The Business of the Strips

In other threads of this essay I interpret early comic strips in the context of the market culture of turn-of-the-century America and in the context of their authors' participation in a tradition of politically charged formal gestures. This thread will address a topic somewhere in between the broad cultural sweep of the former analysis and the comics-specific focus of the latter. My goal here will be to discuss the point at which the culture of the comics and the culture of business meet: the business of culture. The history of the comics takes part in the history of the culture industry. The comics were made possible by advances in reproductive technology, they took shape within the newspaper industry as that industry was aspiring to markets broad enough to earn the term "mass market" (and thus "mass culture"), and they became a testing ground for refinements in intellectual property concepts that enabled the ongoing commodification of content. All of these developments left traces that artists worked into the form. More specifically, we can see in the early comics the attempts of comic strip authors to work through the contradiction between the transparency of their products as representations and the opacity of their products as objects to be owned and sold. The settings and characters of the early comics I am examining here, although they initially presented themselves as windows onto urban life, gradually acquired the fantastic quality of Marx's famous talking commodity. Characters became more explicitly fictional but at the same time were represented as having a magical life of their own, while the settings of individual strips tended to merge into larger fictive regions shaped by the boundaries of corporate real estate in the terrain of intellectual property.

The comic strip was born in the Sunday comic supplements of "yellow" or sensationalist newspapers like William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal and Joseph Pullitzer's New York World. It existed in part to help these papers sell their most valuable commodity: a window onto the city that could provide a sense of community. Comic illustrations could appeal to a wide variety of readers, including immigrants just beginning to learn English. Sports cartoons united city-dwellers around a common spectacle that could be shared by all, while cartoons of public figures created a similarly sharable spectacle out of the city's officials and celebrities.

By classifying urbanites into types, some strips aimed to extend the reader's circle of specular acquaintance beyond celebrities to include the common man and woman. Characters in strips from the early 1900s rarely had proper names; rather than claiming the individuated but manifestly imaginary identity of a fictional character, early comic strip characters were frequently presented as generalized representations of the reality of human nature. Artist T. E. Powers favored this character-type approach to visual humor, specializing in strips with titles like "Do You Know This Man?" When an artist did grant a character a proper name, the name often identified the character as the distilled essence of some common character trait, as in the case of the 1905 strip "You Know Mr. Hoggit." The technique of naming a character according to a personality trait was perfected by Gus Mager, who exposed human foibles by representing them in the form of anthropomorphic monkeys with names like Henpecko, Braggo, Coldfeeto, and Tightwaddo. The authors of people-watching strips like these assumed the pose of the bemused observer of the city street's human parade.

Of course community is built on exclusion as well as on common experience, and type-watching frequently meant racial, class and ethnic humor. Black-face savages like "Sahara Sam" (appearing on the pages of The World's 1897 Sunday comic supplements) abounded. A series of strips printed on the Home Page of the 1905 The New York Evening Journal, for example, depicts "The Eternal Feminine," a female character who represents all females. The Yellow Kid himself--the character identified by most histories of the comics as the origin of the comic strip form--embodied a similar strategy. R. F. Outcault's creation presented the reader with the distilled essence of the lovable street urchin and so helped to establish the tradition of class stereotypes in the comics.

Whether we find their representations offensive or appealing, the Yellow Kid, type-watching strips in general, the sports strips, and news strips all aimed to give the reader the same sort of intimate contact with the city, walking the line between documentary representation and fiction. This project involved a claim to a certain kind of transparency: the comic strip sold a vantage point onto real scenes in the city, its class structure, and its economy. Indeed, at times the compositions of comic artists aimed to create the impression that the reader could step into the action in the pictures as a full participant .

But while the strips tried to create an image that could act as a portal, the very act of marketing that image distanced the world beyond the portal from the reader's world. Images of public figures, human nature, sporting events, and stereotypes helped the newspapers sell a sense of community to their urban market, but none of these images could be owned exclusively. It is not surprising, then, that as comic strip artists and their employers confronted the role of their creations in the marketplace and the status of those creations as valuable items of intellectual property, they tended to see their cartoons less as doorways to the real and more as things or places in themselves. The newly discovered opacity of the comic strip as a salable world in its own right eventually brought some artists to reconsider the nature of their relationship to their product and their consumers.

When Pulitzer hired George Luks to pen a version of the Yellow Kid to compete with Outcault's after Hearst hired Outcault away from Pullitzer's New YorkWorld for his own New York Journal, the Kid's value as a commodity became impossible to ignore. In this case the battle between rival papers and artists does not seem to have been fought in the courtroom. Mark Winchester, in his useful reexamination of some of the myths surrounding the legal battles fought over the early comics, notes that there is no evidence that this dispute ever made it to court. Although we do have a sketch Outcault made for an application for a copyright on the appearance of Yellow Kid, Winchester notes that standard newspaper practice ran counter to the notion of copyrighting a character. Just as "a photograph could be registered for copyright, although the subject of a specific photograph could not," newspapers routinely copyrighted only particular drawings (Winchester 20).

But the absence of a copyright infringement suit did not mean the absence of a conflict in this case. As the bidding war over Outcault shows, the struggle of newspaper companies over ownership of comic strip worlds did not begin in a legal arena but in the marketplace. The rival versions of the Kid engaged in fierce campaigns for the attention of readers, campaigns that found their way into the cartoons themselves. As each artist tried to incorporate the highly publicized competition between the two Kids into the logic of the character and the strip, each strip's portrait of the Kid's slum neighborhood began to resolve into a representation of the reader's relation to the more ambiguous reality of the textual commodity itself. Simultaneously, the fictional worlds created by these artists grew gradually more remote from the urban community.

Outcault tried to redraw the boundaries of his fiction in such a way that his character could inhabit an urban reality that crossed the divide between The World and The Journal, describing the Kid's switch to the Hearst paper as a move from one location to another within a single New York City. His first cartoon for the Journal shows the Kid moving out of Hogan's Alley (which, a placard tells us, "has ben condemed by de board of helt") (October 18, 1896). The following week's installment then shows the Kid parading into new digs in a neighborhood called "McFadden's Row of Flats." In the November 22, 1896 Journal the Kid sings: "De harp wot wunst troo Hogan's Hall de sole of lafter spread-don't live dere any more a tall-because dat joint is dead, but in McFadden's double flat yez kin hear it every day where I am glad dat I lives at ta-ra-rum-boom-de-ay. Keep de change." But in spite of his hopeful assertion that "dat joint is dead," it was plain to anyone who followed the Kid that someone still lived in Hogan's Alley, someone who also called himself the Kid.

Luks takes a more direct approach in one of his cartoons on the subject. Rather than deny the existence of the rival cartoon, he presents us with a caricature of the mustachioed Outcault in the act of drawing his Kid. Standing in a store-front window on the margins of the drawing, Outcault comes across as a fraud as he hawks cheap, "copyrighted" sketches of the Yellow Kid as "souvenirs" (souvenirs, one presumes, of The World's "real" version of the strip). In the center of Luks' drawing a sign boldly proclaims, "The Only Original Hogan."

As the logic of place grew more convoluted in the work of both Luks and Outcault, both artists shifted their focus away from the city. On January 17, 1897, two months after his switch to the Journal, Outcault sends his characters on a tour of Europe that lasts until May 30. In the same year Luks turns his attention to the fantasy world of Joel Chandler Harris when he starts an "Uncle Remus" cartoon that joins Hogan's Alley in the comic supplement. This especially offensive exercise in blackface caricature is notable chiefly as the birthplace of Mose the Trained Chicken, a talking animal character who eventually finds his way into the world of Hogan's Alley. When Mose teams up with the Yellow Kid, he distances the Hogan's Alley characters from the streets of New York even more effectively than Outcault's "Around the World with the Yellow Kid" series does. The cross-over from the Uncle Remus strip suggests that it makes more sense for separate cartoons on the same comics page to share a world than for cartoons in different newspapers to share a city. By the time Luks' and Outcault's conflict over the Yellow Kid had played itself out, the street was no longer an adequate representation of the kind of reality their characters inhabited.

The informal resolution of potential intellectual property conflicts implemented by The Journal and The World in this case reinforced the impression given by Luks's cross-over strips that the setting of these strips was actually a kind of "corporate space" defined by the boundaries of the comic supplement rather than by any real geography. The paper that first published the strip owned the title of the feature--"Hogan's Alley." Although the characters could migrate, the newspaper owned the framing reality. When, after leaving The Journal, Outcault started drawing Buster Brown for The New York Herald, a similar defection by Outcault resulted in a similar resolution. This time, however, the resolution was enforced by the courts. Hearst lured Outcault back to The Journal, the artist took Buster Brown with him, and The Herald continued to produce its own version of the strip. Outcault sued The Herald to stop the rival strip, The Herald sued Hearst's Star Company, and the court decided that both papers could print cartoons starring Buster. Only The Herald, however, could publish them under the copyrighted title "Buster Brown." The separation of the characters and style of a strip from the title had become a standard, and cropped up in the careers of other artists as well. When, for example, Rudolph Dirks left Hearst's paper behind to sign up with The World, he also left behind the title "The Katzenjammer Kids" and took up the title "The Captain and the Kids." And, as in the case of the Yellow Kid, this move preceded a shift away from realistic settings toward more remote settings like ships and tropical islands.

Corporate ownership of titles not only fostered fantasy settings in individual strips but also turned the comics page as a whole into an alternate reality in its own right. Characters from different strips by a single author could freely cross back and forth between strips, as we have seen in the case of Mose the Chicken, and, perhaps more significantly, characters from strips by different authors could visit each other's worlds with similar ease. William Bolitho recognized this fact when in 1930 he described comic strip fantasy as "made (in spite of the occasional celebrity of their authors) really by anonymity itself" (34)--one world with many nameless authors. The Kid blazes this trail in a cover for The Journal's magazine American Humorist that shows various Hearst properties frolicking in a cartoonist's studio. In the comic section of the May 13, 1906 New York American and Journal Dirks collaborates with Frederick Burr Opper to create a strip featuring both the Katzenjammer Kids and Opper's Alphonse, Gaston, and Leon. These same characters join a host of other comic strip stars at a banquet over which Hearst himself presides in a cartoon by J.S. Pughe for the June, 1904 issue of Puck. Given the persistence with which Hearst pursued comic artists, promoted their work, encouraged the development of the comic strip, and profited from its popularity, it made sense to imagine him as the paternalistic ruler of this pantheon of comic celebrities. As the head of their parent corporation, he accomplishes what the individual author cannot: he brings these fictions out of their myriad separate realities into a single room.

The opportunity to appeal to a national market also contributed to this tendency toward detachment from real places. While the first strips were aimed, like their parent newspapers, at local audiences in particular cities, the advent of syndication made it possible to reach a nation-wide audience. Even in the early days of the Yellow Kid, Hearst and Pulitzer marketed their papers in Chicago and Los Angeles as well as in New York. In 1913 Moses Koenigsberg, editor of the Chicago American, founded Newspaper Feature Service, Inc., which supplied daily features to subscribing papers. Two years later he created King Features. By 1919, with the advent of the Tribune-News syndicate, it was possible for a single cartoonist to reach an audience that stretched across the continent. As a result of the expanding market, cartoonists began to erase local particularity from their fictions. Ernest Brennecke, writing in 1924, notes that the "enormous public to be reached through the syndicate-system…brought on the universality of application and the quantity-production--in a word, the 'fordizing'-of [American] satire." Artist Cliff Sterret, author of Polly and Her Pals, offers the following firsthand account of the effect of syndication on the strip after 1915: "We couldn't mention Florida without getting rebuffs from Californians…We couldn't mention the Fourth of July without hearing from our Canadian readers. What else could we do but follow a middle-of the-road attitude?" Some artists certainly did stick with representations of "average" families in "average" settings. Others combined this sort of middle-of-the-road world with wildly exotic worlds which would be equally alien to all readers. Sidney Smith's The Gumps, for example, wedded domestic humor with what one strip called "stupendous drama of adventure and thrills with an all star cast." The first strip ("Introducing the Gumps") represented the Gump's house both as nondescript and as a possible refuge for ghosts and spies, while later strips switched back and forth between a drab domestic environment and such outlandish settings as "the hidden city of gold." The cartoon's recipe appealed to a broad audience, single-handedly creating the demand that launched the Tribune-News national syndicate.

As the disputes described above suggest, ownership of characters was an issue distinct from the ownership of titles and fictive universes. If the commodification of comic strip worlds tended to foster their transformation from realistic settings into corporate alternate realities, then the commodification of individual characters fostered its own, distinct transformations. Again, the history of the Yellow Kid gives us important clues as to the nature of those transformations. Although Outcault had little success in preventing The Herald from using Buster Brown, and doesn't seem to have tried to prevent The Journal from producing its own Yellow Kid cartoons, Winchester notes that Outcault assiduously and effectively litigated to prevent unauthorized uses of the characters from cutting into his own lucrative product-licensing business (22). As Ian Gordon has amply illustrated, both Buster Brown and the Yellow Kid proved to be gold mines when it came to selling the rights for toys and other products bearing the likenesses of the characters, and Outcault vigorously defended his cash cow.

This cottage product-licensing industry of Outcault's seems to have brought about a revolution in the way he thought of his character. Other descriptions of the Kid by Outcault represent him as a collective portrait of real street kids. The following passage, however, portrays the Kid as a sort of commodified Pinnochio--a clearly fictional character who uses his value as a marketing gimmick to will himself into reality. Sheer repetition of the Kid's image brings him to life:

People called me "Yellow Kid Outcault," and so many of my acquaintances wanted pictures of the little villain that I had to learn how draw him with both hands, and even practiced with a pen held in my teeth. . . I believe that I finally began to think that there was such a person as the Yellow Kid, and I knew that to all the children with whom I was acquainted he was a reality. . .Then there came the Yellow Kid buttons, crackers, cigarettes and such things, and I cursed the day that he came into existence. . .Now, it is more than six years since my pen first traced the outlines of Micky Dugan on paper. I look back on that fateful day and it is hard to realize that not a sun has set since then that has not seen at least one more representation of the Yellow Kid produced. . .The Yellow Kid will not separate himself from me, try as I may to make him, and I have given up my whole life to him. [Blackbeard, 147]

This narration highlights two crucial points about the development of the Kid's character. First, it shows that that Outcault now thinks of the Kid as an individualized, distinctive person rather than as a type. Second, it suggests that this shift is wrapped up in the discovery of new ways to market the image of this sort of distinctive character. Thus the insistence of the market's demand for reproductions of the Kid's image becomes in Outcault's account the insistence of a fictional character for a life of its own.

In the process of explaining why it was in the interest of eighteenth-century authors to cultivate the fictionality of their narratives, Catharine Gallagher notes that an author can defend her ownership of a fiction more easily than her ownership of a narrative based on historical events or a common story (158-162). In the history of English copyright litigation following the Statute of Anne, the originality of a work became a crucial legal test of its status as the exclusive property of its author, and a work of fiction is arguably the most "original" of literary commodities since it is not simply a "copy" of reality. A fictional character conceived as a unique individual is thus more ownable than a character conceived as a type. It is not surprising, then, that we see the sort of transformation illustrated above by the Kid being enacted in other early strips as well. Gus Mager's monkeys, originally named for generalized personality traits ("Coldfeeto the Monk," etc.), eventually metamorphose into the regular strip "Sherlocko the Monk." Sherlocko is a detective rather than a character flaw, and in spite of the title he no longer even seems to be a monkey .

The copyrighting of strips themselves did not seem to make individual characters valuable enough to bring about this transformation. A copyrighted cartoon was conceived as a single work, and the ownability of its individual elements could not be derived from the ownability of the whole. Only reproduction in ancillary products could give comic strip characters a legal life that transcended any particular physical form. When the 1924 case King Features Syndicate v. Fleischer determined that an unauthorized toy version of Barney Google's Horse "Spark-Plug" constituted a copyright infringement, the court gave full protection to the sort of product licensing Outcault had represented in fantastic terms as the expression of a fictional character's will to exist. Product-licensing convinced courts to consider comic strip characters as intellectual property. In so doing it blazed the trail for later applications of trademark doctrine to characters in serial fictions.

Trademark protection, in stark contrast to copyright protection, can be renewed indefinitely. This potential permanence stems from trademark law's original function as a way of assuring that consumers could always know the origin of a given product through the presence of the originating company's distinctive mark. A trademark is a way of making a brand name a form of property, primarily so that consumers know what they are getting when they buy a particular brand but also so that companies can use the brand as a receptacle to accumulate the value generated by consumer loyalty (i.e., "brand equity"). The latter function makes trademark a natural tool for preserving the value generated by a cultural product's loyal audience.

It is not surprising, then, that in the second half of the twentieth century the trademark has increasingly been used to protect intellectual properties that don't fit easily within the boundaries of the copyrightable "work." In the 1954 case of Warner brothers Pictures, Inc. v. Columbia Broadcasting Co., the court ruled that Dashiell Hammett had the right to use the character Sam Spade in sequels to The Maltese Falcon in spite of the fact that Hammett had already sold the motion picture rights of the original Sam Spade novel to Warner. Jane Gaines, in her book Contested Culture, points out that this case proved the unreliability of copyright law for protecting the integrity of the cultural commodity from reproduction (211-223). The court reasoned that copyright could only protect the literary work as a unified whole, not individual elements of the work such as characters. An ongoing series, however, never achieves the completion that would limit the boundaries of the ownable work. Through the consistent association of its name with the distinctive symbols, pictures, or words representing the characters and settings in its serial fictions, a company can establish a relationship with these fictive elements that transcends any particular story in which they may appear. The characters and settings in the series become trademarks, or signs which represent the company itself, and can thus be owned for an indefinite period of time.

Gaines uses the example of Superman comic book, movie, and television serials to show that the serial form can preserve the character as property by making the character into a trademark rather than a merely copyrightable fiction. The reproduction of Superman's image on various tie-in products further consolidates the character's protection as property under U.S. trademark law. In the U.S., the consistent association of a particular image with a particular company strengthens that company's right to register the image as a trademark and claim trademark protection. Thus, in Gaines's words, "to industrially produce an aluminum cake pan in the shape of Superman is to reassert (by a kind of high-finance squatter's rights) ownership and economic control over the most commonplace signs of culture in everyday circulation" (223). Trademarked narrative elements thrive on reproduction, for the more often they are reproduced, and the more different forms in which they are reproduced, the more likely the courts are to associate them with the companies that generate them and to acknowledge their status as trademarks.

In short, the commercial life of a character depends on its reproduction. This makes the comic strip character a peculiar sort of resource: one which cannot be used up, one which in fact becomes more valuable through profligate "spending." As the culture industry grew, this seemingly fantastic form of commodity became a fact of everyday life and thus a subject worth imaginative attention for the successful comic strip artist. Confronted with the momentum of value built through the Kid's reproduction, Outcault imagined it as the growing insistence of a fictional character's will to exist. Other artists imagined the economy of reproduction in different terms, but it continued to be an insistent object of their attention as the comic strip developed as a form.

George Herriman's Krazy Kat finds its metaphor for the economy of reproduction in the strip's central image: the brick. In its fully developed form, Herriman's strip centers around Ignatz Mouse's compulsion to throw bricks at Krazy Kat and Krazy's misinterpretation of this abuse as a sign of love. But Ignatz's sadistic pleasures are not free; he must buy his bricks before he can throw them, and so the character of Kolin Kelly the brick seller becomes a crucial mediator for the relationship between Ignatz and Krazy. In a 1917 strip, Ignatz buys a supply of bricks and uses them up by throwing them at what he thinks is Krazy. Crafty Kolin Kelly then collects the "used" bricks in order to sell them to Krazy, who in turn presents them to Ignatz as a gift. Similarly, in another strip from 1917 we see in great detail the economy through which Kelly's bricks circulate as Herriman shows exactly how much a "hod" of bricks costs, how much Krazy gets paid by a carnival operator to get beaned by the bricks, how much the operator charges carnival-goers for the privilege of beaning Krazy, and how much detective Don Kiyoty gets paid as a reward when he discovers that Ignatz has stolen the bricks he has been using to bean Krazy at the carnival.

Bricks are the only things bought and sold in Coconino, so that, on one level, their abstract and omnipresent box-like shape comes to stand in for all commodities through an absurd reduction that is in itself fabulistic. But more than this, Herriman's bricks are fantastic precisely because they depart from the logic of commodities in general. Rarely do we see bricks being produced, for example. The recycling scenario we saw above is much closer to the norm. Bricks are not used up in the act of consumption, and then replaced with new ones; rather, the same bricks circulate endlessly through Ignatz and Krazy's bizarre economy of desire.

In effect, Ignatz has yet to realize that he is participating in an economy of plenitude: an economy in which consumption or exchange does not equal loss. It seems likely that Herriman does not share Ignatz's blindness here. Indeed, in the course of the strip's development, the brick frequently comes to be associated with the economy of plenitude in which Herriman himself played a part. In his ongoing conceptual play with the brick motif, Krazy's author begins to direct the satirical vision of the comic strip genre toward exactly the sort of commodity he produced and reproduced as a comic strip author. In a series of later (1938) cartoons, Ignatz tries to indulge his vice without getting arrested for assault by enjoying drawings of bricks rather than the things themselves. This shift from an economy of bricks to an economy of images of bricks descends from an explicit emphasis in early Krazy Kat cartoons on the business of cartooning. A 1915 strip finds Krazy contemplating a career in art and finally concluding, "The cost of existence is more expensible now-a-day than then-a-day. . .Guess I better stick to my jobs in the bake-shop." Similarly, the narrator of a 1917 strip tells us outright, "We deal in 'pictures. . .'" In bringing his own job within the purview of his cartoons, Herriman transformed the economy of bricks into a representation of the economy of comic art.

This process also led Krazy's author to confront what I have taken to be the defining characteristic of the comic strip as commodity: its circulation through reproduction. When Herriman talks about the business of art, he is talking not about painting unique art objects but specifically about creating art that is made to be copied--drawings that will be reproduced on newsprint. Repetition forms the heart of Krazy Kat's narrative, with Herriman spinning out variation after variation on the inevitable beaning of Krazy that serves as the punchline of practically every strip. The theme of repetition is magnified in the strips in rather surreal ways. Ignatz lobs multiple bricks at Krazy only to see multiple Krazies appear in a desert mirage. When Officer Pupp appears disguised as one of three identical bearded men, Ignatz and Krazy triple themselves as well in subsequent strips. Krazy reads the comics, and sees the events around her duplicated in her newspaper. When in this strip she poses to Ignatz the difficult question, "But if I are here, and you is here, how come I are in the paper, and you also," Ignatz acknowledges that their existence is defined by its reproduction on the comics page. He answers, "Because, fool, how could it be aught were it not thus?"

The form of the comic strip was, then, shaped by the efforts of comic artists to construct a vision of the reproductive economy in which they participated. Early comic artists conceived of their labor as a way to deliver the real city to their audience, but intellectual property conflicts and the deeply commodified nature of their art eventually led many artists to see their products as inhabiting an order of reality entirely separate from any urban setting, a reality whose boundaries were coextensive with the boundaries of the media corporation. Similarly, the enhanced ownability of fictional characters encouraged artists to shy away from "real" characters and generalized types. The form of the comic strip matured in tandem with the legal and business practices that addressed the special problems and ambiguities of an industry based on reproduction.