Charlie Grinch

There were probably about half-a-dozen animated Christmas specials I recall watching as a child. The two that became fixtures, and remain part of my present holiday ritual, are It’s Christmas Charlie Brown and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I remember watching them from early days—of course you had to wait until their respective channels announced their advent in TV Guide (just writing that makes me feel older than the Grinch). Commuting wasn’t an issue then, so watching television was as common as candy canes and hopeful stockings. As an adult, though, you see things you overlooked, or simply accepted, as a child. I guess that’s what “believing in Christmas” is all about. The willful suspension of disbelief.

I’ve commented on these Christmas specials before. Charlie Brown has so many inconsistencies that an old biblical scholar can’t help but think of J, E, D, and P. What does the signage on Lucy’s Psychiatric Help booth really say? How many branches are on Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree? How does Sally get to the school before her big brother? The animation is clearly a little off—Lucy appears to emerge from the center of her booth’s wooden top as she gives advice to the woeful Charlie Brown with his Trump’s-been-elected-type depression. Still, Linus’ rendition of Luke’s Christmas story brings it home every time. Compare that with the Grinch.

Those who see a war on Christmas (there’s not) seldom cite the Grinch. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is entirely secular. No mention of a special birth. No angels or shepherds. Just a mean old man and his dog. The Grinch shares with Charlie Brown its message of looking beyond the commercialization of Christmas. In the case of the much better animated Grinch (although I still can’t figure out why that one Who’s hat repeatedly flashes from white to blue and back) it would seem that religion matters less than spirit. The Who’s Christmas song with its strange, non-English words, is a celebration of difference. Diversity. Even that angry old man who would steal Christmas itself is welcome in the end. The only war on Christmas is one that has been spawned in the imagination of those who fit the Grinch’s description in Thurl Ravenscroft’s rendering of Dr. Seuss’s lyric. Those my age will understand, and unless you were born yesterday, I suspect that you’ll get my meaning.

Comic Culture

KrakowKryptonPerhaps the most obvious deviancy in my otherwise conservative childhood was MAD Magazine. I honestly suspect my parents didn’t know that it wasn’t just another comic book. I read it—like I read everything—religiously, and I was fluent enough in the lingo to discuss it intelligently with my sixth-grade teacher, a fellow fan. Having made that admission, my reading of comic books was muted since we lived in a town with no literary aspirations or conveniences. There was no book store, or even magazine shop, let alone a public library. We were one of the towns Carnegie left behind. Still, I was draw to MAD contributor Arie Kaplan’s From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books. Over the past few years I’ve been reading academic treatments of comics as, with my beloved monsters, the high-brow academy has come to view low-brow as “culture.” (I learned the term “high-brow” from MAD, by the way.) As I grew into an Episcopalian, I tended to leave these markers of my shameful past behind, but now I’ve come once again to embrace them.

One of the odd things I’ve noticed about Jewish (and other “outsider”) analyses is just how deeply felt the anti-semitism of our culture is. This always strikes me as odd as, although it is hard to believe, I was raised to be non-prejudicial toward anyone else. (Poor folk are often that way; we know our place, beneath others.) I never felt superior to Jews, African Americans, or women. I was in awe of them. Maybe MAD helped. As Kaplan points out in his treatment, much of the comic industry was Jewish in origin because so many Jews were kept out of other businesses in New York. (Well, there is Diamond District, but let’s stick to publishing.) With few options, poor immigrant kids turned to cartoons. As a child in a humble household I often took out my frustrations by making my own comic books. I can understand the catharsis.

With the current glut of superhero movies, it may be hard to imagine a time when comic books and their denizens were considered utter foolishness. Now they’re big money. It’s not so much that the mighty have fallen than it is the humble have been exalted. I haven’t really read comic books since I was maybe fourteen. Up to that point, however, they got me through many a difficult time with the belief that there was someone out there watching over me. No superheroes ever delivered me from my troubles, but belief was sometimes all I needed. I can understand why those who are discriminated against would turn to this medium for release. Faith and fantasy share more than an opening syllable, for those with eyes to see.

Heroic Gestures

It seems like superheroes have been around forever. They are really, however, the product of comic books from the 1930s on. Adapting well to the big screen, a generation of kids is growing up that may have had their first taste of caped crusaders on the silver screen. I haven’t seen Batman V Superman, only the latest of a long string of the recent procession of such movies. Even so, the character of Superman—among the first superheroes—is less than a century old. Since the meme was conceived, however, it has mushroomed out into all kinds of outsiders offering deliverance. Superheroes are clearly about salvation. Even the anti-heroes. Otherwise they’re a hard lot to classify. Some have super powers. Others have only a lot of money and highly honed physical abilities. Or exceptional intelligence. The one thing they all offer is some kind of salvation. You might have to look for it, but it’s there.

Comic books in general, and superheroes in particular, have recently gained academic credibility. The ivory tower is often a location from which to look down on popular culture—the unwashed crowd—and seek more rarified topics of investigation. Superheroes, however, have proven resilient enough to this academic kryptonite to garner some attention. Comic books can be works of art. More than that, if a meme won’t let go, well, that itch should be telling us something. Sociologically, in a world of near constant uncertainty (who’d have guessed Trump would ever be where he is today?) superheroes seem to offer a stability that daily life lacks. Call it escapism, but what is salvation if not a form of escape? Let somebody else don the cowl and take care of the dangers we never even knew existed.

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Like many kids, I grew up making my own comic books. I invented a couple of superheroes that never found any adoring audiences, but the process taught me something. Looking back at those times in my life, they were periods of extreme crisis. My own superheroes were coping mechanisms. We couldn’t afford a lot of comic books, but once I started working, during junior high school, I started buying Doc Savage novels and consuming them like popcorn. I was trying to get through difficult times. I’ve seen editorials suggesting that the era of superhero movies is dwindling. I doubt that it is. They may eventually fade from the silver screen, but they will still lurk in the graphic novels and recesses of the internet. We need our heroes. We need deliverance.

The Good, Bad, and Human

VixensVampsVipwesMike Madrid may know more about women in comics than anyone else alive. I’ve commented about his Supergirls and Divas, Dames and Daredevils, and he’s now followed up his previous successes with Vixens, Vamps and Vipers: Lost Villainesses of Golden Age Comics, due out in October. Despite the lament of many a parent that comic books are a waste of time, Madrid demonstrates through a close reading, that some of the most basic issues of society are featured in graphic format. Psychologists have long known that people are visually oriented. We have to learn to read, but we’re born with the knowledge of how to look. Comics, therefore, appeal to the young reader, illustrating the action with exaggerated pictures to underscore the tale. Although the early heroes were generally male, Madrid showed in his previous two books that girls and women were also superheroes, but, as in real life, competing in a world constructed by men for men.

Vixens, Vamps and Vipers flips the coin to see the role played by villains less known than Catwoman (whom he discusses), and torn between the human impulses to succeed and to be good. In fact, the first few pages of the book offer a profound consideration of the terms “good” and “evil” as they apply to the comic book (i.e., the real) world. As Madrid points out: if there were no villains, we would have no need of such colorful heroes. At the same time, evolution has embedded a desire to protect females in the minds of most males—Poe knew that the death of a beautiful woman was the among the most moving of literary images. Still, as Vixens, Vamps and Vipers points out, some of the villains here considered are beautiful and the allure demonstrates that something much more complex is going on beneath the surface. Despite the image of the hero, all people, male and female, constantly struggle with the impulses to do good and evil.

One of the complexities that religions attempt to codify is human nature: are we born good or evil? Are we totally depraved or inclined to strive for divinity? Any honest assessment of humanity, it seems to me, must take into account that we constantly struggle. Total depravity is totally disproved by the many good impulses shown by those of religions outside Calvinism and Christianity, let alone the tendency of humanists and atheists to help others. In fact, in many circumstances good and evil are intricately intertwined. Madrid explores this conundrum with women put in difficult, if fictional, scenarios who must decide which impulse to follow. He’s honest about this. Some will become superheroes despite the hurdles the male champions put in their way, while others will follow the trail that leads to his latest exploration of humanity through illustrated story. Look for Vixens, Vamps and Vipers and enjoy, if secretly, learning something profound about human nature.

Frozen Few

It’s that time of year, neither winter nor spring, when ambivalence is in the air. Gray skies with just the first damp aromas of a change in the season, followed by another snow storm and icy winds custom-made in the arctic. So we turn to movies. Frozen is continuing to make headlines and break records. And although the critics voice strong opinions, ambivalence about a powerful message still rocks a society that can’t decide if a woman director having success is an anomaly or an idea far past its time. Stories about the animated feature crop up on the internet on a daily basis, five months after its theatrical release. Some claim it is the most Christian movie in years while others claim it has homosexual marriage at its core. The queen doesn’t need a man and the world’s most conservative, progressive society is in a muddle.

Perhaps I’m just showing my age, but I noticed what I thought was an older child in the sauna when Anna first meets Kristoff. The movie didn’t give me any clues as to his being a gay partner to the shopkeeper, although it’s none of my business if he is. Disney movies have had subtle clues to a kind of radical equality that I’ve noticed over the years, from Edgar’s license plate that reads RU-1 in The Aristocats to two masculine creatures sharing a pad in Monsters Inc. I even remember some people staring suspiciously at Ernie and Bert while the insanely ambiguous Teletubbies were faulted for carrying purses and dressing in primary colors. (Even Judas Iscariot kept a purse, according to the Bible.) A good, empowering story is suspect if we think something more is going on when the lights go out in cartoon-land. Our culture can seem to think of little else beyond mores and how to enforce them.

Globalization has repeatedly demonstrated that there are many different ways of being in the world. And yet, when worlds collide the more conservative culture inevitably makes claims on its more “progressive” neighbor. We see this happening as the church in Africa, now larger than the church in America, drives social policy through denominations that somehow feel guilt at promoting equality. Perhaps proselytization is, at the core, of our fear of difference. What if the other guy is right and we are wrong? Read that back into all our misguided ancestors and we feel chilled indeed. How far do we really trust objective truth? My guess is that ice ages have come and gone that have forged the truth of the moment. Only when the cold faces us do we really admit just how slippery truth might be.

The beauty of ice.

The beauty of ice.

Exegeting for Peanuts

Peanuts, the cartoon, is about as pure as the Bible itself. Like the Bible it is included in ritual, as in the annual viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas in our home. I grew up in the generation that eagerly awaited the special to be aired on television (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, ask your parents). When we were finally feeling affluent we purchased the DVD to continue the tradition with our daughter. Last night as we watched, however, it struck me that, like the Bible, many variant traditions are present in A Charlie Brown Christmas. I began to suspect a kind of documentary hypothesis. The program begins with Charlie Brown, in his house, wearing his famous yellow zigzag shirt and black shorts, getting ready to go outside. This must be the oldest tradition since wearing shorts in the winter is the lectio difficilior, or the more difficult reading—any good Bible scholar knows the more difficult text is most likely to be the original because later scribes try to make the story make sense. I’ll call this Urtext C. The crisis is evident because as Charlie Brown pulls on his coat to go outdoors, he is wearing shorts. He steps outside in the next scene wearing long pants. This represents a harmonization by a scribe uncomfortable with a child on a snowy day outdoors in shorts—a simple scribal correction. This source, designated H for long pants (lange Hosen in German), subsequently appropriates the script since Charlie Brown is not shown wearing shorts again.

When Charlie Brown consults with his psychiatrist, Lucy van Pelt, however, the real evidence emerges. Lucy’s sign on the front of her stand originally reads “The doctor is out,” each of the first three words occupying its own line. When Lucy spies Charlie Brown she runs over and switches the “out” sign to one that reads “real in,” representing the story line of H. When the tight shot to emphasize “real in” closes on the desk, however, “The doctor is” has now come to occupy two lines instead of three, “The doctor” sharing the top register, and ‘Is” on the line with the new status of the analyst. This is the work of S, the Schilderhersteller, or Sign Maker. A further variant tradition appears in the shot of the two characters talking since “The doctor is real in” once again occupies three lines. Either H is reasserting itself or D, the Deutero-Schilderhersteller has tampered with the text. When the desk is then shown with epigraph “The doctor is in” on three lines, we are clearly dealing with a redactor with literalist tendencies, L, or perhaps this is C, our Urtext, having been further elaborated as “real in” by S, for obviously theological reasons.

The composite nature of the script is even more evident with the Christmas tree. When purchased by Charlie Brown and Linus, the tree has three branches, obviously a reference to the Trinity, so a later addition. It is easier to explain branches taken off a tree than a dead plant growing new ones. In the auditorium, however, the tree has five branches. In the next scene, six. When Linus gives his hortatory address, the tree is shown with four branches. Then in the following scene, seven. When Charlie Brown attaches an ornament, the tree again has five branches (an obvious nod to the Pentateuch), but when the children decorate it, it has transformed into a full tree on which it is impossible to count the number of branches. This will take a more adept scholar than me to unravel. I’ve lost track of the Urtext. Could a university-employed academic help me out here?

If any of this sounds far-fetched to you, remember that Charles M. Schulz bore a German name. Like Moses, he gave us the original text, and like Graf and Wellhausen, he forever changed the way we viewed the faith tradition. It is my hope that you enjoy the holiday season. I’m going to be too busy trying to piece together the corrupt tradition of that miraculous tree.

Final, canonical form.

Final, canonical form.

Super Women

DivasDamesDaredevilsDivas, Dames and Daredevils: Lost Heroines of Gold Age Comics, by Mike Madrid, is a stroll down a memory lane that many of us never previously walked. My imagination is such that I no longer read comic books, but as a child they provided a cheap escape from a reality that didn’t feel so different from the crime-infested world that superheroes inhabited. For young boys reading these stories the absence of women was normal—there were some things of which Mom didn’t approve, and that was because she just didn’t understand. Boys will be boys. Still, Mike Madrid has ably demonstrated a secret knowledge that the 1950s would deem arcane—female characters once held a position nearly equal to that of men in the world of comics. Prior to Comics Code Authority in 1954, the women who helped win the Second World War were portrayed as tough, independent, and in charge (to an extent) of their own destinies. In the conservative backlash of the ‘50s, however, women were diminished, relegated to the home and domestic life. Comic books presented them as secondary to men. That myth has proven pernicious, even now, six decades later.

One of the perks of blogging is having someone you’ve written about contact you. Mike Madrid has been the subject of a previous post for his book The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heriones. Madrid’s agent kindly sent me an advance proof of Divas, Dames and Daredevils, and I was once again struck by the historical scope of knowledge that these books present. Academics are—let me correct that—some academics are becoming aware of the fact that popular culture defines reality for many people. We find our troth in those who live on the big screen or on the pulp paper, those who rise above the constant threats of an uncaring world. We’ve seen that business can be its own evil empire, and superheroes, and everyday people, do have it within their power to act. Madrid shows that we were well on our way to equality of the sexes when the haircut and horn-rim crowd of the clean-cut 1950s insisted a return to Stone Age ethics in the treatment of women was appropriate.

In keeping with the general theme of this blog, the book has a chapter on the goddesses who became heroes. We all know Thor, but what of the forgotten Fantomah, Amazona, Marga the Panther Woman, Wildfire, Diana the Huntress, or Maureen Marine? Madrid’s book presents a story from several of the animated heroines of the days before censorship tamed the feminine mystique. More than that, he clearly shows how women—even ordinary women—were once deemed incredible and awe-inspiring. Then the titanium gate of male inferiority complexes and the vaunted “old ways” crashed down, trapping us all in a world fit to be ruled by men alone. I congratulate Madrid for resurrecting so many forgotten figures who never had a chance to become cultural icons. All women are heroes, and I know there is a hero that I miss very much, although even Mike Madrid didn’t mention her in his wonderful book.