Blog 10: The Origins of Prejudice Towards Illustration,
Debunking Fredric Wertham,
Will Eisner’s Artistic DNA Revealed
Bear with me. I will get to Fredric Wertham and Will Eisner in due course. To combat prejudice we must first know where it came from. The prejudice towards comic books began with a prejudice towards illustration, and that began with a prejudice towards women!
The Commodification of Poetry
Public elitist prejudice towards illustration began with Charles Lamb (1775–1834). Lamb was a well–known English essayist, poet, dramatist, novelist, and critic who counted among his friends and contemporaries, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) and William Wordsworth (1770–1850). (Cengage, 2002) In his sonnet, “To Samuel Rogers, Esq., on the new Edition of his ‘Pleasures of Memory’” (The Times, December 13, 1833), Lamb vehemently opposed the inclusion of illustrations in the book. (Lamb, 1904)
When thy gay book hath paid its proud devoirs,
Poetic friend, and fed with luxury
The eye of pampered aristocracy
In flittering drawing–rooms and gilt boudoirs,
O'erlaid with comments of pictorial art
However rich or rare, yet nothing leaving
Of healthful action to the soul–conceiving
Of the true reader yet a nobler part
Awaits thy work, already classic styled.
Cheap–clad, accessible, in homeliest show
The modest beauty thro’ the land shall go
From year to year, and render life more mild;
Refinement to the poor man’s hearth shall give
And in the moral heart of England live.
Lamb (image left) lambasts Rogers’ illustrated edition as being decadent, ostentatious, and abhorrent to the “true reader.” However, Lamb regards the earlier, “Cheap-clad” edition as being morally superior because it is “modest.” Lamb’s outrage at the extravagant inclusion of pictorial art in books it appears comes out of the Puritanical rhetoric of his day. (Wood, 172) This yearning for a simpler, idealized existence was an essential element of the Romantic Movement, whose literary origins in Britain began with the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems in 1798. Lamb sent Rogers a conciliatory letter, claiming that his objection to the book was due to his prejudice against illustration. Lamb felt that the “sister arts” (i.e., the “feminine arts”) should never be intertwined, and that literary works, such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, should never be acted out, or illustrated, because the concretized visuals that ensued represented a corruption of the imagination, since they tied the daughter of the house of Capulet down to the “authentic face of Juliet.” (Wood, 172)
The “Cheap-clad” edition of The Pleasures of Memory was originally published in 1792, and sold 30,000 copies, establishing Rogers’ popularity. (Cengage, 1999) Yet, Rogers’ skill as a poet never rose to the level of his peers. In comparison to other poets such as Lamb, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, Rogers’ popularity waned so dramatically in the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century that his 1828 edition of Italy was a publishing failure. Nevertheless, Rogers, who was independently wealthy, expanded the work, commissioned illustrations from J. M. W. (Joseph Mallord William) Turner (1775–1851), Thomas Stothard (1755–1834), and Samuel Prout (1783–1852), and remarketed the lavishly illustrated edition of Italy two years later to “wild” success. (Cengage, 1999) Based on this strategic business model, Rogers commissioned Turner and Stothard to create illustrations for a new edition of The Pleasures of Memory. Essentially, Rogers used the illustrations to fool “The eye of pampered aristocracy” into believing that his boorish text was worthy of the art that embellished it.
Since Rogers’ was a minor poet of vanity publications the idea that he was financially capable of commodifying his books to the point of spectacle, and profiting from that, must have galled Lamb, who grew up poor and worked for a living. (Cengage, 2002) Lamb was a talented “egotist,” who was described as “nervous, easily excitable, and emotional.” (Mair, 156–157) While on the surface Lamb’s apology appears sincere and is cloaked in his Romantic aesthetic, it can also be read as a passive-aggressive rationalization conveniently masking his true feelings towards Rogers’ marketing tactic. Had the illustrations in The Pleasures of Memory been inferior, the thought that Lamb harbored a hidden agenda towards Rogers could never be considered, but Turner and Stothard were two of the best artists of their time, and their illustrations, “However rich [and] rare,” were (and are still) collectable in and of themselves.
Both Turner and Stothard attended The Royal Academy of Arts in London, and both have paintings hanging in The National Gallery (The recent exhibit, Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude, ran from 14 March – 5 June 2012). Though he mainly worked as a painter, Turner contributed illustrations to such books as Scott's Poetical Works (12 volumes, 1833), The Southern Coast of England (1849), and the aforementioned Italy, all of which still command prices in the hundreds of dollars in the collector’s market. Turner was one of the most highly respected artists of his time, and The Turner Prize, an annual award organized by the Tate gallery and presented to a British visual artist under the age of 50, is named after him. Turner’s paintings became a seminal influence on the Impressionists, especially Claude Monet (1840–1926), who carefully adopted his techniques some 30-40 years later. One only has to look at Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (Impression, soleil levant, 1872 – above right) and compare it to Turner’s Chichester Canal (1828), or The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken up (1838 – above left) to see the enormously apparent influence.
Stothard was a prolific illustrator contributing to special editions of The Pilgrim's Progress (1788), The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, (2 volumes, 1790), Vicar of Wakefield (1792), and The Rape of the Lock (1798). Of his art it was written, “…into even the slightest and most trivial sketches he infused a grace and distinction which render them of value to the collectors of the present time.” (1911 Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica) Stothard’s illustrated books are still highly collectable, and even the later, 1820 edition of Robinson Crusoe commands prices beginning at $2,800.00.
It is not inconceivable that Lamb would object to the value–added aspects associated with the commodification of poetry. If Lamb had not known Rogers and if Rogers had not been a wealthy, influential, generous patron of poets, perhaps Lamb’s critique of The Pleasures of Memory might have placed the blame for its failings where it belonged: on the author and not the artists. While there was, undeniably, a Romantic sensibility at work here, it was actually Lamb’s misdirected lack of honesty and selfish sense of social preservation that began the elitist prejudice against illustration.
Verbal vs. Visual: “The Frivolity of the Times”
In 1844, eleven years after Lamb’s letter, The Quarterly Review posthumously published an article by former editor, John Murray (1778–1843) simply titled, “Illustrated Books.” Curiously, the article champions the work of Stothard and Turner, the two artists Lamb disliked, but finds fault with the majority of the artists of the time and their facility to properly illustrate the text. (Murray 191-192) The critique is understandable considering the growing demand for illustrations quickly outgrew the talent pool of skilled artists and engravers. Murray believed that illustrations best served travel and history books because “in the case of accurate views of authentic portraits, the pictured representation conveys to the mind a more clear and accurate knowledge than any verbal description could by any possibility communicate—when a single glance of the eye will at once impress on the mind the accurate idea of form which is impossible for a blind person to obtain.” (Murray, 193) This concession, regarding the capability of illustration to both “illuminate” the text and convey information through the use of graphic visuals, unfortunately gets lost in Murray’s essay. While he mentions the positive natural consequences ensuing from the publication of illustrated books such as an increase in demand, a greater supply, a lower per copy cost, and an increase in jobs, Murray predominantly dwells on the negative aspects of their popularity. (Murray, 191-192)
Murray decried “the rage for ornamented, or as they are now termed, ‘Illustrated’ or ‘Pictorial’ editions of books,” and referenced Christian Edward who, twenty-six years earlier, commented that decorated books were nothing more than a “superfluous and meretricious” exemplar of “the frivolity of the times.” (Murray, 168: Edward, 32) Murray’s main complaint was that the pictorial arts, which were once included in books as visual aids, “now bid to supersede much of descriptive writing,” and that the text of many books had become subordinate to “their so-called illustrations.” (Murray, 171) For Murray, illustrated books and magazines were “low utilitarian” because they sought to impart “the greatest possible amount of knowledge at the least possible expense of time, trouble, money, and, we may add, of intellect.” (Murray, 171)
To support his case against illustrated books, Murray quoted Horace: “Segnius irritant animos demissa per aurem, Quam quæsunt oculis subjecta fidelibus, et quæ Ipse sibi tradit spectator.” (Horace’s Ars Poetica, II. 180-182), which means, “Less vividly is the mind stirred by what finds entrance through the ears than by what is brought before the trusty eyes, and what the spectator can see for himself.” (Boulton, 174) On the surface, it is an insignificant quote in which Horace is actually referring to a stage performance and not the graphic visual arts; however, it appears to have been deliberately left incomplete for the masses. Horace’s entire passage, which would have been known to the higher-educated, concludes with, “Quodcunque ostendis mihi sic, incredulous odi.” (Horace, Ars Poetica, II. 188), or “Whatever you thus show me, I discredit and abhor.” (Boulton, 174) The inclusion of Horace’s quote appears to be nothing short of a craftily hidden declaration of war on illustration by elitists.
To Murray, illustrated books represented a “superficial knowledge” that pervaded not just the country, but the whole world. Illustrations in books, newspapers and magazines were becoming more powerful, more seductive—more popular—than the written word. Murray unhesitatingly balked at the idea that these “Gems of Art,” which was the “artistic slang of the day,” were now labeling books with the words “with illustrations designed by,” and “engraved by” in their advertising, as if to indicate that the crayon and burin of the artists were quickly becoming mightier than the quill of the writer. (Murray, 190) Yet, rather than call upon writers and poets to rise to the challenge by creating works equal to or better than the art that accompanied their texts, Murray took the indolent, underhanded approach by chastising illustrated books as a “partial return to baby literature—to a second childhood of learning”, thus beginning the “juvenile” pejorative that has stigmatized illustration for centuries. (Murray, 171)
It is Nothing More than Masculine vs. Feminine (Veritas Nuntiavit)
A year after The Quarterly Review article saw print, William Wordsworth seized upon Murray’s “call to war” and published his sonnet, “Illustrated Books and Newspapers.”
Discourse was deemed Man's noblest attribute,
And written words the glory of his hand;
Then followed Printing with enlarged command
For thought—dominion vast and absolute
For spreading truth, and making love expand.
Now prose and verse sunk into disrepute
Must lacquey a dumb Art that best can suit
The taste of this once-intellectual Land.
A backward movement surely have we here,
From manhood, —back to childhood; for the age—
Back towards caverned life's first rude career.
Avaunt this vile abuse of pictured page!
Must eyes be all in all, the tongue and ear
Nothing? Heaven keep us from a lower stage!
In his sonnet, Wordsworth (right) bemoans the written word’s fall from grace (“sunk into disrepute”) to become the servant (“lacquey”/lackey) of the mindless public’s increased “taste” for illustration (“dumb” meaning both silent and inane). He not only reiterates Murray’s “juvenile” pejorative (“back to childhood”), but claims that the popularity of illustrations is a degenerative return to a time when cavemen painted on walls (“caverned life’s first rude career.”). Wordsworth seeks to further debase illustration by associating it with the “lower stage,” which exposes his fear of feminine subversion on the “masculine” art of writing.
According to Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, (pictured left) “illustration theory in the nineteenth century assumed a hierarchical model for image/text relations based on a sexual paradigm.” (Kooistra, 2007, 396) Furthermore, the “superior” verbal arts were considered masculine, powerful, intelligent; while the pictorial arts, referred to as the lesser arts, were aligned with the feminine attributes of “imitation, sympathy, charm, grace, and beauty.” (Kooistra, 1995, 9-10) Ideologically, for Wordsworth, the combination of verbal and visual in the same book, or worse, on the same page, personified an unnatural relationship between the sexes. The fact that illustrated books sold better than and were more popular than text-only books, physically manifested a construct that was in direct opposition to a man’s masculinity, his power base, his value structure, his station in society, and his sense of self.
For writers of the Romantic Movement era, such as Lamb, Murray, and Wordsworth, illustrated books attacked their masculinity, their sense of superiority, their popularity, and, since the payment for illustrations had to come out of the cost of producing a book, their financial security. In his essay, Murray tipped his hand at his own gynophobia when he wrote about the Annuals, which were women-centered publications “written and largely (though not exclusively) by women for women.” (Kooistra, 2007, 396) With sales driven by a growing, prosperous middle class rife with young, semi-educated brides-to-be, publishers pumped out various illustrated gift books such as The Juvenile Forget Me Not, The Juvenile Keepsake, and the Juvenile Scrap-Book, all, unfortunately, making ample use of the youth-oriented adjective. (Renier, 17-19) Murray contended that the Annuals were nothing but “nonsense,” and that he was “[happy] they are nearly extinct” because so much money was “wasted on their production.” (Murray, 192) Curiously, Lamb (who openly detested them), Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Walter Scott (1771–1832) all contributed to the Annuals. (Renier, 9) Since the publication (and ever-increasing popularity) of illustrated books could not be stopped, they were something to be feared and denigrated. Therefore, the pejoratives such as “superficial,” “frivolous,” and “juvenile” began not because they were truly deserved, but because a few prejudicial, frightened, elitist men needed to find some way to convince themselves that they were still superior.
The Foundations of American Illustration
Illustration in America initially progressed more slowly than it did in Europe. The most prominent illustrated magazines of the time were Scribner's Monthly: An Illustrated Magazine for the People (1870–1881), which became The Century Magazine (1881–1930), Harper's Monthly Magazine (1850–present), later renamed Harper’s Magazine (or just Harper’s), and the forerunner of HarperCollins Publishing, Ladies' Home Journal (1883–present), Collier's Weekly (1888–1957), and McClure's Magazine (1893–1929). These magazines employed some of the most notable nineteenth century American illustrators including John La Farge (1835–1910), Winslow Homer (1836–1910), Elihu Vedder (1836–1923), Thomas Nast (1840–1902), Henry François Farny (1847–1916) Arthur Burdett Frost (1851–1928), Edwin Austin Abbey (1852–1911), Howard Pyle (1853–1911), Robert Frederick Blum (1857–1903), Joseph Pennell (1857–1926), Benjamin West Clinedinst (1859–1931), Edward Windsor Kemble (1861–1933), Frederic Sackrider Remington (1861–1909), and Charles Dana Gibson (1867–1944) among others. Many of these artists simultaneously pursued careers for print as well as galleries, since the “caste distinction between ‘Fine’ and ‘Commercial’ art as yet scarcely existed.” (Reed, 1984, 10)
Because there was no prejudice against illustration, the reach and influence of these artists was vast and varied. Nast, who created the images of the Republican Elephant and the Democratic Donkey, also drew “The Tammany Tiger,” which helped bring down the Tweed Ring; Remington chronicled the American West; Vedder painted murals in the Library of Congress; Farny, while on assignment for Century Magazine, introduced Sitting Bull to General Grant; Kemble illustrated the works of Mark Twain; the “Gibson Girl” personified the look of the “ideal” American sweetheart; Pyle (“The Father of American Illustration”) began The Brandywine School; and Clinedinst painted President Theodore Roosevelt and Admiral Perry’s portraits. (Reed, 1984, 10-43) These were the magazines and artists who formed the foundation of the Golden Age of Illustration in America, which lasted from the 1880s until The First World War.
Illustration and the Prejudice of Modernism
In 1927, Thomas Craven (1888–1969) wrote “The Decline of Illustration,” which appeared in the October issue of American Mercury Magazine. As an art critic, Craven was known to be caustic, judgmental, opinionated, and, due to his popularity, highly influential. “My pet abominations,” Craven once wrote, “are artists who have to go abroad to find time to paint and think there’s nothing at home worth painting; critics who have just discovered modernism; artists ditto; …and I have a prejudice against women who paint.” (McMahon, 1931, 40) [Note: Craven is probably referring to Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986)] Craven’s approach to “inspiring admiration” among his readers for the artists he liked was to slander the artists he disliked. (McMahon, 1939, 37) Therefore, while “The Decline of Illustration” was intended as a call for better painters and illustrators, its mixed message set the tone for a heightened prejudice against American illustration that has lasted almost eighty-five years.
Even though Craven thought Abbey, Vedder, La Farge, Blum, and Homer were “outstanding Americans”, he felt Gibson was “inept,” “limited and mediocre;” and that Pyle, “the most significant” illustrator of his time, eventually “succumbed to popular evils, [and] ended a prolific hack.” (Craven, 204) Craven continued his essay by denouncing the works of N.C. (Newell Convers) Wyeth (1882–1945), Harvey Thomas Dunn (1884–1952), Howard Chandler Christy (1873–1952), Harrison Fisher (1877–1934), J.C. (Joseph Christian) Leyendecker (1874–1951), Maxfield Parrish (1870–1966), Dean Cornwell (1892–1960), and Rockwell Kent (1882–1971) some of the most popular illustrators of the early twentieth century. (Craven, 205)
Instead of the more popular artists and publications, Craven preferred illustrators whose works appeared in “radical or subsidized magazines.” (Craven, 206) Ironically, most contemporary art historians consider many of these individuals Fine Artists rather than illustrators. Among the twentieth century “illustrators” Craven admired were John French Sloan (1871–1951), Boardman Robinson (1876–1952), George Wesley Bellows (1882–1925), William James Glackens (1870–1938), Jerome Myers (1867–1940), and George Benjamin Luks (1867–1933) because their works depicted “scarifying irony, humor, sincerity, and artistic intelligence.” (Craven, 205)
Craven claimed that the decline of illustration was due to the emergence of photography, the seduction of advertising to lure away great illustrators, and the importation of the “old” prejudice against illustration by the cult of modernism. (Craven, 206-207) What Craven did not take into consideration was that because the increase in the use of photography in publishing since the First World War eliminated so many jobs, illustrators had to turn to advertising to earn a living. Unfortunately, even though Craven alleged “the whole world of modern art was no good,” because he deemed the artists “morally corrupt and even dishonest,” he could not see the damage he himself was doing to illustration. (McMahon, 1934, 26) By eviscerating the artists people knew and cherished in a public forum, he perpetuated and popularized the “old” prejudice against illustration throughout the general population. By his hand Craven not only turned the public against illustration, but also reinvigorated and fortified modernist’s continued prejudice against it.
Fear Mongering in the 1950s
Okay, we are finally here! The problem with critiquing Fredric Wertham in the 1950s was that an attack on him was seen as an attack on children. There was; however, one comics creator who got it right—who “nailed” the problem. Unfortunately, he was never consulted during the Congressional hearings.
With chapters titled “Design for Delinquency” and “I Want to be a Sex Maniac,” Fredric Wertham, M.D. (1895–1981) effectively sensationalized and popularized his infamous “mental hygiene” condemnation of comic books, Seduction of the Innocent. (Wertham, 1954) Essentially, some comic books of the 1950s were no different than the Penny Dreadfuls of the 1800s, but, the witch hunts and paranoia of the 1950s prompted by rampant McCarthyism fear mongers needed a scapegoat for anti-social teen rebellion and comic books were an easy target. After Seduction of the Innocent’s publication in 1954, comic books that sensationalized sex, violence, and horror came under heavy governmental scrutiny. However, not everyone agreed with Wertham’s findings. One Oxford University Press reviewer considered Seduction of the Innocent to be “polemical rather than scientific in approach and presentation,” and that “the unsystematic nature of the data presented [should] argue against giving this book serious consideration.” (Mischler, 1955, 115) Without hard scientific evidence, the reviewer for The Library Quarterly wrote that “Wertham comes close to using in this book one of the features that is essentially wrong in the comics, namely, an arousal of feelings, an absence of balanced judgment, an appeal to violent emotions, rather than an appeal to reason,” and concluded, “methinks this psychiatrist asserts too much.” (Bettelheim, 1955, 129)
While both reviewers acknowledged violent and sexually explicit comic books were problematic for young children, they also felt Wertham was attacking a symptom rather than the underlying problems of society. As Claywood pointed out in School Library Journal, Wertham’s solution to eliminate comic books was simplistic, owing more to “high-brow tastes in the 1950s than about the psychology of young people.” (Claywood, 48) “Our cry should be for better education,” wrote Bettelheim in The Library Quarterly, “better supervision, better living conditions for youth, and not against comics. Sin is eradicated not by preaching or legislating against it, but only by making virtue readily possible, enjoyable, and rewarding.” (Bettelheim, 1955, 129) Regrettably, in the absence of any other studies, Wertham was considered the leading expert on comic books in his field, and he leveraged that position as a celebrity du jour.
Wertham chose to demonize a form of entertainment rather than deal with the root cause of society’s problems probably because comic books were an easily-accessible, tangible target, or perhaps because on some level he knew that the difficulties associated with growing up were vastly beyond his, or anyone’s, ability to solve. Unfortunately, Wertham never interviewed Harold Rudolf “Hal” Foster (1892-1982 – seated right), the creator of the comic strip Prince Valiant (1937–present). Had he done so, he may have found that root cause. As a lecturer at a women’s club meeting in 1949, Foster was asked by one of the members whether or not “the industry didn’t need a house-cleaning” because she felt some comic strips had a “bad influence” on children. Sharp as ever, Foster replied, “Let’s say the average youngster spends a half hour a day on the comics. If that half hour can undo the good that parents are supposed to do in the other 23½ hours, madam, whose fault would you say that was?” (Howard, 109) Seduction of the Innocent nearly destroyed the comic book industry, and permanently scarred a generation’s perception to their positive educational possibilities because Wertham knew it was easier to blame the presses instead of the parents.
Will Eisner’s Artistic DNA
While illustrations and comic books are two separate mediums, they share a common history. Over the past two centuries, graphic storytelling has progressed from single illustrations that accompanied a text to the utilization of multiple panels of sequential art to convey meaning and information. As with illustration, graphic narratives fought against their own prejudices, but these two bodies of art share a common artistic lineage. Many of America’s representational artists can trace their artistic roots to the French Academy—and so can Will Eisner! In fact, we can trace Eisner’s Artistic DNA to nine Prix de Rome-winning painters including Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825).
If we think of the rolls of teacher/student in terms of parent/child we can trace an artist’s Artistic DNA back through time over many generations. Eisner studied at the Art Students League of New York under the famous anatomist, George Brandt Bridgman (1864–1943 - image right). Now this is where it gets fun [Note: PdR, YYYY indicates a Prix de Rome-winning artist and the year they won it]. Bridgman was taught by Gustave Clarence Rodolphe Boulanger [PdR, 1849], and Jean-Léon Gérôme who both studied under Paul (Hippolyte) Delaroche. Delaroche was preceded by Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, Jacques-Louis David [PdR, 1774], François Boucher [PdR, 1720], Joseph-Marie Vien, Charles-Joseph Natoire [PdR, 1721], François Lemoyne (Le Moine) [PdR, 1711], Louis Galloche, and Louis de Boullogne II [PdR, 1673] whose father, Louis Boullogne the Elder, was one of the fourteen original founders of the French Academy in 1648. However, that is not the most remarkable aspect of Eisner’s artistic pedigree because this lineage of teacher-to-student also traces back through Jean Bardin [PdR, 1765], Gabriel-François Doyen [PdR, 1746], and Charles-André van Loo [PdR, 1724] to Leonardo da Vinci and beyond. This means that anyone who ever took a class from Eisner, or has been taught by a student of Eisner's, is connected to this lineage as well!
In terms of pure illustration, I have also created an Artistic Family Tree for James “Doc Savage” Bama. Bama studied at The Art Students League under Frank Joseph Reilly (1906–1967), and it is that connection that ties him not only to 17 Prix de Rome-winning artists, but to the Father of American Illustration, and founder of the Brandywine School of Art, Howard Pyle (1853–1911) as well!
Illustration and graphic narratives share a rich heritage. Admittedly, not all commercial art is an award-winning piece, but then, neither is all fine art. Each piece, regardless of who made it or why it was made, should stand on its own merits. Prejudice towards the Arts, such as the type perpetuated by Lamb, Murray, Wordsworth, Craven, and Wertham, is nothing but jealously and fear masking itself as elitism. A continued prejudice towards illustration and graphic narratives is a continued prejudice towards women. While we may have forgotten the origin of that prejudice it is still there nonetheless, and it has no place in the Twenty-first Century.
Topics for Discussion
1) Can you trace the prejudice towards illustration back further than Charles Lamb? If so, what caused it?
2) Who took classes from Will Eisner, and are they working as artists today?
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