Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer prize-winning Maus was recently banned from a Tennessee county’s classrooms. The McMinn County School Board’s decision to remove Spiegelman’s graphic novel about the Holocaust from its curriculum has caused a national outcry, but this is by no means the first time that comic books have been accused of being dangerous for young people. In this episode of Art for the End Times, Lyta is joined by Sam Thielman—a journalist and an expert on the comics industry—to talk about comics as a medium, the anti-comics hysteria of the 1950s, the subversive world of alternative comics, and why we ended up with so many superheroes.
Sam Thielman is a reporter and critic based in New York. He is the editor of Forever Wars and co-creator of Young Adult Movie Ministry, a podcast about Christianity and movies, and his writing has been featured in The Columbia Journalism Review, The Guardian, Talking Points Memo, NBC News, and Variety. In 2017 he was a political consultant for Comedy Central’s The President Show.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Dwayne Gladden
Lyta Gold: Hello, and welcome to Art for the End Times. This is your host Lyta Gold, as always. I am really excited for today’s episode. I know I’m excited for all the episodes but this is one I have been wanting to do since the very beginning since we started this podcast, and this is going to be an episode about comics and history of comics. The way we’re going to start and the reason we’re doing this today is because of the breaking news story, which you’ve probably heard about, regarding the comic book Maus and that it was banned in a very tiny county in Tennessee called McMinn County. There were complaints made against it and the complaints were really on the grounds of sexuality and swearing.
There’s a teensy, teensy bit of nudity if you squint, and a teensy, teensy couple little swears here and there. There are some open questions. Is it really about the fact that it depicts the Holocaust? If you haven’t read Maus, it’s based on Art Spiegelman father’s experiences in the Holocaust. It’s very dark, it’s very serious, it’s very beautiful, and it’s very highly regarded. There’s a lot of talk about why it was really banned, because it’s probably, again, not for the nudity, the tiny bits of nudity and the tiny bits of swears.
But there’s also a longer history here, a much longer and more interesting history of comics and the reception of comics in the US and the banning of comics and the reaction to the content of comics and this idea that comics are bad, they’re terrible for children, they will hurt children’s brains, that sort of thing. I brought on somebody very special to talk about with this, because again, somebody who is an actual real expert on this, where I’m just an amateur. I brought on my buddy Sam Thielman. Sam is a writer, an editor, and a podcaster along with being a comic book expert. He is also just a joy, just an all-around fabulous person. Sam, thanks for joining us.
Sam Thielman: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me and thank you for letting me talk about comic books. Most people ask me to stop talking about comic books. That’s the…
Lyta Gold: That’s a funny thing that’s changed in a way that I think is interesting to begin with. Because if you talked about comic books when I was growing up, and I was growing up in like the ’90s and early 2000s, you were a nerd and you were dork and it was especially weird for a girl to talk about these things. Things have changed. Maus is part of that change, are there other aspects of that change? But how was it for you when you were growing up and talking about comics and being a comic person?
Sam Thielman: I think I also had that experience. I am from a little bit of a different context, I think, than most of my media pals in New York. I grew up in a very small town in North Carolina. I went to a Christian school for a long time. An interesting thing that happens with these moral panics of the kind we’re about to discuss,is that they persist for a really long time even after they’ve debunked or have left the public imagination at least as far as the press coverage is concerned. I think there was still some residual fear and resentment over comics themselves from the ’50s and certainly from the underground movement in the ’60s and ’70s comics sold in head shops were explicit and aggressive in a different way.
I think there was both that moralistic disapproval and then, lest that sound too noble, it was also really dorky. I liked Star Wars and stuff. It wasn’t that cool. I think the comics you read when you’re a teenager are maybe different than the comics you read when you grow up. Although I don’t know. Somebody said the golden age of science fiction is 12 and that’s definitely when I was reading The Sandman and Watchmen and stuff for the first time. And those, I think, imprinted on me like a baby chicken. I was both very comfortable in comic book shops in a way that I wasn’t necessarily elsewhere, and then also not friendless or anything but someone who should not be allowed to do an hour long podcast interview about cartoons.
Lyta Gold: It’s funny that you mentioned that, what you like as a child, what you like as an adult. I actually worked for Marvel for a couple years. I’m like my first day there I got into a conversation with some guys about the comics I liked and I said that I was an X-Men fan because that’s really like, I got into X-Men as a teen and then the movies came out also and then I was also into the animated show, which was a little earlier than that. Anyway, I was still into X-Men. But I mentioned this to them and they’re like, oh yeah, that’s what you like when you’re an adolescent. I was like, interesting. We’re literally at the publisher of that.
Sam Thielman: That’s a little catty.
Lyta Gold: It is a little catty. It was related to the idea that the way… Because I asked them to expand on that and their idea was like, oh yeah. Well, the way that the X-Men are countercultural and they’re an oppressed group and they really represent a lot of feelings of not belonging. These guys, I was talking to these very lovely but cishet white guys. They were like, oh yeah. That’s obviously only a teenager feels like that. I was like, okay, only a teenager.
Sam Thielman: Yeah. I think adolescence is funny because that is the time when white male teenagers feel like that, briefly. They have that feeling of not belonging that I think is broadly universal among non-Christian non-white people. I think it gets infantilized as a thing that only kids feel. But no, absolutely, it speaks to it. My friend and colleague Spencer Ackerman has written and spoken in great depth on the topic of how the X-Men are like an expression of Jewish identity, but then how they’re also fungible and they can also be read as an expression of queer identity. It’s a really plastic concept in a way that I think is really empowering for a lot of people. Yeah.
Lyta Gold: One of the interesting things when we talk about comics in general is, again, we very quickly went to superhero comics. One of the things that’s interesting about the public perception of comics is the way that superhero comics are seen as the only thing or they’re seen as the main thing or the bad example, but there’s a complicated history of where superhero comics fit in to the larger story and that has a lot to do with what happened in the 1950s and this big moral panic. I was wondering if you wanted to tell our listeners all about what happened there in 1954, a very important year for comics.
Sam Thielman: Yeah I’d love to. And I have to ask you, do interrupt me, especially if I skip over something. Yeah. Feel free to cut me off because this is a little bit of a complicated history and starts a little bit before the ’50s. It started in 1939. Comics were an art form that were a staging ground for a competition between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer to see who could publish the most beautiful full page broadsheet newspaper comic. And you got amazing stuff out of that. You got the Walt and Skeezix strip by Frank King, you got Krazy Kat and Little Nemo and all these incredible things. Oddly, these are more progressive, I think, than a lot of the comics you see at the end of the century, especially Krazy Kat, which is, I think, really interesting and investigative about race and gender. The author was a creole man from Louisiana who just chose to pass for white, which he did by not taking his hat off for photos.
Lyta Gold: Wow.
Sam Thielman: Yeah, George Harriman, he’s just an absolute master. His employers were racists and he, I think, knew that he couldn’t receive the same level of acclaim if he was publicly out as himself. He just fills Krazy Kat with all of these little hints and signs and symbols about race and about gender. It’s really wonderful stuff, hugely popular too. Well, Little Nemo was hugely popular. Krazy Kat was popular with E. E. Cummings and so forth, James Joyce. As these gain purchase among the public there is a sense that people want to read them outside the newspapers. The packagers start coming along and printing them up as little pamphlets, little saddle stitch pamphlets they sell on the newsstand and they’re quite expensive for the publishers to buy the rights to reprint them from Hearst and Pulitzer.
This guy Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, the major, major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. I believe he was a major in the Civil War [Correction: WWI]. He’s quite old. But he decides that he’s going to not just package old comics, he’s going to hire a bunch of losers to write new comics because that’ll be cheaper. He hires Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to do a comic called Slam Bradley and he calls it New Fun. He publishes a collection of New Fun Comics. This is a terrible idea. This is the worst idea anyone has ever had. It’s a huge financial disaster.
Lyta Gold: Why was that? Why was it such a failure?
Sam Thielman: Because nobody knew who the characters were. Nobody was interested in reading. They wanted Popeye, they didn’t want some rip off of Popeye. They wanted Dick Tracy not Slam Bradley. Actually, Dick Tracy may have been a little later. These were like the… Do you remember being in the grocery stores that you maybe, I’m not sure if we’re the same age for this, but when I was a kid, you’d go in the grocery store and you’d see a VHS of Aladdin, and you’d be like, oh man, I didn’t see that movie. I would’ve seen that movie – Oh, that’s not the real Aladdin.
That’s the GoodTimes video version. This was the GoodTimes video version of all the stuff people loved in the comics like Flash Gordons.
Lyta Gold: I know this movie you’re talking about. I actually watched that recently, the knockoff Aladdin.
Sam Thielman: Yeah. It’s like 50 minutes long. Has really bad songs. Yeah.
Lyta Gold: Yes, that’s [crosstalk]
Sam Thielman: Yeah. They did a few of them. They did a Beauty and the… This is what Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson decided to do. Again, this is a really bad business model. He finally gets staked by a couple of guys, Jack Liebowitz and Harry Donenfeld. They decide that they’re going to give him enough money to keep on going because they sell a… They call them the Girlie Pulps. They’re semi-pornographic novels that always have a lurid picture of a beautiful woman on the cover. They’re called Spicy Adventure and Spicy Detective and Spicy Action. And Wheeler-Nicholson assents and he says, okay, well, that’s fine.
They say, okay. Well, we’re not doing this New Fun stuff anymore. You need Adventure Comics. He’s like, all right, I’ll do Adventure Comics and get Joe and Jerry to cook up something for that. They say, all right, that’s not working. We need Detective Comics. All right. Ask them to do something for Detective Comics. Then finally after that they’re just like, this isn’t working out. We need you to go to The Bahamas, take a break, go on vacation. Don’t call us. Come back in a couple of weeks with a new idea.
Lyta Gold: Sometimes you hear about these old media stories the way things used to work, and you’re just like, what the fuck? I am in the wrong era.
Sam Thielman: No, it’s not actually good. They did tell him to go on vacation. When he came back from vacation they found that they had changed the locks on his office.
Lyta Gold: Oh no.
Sam Thielman: They had sued him before a judge that was friends with Leibowitz –
Lyta Gold: Oh, dear.
Sam Thielman: – So they’d gotten a judgment against him and they basically owned his business. They gave him some shut up money, a little bit of equity so that he wouldn’t kick too hard. Then they were like, okay, Joe Siegel and Jerry Shuster, we’ve done Adventure Comics for our Spicy Adventure, we’ve done Detective Comics for our Spicy Detective, now give us some Spicy Action, give us Action Comics. They say, okay, we’re going to put a muscle man in a blue leotard with red trunks and maybe a cape on the cover and he can be smashing a car. Of course that takes off huge, that’s Superman. That’s like the dawn of the heroic era. This stuff catches on great with kids. Kids love it, adults like it too because it’s … Originally this stuff is marketed as not too distinct from Donenfeld and Leibowitz’s sex books at national publications. But it’s not obscene, it’s not lewd, it’s high adventure for kids. Kids like it, GIs really like it. This –
Lyta Gold: That’s a [crosstalk] question I have, if I may interrupt, is –
Sam Thielman: Please, yeah.
Lyta Gold: …To what extent was it written for children or was it… Does written for children mean because it didn’t have sex in it? Was it meant for kids but grownups liked it too in terms of storyline, or was it, again, is it really just a question of sex or not sex?
Sam Thielman: I think it’s a little bit of question of sex or not sex, but you got to remember that there’s not that much… There aren’t official speech codes. It’s just what people get upset about at this point. Because this is being written alongside Spicy Menace or whatever there is a sense that it’s going to be at least a little racy. That’s how they’re selling a lot of this stuff. But again it does tend to… it varies by region, as well. Maybe some places wouldn’t sell an issue of comic book with the phantom lady who has a clingy costume on, but maybe they would sell the next issue of the book.
This is a problem in a lot of the films, especially of the silent era, because the sexy bits have been literally cut out. Somebody has gone through and trimmed them out of the reels. Recovering entire movies from that period is quite difficult. But, again, there no –
Lyta Gold: [crosstalk] [it is indeed] the movies that got small.
Sam Thielman: Yes. [crosstalk] It’s the pictures that got small.
Lyta Gold: They did. They were literally [crosstalk] They were cut.
Sam Thielman: Yeah. Yeah. So, Superman is ready for his closeup. There’s a big… There’s like a rage for superheroes. Everybody loves superheroes. Then as the era continues, this guy Maxwell Gaines who had mostly published Bible comics and improving comics and so forth, dies and leaves the business to his son Bill Gaines. So William Gaines takes over his father’s publishing company, EC Comics, which had then at that time stood for Educational Comics and then became Entertaining Comics under Bill. He started hiring away talented artists. He found this guy Harvey Kurtzman who’s the father of what we think of as the contemporary comic book. He’s an absolutely brilliant writer and artist who was doing ghost work for an artist named Louis Ferstad. Ferstad was a… He was like a Diego Rivera style muralist who couldn’t make ends meet.
Lyta Gold: But are you saying there’s not good money and like [crosstalk]
Sam Thielman: Yeah. Even with all of the cash that he got from leftist mural painting, even with a cartoon in the Daily Worker, he couldn’t… Somehow he was able to fritter away all that money and he had to go ghost draw The Flash at DC Comics and he hired – This is the slightly sad part – Which is that he basically had a sweatshop full of 14-year-olds.
Lyta Gold: Oh, my God.
Sam Thielman: Yeah, who would do the work for him so that he could hit all of his various deadlines and go back to mural painting about labor exploitation. One of his guys was Harvey Kurtzman, and Kurtzman went to EC Comics and started doing Mad Magazine. Mad was originally a comic book that then became a magazine largely because of the subsequent events. One of the things that happened was that Al Feldstein, the other guy that Gaines hired who was the big writer at EC Comic, got really jealous because Mad was super successful. Feldstein was a great sci-fi and horror writer, but he wasn’t funny.
But Gaines liked him and decided that he should have a chance. There were so many parodies of Mad immediately. There’s one called Sick, there’s eventually Cracked. EC was like, all right, we’ll launch our own in-house thing. We’ll call it Panic and we’ll let Al have all of Harvey’s artists for a few issues and they can get paid for two jobs and everybody will be happy. Panic didn’t last very long. Most of the parodies aren’t particularly funny. There’s a really good one though, I believe in the first issue of the Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s not written by anybody, it’s just the poem of the Nightmare Before Christmas and then Will Elder who is-
Lyta Gold: The Night Before Christmas or the Night Before Christmas?
Sam Thielman: I’m sorry, the Night Before Christmas –
Lyta Gold: [crosstalk]
Sam Thielman: Yeah. Yes. It’s not the Tim Burton movie.
Lyta Gold: [He ripped it off].
Sam Thielman: Yeah. No, it’s just the Clement Moore poem. Will Elder, who’s the essential Mad Magazine artist, goes through and he draws all these little pictures and he has Santa with a “just divorced” sticker on his sleigh. One of the reindeer is Cupid and Jane Russell and Jayne Mansfield are both pictured in caricature in part of it and I think there’s something funny for when… There’s a jug of liquor under a sign that says, “when business gets bad,” and then there’s a noose under “when business gets really bad.” It’s all of this stuff and it’s all set in the North Pole and it corresponds to the verse but in silly ways. This was a giant scandal.
Lyta Gold: Really?
Sam Thielman: The attorney general of Massachusetts seized the book.
Lyta Gold: What year was this, again?
Sam Thielman: This was, I am paging through this amazing book on this whole panic called The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hajdu, which I hardly recommend. It’s a fantastic book. This is, I believe, ’52.
Lyta Gold: ’52, okay.
Sam Thielman: ’52 or ’53.
Lyta Gold: It was disrespectful to Santa. Was that [crosstalk]
Sam Thielman: It was disrespectful to Santa, yeah.
Lyta Gold: You can’t, you can’t. He works hard.
Sam Thielman: And yet. You say that. Well, you brought up something earlier, Harvey Kurtzman and Al Feldstein and Louis Ferstad, these are Jewish names.
Lyta Gold: Yes.
Sam Thielman: Gaines was hiring these guys because they were insanely talented. The reason he was able to hire insanely talented guys is that they couldn’t get work on Madison Avenue. This is the ’50s, the ad business is booming, there’s a ton of money to be had in it. You have these companies like Unilever and Ford that are just suddenly pouring money into publications and television, all of which are having their own individual discreet renaissances. That money is not going to Jewish people, it is going to the WASPy Madison Avenue guys who are pointedly not hiring Jews to work for them.
So a lot of these guys ended up in comics. The subtext of a lot of the censorship, especially around this particular issue of Panic, is like you can’t have Willie Elder and Harvey Kurtzman and Al Feldstein talking shit about Christmas. You can’t do that. December 1953, yeah. State bans Night Before, Santa Claus, Comic Draws, Holyoke ban, all of this stuff became suddenly like Clement Moore’s stupid poem, The Night Before Christmas is like holy red. You said you can’t sue Santa Claus. That’s exactly what the attorneys for EC Comic said. They’re like, you can’t libel him. He’s imaginary and Claus isn’t real. But it didn’t matter. We tend to –
Lyta Gold: Wait, I’m sorry. This is the first I’m hearing that Santa isn’t real.
Sam Thielman: I’m so sorry. There’s no way to walk that back. Is there? I’m going to do that to my kid at some point, and I’m going to have to be like, oh, sorry, son. That was actually from grandma.
Lyta Gold: [inaudible] great Trump moment where he was on the [crosstalk] He was like [inaudible] You stop believing in Santa? Because at seven or eight, that’s marginal.
Sam Thielman: Yes, and the kid was like, yes. Yeah. That and telling the Boy Scout Jamboree about the time he went to an orgy on a yacht are my two favorite Donald Trump moments. Yeah. There was so much of just like, what have we gotten ourselves into [inaudible]. I think it was abject terror from the jump, but there were so many moments in the first couple of years where it was like, the president said, what? Yeah.
Lyta Gold: If it had been a completely symbolic position with no power, that would’ve been a great time.
Sam Thielman: Yeah. That’s what he wanted. He wanted to be treated like a recipient of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He wanted to be allowed to – I think somebody else said that before I did. But yeah. He wanted to go to the front of the line at Disney World and if people would let him do that maybe fewer of us would be dead, but probably not. Back to a time of bucolic Americana, 1953. Around this time, Playboy launches. Playboy is a huge smash. I have to back up just a little bit here to this guy Estes Kefauver, who was a senator and really, really wanted to be president.
One of his first brainstorms was to do an inquest on organized crime. It was filmed and broadcast in a way that news events habitually are now, but this is the first of its kind. They showed it in movie theaters and so forth. Huge hit for Kefauver. It really made his name as a crusading anti-crime guy and it’s how we know names like Bugsy Siegel and so forth, as all of these guys were called up in front of him and had to explain getting payments from their dear friends who had sent them suitcase full of cash as a Christmas gift.
Lyta Gold: It was a Christmas gift from Santa.
Sam Thielman: It was from Santa.
Lyta Gold: Are you against Santa?
Sam Thielman: Yes. That’s why I’m here today, is to denounce the capitalist menace of Santa Claus who under pays the elves and uses non-union labor on your toys. But Kefauver wanted a sequel. He wanted to come in and be like, yeah, I’m doing this again. There was the sort of Joe Rogan of his era, there was a crank psychologist named – A psychiatrist, excuse me. He actually did have an M. D. – Named Fredric Wertham who had written this book Seduction of the Innocent in which he goes through and finds all of the dirtiest, grossest, filthiest comics he can.
Because Kefauver had this big hearing, crime is really in the public imagination. There’s a huge glut of crime media around this time. This is where we get Dragnet and then The Man from U.N.C.L.E comes along in the ’60s, but born [out of this]. There’s all these radio shows, and of course crime comics are a huge deal. My favorite example of these, before the censor boards, which they would just say “crime” and then “does not pay” in very small letters underneath. Because we’re not here for the “does not pay,” guys, come on, we’re here for the crime. We’re here for the crime.
Lyta Gold: Oh, no. Yeah, that’s the exciting part.
Sam Thielman: Yeah. Kefauver decides after reading Wartham’s book, which gets hugely popular, that comics are contributing to the horrors of juvenile delinquency, which is really the thing that the greatest generation was scared of in the boomers. It’s hard –
Lyta Gold: So funny boomers were once the bad kids [crosstalk]
Sam Thielman: Yes. Yeah, they were –
Lyta Gold: That’s just so [crosstalk]
Sam Thielman: It really is. Well and they… The saddest part of all this to me is that nobody spoke for the kids. Nobody was on the kids’ side. It was like pornographers in one corner and corrupt senators in the other as far as the public was concerned. Gaines saw all of this happening and he saw that the commission was happening, and Victor Fox and a bunch of the other publishers at the time told Kefauver to get [inaudible]. They were like, unless you are prosecuting me I’m not showing up for shit. I will not be in your hearing. Good luck to you. Gaines was a very… He was just a decent man who was entirely in the right and knew it, and he just thought to himself, I will go.
Lyta Gold: Oh, no.
Sam Thielman: I will go and explain.
Lyta Gold: Oh, no.
Sam Thielman: I will go and explain to these politicians that all we’re doing is providing ten cents worth of entertainment to neighborhood boys and girls and that many of our stories have good morals in them. This was 100% true. He was totally right and his stories are quite daring, actually, for the day. If you go back and read Shock SuspenStories or Tales from the Crypt, they all have these goofy O. Henry-ass endings. Some of them are silly and [inaudible], but some of them are quite shocking still today. My favorite one, it’s a Wally Wood story from Shock SuspenStories about a reporter who has staked out a Klan rally and he sees them murder a woman for “consorting” with a Black man. He runs away but the Klansmen catch him and they beat him up and he wakes up in the hospital. Hovering over him are two cops, two FBI guys. They’re like, hey man. We’re from the FBI. We know you were at that Klan rally. Do you think you can identify the leader of the mob to us? The reporter’s like, oh, it’ll be a terrible strain, but yes, I think I can. The cops say, okay, that’s all we wanted to know. Then they pull out their guns and they kill him.
Lyta Gold: Shit.
Sam Thielman: Yeah, it’s great. It’s so good. It would make a great episode of Black Mirror or whatever today. This is really offensive if you are just coming off the high of World War II and your whole thing is Americanism. America is a good place full of good people. We don’t want our kids reading about corrupt cops. This all culminates in poor Bill Gaines standing before Estes Kefauver, and I’ve forgotten the name of his Lieutenant who is officially the head of the hearing, but it was really the Kefauver show, trying to explain why a Johnny Craig cover of a decapitated woman and the hand holding her head in one hand, a man’s hands with the woman’s head in one and a bloody ax in the other, is in good taste. Matters of taste shouldn’t have been an issue in a court of law. In fact, it wasn’t a court of law, which is why Victor Fox and his other colleagues were like, we’re not going. But it was definitely the court of public opinion. It was a literal court of public opinion. After that, the rest of the comics publishers were like, Bill Gaines is an idiot.
Lyta Gold: Oh, no.
Sam Thielman: We have to form a committee to vet all of our comics, like the movies have the Hays Code, and we’re going to hire a former Tammany Hall boss to read Bill’s stuff directly. That was kind of the end of EC. It limped along for a little while. They renamed their comics because of one of the first rules that they passed where you couldn’t use horror or crime in your title. Of course, all of the EC comics were weird crime, bizarre horror, strange romance, horrific crime. Sorry,
Lyta Gold: This is the Comics Code of America, really. Is what they –
Sam Thielman: Comics Code Authority. Yeah.
Lyta Gold: I thought [crosstalk]
Sam Thielman: This is the comics. Yeah. Yeah. There’s a previous iteration of it that Gaines had actually been a part of that was just basically there to be like, hey, we have people watching out for the little kids, don’t worry, that didn’t do anything.
Lyta Gold: The CCA is really pretty amazing because it’s not, as you said, it was an industry rule because they were worried about being cracked down on. If you look at the old rules, they’re fun. If crime is depicted, it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity. Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.
Sam Thielman: Yeah. All great stuff. Well, and again, the laws themselves are secondary, the point is the enforcement. The head of the Comics Magazine Association of America [which was] then later the Comics Code Authority is this New York magistrate judge Charles F. Murphy. If you go to his Wikipedia page it will say Charles F. “Boss.” Murphy, because Boss Murphy was the longest serving head of Tammany Hall. Yeah. He had some horrible honorifics drawn from Native American languages that I can’t remember. But he was the head. He was the head of Tammany Hall from 1924, and he personally reviewed all of the EC Comics himself.
The final straw came with an issue of Astonishing Science Fiction in which the punchline was that the astronaut, who has been sent to determine whether or not various planets can join the galactic council, is himself Black and is judging space robots based on whether or not they discriminate against each other. It’s the last panel. It’s a great, beautiful Joe Orlando drawing of our hero staring off into space. Murphy called Al Feldstein, the writer, in and said, you can’t have a negro. Feldstein said, what?
He said that, and he repeated himself. Gaines, of course, called and said, why can’t we do this? Murphy said, well, it’s just not done. Gaines said, well, I’m going to hold a press conference and tell everyone you’re a racist. Murphy relented and then he demanded that Orlando make a bunch of meaningless changes just to piss on Gaines a little more. Gaines said, fuck you, and slammed down the phone. That was the very last comic he published.
Lyta Gold: Interesting.
Sam Thielman: After that, there wasn’t anywhere to go if you were wanting to produce something sophisticated. A lot of these comics are really moving and deal with stuff like… There’s one in which a Holocaust survivor confronts the commandant of a camp that he runs into on the subway in New York, terrific strip by Bernard Krigstein. They deal with racism a lot, and when they have to step back they just have to get weirder and weirder. You start to get guys like Martin Goodman and Stan Lee over at Timely just making up monster comics. And they hire Jack Kirby, the originator of the romance comic, to come in and draw big monsters for them. He doesn’t really care, but he does a little bit of it.
Then they try to mix in some of the adventure stuff that gave comics their first shot in the arm in the 1940s. That combination of monsters and heroes gives us superheroes again. Because the superhero comics are run by companies, Timely becomes Marvel and National becomes DC, that are deeply entrenched in this Comics Code Association they pass largely without censorship for a long time. And because they’re very much about powerful do-gooders they are not considered anything but pro-American. There’s some red scare stuff that they toss in every now and then, there’s lots of broad anti-nuke stuff. And you essentially just have cops. It’s like all comics become cops until like the ’70s.
Lyta Gold: Well, that’s certainly true. One of the things I think that’s interesting is that some of the weird subtext that was a little older stayed. One of the things that Fredric Wertham was upset about, in the Seduction of the Innocent book, one of the things he said, Juvenile delinquency was his big thing. But he also said that Batman and Robin seemed really gay, which… Yeah. Yeah. Who needed a degree in psychiatry for that one? Yeah. They [seem] pretty gay. There wasn’t that much effort to deal with that as far as I know
Sam Thielman: I mean, my favorite one is that he was like, Wonder Woman is clearly a bondage fantasy. That’s 100% percent right. You nailed it. William Moulton Marston wrote that book to work out his fantasy life. Well, and actually his literal sex life because he was a libertine. But yeah. No, that’s 100% true. Good job. The question though is whether or not –
Lyta Gold: [crosstalk]
Sam Thielman: …This destroys children, which it doesn’t. Everybody seeks out weird experimental stuff when they’re kids. It’s much better to look for it in literature than to actually go out and like, I don’t know. Kids weren’t going… The impulse to commit crimes and the impulse to read about crimes are different, but –
Lyta Gold: Yeah. Yeah. It’s very reminiscent of the freak out over video games.
Sam Thielman: Yes.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. Like the previous freak out over Gothic novels and dreadfuls in their previous century. It’s just been a thing people have been worried about for a while and it just happened to hit comics at this time.
Sam Thielman: Yeah. The people who were doing the extremely… The beautiful work, the work that survives on its merits in collected editions and so forth, they didn’t really go away. They moved into the magazine world. Hugh Hefner staked Mew magazine by Harvey Kurtzman, after Kurtzman left EC. A guy named James Warren was thrown into jail for running a nude photo of Bettie Page in his own Playboy imitator, because that was how he ran for District Attorney in the ’50s was by locking up pornographers. He then became the publisher of Kurtzman’s next project. In that one, it’s called Help, Kurtzman started looking for new talent and found Robert Crumb who was the progenitor of the Underground movement. Then in Wally Wood’s magazine Wit’s End, which he began publishing in… Yeah, I believe the ’70s, might be late ’60s, he found Art Spiegelman.
Lyta Gold: Yes.
Sam Thielman: That brings us up to, not quite to the present day, but to Spiegelman who gave birth to what we think of as the literary comics movement today with guys like Charles Burns and Chris Ware.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. Tell us a little more about Underground Comix, which by the way is spelled with an X.
Sam Thielman: Yes. Yeah. Comix.
Lyta Gold: Comix, to make it different. Yeah, what were they trying to do and how did they manage to get away with it given that the code was still very much enforced?
Sam Thielman: Well, they were selling primarily to head shops. This is direct distribution in a way that you didn’t see on the newsstand. The reason the Comics Code Authority was so efficient and so devastating is that if they didn’t give you your code the drug store on the corner wouldn’t put you on their spin racks and you wouldn’t… That was most of your distribution. So, the direct market. The way you did distribution, I’m not going to get too nerdy about that. I was going to, you don’t want to hear about returnable and non-returnable comics. Head shops became a big thing in the ’60s and the ’70s. Crumb began to sell his comics and then was immediately prosecuted for it because they had really graphic, explicit sex in them. Then he gave them away out of a baby carriage on the corner of Haight-Ashbury.
Lyta Gold: A baby carriage?
Sam Thielman: Absolutely.
Lyta Gold: It’s dark.
Sam Thielman: Yeah. It is. It is. He’s a dark guy. The documentary about him –
Lyta Gold: [crosstalk] That’s messy.
Sam Thielman: Yeah. Yeah. The documentary about him is also messy and very good, by Terry Zwigoff. It’s called Crumb.
Lyta Gold: Nice.
Sam Thielman: He was both a guy who was working out his very extreme sexual problems by drawing them in vivid detail, but he was also depicting, in the language of comics… And this is a controversial thing to say, and I understand why his characters and drawings are received as so offensive now. I don’t want to sound like I’m saying that people who feel that way about them are mistaken and there was reception of it. But I think Crumb’s intention, drawing as he was in the ’60s, was to address systemic, extraordinarily public racism of a kind that we don’t really experience in the same way now.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot of public racism now, but the constant images of caricatures of Black people’s facial features, it’s just not a thing we deal with in public spaces and on advertising and restaurants and so forth. The ubiquity of that in the ’60s was something that people were becoming more embarrassed about and beginning to shove down the memory hole in a way that they’ve kind of completed now and Crumb was not letting them do that. Crumb was drawing the stuff in a way that made you think about how gross that Amos ‘n’ Andy is.
Lyta Gold: In some ways it’s similarish to the reaction that Eli Valley gets now. He deliberately exaggerates cartoons and he deliberately [inaudible] when he does stuff about Jews and antisemitism, he deliberately uses some of these tropes in a way that… And he’s Jewish himself but other people don’t understand quite what he’s doing. That he’s mocking the tropes. He’s not –
Sam Thielman: Yeah. I think Eli is very intentionally working out of that. I’d have to talk to him about it and I never have, and I should. But he is very much doing the Crumb thing there. As the undergrounds progress, they start to flourish. There are a bunch of publishers that pop up and the drug culture is a big deal so everything… Every annoying pothead trope that lasts until legalization is born out of this period. There’s a lot of really interesting art that comes around in that time too, and Crumb is a little bit of a historian. Crumb does not really fit in with the love child era in the way that a lot of his peers in the movement did.
He’s a skeptic, he’s very bitter, borderline nihilistic. He’s not like a flowers and love guy at all, but he is a devoted historian. He and Spiegelman, when Spiegelman starts to get published in Wit’s End, are looking for their own history. There is not as much art history about comics as there is about oil painting, obviously. The two of them get together and they start this magazine, Arcade. Actually, Crumb may not have been publishing. I think he just drew for it and drew covers for it. But Bill Griffith is another cartoonist who does Zippy the Pinhead, which is an alt comic that starts to run in alt-weeklies around this time. They –
Lyta Gold: That’s great, by the way [crosstalk]
Sam Thielman: That’s the other thing that really helps. Oh, he’s incredible. Yeah.
Lyta Gold: Those are fun. They’re so fucking weird, but if you can find them –
Sam Thielman: Yeah.
Lyta Gold: …[crosstalk] they’re very fun.
Sam Thielman: Yeah. He has, I believe, a memoir –
Lyta Gold: Really?
Sam Thielman: [crosstalk] That came out recently that’s also quite good. Yeah. No, he’s an incredible cartoonist. But the two of them edit this thing, Arcade, and their goal is basically to salvage the detritus of the underground comix movement because it turns into a thing where just anybody can get an underground comix published. It’s being printed and sold off to these head shops at rates that just cannot possibly be sustained. These guys who really care about the state of the art are miffed about this and want to do like a… They want to celebrate the form itself.
They call it faux-pretentiously a comics review, or EVUE. It’s called Arcade. It runs for not many issues, seven or eight. But they reprint not just their own work and the work of their peers, but they go back and they run Little Nemo strips from the teams. They find Tijuana Bibles which are little porno comics that are about the size of a dollar bill that have Blondie and Dagwood in them. Those are also, by the way, extremely influential because that’s what Jack Chick tracts are supposed to look like.
Lyta Gold: No way. I did not know that. They’re supposed to look like the Tijuana Bibles?
Sam Thielman: Yeah. In the same way that you get… You’re like, oh, it’s $100. Oh man, no. It’s a Bible verse. It’s the same thing. Yeah.
Lyta Gold: The way I would immediately buy a porn version of a Jack Chick. That would be amazing. You think it’s a Christian comic and then it’s porn? No way.
Sam Thielman: Then, it’s… Yeah. I don’t think anybody has done that actually. You could be [crosstalk]
Lyta Gold: Oh my God. That’s free to a good home. Yeah. [inaudible] whoever’s listening and wants that, that one’s free. Enjoy yourself.
Sam Thielman: Just as long as you send us contributors’ copies.
Lyta Gold: Yes.
Sam Thielman: Yeah. But the Arcade is reprinting those and they’re reprinting other stuff and then after that magazine ends, all of these guys go on and try and start their next magazine with all of their peers. The one Spiegelman starts is called Raw. Raw is gigantic, which is one of the reasons it’s hard to find now. I’m holding a copy in hand –
Lyta Gold: Physically it’s like a… Yeah.
Sam Thielman: It’s the size of the New York Daily News or the Boston Herald. It has wonderful work in it. It has worked by people like Kaz and [inaudible]. A lot of them went to work for The New Yorker, possibly not coincidentally because of course Art Spiegelman’s wife is Françoise Mouly, the art director for The New Yorker. But Jerry Moriarty, all of these cool guys are working in this magazine. They do really interesting stuff. They do a lot of stuff that looks like ready-mades. And in the second issue, Spiegelman starts to put a little insert, I’m holding this in my hand. It is in the back of the comic. It’s glued in, it’s called Maus. I think it’s like 15 or 20. No, it’s 15 pages, and that’s the first chapter. This is his memoir. In the first issue of Raw, he has a comic called Prisoner on the Hell Planet that is about his mother’s suicide. That is the thing that the censors in Tennessee this last month found so offensive that –
Lyta Gold: Yes, the specific depiction of the mother’s suicide.
Sam Thielman: Yes, of Anja Spiegelman naked in the bathtub, dead. That –
Lyta Gold: That’s a teensy, teensy little panel.
Sam Thielman: Well, it’s a comic within a comic. It’s a very small… I have the giant version here in front of me and he’s kind of embarrassed by it, Spiegelman is, because he’s a perfectionist and he’s constantly making his work better. Like all artists, I think, he doesn’t like his juvenalia. But it is an important piece because he’s dealing not just with his mother’s experience in concentration camps but with his own experience of generational trauma. That is something that I don’t think I had read about in comics on any level. I don’t think I had read a reckoning with what it means to be affected on an ethnic level by violence.
Crumb is reaching for some of that stuff, but Crumb is a white Catholic. He’s very interested in it, but his first attempts to talk about it are very clumsy and he retreats into portraits of bluesmen later on in his career, I think wisely. But Spiegelman has firsthand experience, and most importantly he has secondhand experience. That’s just a new thing. Maus continues to come out in Raw, Raw is widely read. When it’s put out in a collected edition the first paperback wins the Pulitzer Prize in… Oh, no. I’m sorry. It must be the second one.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. I think it was after [crosstalk]
Sam Thielman: Because it’s in 1992. He continued to serialize it and he eventually put out Raw in the size of a mass market paperback book, and that’s where you start to see Chris Ware and Dan Clowes and Drew Friedman and so forth. The guys you’ll see in the Fantagraphics catalogs now. As that in ’92, I believe, he wins the Pulitzer Prize for cartooning… Or was it for fiction or literature?
Lyta Gold: I remember it’s a special Pulitzer.
Sam Thielman: Yeah, you’re right.
Lyta Gold: I quite remember what about it is special. That’s actually the story here too, because comics as a medium had been… This was stupid stuff for children or it was superheroes, or pulpy, it was considered not important. And one of the things that’s so important about Maus is that it was one of the first graphic novels to be taken very seriously as a work of art.
Sam Thielman: Yeah.
Lyta Gold: [As you would] a serious work of literature.
Sam Thielman: Yeah. Around the time that it first began to be published you have a parallel movement in the United Kingdom with Warrior magazine, which is a harder core version of 2000 AD which is the big sci-fi weekly in the UK. It’s mostly stories about lasers and spaceships, but then Alan Moore and Dave Lloyd decide that they’re going to do just like a big middle finger to the Thatcher administration in the form of V for Vendetta. They start to publish that simultaneously. These books took a long, long, long time to enter the public imagination. The movie V came out, which apparently the creators don’t like, came out in 2005.
Lyta Gold: I like the movie.
Sam Thielman: Yeah. I think everybody –
Lyta Gold: [crosstalk]
Sam Thielman: Yeah. I think lots of people like the movie. I think that’s why it’s so popular, as people watch the movie and they’re like, I should read the book. Oh, the book is great.
Lyta Gold: The [inaudible] book is great, but it has a lot of the self-indulgence of the underground comix movement that I think is… Because the girl is really flat. She’s –
Sam Thielman: Sure.
Lyta Gold: …[crosstalk] person early on and not until the man changes her. Isn’t there a long sequence where a guy like takes a hallucinogen and he wanders around a –
Sam Thielman: Yeah, I love that sequence.
Lyta Gold: It’s not like it’s a bad sequence. At a certain point, you’re like, oh really? A guy takes drugs and then has [inaudible] I’ve never read this in a book.
Sam Thielman: It’s not to apologize for V for Vendetta, but that’s like… It’s not Alan Moore’s very first professional work, but it’s within a year or two of him starting his career. Then it ends 10 years later.
Lyta Gold: Oh, yeah.
Sam Thielman: Like the magazine that he started publishing it in went under and then DC Comics bought the rights from him and he finished it in 1990 or something. But it’s still effective for kids. This is where you run up against the same thing again, is you have these guys in Tennessee and then in Mississippi and Muncie, Indiana, who cannot abide the fact that children are reading this stuff. It’s all couched in concern for the children and so forth. But the most important in telling, I think, footage of all this is of the cops accosting a girl who has drawn a cartoon of a snarling police officer surrounded by the names of cops who’ve murdered Black people and then the names of their victims. It’s three school resource officers yelling at this one girl who’s drawn this cartoon because she read V for Vendetta and liked it. That’s not about her safety.
Lyta Gold: Right [crosstalk]
Sam Thielman: In fact, it’s probably making it very clear to her what the penalty for criticizing fascism is. Yeah.
Lyta Gold: What’s really incredible about what’s happening is yes, it’s part of a larger pushback against the supposed CRT, Critical Race Theory, it’s a part of this larger pushback that’s happening in schools in general. But it’s also the exact same pattern that we saw in 1954 repeated. Some of these headlines that were really popular in newspapers at the time in 1954, saw like “Depravity for Children – Ten Cents a Copy!”
Sam Thielman: Yes.
Lyta Gold: “Horror in the Nursery – The Curse of the Comic Books.”
Sam Thielman: Oh, yeah.
Lyta Gold: [crosstalk] super dramatic about how this was so bad for kids to see things that were inappropriate, and it’s the exact same thing that we’re seeing now, which is that, and the argument that is made for why these things shouldn’t be allowed, especially for children, is that they will harm children, they are bad for children.
Sam Thielman: Well, and when you get down to the specific ways in which they will harm children, the answer is they diminish Americanism. They don’t teach good citizenship. In fact, I’m going to read this. The American Legion organized burnings. They organized comic book swaps where they would give you a copy of Heidi of the Swiss Alps or whatever, if you gave them 10 of your comics.
Lyta Gold: This is like in the ’50s, right? [crosstalk]
Sam Thielman: Yeah, this is the ’50s. Yeah. In each book that they gave the kids, and this is in a particular school in Waukesha County, Wisconsin, they put this note, “Dear young reader, you have performed a great service to your country today by getting rid of those 10 crime and horror comic books. Those 10 books were like 10 enemies who are trying to destroy good American boys and girls. America is not a land of crime, horror, murder, hatred and bloodshed. America is a land of good, strong, law-abiding people who read good books, think good thoughts, do great work, love God and their neighbor. That’s America.”
Lyta Gold: That’s like a Tinder profile that you like [inaudible].
Sam Thielman: It’s wild.
Lyta Gold: Typically, it’s [inaudible] the opposite of what you are.
Sam Thielman: #KeepAmericaGreat. Yeah. Yeah. No, it’s very like… It just reads as very familiar to me. The other thing that I feel like I haven’t emphasized enough is that Spiegelman is making the news because of his stature. He is a Pulitzer Prize winning author, he is the editor of arguably two of the most influential journals on the contemporary comics movement, which now has lots of respect. The New York Review of Books has its own comics imprint. There’s all kinds of reasons to defend Art Spiegelman. This is not new. Comics are often challenged. The comics that are challenged far more often than Maus are graphic novels about being a gay kid or being trans.
There’s this beautiful book by Maia Kobabe called Gender Queer, and Kobabe uses Spivak pronouns. Yell at me if I get them wrong, which is a large part of the point of er book. It’s a really evocative book about what it’s like to go through adolescence as a non-binary person. It raises all of these questions about everything from hormone blockers to masturbation and it does it in a way that is whatever the opposite of smutty is. It’s just really gentle and sweet and welcoming to people who experience the universal process of aging differently. That book is just deplored on the right. So many schools just like, we cannot have this here. This is pornographic. This teaches kids the wrong thing.
The thing that is being objected to is the existence of these people. The Maus and V for Vendetta are explicitly antifascist works. That’s why I love them. But that is, they are in the same category, these books about throwing Molotov cocktails through the window of the repressive British regime’s telecommunications agency, and about the horrors of the Holocaust, those fall into the same category as books about the lapidary lived experience of being Black or trans or gay, and that, I think, should disturb us. Honestly, I think it should disturb us even a little more than banning Maus does, because it’s so prevalent and it’s done with such shamelessness. The mayor of a little town in Mississippi just withheld $110,000 from the library system until they purged gay books from the library.
Lyta Gold: Wow. [crosstalk]
Sam Thielman: Yeah. The aldermen were like, we approve this money. You don’t make that decision, we make that decision. He was like, well, I have the money and I’m not dispersing it.
Lyta Gold: Is that how towns work? I don’t know.
Sam Thielman: Yeah. Look, it is until somebody stops them. If you can’t… You have to wield power against these people or they will wield it against entire categories of person that they don’t want to be there.
Lyta Gold: Right. And they’ll often frame it, especially when it comes to queer stuff, to trans stuff, to gay stuff as… The issue is that it’s sexuality and they’ll often… It’s actually pretty rare, especially just with Maus, where they don’t really state what the issue is directly, they skirt around and say, well, kids shouldn’t see depictions of sex. It’s interesting actually that in 1954, they said they also were against depictions of sex, but they were actually more clear, especially when it came to things like Batman and Robin being gay. The problem with depicting Batman and Robin as gay, which, obviously they’re gay, the idea is it’ll make kids gay. It’s the same concern now is that if you read something about a genderqueer protagonist, you will become genderqueer as if it transmits in this virus sort of way.
Sam Thielman: Well, and as if it’s like a harmful shameful thing. Who cares if it did? Yeah. The Kobabe book in particular, this is one that’s been… Hopefully, like most people, I hear that something is super controversial and I’m like, all right, I’m going to put down this fantasy novel I’m reading [crosstalk] and I’m going to check it out. I’m just making sure I got the title of her book, right? Yeah. Gender Queer: A Memoir. It is a book about not wanting to have sex. It is a book about being agender and asexual and navigating the world in which you are assigned female at birth and expected to have various feelings including sexual desire. The notion that this is promoting licentiousness among kids –
Lyta Gold: You’re right.
Sam Thielman: The silliest thing is… Well, I don’t want to… I don’t know. Our listeners are probably pretty hip. But there’s a decontextualized panel that appears to be of one character getting a blow job that has gone around on right-wing Twitter, and that’s not even a penis. If you read the book, you’re like, oh, that’s not what’s happening. That’s manifestly not the thing that’s happening in this panel. But again, that’s not the topic.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. The issue is anything that tells that [inaudible], like monogamous, procreative, heterosexual sex. Anything that’s licentiousness or says that it’s okay not to be hetero and monogamous or to not have sex at all. It’s actually to have a character who has ovaries or whatever say they don’t want to reproduce, that’s also very scandalous in its way.
Sam Thielman: I think when you talk to folks who are involved in these decision-making processes on the conservative side, they tend to say things like, oh, we don’t want our kids to see this stuff. You may think that it’s right, but I don’t think it’s right for my kids. You got to respect parents’ rights. I think that sounds very reasonable to liberal reporters who are from the Mid-Atlantic. If you’ve ever spent time in a Christian school system you know people who have killed themselves because they cannot stand being told, through implication and explicitly, that the way they are is wrong.
Lyta Gold: You’d think that would be damaging. If you’re going to define damaging to children, it’s exactly that.
Sam Thielman: But I mean, this is the thing. They want to damage those children. They want to put them through reparative therapy. They want to change them so that they are the same as everybody else. And that is, I think, reads as a less urgent danger to kids if you haven’t seen little mini-societies in which that is the preferred way to communicate with and about gay people.
Lyta Gold: That being said, there are lots and lots of good and interesting comics being written. Of course the story about Maus results in it being bought everywhere.
Sam Thielman: Yes.
Lyta Gold: I guess, to close out, one big question I have is, really comics as a medium and what they do as a medium, because it’s the style of storytelling that relies less on words, though of course there are words much of the time, but it relies on image and the combination of things. There’s actually this really interesting quote I’ve seen attributed to Spiegelman, and I’m not 100% sure it’s his, which he said he believes the medium echoes the way the human brain processes information. It’s this really popular medium. It was wildly popular in the ’40s and ’50s when there was this big pushback and it’s still popular now under the corporate capture of Marvel and DC tells you actually how popular it is because it’s lucrative, and that’s why they got –
Sam Thielman: Absolutely.
Lyta Gold: …Gobbled up by bigger companies. Given that it’s popular, given that it’s a very likable medium and it’s very relatable and very easy to get into in a lot of ways, where do you see it going?
Sam Thielman: Oh, that’s a great question. I mean the most interesting thing to me about comics is its fungibility. I think one reason the right is so afraid of comics that depict people of sexual and ethnic and religious minorities is that comics came into vogue because the newspaper merchants wanted to sell stuff to a population that was 20% illiterate and was also very heavily immigrant. People were bringing their kids into the American school system but couldn’t speak English themselves. If you wanted to sell a paper, you had to show the kids Little Nemo in a hot air balloon.
I think as comics have transcended various forms, various media, I guess, they have changed in what they’re able to do. For instance, in early comic books the color is really limited because you had to actually cut each color out of a transparency called Rubylith. And then if you get into the ’70s and ’80s, suddenly reproduction is so much better that you can do painted comics and stuff. Watching the change from newspaper to pulp to better paper stock and then to graphic novels that run to hundreds and thousands of pages long has been really fascinating.
The leap onto the internet has changed the medium in ways that I don’t fully understand and I’m still trying to grasp. I still read Tillie Walden on paper even though On a Sunbeam is a web comic. I really just, I want to read a codex. [crosstalk] But that said I think I’m behind on that. I think I’m behind the curve and I think at some point I’m just going to make my peace with it because there’s so much you can do on the infinite canvas of the internet.
Lyta Gold: Yes.
Sam Thielman: There’s people doing [things] in Procreate. That’s the other thing, is the art that gets done on computers can happen much more quickly, and I think a lot of artists are progressive and green and don’t want to go through as many markers as they do. I’ve heard a lot of people say that, actually. While selling original art is a great thing if you’re working on a superhero book, if you’re just making graphic novels with your friend, you may not be… The pages may just be taking up space in your apartment. People are working on… There’s this one, Erica Henderson, who I think is just an absolute genius.
Lyta Gold: Oh, Erica Henderson is great. I love everything she does.
Sam Thielman: She’s so cool. I have one of her t-shirts. She did this book with Alex Campi called Dracula Motherfucker, that I just think is unbelievably gorgeous. I think we are going to see people experimenting with the bleeding edge of digital technology in a way that enables them to not just make goofy looking Beeple-style digital images, but to be in conversation with all of the forms passed. Everything from Walton [inaudible] to Watchmen. You’re going to see people able to do that in different panels. I’m also really loving this book Nod Away if I’m just talking about my favorite comics.
Lyta Gold: [crosstalk]
Sam Thielman: Yeah. There’s this guy, Joshua Cotter, who’s been working on this thing just quietly putting these out for a decade. It’s this huge sweeping sci-fi saga that promises to be the American version of Akira or something. I really love that.
Lyta Gold: It’s called Nod Away? Was that –
Sam Thielman: Nod Away. N-O-D. Yeah. Nod Away. Joshua Cotter is the artist. I think he’s wonderful. Yeah. I think we’re going to see more IP-friendly stuff too. I think you have very commercial writer-artist teams that are constantly churning stuff out that I think is going to hit. I think we’ll see more Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips stuff get adapted. But I think mostly, we’re just going to see it democratized more. I think one thing that the right gets right about the various civil rights movements is that they do allow people who would not otherwise come out of the closet to come out of the closet.
Sam Thielman: I don’t think people are wrong that there are suddenly more gay people in public now than there were before the gay rights movement. The difference is I think that’s great, and I think as people experience the world in more diverse ways and in public, we will see just a flowering of communities and an evolution of existing communities that will give rise to more and more interesting art. That’s the thing I look forward to the most is seeing a kind of person I don’t know at all and then experiencing them through their work.
Lyta Gold: That’s lovely. One thing I’m also really hoping for is that there are… American comics have been a really insular medium in some ways. American art in general is very… We’re very provincial. We’ve got no idea how provincial we are. Lately, I’ve been really getting into Korean webcomics.
Sam Thielman: Oh, sure.
Lyta Gold: Which are like, they use the infinite scroll idea in a really interesting way in the way that a panel will shade into the next panel and the way the time will pass in a story. It’s just this incredibly interesting explosion of things that’s happening. Thank God they’re being translated so that [people who don’t] speak Korean can read them. With this flowering of diversity and really interesting stuff coming in all those interesting cross pollination, it leads to better art but it also leads to freak outs from people who find this thing very upsetting.
Sam Thielman: Yeah. I think, interculturation is so obviously good. It’s so hard to argue with the fruits. If you actually sit down and read the Maia Kobabe book, it’s very difficult to come away anything but impressed. I think people, even conservatives like this stuff, they just don’t know it. Every right-wing comics guy I know loves Frank Miller. There is absolutely no Frank Miller without all of the manga your worst nerdy manga friend reads. People complained when they shrunk down the Sin City reprints to digest size. They did that so that they would look more like manga at Frank’s request.
All of this stuff is so… I emailed Ursula Le Guin a few years before she died when The National Endowment for the Arts was on the chopping block at the very beginning of the Trump Administration. I was trying to write a crusading piece saying, don’t cut the NEA. I said, how do we communicate to people who might be for this that it’s not a good idea? She said, I don’t think you can do that until people recognize that country music is art. People need to know that Blue Bloods is art. People need to know that the stuff they like –
Lyta Gold: Yes.
Sam Thielman: …Is art and ought to have public investment, public support. It enriches your life and it ought to occur to you that it’s not just like the community theater doing As You Like It.
Lyta Gold: I love Ursula.
Sam Thielman: She was so good [crosstalk].
Lyta Gold: I’m very jealous you got to talk to her.
Sam Thielman: I know.
Lyta Gold: Not cool.
Sam Thielman: She’s the greatest.
Lyta Gold: Oh man. Yeah. That’s one of the things, again, that’s funny about a medium that’s very popular, and then you’ve got elements of it that are… They’re so popular, they get captured by corporate interests and then they get sanitized, and superhero stuff is easy to sanitize. Then you’ve got things like Maus that are revolutionary and Pulitzer Prize winning and artistic in this kind of recognized way. But it’s very easy to see them as separate pieces rather than like, this is a continuous art form with different pressures and different freedoms that has allowed for different things.
Sam Thielman: I’m working on a proposal for a book of my own about this and it’s so hard to draw the lines. Because comic strips and comic books are always in conversation with each other. The French comics are titanic in their influence on American comics. Some people move. Some people are no longer English cartoonists, they’re now American cartoonists. There’s a Canadian tradition that is fascinating. There are editorial cartoons in Black newspapers, like the Chicago Defender, that are absolutely perfect that just went unread by people like me until a recent anthology that The New York Review of Comics put out. Suddenly you’re dealing with stuff… There’s a guy named Dan Nadel who’s entire deal is just doing anthologies of stuff you haven’t read. He has a book called Art Out of Time that’s just all lost comics.
Lyta Gold: Oh wow.
Sam Thielman: He did It’s Life as I See It, which is the anthology of Black newspaper comics. All this stuff suddenly appears and then it’s suddenly part of the canon even if it’s temporally displaced by years of neglect. I think the richness of the medium is something that its best practitioners use to make a kind of expanding collage that informs their own work and that makes this… It’s like the photo mosaics.
Lyta Gold: Yes.
Sam Thielman: You’re making a picture of yourself out of panels from every comic. I don’t know if you’re a Chris Ware fan at all. I know many people have strong feelings one way or the other. But I do –
Lyta Gold: I like Chris Ware. I’m not actually… I don’t have strong feelings one way or the other.
Sam Thielman: Oh, all right. Nevermind. I think he is actually at work on mimicking brain function in that way that Speigelman says. [crosstalk]
Lyta Gold: Oh, interesting.
Sam Thielman: Yeah. I think that’s really his project because his stuff isn’t linearly readable. There’s a lot of going through it and being like, which panel is next, and that’s not unintentional. So, yeah.
Lyta Gold: That’s interesting.
Sam Thielman: I don’t think I answered your question at all.
Lyta Gold: No, I think you did. I think you did. This stuff is… Sometimes I think that the reason people get a little bit gate-keepy or they try to, which version of this is good and which version of this is the bad version of this art form is… There’s just so much out there that is actually really good and it gets exhausting and it gets scary and you get intimidated and you’re like, oh, no. I’m going to… The real comics people are going to be snotty at me.
Sam Thielman: Yeah. No, I think that’s true. I do think the superhero industry is sad.
Lyta Gold: Yes.
Sam Thielman: I don’t think it’s evil necessarily, although I think it certainly can be, but I do just weep for it occasionally because there are so many people whose work exists exclusively in that genre. It would be really cool if there was a way to divorce Mark Wade from the corporate IP. He’s done some stuff that’s not Superman or The Flash, but like his Superman and The Flash stories are really good. They’re his best work. To some extent it’s just a sinkhole for artistic talent where people are just subsumed under the corporate logo.
Just going to the movies and seeing Marvel’s Thor on the screen is the most offensive experience. Thor doesn’t even belong to Jack Kirby, but he at least drew the first comics. There was a movement a few years ago to consider all this stuff. These are the modern-day gods and so forth. These are our Greek myths or whatever. And I think Maddy Lubchansky on Twitter was like, yeah, it’s like how the Catholic Church owns the abstract concept of Jesus and you can’t say Jesus out loud without paying them a dollar.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. Something that’s so funny about it, because there is that argument that it’s like a myth. The way that the stories work and how long they’ve been around and how many people have worked on them and told different versions, technically true that it is kind of the way that those myths worked. But it is all owned. And when I worked for Marvel, a lot of what I did was this very specific – I worked in image licensing and they’re very, very particular about which images of Spider Man go on products because they are here to sell products and they don’t want that much creativity in any respect. It’s frustrating. I read a lot of comics while I was there and there are writers and artists who are trying and have moments of real brilliance.
Sam Thielman: Oh yeah.
Lyta Gold: But they get tied into the synergistic needs of what movies are coming out and what are the big events, the big crossover events, and so nothing ever quite pops. It’s funny because the Marvel comics of, I think, the 2000s to 2009, about when they were bought by Disney, a lot of those are actually really good. There’s a lot of money behind them and so they were able to pay talent very well [crosstalk]
Sam Thielman: Well, and Axel Alonso was a really good editor. They hired this guy who had done… He had been at the quasi- creator-owned imprint at Vertigo, and he did all kinds of weird shit. Erica’s style is not something most people would think of as superhero work, but then he gave her and this wonderful Canadian humorous, this book, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and it’s easily the best thing Marvel has published in a good, long time.
Lyta Gold: It’s so good. If you haven’t read Squirrel Girl and you do like superheroes and you don’t mind, Squirrel Girl‘s great. Fabulous stuff.
Sam Thielman: Yeah, it’s terrific. It’s really funny and cute. I think there’s an extent to which the corporatization, the capture of DC and Marvel has made those places far less free for creators. In the ’80s when you have Grant Morrison deciding that Doom Patrol is going to be just the weirdest thing in the world and Alan Moore reworking Swamp Thing, they were basically able to do that stuff uninterrupted. I don’t think it’s the case that nobody as good as Grant Morrison or Alan Moore is at work in contemporary comics writing today.
But I do think that there is nobody like Karen Berger who is at DC or Marvel and able to say, no, no. They’re working on a character that didn’t sell very well before we put them on it. Let’s leave them alone since they’re doing better than their predecessor. Which is what Karen did. But that’s not how stuff is monitored anymore. It’s much more of a constant parenting.
Lyta Gold: It’s unfortunate because there could be a lot of fertility in that medium. But, yeah it’s really indie comics where fun things are happening. It’s in web comics that very exciting things are happening.
Sam Thielman: I will say I’m liking Mark Russell’s One-Star Squadron at the moment.
Lyta Gold: I haven’t read that one.
Sam Thielman: Mark Russell is really good. He did a 12 issue, he did a maxi series about the Flintstones with Steve Pugh a few years ago.
Lyta Gold: That’s all right.
Sam Thielman: It is transcendent.
Lyta Gold: Is it really?
Sam Thielman: It’s so good.
Lyta Gold: Oh my God.
Sam Thielman: It is a viciously anti-capitalist reimagining of the Flintstones. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Lyta Gold: Right. I didn’t know that I needed that.
Sam Thielman: Yeah, you do. One-Star Squadron is about the gig economy. It’s about superheroes –
Lyta Gold: Oh my God.
Sam Thielman: …In the gig economy. It’s really wonderful.
Lyta Gold: Oh my God.
Sam Thielman: Yeah. Yeah. I –
Lyta Gold: [crosstalk] image too.
Sam Thielman: What’s that?
Lyta Gold: Is that Image Comics?
Sam Thielman: No, they’re both DC. They’re both DC.
Lyta Gold: They’re both DC? Okay.
Sam Thielman: Yeah.
Lyta Gold: Wow. For DC, you’re getting away with that.
Sam Thielman: Yeah. Yeah. No, he –
Lyta Gold: Amazing.
Sam Thielman: …He does good work there. He was going to do a book for Vertigo or maybe Black Label about Jesus and DC was like, we found the line where you have to take that somewhere else. That’s also pretty good. It’s called Second Coming. But, yeah. I think he’s very funny. He has his own graphic novels from top shelf called God Is Disappointed In You. Which is true.
Lyta Gold: Yeah, which is fair. Justified. Yeah.
Sam Thielman: Yeah.
Lyta Gold: Amazing. Well, on that note of God being disappointed in us, and for good reason, I think sadly we have to end it. But yeah, is there anything you’d like to plug? Obviously your book proposal sounds like the coolest thing and that should happen and if any publishers are listening, get on that.
Sam Thielman: Thank you. Yeah, I’m mostly mentioning so that I don’t have any excuse not to work on it because I need to finish it. I’ve been going at this draft for a couple of weeks and it needs to be done. But yeah, no, I should have an essay up along these lines over at Forever Wars, which is my blog with Spencer Ackerman, at Spencer Ackerman’s blog that I work on. Spencer is the draw, let’s be honest. Yeah. Subscribe that if you’re into geopolitics from a lefty perspective. We’re very proud of it. Spencer does amazing work. We had an abortion fundraiser recently. We hope to do more stuff like that in the future. We want to keep it going. That’s my plug for today. foreverwars.substack.com.
Lyta Gold: It’s really good. It’s really well edited too, I have to say.
Sam Thielman: Thank you.
Lyta Gold: Yeah, thanks again for joining [this has been so much fun][crosstalk].
Sam Thielman: Thank you so much for having me. This is delightful. Love to talk about this stuff and love to talk to you.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. Well, someday maybe we’ll do a drunk three-hour one –
Sam Thielman: Absolutely.
Lyta Gold: [crosstalk] have a few beers and then like really get into it.
Sam Thielman: Yeah. Alcohol interferes with my medication to a degree that that’ll be really easy. You can get me really… It won’t even be three.
Lyta Gold: Oh, excellent. Get all the really weirdest comic stories [crosstalk]
Sam Thielman: Yes. Yeah. I got them. I got them.
Lyta Gold: All right. Wonderful. Well, if you’ve been listening, please subscribe to The Real News Network Feed. That’s how you get more of Art for the End Times episodes. You’ll also get all the other wonderful podcasts on The Real News Network. Thanks everybody, and we’ll see you next time.