbites and Twitter feeds.

2See Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories for a discussion on secondary worlds.


Gently Torn from the Headlines: The Conflation of Science and Magical Thinking

You could not ask for a better case study of the conflation of science and magical thinking presented here on 8/17 than in the news this past week.

U.S. Congressman Todd Akin, who (ironically) serves on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology and is running for the Senate, has his own charmed — not to say fantastical — concept of biology. (No pun intended.) Women are wonderful creatures, if at times presenting a conundrum to themselves and men in certain aspects of their operation. But Mr. Akin needs to be educated on their design. Please see the NYT column by Maureen Dowd, who in addition to being a red-haired foxy lady is smart.

I think Mark Twain would have enjoyed meeting Congressman Akin. The latter would have confirmed Mr. Twain’s convictions. He confirms mine that everything old is new. – DA

Imagine You Are an Idiot —

Americans are great kidders. Their democratic political system has developed in them a sense of humor and irony in which they have caught up with the rest of the world. There is historical precedent for this attitude. In observing the recent brinkspersonship over the USA’s national debit, I was reminded of the famous quote by Mr. Sam Clemens (our own Mark Twain):

Imagine you are an idiot. Now imagine you are a member of Congress. But I’m repeating myself.

In this state of affairs corporations such as Microsoft and the banks (not to mention insurance companies) have more money than the USA. Are not corporations citizens of their country? In the old days of Henry VIII or Czar Ivan the head of state would have liberated money from the banks — or from the Church (not to mention brigand insurance companies who rape and pillage their policyholders) — to replenish the State’s coffers. He would have eliminated those who disagreed with his policies (as Andrew Jackson tried to eliminate the 1st Bank US in the 1830s).

But our modern democracy and a functioning free-market economy (including the creation of jobs and common sense) must sometimes be be hostage to what passes for ideology.  As we are constantly reminded, freedom isn’t free. The previous weeks have shown the price: $14.29 trillion and counting.

I am reminded of a quote by another American of Andrew Jackson’s era who preceded Twain. Henry David Thoreau wrote in Civil Disobedience (1849):

No man for a genius for legislation has appeared in America. They are rare in the history of the world. There are orators, politicians and eloquent men by the thousand; but the speaker has not yet opened his mouth to speak who is capable of settling the much-vexed questions of the day. We love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any truth which it may utter, or any heroism it may inspire. Our legislators have not yet learned the comparative value of free-trade and freedom, of union, and of rectitude, to a nation. They have no genius or talent for comparatively humble questions of taxation and finance, commerce and manufactures and agriculture. If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonable experience and the effectual complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among nations.


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