Comic Books And Society
Clinton R. Sanders
SOURCE: "Icons of the Alternate Culture: The Themes and Functions of Underground Comix," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. VIII, No. 4, Spring, 1975, pp. 836-52.
[In the following excerpt, Sanders considers the social, political, and commercial aspects of underground comic books.]
Much of the popular culture literature is devoted to the discussion of the theoretical constructs and methodological approaches which are most useful in the study of "non-elite" cultural products. I agree with Gillespie that clarity will not be achieved until standardized interpretive concepts are developed. This framework can be built only when the foci and explanatory perspectives employed are clearly and consistently presented.
This paper deals with a relatively new cultural product—underground comix. It is a study of an artistic phenomenon which focuses on the socially constructed definitions of reality which shape both form and content. In that the effect of this medium/message on the perceptions and values of its consumers is emphasized, the discussion relates generally to the sociology of art.
The premise that art is shaped by the interaction of the artist, the public and the distribution network underlies the following discussion. Art is not created in a vacuum. The artist has learned the values and perceptions which are generally accepted within the host society. Similarly, underground comix artists are conscious members of an alienated group which has developed a body of lore and a particular view of reality. Comix clearly reflect the subcultural socialization of their creators.
Is it legitimate to view underground comix as a part of contemporary popular culture? Not if Nye's definition is employed. Comix are not "widely diffused, generally accepted (and) approved by the majority". I prefer, however, to use the broader definition of popular culture offered by Ray Browne.
(A) viable definition for Popular Culture is all those elements of life which are not narrowly intellectual or creatively elitist and which are generally though not necessarily disseminated through the mass media.… "Popular Culture" thus embraces all levels of our society and culture other than the Elite—the "popular," "mass" and "folk."
Comics, as an artistic product, provide an excellent mirror in which the careful observer can see reflected the values, hopes, concerns and perceptions of the society. Further, in that comics function to promote social change by mocking that which is held sacred and provide a medium for bringing socially disapproved topics to the public consciousness, they offer an excellent source of data on how social change mechanisms operate. These aspects of comics will be used to focus a later discussion of the subcultural and societal impact of underground comix.
The following discussion begins with a brief history which touches on the major graphic forms and social forces which are important in the development of underground comix. Next, a description of the thematic patterns to be found in the comix is presented. This description provides the illustrative base for an analysis of the impact which comics, in general, and undergrounds, in particular, have on American culture. Comix exist because they provide some people with something they need. A meaningful discussion of an artistic product must deal with the function of the product for its audience. As Van Den Haag states:
In my opinion, emphasis on cultural objects misses the point. A sociologist (and to analyze mass culture is a sociological enterprise) must focus on the functions of such objects in people's lives: he must study how they are used; who produces what for whom; why, and with what effects. To be sure, value judgments cannot be avoided, but the qualities of the product become relevant only when related to its social function.
The paper concludes with an analysis of the cohesive role which comix play in the growing alternative culture with which the majority of the artists...
(The entire section is 33,470 words.)