Cartoon Conservatism

May 20, 2009

The idea that "Little Orphan Annie" as a historical document full of clues to contemporary American political culture is not, perhaps, self-evident. Many of us remember the comic strip, if at all, primarily as the inspiration for a long-running Broadway musical; the latter being a genre of which I, for one, have an irrational fear. (If there is a hell, it has a chorus line.)

Yet there is a case to make for Annie as an ancestor of Joe the Plumber, and not just because both are fictional characters.The two volumes, so far, of The Complete Little Orphan Annie (issued last year by IDW Publishing in its "Library of American Comics" series) come with introductory essays by Jeet Heer, a graduate student in history at York University, in Toronto, who finds in the cartoonist Harold Gray one of the overlooked founding fathers of the American conservative movement. Heer contends that the adventures of the scrappy waif reflect a strain of right-wing populism that rejected the New Deal. He is now at work on a dissertation called "Letters to Orphan Annie: The Emergence of Conservative Populism in American Popular Culture, 1924-1968."

Heer is the co-editor, with Kent Worcester, of Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium (2004) and A Comics Studies Reader (2009), both published by the University Press of Mississippi. I recently interviewed him about his work by e-mail. A transcript of that exchange follows.

Q: You've co-edited a couple of anthologies of writings on the critical reception of comics and are now at work on a dissertation about one iconic strip, "Little Orphan Annie." Suppose a cultural mandarin like George Steiner challenged the whole notion of "comics studies" as manifesting a trivial interest in ephemeral entertainments on rotting newsprint. In the name of what values would you defend your work?

A: Since I think George Steiner is a fraudulent windbag, he’s perhaps a bad hypothetical example. But let’s talk about some genuine mandarins, rather than those who just put on airs. I came to comics studies partially as a lifelong reader of comics (after my family immigrated to Canada from India I learned to read English by deciphering Archie comics as if they were hieroglyphics) but also intellectually via high modernism. As a graduate student, I was fascinated by mid-century Catholic intellectuals who did so much to inform our understanding of modernism (Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, Hugh Kenner). Erudite as all get out and working to reconcile Catholicism with modernity, these thinkers constantly emphasized that the great modernists (Joyce, Eliot, Pound) were deeply shaped by modern mass culture (Joyce kept a copy of the comic strip "Gasoline Alley" on his mantelshelf and stuffed Finnegans Wake with countless allusions to comics). McLuhan and company taught me that high and low culture don’t exist in hermetically sealed compartments but rather are part of an organic, mutually enriching, conversation: Culture is not an exclusive club, it’s a rent party where anyone can join in and dance.

Aesthetically, I’d argue that the best comics (Herriman’s "Krazy Kat," Art Spiegelman’s "Maus," Lynda Barry’s "Ernie Pook Comeeks") are as good as anything being done in the fine arts or literature. Most comics aren’t as good as "Krazy Kat," of course, but the sheer popularity and longevity of ordinary comics like "Archie" or "Blondie" makes them historically and sociologically interesting. "Little Orphan Annie" is a good example, although it is more than ordinary as a work of art, it is also historically fascinating since it helped reshape conservatism in America, giving birth in the 1930s to a form of cultural populism that you can still see on Fox News. Read by millions (including politicians like Clare Booth Luce, Jesse Helms, and Ronald Reagan), Orphan Annie has a political significance that makes it worth studying.

Finally comics are very interesting on a theoretical level. Comics involve a fusion of works and pictures (this is true even of pantomime strips, where we “read” the images as well as look at them). Therefore, comics are inherently hybrid, existing at the crossroads between the literature and the fine arts. As French theorist Thierry Groensteen has noted, the hybrid nature of comics makes them a scandal to the “ideology of purity” that has long dominated art theory (i.e., philosophers and critics ranging from G.E. Lessing to Clement Greenberg). The best writing on comics (a sampling of which can be found in A Comics Studies Reader) all grapple with formal issues raised by hybridity: How can words and pictures interact in the same work? What’s the relationship between seeing and reading? Do visual artifacts have their own language? These are all very challenging questions, which makes comics studies an exciting field.

Q: In addition to two deluxe volumes of the complete "Little Orphan Annie" from the 1920s (with more on the way), you have put together a collection of the proto-surrealist strip "Krazy Kat." Would you describe the process of assembling this sort of edition? It seems like the work would be as much curatorial as editorial.

A: Until fairly recently, most cartoonists didn’t keep their original art, which meant that reprints of old comic strips and comic books had to be shot from the published work (often yellowing old newsprint). This meant that the art often looked like photocopies of 1970s vintage: smudgy and muddy, frequently off-register.

In the last decade, thanks to digital technology, it’s become much easier to clean up old art and restore it to how it originally looked (the cost of printing in color has also gone down). I’m lucky to work with a group of publishers that are willing to put in the hours necessary to do the restoration work. I’ll single out Pete Maresca whose books Sundays with Walt and Skeezix and Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays reprint old Sunday pages at the exact size they originally appeared, with the dimension of a newspaper broadsheet. Pete is meticulous in trying to restore the colors to their original form (the strips were, among other things, a marvel of engraving craftsmanship brought to the United States by German immigrants). To do so, Pete often has to spend a week or more on each page, in effect taking longer on the restoration work than the cartoonist took in drawing the page.

This is not a project I'm directly involved with, but my publisher Fantagraphics recently published an amazing edition of Humbug (a sophisticated humor magazine from the 1950s edited by Mad magazine founder Harvey Kurtzman). Paul Baresh, who also works on the "Krazy Kat" books, did a remarkable job, equal perhaps to someone cleaning up the icons on a medieval church, in restoring the original art. He talks about the production process here.

Q: We'll get to your dissertation's focus on the ideological dimension of character and plot in "Little Orphan Annie" in a moment. But first let me ask about the artwork. As someone who has studied comics closely, do you see anything innovative or distinctive in its visual style? Also, what's the deal with Annie's eyes? It looks like she just got back from a rave....

A: The earliest newspaper cartoonists mostly came out of Victorian magazine illustrations, which meant their art tended to be florid, dense with decoration and unnecessary details. Harold Gray, Annie’s creator, belonged to the second generation of comic strip artists who did art that was sensitive to the fact that newspaper drawings didn’t need to be so elaborate, indeed that simpler art was more effective because it pushed the narrative along quicker. Gray’s great gift was in character design. In her pilgrim's progress through the world Annie meets all sorts of people, ranging from decent, hard-working farmers to sinister, hoity-toity pseudo-aristocrats. Gray was able to distill the essence of each character so that you can tell, at a glance, that the farmers were care-worn and dowdy but decent, while Mrs. Bleating-Hart (the Eleanor Roosevelt stand-in) was pompous and exploitative.

The best description of Gray’s art I’ve ever seen was written by the 15-year-old fan John Updike, in a letter I found in Gray’s papers at Boston University. “The drawing is simple and clear, but extremely effective,” Updike wrote. “You could tell just by looking at the faces who is the trouble maker and who isn't, without any dialogue. The facial features, the big, blunt fingered hands, the way you handle light and shadows are all excellently done." Updike’s reference to “light and shadows” refers to Gray’s other skill, in creating mood and atmosphere. Annie lives in a dark, somber, gothic world, where evil blank eyes are always peering out of windows.

Annie’s blank eyeballs were a convention Gray inherited from his artistic mentor Sidney Smith, who did "The Gumps." But artistically, as Gray explained to a fan in 1959, the blank eyeballs served to enhance reader involvement with the strip: not seeing what is going on in the eyes of the characters, readers could impose their own fears and concerns into the narrative. Recent comics theorists, most famously Scott McCloud in his frequently-cited book Understanding Comics, have argued that blank, empty characters (Charlie Brown, Mickey Mouse) are easier to identify with. Gray seems to have understood that instinctively.

Q: You argue that from its start in the mid-1920s the strip manifests a strain of conservative populism. The honest, hard-working, "just folks" Annie makes her indomitable way in a world full of elitists, social-climbing poseurs, and pointy-headed do-gooders. How did the strip respond to the economic catastrophe of 1929 and the New Deal that came in its wake?

A: While big business Republicans like Herbert Hoover were politically vanquished by the Great Depression, Harold Gray actually prospered during the 1930s, with Annie becoming the star of the most popular radio show of the decade. How can we explain this, given that Gray was as much an advocate of two-fisted capitalism as Hoover?

Whatever the merits of Hoover’s policies, the President was tone deaf in responding to the Depression because he adopted a harsh rhetoric that denied the reality of poverty. “Nobody is actually starving,” Hoover said as millions had to line up in soup kitchens. “The hoboes, for example, are better fed than they ever have been. One hobo in New York got ten meals in one day.”

Orphan Annie and “Daddy” Warbucks never voiced such complacently unfeeling indifference to poverty. Annie was poor even in the prosperous 1920s, often living as a hobo and begging for food when separated from her capitalist guardian Warbucks. In the 1920s Gray was a progressive Republican in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt: He praised labour unions, public schools, feminist reforms (Annie dreams of being President like her hero Lincoln), and mocked anti-socialist rhetoric. In reaction to the New Deal, Gray became much more of a partisan right winger, turning the template of his story (Annie and Warbucks battling against powerful and corrupt forces) into an explicitly conservative populist allegory.

In 1931, Daddy Warbucks loses his fortune to unscrupulous Wall Street speculators, is blinded, and lives for a time as a street beggar. But after hitting bottom he regains his fighting spirit and outwits the Wall Street sharks who brought him and America low. By 1932, the villains in the strip are increasingly identified with the political left: snide bohemian intellectuals who mock traditional values, upper-crust class traitors who give money to communists, officious bureaucrats who hamper big business, corrupt labour union leaders who sabotage industry, demagogic politicians who stir up class envy in order to win elections, and busybody social workers who won’t let a poor orphan girl work for a living because of their silly child labor laws. Gray started to identify liberalism with elitism, a potent bit of political framing which continues to shape political discourse in American today.

Q: What have you learned from going through the archives, including the cartoonist's fan mail? What does it tell you about how people responded to his politics? Were there people who supported FDR but still rooted for the plucky little orphan?

A: Reading Gray’s correspondence with his fans was what made me fall in love with this project. There was such a rich array of letters from such a wide spectrum of readers: some from little kids, some from famous or soon-to-be famous people (as mentioned John Updike and Clare Boothe Luce but also the journalist Pete Hamill), most from ordinary, run-of-the-mill but often eloquent adults. Politically the letters are all over the place; some readers loved the way Gray attacked liberals, but many readers (Updike and Hamill are good examples) were New Deal supporters. One such reader wrote that we love Annie because she’s just plain folks like the rest of us and Gray should stop ruining her stories by attacking the President Roosevelt, who is trying to help the real Annies.

What I’ve learned is that people don’t read comics in a passive way: Many Annie readers were bringing to the strip their own life experiences and worldviews. This really helps us understand the way comics can weave themselves into the everyday life of readers.

One example close to my heart: In 1942 Annie forms a group call the Junior Commandos to help the war effort by collecting scrap metal. One of the Junior Commandos is a African-American boy named George, who is shown to be intelligent and resourceful. Rare for the time, George was drawn in a realistic, non-stereotypical way. Gray received many letters from black readers, praising him for showing that their race was contributing to winning the war (although some black readers also felt George was a little bit too servile). Gray also received a letter from an editor of newspaper in Mobile, Alabama, who was upset that a white girl was shown consorting with a black boy. In these letters, we can see how Annie provoked discussion about wartime racial politics.

Q: How did the strip respond to the Sixties? Did Warbucks support the Goldwater campaign? Was Annie menaced by hippies?

A: With the rise of “movement conservatism” and the Goldwater campaign, Gray responded to the times by making Daddy Warbucks and his allies even more militantly anti-communists than before (mind you, the strip featured communist villains since the early 1930s.) Dissatisfied with the mealy-mouth diplomacy of the State Department, Daddy Warbucks and his private army fight a Castro-style Latin American dictator.

Throughout the 1960s beatniks and hippies are cast as villains. As one sympathetic character complains, “I wonder why we see all these peculiar people nowadays” like “th’ beatnik types, th’ ones with long hair, the ones with beads and funny clothes.” There is a fascinating sequence in 1967 showing anti-war protesters burning American flags, and then being attacked by a group of patriotic immigrants from around the world who love America. “We are loyal Americans defending our flag!” one immigrant proclaims. “What are you unclean vermin?” In some ways, this episode prefigures the hardhats versus hippies drama that Rick Perlstein describes in his great book Nixonland.

Like the conservative writers at National Review and the Republican Party itself, Gray also became more sympathetic to the South as a region, seeing it as a bastion of traditional values. Many of Annie’s adventures in the 1960s are set in the South, although the issue of civil rights is scrupulously avoided. This was a big shift for Gray, who in the 1920s started off as a Lincoln Republican (his middle name was even Lincoln), with Annie explicitly and implicitly criticizing racism. We can see the emergence of the “Southern strategy” in Annie.

Q: In the dissertation, you draw a parallel between Gray's populist sensibility and the work of Wilmoore Kendall, the right-wing political philosopher. Actually that's where you hooked my attention -- very few people remember Kendall, let alone write about him (though Gary Wills portrays him in Confessions of a Conservative and Kendall is the inspiration for the title character of Saul Bellow's story "Mosby's Memoirs").Since you aren't arguing that the thinker influenced the cartoonist or vice versa, how do you account for the affinity between Kendall's take on John Locke and Little Orphan Annie?

A: Kendall is a fascinating figure, deserving much more attention than he’s received (although John Judis in his biography of William F. Buckley does a good job of describing Kendall’s pivotal role as mentor to the founder of National Review). Prior to Kendall’s path breaking work (he flourished as a thinker from the 1940s till his death in 1968) conservative intellectuals were almost always openly elitist and anti-democratic: think of T.S. Eliot’s royalism, Albert Jay Nock’s pinning his hope on the “saving remnant,” H.L. Mencken’s Nietzsche-inspired scorn for the booboise, F.A. Hayek’s belief that the courts should be used to curb the rise of the welfare state.

Kendall broke with this tradition of celebrating hierarchy and fearing the masses. He firmly believed that the vast majority of the American people were “conservative in their hips” and that the American political institutions were designed not to thwart the will of the majority but to articulate the deeply held conservative principles of the masses. As a conservative who was closer on a theoretical level to Jean-Jacques Rousseau than to Edmund Burke, Kendall recast the language of American populism in an anti-liberal direction. To his mind, liberals were “the establishment” which needed to be overthrown. As the historian George Nash noted, Kendall was Nash, Kendall was “a populist and a conservative. The contrast with much aristocratic, even explicitly antipopulist, conservatism in the postwar period was striking.”

The reason Kendall’s in the thesis is that the overwhelming majority of the literature on mid-century American conservatism deals with elite political and intellectual figures like Buckley, James Burnham, Whittaker Chambers, Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, etc. Historians haven’t done such a good job at locating the origins of conservative ideas in the broader culture, in movies, songs, and comic strips. In drawing parallels between Kendall’s worldview and the ideas that were earlier articulated in Annie, I’m trying to show that high and low culture don’t exist in isolation, but are part of a large conversation with common ideas and images percolating up and down the line. Consider the phrase “egg-head” which Kendall often used when insulting liberal professors (a rather cheeky term since he himself was a Yale man).

Long before the phrase “egg-head” was coined, cartoonists like Gray drew oval-faced professors who lacked common sense and sneered at practical minded business men. I don’t know whether Kendall read Annie or not (although some of his colleagues at National Review clearly did since they wrote about her in their magazine). But it seems to me incontestably that Kendall and Gray shared an overlapping worldview, and can usefully be compared. The fact that Gray’s conservative populism preceded Kendall’s work by a decade also raises interesting questions as to whether elite intellectuals are always at the vanguard of ideological change.

Q: When cultural studies began implanting itself in American academic life about 20 years ago, there was a strong tendency to discover and celebrate the "subversive" and "emancipatory" aspects of popular culture. There was some blend of wishful thinking and willful ignorance about this, at times -- along with a narrow present-mindedness that tended to ignore popular culture from earlier decades, or to look only at things that seemed "counter-hegemonic" in comforting ways. Do you see your work as an explicit challenge to that sort of cultural studies, with its ahistorical perspective and cookie-cutter hermeneutics? Or do you understand what you are doing as part of the "cultural turn" within the historical profession itself?

A: I completely agree with your characterization of early American cultural studies, especially in the form it took in the 1980s and 1990s. The whole “Madonna is subversive” schtick exhausted whatever limited value it had very quickly. So yes, I hope my work tries to challenge the limits of this mode of thinking by being more historical, more grounded in archival research, and attentive to the divergent political voices found in popular culture. One of the great things about working in archives is that the very diversity of voices you find in the past (as in the letters to Orphan Annie I’m working with) force you rethink any “ahistorical perspective” or “cookie-cutter hermeneutics” you may have started off with.

Having said that, I wouldn’t be able to do the work I do without the opening created by cultural studies. One of the points Kent Worcester and I make in our two anthologies is that there was a wide variety of very interesting writers (ranging from Gershon Legman to Thomas Mann) who wrote on comics in the past but it was only with the advent of cultural studies that comics were able to find a secure home in the academy, with an infrastructure of journals, conferences, and library support. Cultural studies has greatly expanded the academic opportunities for anyone interested in popular culture.

My own discipline of history has been transformed by cultural studies. As you properly note, there has been a “cultural turn” in history. To my way of thinking, this “cultural turn” can be traced back to the original British New Left of the 1950s, and especially the writings of E.P. Thompson. My own work might seem far afield from Thompson’s epic work on the British working class, the moral economy of food riots, and the politics of Romantic poetry. Still for all his work has been criticized and challenged in the last few decades, it remains for me the best example of how to do cultural history. Thompson had a great ear: he could pick up nuances from the past that other historians were simply too tone-deaf to hear. The voices of ordinary people, in all their tangled complexity, came through in Thompson’s work. As more historians grapple with culture, Thompson remains the model to follow. I doubt if my work has anywhere near the value of Thompson’s, but as a close friend always tells me, you have to aim high.

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