Historically, the single largest impediment to the acceptance of comics as a legitimate art form has been the word "comics" itself. If it weren't for the designated mission implied by this word, this intriguing and compelling folk art form might already be recognized today—alongside those other two new and great people's art forms: jazz music and film—as one of a small number of new and independent art forms born in this century.
The comic strip, of course, is what begins to happen when you use individual panel cartoons in a narrative manner. It is useful to recall that the cartoon's oldest use is as a form of political satire. Somewhere along the Nile, perhaps, someone decided to depict the new candidate for Pharaoh as a dog with a man's head, and the first political cartoon sprang to life. To the victors belong the spoils, the saying goes. Since the time of the Egyptians, the loser got to live the rest of his or her public life inside a likeness created by a cartoon.
Thus the oldest cartoons always carried with them this darker mission, this rather unpleasant edge. Inside their frames it was always implied that just outside of the frame there existed a world not nearly as comic as the scene being depicted in the drawing at hand. People lost their careers, and even their lives, based on the way they were sometimes drawn in cartoons. When you think about it, what's so funny about that?
And so this tradition of cartoon and lampoon tumbled into America with an immigrant population who brought the habit with them at the turn of this very century. It would be left to enterprising American newspaper men—Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst—to understand rather quickly that these cartoons, when stretched out over a series of panels, were a wonderful way to capture the imagination of America's largest cities. The daily comic strip, and then the tradition of the Sunday Funnies, were born.
They were the funnies all right, but from the very beginning, if you looked just past the strange little Manchurian-looking boy in the yellow nightshirt, standing there in the center of the action down in Hogan's Alley, what you saw was a condition of unconditional mayhem and violence and disorder. These first comic strips stood out as instances of rare comic serenity in the middle of a class warfare that has always been the most important sub-text of the new comic strip literature. Of course Mr. Pulitzer and Mr. Hearst would have to call these new vehicles "the funnies." If they had chosen to call them "the tragics" they would doubtless not have found anything like the same massive audience.
It is without question Art Spiegelman's family memoir, Maus, which stands as the most remarkable accomplishment in the whole of the comic strip's still short one-hundred-year history. An over-statement? I don't think so. Spiegelman's decision, for example, to cast the Jews of Auschwitz and their Nazi prison guards as, respectively, blank-faced mice and sneering-looking cats, takes the entire historical tradition of funny animal stories that had descended into the comics from folk tales as ancient as Aesop, and turns it straight on its fractured head.
In such oppositions and inversions, Spiegelman finds the power which gives his book the artistic tension it almost explodes attempting to contain. The ultimate act of genius, however, was to imagine one of the great true horror stories of this century as a comic book in the first place! And yet, as we have been suggesting, darkness and violence had remained a second, hidden aspect of the comics almost from their own class-war beginnings. Art Spiegelman was not alone, of course, in sourcing the darkness in his own soul back to the more immediate horrors of the Second World War. Indeed, film noir, pulp fiction, tabloid journalism, confidential magazines, television crime serials, drug war fiascoes, and extraordinary political scandals had, by the time of Maus, become so allied in the popular imagination that it was no longer possible for any pop culture form to proceed without first coming to terms with this immediate heritage.
If you were a child of the late fifties and early sixties, and had found your own identity in rock and roll music, Rebel Without a Cause and Bonnie and Clyde anti-hero movies, and the comics (particularly the satirical anti-comics written mostly by Harvey Kurtzman for E.C., and Mad magazine) it is fascinating to recognize that this body of music, film, and literature hasn't gone away, but continues to grow up and mature. Quentin Tarantino ( Pulp Fiction ), Barry Gifford and David Lynch ( Wild at Heart ), the darker Bat Man movies, even Titanic (derived from Terminator) flip back and forth—dark satiric film to dark satiric graphic novel. Storyboards resemble comic book narrative panels. Film characters flatten into cartoonish personalities and speak with comic book laconics.
And so today, having broken free from their fate as mere vehicles for adolescent sex and childish male superhero power fantasies, the Dark Comics survey a territory comparable to that of any other form of contemporary literature. The tone is dark, terribly dark, because that is the term of our own contemporary unease. Noir is everywhere. In the new graphic journalism of Sue Coe and Joe Sacco, and Willem at Liberation magazine in Paris; in the serial comics work of Daniel Clowes, Julie Doucet, Charles Burns, and Adrian Tomine; and in the ongoing graphic novels being generated, particularly by European artist/authors such as Muñoz and Sampayo, and France's Tardi, Loustal, and Baru; indeed, even in the film work of Terry Gilliam, Terry Swigoff, and France's Jeunet and Caro, we find an actual art movement—a picture literature uniquely able to address multimedia challenges.