The great, woefully under-appreciated American culture critic of the early 20th Century Gilbert Seldes remains my own North Star of pop culture criticism. I could go on forever about this guy, and almost did. I started researching a biography of him and his critical legacy, but Michael Kammen beat me to it with his fine 1996 evaluation of Seldes’ life and work. Still, my own appreciation of Seldes’ open, democratic spirit of criticism is a bit different from Kammen’s, even if I didn’t feel at the time that the world needed a second book-length study of the man. I explored some of those ideas in an essay Tom Heintjes kindly published in Hogan’s Alley No. 6 in 1999. It is reprinted below. I will also post soon Seldes’ original take on Krazy Kat and the comics generally from 1923’s The Seven Lively Arts. Almost a century later, I still think Seldes’ early observations about the unique aesthetic and cultural qualities of the comic strip remain indispensable to anyone trying to appreciate the form. – Ed.
The Critic That Walks By Himself
The longtime and often lonely historians of the American comic strip have enjoyed an embarrassment of riches in recent years. What with centennial exhibits, commemorative postage stamps, some truly luscious reprints of seminal work and even—God help us—occasional academic scrutiny, the comic strip form seems poised to assume a place among the “respectable” mass media. But assembling the history of any medium, including the comic strip, requires more than rediscovering its primary documents, however fun that may be. A rich chronicle of an art form must also recount how the medium integrated itself into people’s lives, how it was understood and debated. In America, such a history must begin with the first thoughtful and genuinely critical celebrant of the modern popular arts in general and of the comic strip in particular. He was more responsible than any single American for getting common readers and other intellectuals to think about the comics that they enjoyed. Gilbert Seldes (1893-1970) was the father of comic-strip criticism, and his insights about the form represent an alternative, albeit now largely overlooked, path in the serious appraisal of our national pleasure.
Herriman enjoyed calling attention to the absurdities of his own strip. In these dailies (1919) he also uses his signature device of changing the background landscape from panel to panel. All together Herriman is creating an absurdist space in which Krazy, Ignatz and the Coconino County cast focus on language and interpersonal dynamics.
The unique aesthetic of the comic strip is its ability to create an immersive environment through visual style, composition and character that we fall into for less than a minute a day across three or four sequential panels. Herriman used the full palette available to those panels to ground us in his characters by making the physical environment disorienting and fluid.
Comic strip collectors will remember Alexander Braun and Taschen’s earlier complete, XXL-sized Little Nemo collection that delighted Winsor McCay fans and caused hernias everywhere. Braun is at it again. This beautiful but massive reprint captures the color Sundays from the last decade of Herriman’s life and career. Krazy Kat is the longtime darling of highbrow critics since the early 1920s, when Gilbert Seldes dubbed the strip one of the most satisfying works of art in the modern age. Since then critics gush over the gender-bending, mythologizing, philosophizing and satirizing “genius” of the strip. In recent decades scholars added a new dimension to reading Krazy as we discovered Herriman had been “passing” as white throughout his life. Herriman seems to have been the designated modernist Joyce of the medium’s history. And Braun does his part to further burnish Herriman’s stature in his very comprehensive and lengthy prose accompaniment. Reprinting Krazy at this scale also lets us lean back and appreciate Herriman’s mastery of movement, slapstick timing (He was a Mack Sennett fan), layout and use of the full page as a canvas.
While on the subject of Kracy Kat, it is worth mentioning also that Fantagraphics Press just initiated yet another series it calls The George Herriman Library: Krazy & Ignatz, 1916-918. This edition of Herriman’s full page Krazys cover the same ground as an earlier softcover reprint from Fantagraphics. But this time we get hardcovers, with two years in each volume, and best of all larger, at 11.3″ x 13.8″.