Saturday 2 February 2008


verybody is linking to Steven Stwalley's Crumbling Paper Index where he has been posting an unending stream of grand old newspaper funnies. Last April he wrote an introductory note that stuck in my noodle. It is of particular interest to me as one of my grand failed projects of recent times was The History of Humour. I was attempting to recreate the humour of past times in such a way that the reader could enter into a moment in which that humor lived again, albeit through a screen of irony, rather than to present it in the detached scientific manner of the sociologist. One of the problems I found was that I could not always depend on my reader to share my intelligent benevolence, let alone my sense of what is funny. (I have even heard that there are some who think that this blog is not the most amusing thing in the world.)
Thus one is duty bound to frame everything in the health and safety warnings of our own times, which I'm sure will provoke hilarity for a later generation. I rather like the panache with which Steven dealt with the issue: impression from reading stuff from early in the last century, I don’t think that most people even had heard of the concept of racism. Race and ethnicity was not only viewed as a ripe source of humor… it was one of the most popular sources of humor.
Today’s newspaper comics (which I should note are incredibly tame in comparison to the early comics in almost every way imaginable) have their genres… domestic humor, office humor, funny animals, etc. If you were to divide up the major genres of the early (pre-1920) comics, it would have been something like: racial and ethnic humor, devil children humor, unstable marriage humor, dim-witted woman humor, homelessness and poverty humor, violence and misfortune humor, and wacky surrealism. So that all said, here are the deeply offensive Chocolate Drops, by E. W. Kemble, circa July 23, 1911 from the American Examiner. I can’t imagine a strip in a modern paper depicting young kids stealing a car for a joyride and laughing when they get some adults arrested, can you? Anyone who says the past was a more innocent time is talking out of their ass.



Blogger James Robert Smith said...

I'd have to disagree with at least one of Steve Stwalley's assessments concerning modern "humor". Some of the most popular comedians today are extremely mean-spirited. They seem to find humor in the nastiest of ways. I'm not saying they aren't funny--only that they find their humor in cruelty. The past was very definitely not so innocent as some claim, but neither is the modern world more humane. (The USA/UK is responsible for the slaughter of over one million human beings in Iraq, but you hear not much in the way of complaints from the western so-called civilizations.)

It could be that I am speaking only from experience of comedians in the USA, but it very much seems the case.

And, yes, I'm using performance comedy in place of illustrated comedy, because comic strips are all but dead and there's not much to go on there. If there were as many today as in times past, I'm sure we'd see lots of racism and nastiness within those borders.

3 February 2008 at 09:34:00 GMT-5  
Blogger mrmonkey23 said...

Glad you're enjoying the strips, Eddie! Thanks for calling attention to them. Your Honeybee strips seemed pretty on the mark to me.

Hemlockman, I just reread what I posted, and I can't find anywhere I commented on modern humor at all... so I'm not sure which assessment of mine you're disagreeing with. I was only commenting on the humor of the past. I completely agree with you that many modern comedians (and much of popular culture in general) is extremely mean-spirited today. I definitely do not find the modern world to be any more humane than the old one, alas. Human cruelty is a timeless trait. Rather, I find the old world to be familiarly inhumane!

As you say, now comic strips are all but dead (I would add that this is just in the newspaper... there are plenty of lively comic strips on the web). In our crass popular culture, modern newspaper comic strips are almost never mean-spirted. Instead, they're impotent milquetoast. They have been castrated by dim-witted editors catering to a theoretical audience of numbskulls. The handful of modern newspaper comic strips I do like are excellent but rarely offend (Doonesbury being one notable exception). I love the hell out of Mutts, but I don't think Patrick McDonnell gets much in the way of hate mail.

I should note at this point that I gave up on reading the newspaper funnies regularly a long time ago (they depress me), so it is not at all unlikely there may be some nice, offensive brilliance in the modern funnies that I'm missing.

The point I was attempting to make was that the old strips, like any strips, are very much a product of their times. In the early 20th century, if someone (for a particularly contentious example) drew a dark-skinned man with big fish lips and googly eyes, it most likely wasn't because they hated dark-skinned people... I suspect it was usually because that was how lazy cartoonists caricatured dark-skinned people at that time (much like lazy cartoonists of today draw any arab as someone who looks like Osama Bin Laden).

I have no doubt there were plenty of truly vile and hateful examples of racist comics from that time period as well (I imagine Al Zere's Our Own Ku Klux Klan strip that ran in the New York Post in 1921 would be a very likely example, although I've only seen the two examples Craig Yoe posted here:

However, most of the racial and ethnic humor I've seen from the era mostly just seemed like cartoonists trying to get a cheap laugh in a way that has become rather horrifically unfashionable today, unless you're Johnny Ryan. The racism, sexism, classism and other deeply ignorant viewpoints in the old comic strips doesn't lessen their historical signifigance... and some of them are funny as hell if you can look past it. If you can't look past it and this sort of thing offends you, that is certainly a well-justified viewpoint, and I would suggest you should opt not to look at them.

I hope that clarifies what I was trying to say. Wish me luck!

Best wishes,

Steven Stwalley

4 February 2008 at 00:28:00 GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

American newspaper strips may have lost their edge but Steve Bell's If... in The Guardian never has. The human and animal characters are always shitting, swearing and fornicating and it shows no respect at all for public figures. I can't imagine Cherie Blair would have been gratified to see herself portrayed for a decade as a grotesque pair of pop eyes and a huge mouth full of teeth whose most common name for her Prime Minister husband was "Twatboy".

4 February 2008 at 08:05:00 GMT-5  

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