Ernest Brennecke, looking back on the rise of the comic strip from the
vantage point of 1924, praises the comics for representing "true things"
rather than the "pursuit of the good and beautiful." Gilbert Seldes,
in a book on the aesthetics of popular culture published in the same year
as Brennecke's essay, defines comic strip realism similarly. In support
of the assertion that "none of our realists in fiction come so close
to the facts of the average man," Seldes notes that "the comic
more violent, more dishonest, more tricky and roguish,
than America usually permits its serious arts to be." Comic strips
expose the illusions of the "life of the average man" because
comic strip characters "have so little respect for law, order, the
rights of property, the sanctity of money, the romance of marriage, and
all the other foundations of American life, that if they were put into fiction
the Society for the Suppression of Everything would hale them incontinently
to court and our morals would be saved again" (Seldes 197, 201).
Taken together, Brennecke and Seldes present a remarkably coherent vision
of the comic strip as a realist deflation of bourgeois illusion. Coherence
disintegrates, however, when these critics address the fact that many strips
contain elements so far removed from realism as to deserve the label "fantastic."
Brennecke acknowledges that some realist cartoonists resort to "wonder-geography"
and talking animals, but he dismisses fantasy as a temporary vacation spot
for the imaginations of artists who are "a little tired and in need
of fresh inspiration" (674). Gilbert Seldes draws the distinction between
realism and fantasy more sharply when he writes, "At the extremes of
the comic strip are the realistic school and the fantastic," identifying
George Herriman's Krazy Kat as the best example of the latter genre.
And while Brennecke sees the fantastic in comics as a relatively minor offshoot
of the form, Seldes sees the fantastic in Krazy Kat as the element
that lifts it above the rest of the "vulgar" comic strips into
the realm of high art. Herriman's work is, according to Seldes, "rich
with something we have too little of--fantasy (203). Diverging from both
Brennecke and Seldes, columnist William Bolitho identifies all strips as
fantasy: "These interminable stories are indeed like an immense system
of burrowings in the world of fantasy and imagination" (34). While
all three authors identify an element of fantasy in the comic strips, they
disagree wildly over whether fantasy departs from the essence of the form,
elevates it, or defines it.
This disagreement is more a function of a strange duality in the comics themselves than of any error on the part of their critics. Throughout their rich history the funnies have aimed both to manufacture illusions and to puncture them. While bad boys and low-lifes like the Katzenjammer Kids, Mutt, and Calvin display an irreverent disregard for the illusions of manners, genteel pretension, or the idealized family, dreamers like Little Nemo, Little Orphan Annie and (again) Calvin live in a fantasy world of wish-fulfillment. I propose that the incoherence of comic strip realism as a genre points back to a central contradiction in turn-of-the-century American market culture. Reality and fantasy are two sides of a coin that turns up repeatedly as subject and subtext in the comic strips: the urban marketplace. Because the comics originated in the urban press, the city occupies a crucial but ambiguous position in their mythology. Comic strips represent the city both as an especially real place, the site of the "bottom line" of class and commerce, and as a dreamland of wish fulfillment.
The city has stereotypically served as a privileged site of the real, a noir world beyond the illusions of innocence and romanticism. But the reverse is equally true: the flip-side of the city's reality is its unreality. Amy Kaplan's ground-breaking study of American literary realism uncovers this side of the city by describing realism as an attempt to contain a sense of unreality generated by accelerating social change in the urban environment. Jackson Lears similarly argues that the disturbing sense of groundlessness associated with modernism can be traced in part to the unreal chaos of urban experience. But while both of these writers insightfully highlight the city's status as site of the unreal, I would argue that they fail to offer an adequate historical explanation for the persistence of the trope of the unreal city in American culture. Urban unreality is not simply a result of the rapid social change involved in the explosive urbanization of the nineteenth-century. Rather, the unreality of the city arises as the necessary counterpart to the reality of the city, the contradiction between urban reality and urban unreality reflecting a contradiction at the heart of market-culture itself.
In the turn-of-the-century comic strip, representations of the urban marketplace rock between the trope of the city as gritty reality and the trope of the city as decidedly unreal dream-realm of wish fulfillment. On the one hand, comic strips represent urban commerce and the demands of the market as the bedrock of reality underlying all idealistic and moralistic illusions. On the other hand, the urban marketplace strives to fulfill the fantasies of its resident consumers, as does the comic strip, and so the city becomes a surreal amusement park run mad.