Comics in the Midwest: A Brief History of the Form

Comics in the Midwest: A Brief History of the Form

To say that the Midwest has been treated unkindly by novelists, poets and critics, empathically including those from the Midwest, would be a considerable understatement. It would take many pages to recount, let alone describe in detail, the pain dished out, although perhaps The Spoon River Anthology and Main Street could sum up the rest. Even the kindliest literary observers, like Sherwood Anderson and Kurt Vonnegut, played up the mostly self-created agony of the American midland, where apart from Chicago, we all seem to share Flyover Territory.

Sure, there are happy stories, poetry and novels to films, and we all remember at least some of them. But I would suggest that we are suffering for a purpose. The Midwest cannot rival the South for gut-wrenching racial drama—although we certainly have our own—but the sense of being isolated, away from the excitement and “culture,” trapped within a small-mindedness, is a metaphor we offer the nation. Perhaps no one outside the Midwest can articulate these feelings quite so well, as common as they are from coast to coast, border to border.

Comics come into this cultural world as a poor relative at best, widely regarded as trash and perhaps dangerous trash, until displaced by television and the internet as still worse. Comics of the Midwest could not escape this indictment except by lack of notice: they have, perhaps, been insufficiently important for insult.

The disproof is more difficult. But it surely begins with the role of Joseph Medill Paterson at the Chicago Tribune of the 1910s-20s. He actually loved comics and understood that they were evolving away from the earlier gag strips that ended in the last panel with feet up in the air. He also correctly grasped the circulation they could bring to the emerging masses of newspaper readers who, thanks to a certain assimilation, understood English better and would respond warmly to “continuity” strips. Here, nothing happened fast, quite the contrary, but the lives of seemingly ordinary Americans caught the interest in the radio soap opera, day by day by day.

The first two came from artists working at drawing desks next to each other. Sidney Smith, from Bloomington, Illinois (until he bought a mansion in Lake Geneva from one of  Chicago reformer Jane Addams’ close friends), created in “The Gumps” a national sensation. The Minneapolis Board of Trade closed one day for a Gump marriage. Gump toys, Gump film shorts and even (in Lake Geneva) a Gump statue followed.

Hailing from near Tomah, in Western Wisconsin, Frank O. King of “Gasoline Alley” had a more lasting hit, in part because Smith died in a car crash in 1931, but mainly because he was a far better artist, his Sunday strips filling whole pages with scenery and the occasional visual experiment in artistic modernism. “Gasoline Alley” would continue onward, become more dull and less artistic over the decades, as the artist lived out his life in a leafy Chicago suburb, followed by various artists who managed to keep the strip going against all reason.

Publisher Joseph Medill Patterson is also said to have supported the rare artist whose work did not have sufficient popularity otherwise and set a tradition that included wildly surrealistic comic entries like Smoky Stover by Bill Holman, alongside the adventures of great white adventurers across geography and time, ready to take on the unfriendly natives. Did he need to subsidize the seemingly reactionary Little Orphan Annie or Dick Tracy? Nor, as some said, go with the logic and interpret the art of Dick Tracey in particular against the narrative content. Criminals could be so horrible as to be interesting.

The other great dailies of the 1920s-60s, including the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Detroit Daily News, carried strips by the dozens, as did the small and medium sized papers. These, like all comics pages, figured second after the Sports pages in reader interest, ahead of actual news. The newspaper syndicates owned the strips and their creators, who had no rights. The artists, whatever their hometowns, congregated in the East, along with the pulp magazine production generally. One thinks of exceptions: the Big Little Books produced by the hundreds of thousands in Racine, Wisconsin of the 1930s-40s, kids comics of cowboy tales, mostly. Production center of Gold Key Comics, Racine figured as the proletarians of the comics world.

Comic books arose from the pulp trade, including the soft-core sex magazine field, but if the artists and their factories of collaborators worked in the East, the midwest had at least one great claim: Cleveland’s own creators of Superman, arguably the progenitor of all superhero comics from the late 1930s until the present. Robbed, indeed swindled of 95% of their creative contribution, the two Cleveland boys had a pretty normal experience of the midwesterner headed for the Big Time with a great idea but without a copyright. (My late father in law,  a self-trained parts engineer who created the first machine hand dryer back in the 1930s for his foundry bosses outside Chicago, would appreciate the irony: he got a $50 bonus.)

The comics story, at least the midwest comics story, can be said to have started over when a young, near-suicidal Robert Crumb landed in Cleveland, in 1962, at a bus station, and made his way to Harvey Pekar’s apartment. (This has been retold many times, but a recent one is neatly done in my comic Bohemians.) Crumb had a greeting card job, and soon revealed his stunning talent. A decade passed before Pekar, having landed a permanent job in the VA hospital, produced the first American Splendor. Readers of the Cleveland Review of Books probably know of Pekar’s importance to the evolution of comic art. After his death, actress Helen Mirren credited him with showing people around the world how to read comics in a new way.

If this claim is perhaps exaggerated, Harvey revealed blue collar life, his blue collar life,  and in the process Cleveland, as no one could have predicted. Like singer-musician Little Richard, who had a changing group of backup musicians who always took their cue from his frantic presence, Pekar’s collaborating artists gleaned the unique sensibility that he had to offer, none more so than life-long Clevelander, Gary Dumm.

In telling this saga, we have skipped over the rise of the uncensored “Underground Comix” that established a new kind of comic art. There is a reason: the innovation happened very largely in the Bay Area, after an early spurt in New York. A handful of Chicago artists produced a handful of comic works, and Playboy paid good rates for work that seems in retrospect never to have escaped a certain cynicism. By 1980, the Undergrounds had faded along with the Youth Culture that brought them to life, and if Playboy’s pages featured the most expensively-produced color comics to that time—in Harvey Kurtzman’s “Little Annie Fanny” strips—these too were marked with a large downside. Hugh Hefner wielded the blue pencil, and the creative genius of Mad Comics (not to mention his own art and story line in assorted war comics of the early 1950s) was hacking out a living, with fabulous collaborators like the legendary Willie Elder. Grand in art, it was pathetic in theme, and the reasons can be found in Chicago.

We can’t help mentioning Bijou Funnies, produced in Chicago, 1968-73, and mainly the project of two artists, Skip Williamson and Jay Lynch, bringing talents of other artists alongside their own. A few hundred miles north, Kitchen Sink aka Denis Kitchen’s of various comics in Princeton, Wisconsin of the middle 1970s to very early 1990s, including the first Gay Comics, or the emergence of later-famous Lynda Barry from the pages of the Chicago Reader. (We welcomed her back to her native Wisconsin in the first decade of the new century.)

Or we might return to Cleveland for another brief glimpse. Not too far from the Jewish neighborhood of Sigal and Shuster, not too far from the Jewish neighborhood of Harvey Pekar came another dynamic duo, Seth Tobocman and Peter Kuper. By legend, one of them was a substitute paperboy for Pekar, and then Crumb came to town….Forty years later, their World War 3 Illustrated annual still appears. Admittedly from New York. But they retain that gritty Cleveland spirit.

Gary Dumm and Scott McGregor have meanwhile explored that spirit in a masterful saga of Cleveland working class life a century ago. Deeply ethnic but also multi-racial, throwing themselves in harm’s way for the sake of a wage, the tunnel builders pursuing clean water a distance from the shores of polluted Lake Erie, face a calamitous cave-in. Tunnel to Hell may very well be the best local labor history in comic form yet produced.

And there is another master teller of tragedy in middle America. Ohioan Carol Tyler’s You’ll Never Know Me, illustrates in wincing details the life of the artist’s father who could not talk about what he had suffered in the Second World War. A masterpiece of narrative and comic art, it rips away the convenient hyper-patriotic and somehow cheerful generalizations about the war “that we had to win,” as old-timers have said to me many times, measuring the costs then and across a later lifetime.

It would be vain, I think, for me to dwell upon my Illinois origins, my Wisconsin years (1967-71 and 2008 to present) and my role in producing nonfiction, historical comics. That I have been a scholar of Wisconsin radical history is a fact, with comic art as a sideline within a larger project now including a dozen volumes. What I want to suggest is that my mind was never far from the Midwest, from my first comic history (Wobblies!, on the centenary of the IWW, that Chicago-based movement) through the following decade and more. An adaptation of Studs Terkel, that human icon of oral history, his totemic book Working (mostly Chicagoans of the 1950s-60s), led to Abraham Lincoln for Beginners, Johnny Appleseed and finally Eugene V. Debs.

These are comics, properly speaking, about my own Midwest, where a great aunt in Northern Illinois claimed that one of her apple trees had grown from seeds left behind in Indiana by Johnny; where Abe Lincoln’s homes were an inescapable part of childhood and “Discrimination is Stinkin’ in the Land of Lincoln” was a civil rights slogan of my teen years; and where Gene Debs retained an aura that felt a bit like that of Martin Luther King, Jr., a man not wrong but a century ahead of his time.

These are a testament, at once, to Midwestern history and the search for the “Lost Highway” of American life, something we missed collectively, and need to find again.


Cover Image: Pekar, Harvey. art. David Remnant. Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland. Z2 Comics. August 8, 2018. p. 27. (Taken from the Smithsonian Magazine)

This review was written as part of our series on Midwestern history, a collection of reviews on histories and texts of historical significance in the region. Writers interested in contributing to this series are encouraged to contact its editor, Jacob A. Bruggeman.

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