Media History Exchange, 2018 Joint Journalism and Communication History Conference

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“The Remarkably Independent Readers of American Comic Strips, 1934-1955”
Jonathan Rose

Last modified: 2018-01-29


In the mid-twentieth century, sophisticated critics generally wrote off popular literature as mind-deadening commodities produced by “culture industries.”  The quintessential culture industry product was the comic strip, marketed to newspapers by big syndicates. These same critics assumed that the comics were read uncritically, brainwashing their ostensibly passive audiences. But was this indeed the case, or were they concocting a stereotype based on no real evidence?

Within the last few years, the academic study of comics has established itself as a legitimate scholarly field.  But as I survey their journals and conference programs and calls for papers, I notice that one all-important dimension of the comics is still grossly neglected: their readers.  Today scholars of literature are keenly interested in reception: they want to know how audiences responded to Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Gone with the Wind.  Why are we not asking how they responded to Dick Tracy, Brenda Starr, and Li’l Abner?

I argue that we can recover the inner experiences of comic strip readers – and that when we do, we find that they were far more critical and independent readers than we ever imagined.  This paper draws on two bodies of evidence.

The first is Milton Caniff’s archive of fan letters (more than 100,000). In 1934 he launched Terry and the Pirates, which told the story of American adventurers in China. Initially the strip was populated by ludicrously babbling Chinese and knockout dames in need of rescue. But many of his readers knew the Far East at first hand, they wrote detailed letters pointing out gross factual errors—and Caniff readily incorporated their suggestions. Gradually the stereotypes faded away, and newspaper readers soon found that Terry and the Pirates portrayed the horrors of the Sino-Japanese War more fully and accurately than the news columns. “I didn’t sell comic-strip realism to my readers,” Caniff later admitted. “My readers sold realism to me.”

My second source comes from Puck, a humor weekly, which in 1955 surveyed 700 Chicago residents for their reactions to the Sunday comics. The investigators began with the assumption that the funny papers were “a stereotyped experience for the reader, the same for one and all . . . determined by the creators and publishers of the Comic sections.” But this, they found, was “far from the truth….Most of the people we studied appeared to be active readers of the Comics. They sought out the kinds of strips and the kinds of activity within the strips which interested them and gave them satisfaction. They selected and chose, manipulated and interpreted, in order to obtain the experience they desired from the Comics.” I proceed to analyze in detail reader responses to Mary Worth, Dagwood, Prince Valiant, Hopalong Cassidy, Superman, and a host of other comic characters – responses that were often quite different from anything contemporary literary theorists might have anticipated.

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