Saturday, September 14, 2013

When Comic Strips are Funny: A Matter for Aesthetics?

Philosophy often starts with something very personal, and then that gets lost in the final version of the paper.  That's not going to happen here. For me, the daily funnies (a.k.a. comic strips) in our local paper (The San Jose Mercury News) have a special personal meaning.  Every morning I call up my mom, who is 87 and has short-term memory problems, and I read her the funnies, not all of them, just the ones I think are funny and I think she will "get."  Her short-term and long-term memory are still good enough that she can follow the story and get the references, unless they are to some current technological fad someone her age wouldn't know about.  Without any real evidence, I think laughing at a few good short stories as presented in the daily comics is a great way for her to start the day and also helps her to retain her cognitive powers.  It is also a good way for me to start my day.  I have been writing on everyday aesthetics over the last few years and yet I have been recently criticized, rightly I think, about not focusing enough on the things that happen every day.  This event. reading comics to my mom, happens every day to me, and it also relates to something that happens every day for others, i.e. reading the comics (usually to oneself, and perhaps, aloud, to one's mate, when one wants to share).  Of course, what happens every day is going to be different for different people, but this is something most readers will relate to easily.  

So, is there something aesthetic about reading and describing a comic strip over the phone to one's mom, finding it funny, and laughing.  It is arguable, at least, that "funny" is an aesthetic property.  Usually in aesthetics we speak of the experience of positive aesthetic properties as being combined with an experience of pleasure, which is certainly the case here.  There is an added aspect of the experience, which is the physiological response to humor, i.e. laughter.  Before we go on I should mention the comics I find most valuable in this exercise:  Peanuts Classics, Pickles, Zits, Blondie, For Better or For Worse, Baby Blues, Adam@Home, Family Circus, Rose is Rose, Mutts, Bizarro, and Rhymes with Orange, pretty much in that order.  I also personally find Dilbert, Doonesbury, Non Sequitur and a few others funny but not good for reading to mom.  I never find Millard Fillmore funny -- perhaps  because I'm politically on the left.  Pardon my Planet may only be funny to people in their 20s who are fed up with the dating scene and Pearls Before Swine, although interesting, hardly ever makes me laugh ---  some of the funnies require a what seems a sick sense of humor and a high tolerance for puns.  Some of the comics are not intended to be funny at all, or at least not most of the time, for example Rex Morgan, which is more like a soap opera.  So, my taste in funnies is on the table, and I am sure everyone will have a different list of favorites.  

One of the things I have noticed in my morning comic readings is that what works has to do usually with the ironies of family life, and that different comics devote themselves to different perspectives in family dynamics.  Zits is the teenager vs. parent comic, Peanuts Classics deals with the child's perspective on life, For Better or for Worse with a parent's perspective on living with pre-teens, Pickles on life with grandpa and grandma, Blondie with a variety of family and work issues, Baby Blues with a parent's perspective on small children, Rhymes with Orange with everyday life generally, Rose is Rose with fantasy life of a young couple in love, their kid and their cat, and Mutts with the inner lives of animals.  Although I read these comics out loud to my mom and she is not looking at them herself, the visual aspect of the experience is important to me (and is usually important to most consumers).  Each comic strip artist has his/her own style (and in this case, Mallard Filmore is not bad), and sometimes the visual dimension plays the primarily role, as for example in Lio.  Perhaps my favorite, visually speaking, is Mutts.  

Philosophers who talk about comics seem to quickly want to talk about comic books and veer away from newspaper comics.  Comic books and newspaper comics overlap a lot, to be sure, as they do with graphic novels and books that collect newspaper comics.  But it is a good thing to just focus on one kind of experience, and in this case, one kind of comic, i.e. the funny kind.

One thing I do not want to spend time on in this short comment is the question of how to define comics.  I simply define comics, for the sake of this discussion, as whatever appears on the comics page in a newspaper.  There are of course comics that appear in other places (for example in newsletters and in blogs) and closely related phenomena, for example New Yorker cartoons.  So I am not offering a definition of comics in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, nor do I think debates over such a definition are particularly interesting (who really cares whether a comic requires more than one panel or speeches in balloons?)  Again, I am also focusing on the comics that I and my mother find funny, and as part of an experience that includes various elements.  Dewey defines "an experience" as having a beginning, middle and end and as being consummatory.  I would say that my experiences of reading comics to my mom fall into that category, although not in the category of a profound event, as when we say "that was an experience!"  This is just an ordinary everyday aesthetic experience (assuming, again, that "funny" is an aesthetic quality).

Noteworthy about this experience is that it has four basic elements, the comic strip in front of me, my reading of it, my mother listening and responding (for example asking for clarification or making remarks), and mutual laughter. Sometimes, there is also a follow-up comment or two in the "isn't that so true" genre. (In a previous post I discussed Kristeva and Irigaray's idea that everyday aesthetic experience requires mutuality and ideally with an element of love...this seems to fit into my thinking here.) It is rather disappointing that philosophers who have talked about comics say very little about the comics that interest me in this context.  David Carrier in The Aesthetics of Comics (2000) does devote a chapter to Krazy Kat, a strip which was indeed both funny and graphically interesting.  As for other philosophers' attempts to talk about comics, Aaron Miskin wrote a paper, "Defining Comics" (Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.65:4 2007 369-379)  It is all about the topic mentioned in the title.  Yet there is no mention of laugh, laughter or funniness in the article, and the only mention of humor is about the origins of comics in humor magazines like Punch.  Imagine that Aristotle had talked about tragedy but neglected to mention catharsis of pity and fear!  I do not want to claim that humor is absolutely essential to a comic, but I do think that a large part of what comics are about is humor:  the comics are, usually, comical.  I can only agree with Meskin's concluding words: "We should get on with the business of thinking seriously about comics as art. Let's get beyond the definitional project."  (376)  In a recent article, Henry John Pratt ("Narrative in Comics" The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 67:1  2009 369-379 stresses the importance in narrative in comics.  He sees this as essential to a phenomenology of comics.  He even mentions all the people who have incorporated narrative into their definitions of comics.  My thought is that certainly narrative is part of my experience of reading comics to my mom, but humor, laughter, and mutual conversational interchange, are also parts of that experience, and equally important.  If we are going to do a phenomenology then we should not be excluding all of those elements.  Pratt, too, never mentions humor, laughter, or any of these other elements.

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