I’m really enjoying Christina Meyer’s Producing Mass Entertainment (2019), a study of the Yellow Kid comics (1895-1898). Two items caught my eye while reading.
First, Meyer meticulously documents how legal circumstances–comic artist Richard Outcault’s failure to copyright Yellow Kid–led to two versions of the Yellow Kid comics for about a year, one in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal (Outcault’s version) (fig. 1) and one in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World (George Luks’s version) (fig 2).
This disputed rights situation reminds me of the Karl May film series produced in West Germany in the 1960s, where a copyright expiration led to two (intersecting!) continuities by rival firms Rialto Film and CCC Film. (I’ve been reviewing the intricate rights situation and storytelling of the 17-film series on my Letterboxd page: here, here, and here.)
Second, Meyer does a wonderful job describing the storytelling of the comics. In fact, the book is a model of close analysis of comic storytelling. Meyer argues that Luks’s Yellow Kid, while often dismissed as inferior to Outcault’s, is highly sophisticated in its continuity-building, relying on the reader’s memories of recurring secondary characters to craft links between installments (between weekly comic-tableaux)–and thus to insert each installment into a continuing narrative.
I suppose my one criticism is that the overall picture of the long-form storytelling of the Luks version remains just a tad murky. He seems to have explored a mixed long-form mode, a combination of plot closure (i.e., the comic cues the reader to construct self-contained fabulas or stories, one for each installment) and plot continuity (i.e., the comic simultaneously cues the reader to construct linked fabulas, with a causal chain of events tying together installments). TV scholar Horace Newcomb calls this a cumulative format (which is midway between episodic and serial forms). I’ve posted about cumulative storytelling before: here and here.
But how often does Luks depend on plot-continuity techniques? Do they appear in half or most or just a few of the comic-tableaux? Is plot closure a more common strategy for Luks? Is continuity thus a flaunted or suppressed aspect of his storytelling?
Also, what kinds of plot-continuity strategies does Luks depend upon? Meyer distinguishes (on page 101) between three types of serial “reading practice” elicited by the comics: 1) intraserial, 2) interserial and 3) transserial (page 101). The Luks Yellow Kid comics clearly offer a rather complex narrative experience. But the specific storytelling devices employed to invite these ways of reading aren’t really named or catalogued, so we don’t form a sense of how Luks’s technique for binding discrete comic-tableaux evolved over time.
The problem, I’ve come to realize, is that historians of film, comics, TV and other serial media lack a fully developed poetics of long-form narration. Without it, we don’t have a common language for describing plot-binding effects across series (beyond the cliffhanger, of course).
This not only makes it difficult to trace how artists develop across their bodies of work. It makes it difficult to do truly ground-clearing comparative analysis in media studies.
The question arises, for instance, as to whether Luks borrowed his long-form storytelling techniques from other artists (in comics and maybe even serial literature) or whether he innovated new ones.
These observations are a testament to the rigor and precision of Meyer’s book. Like a good serial storyteller, Meyer leaves us wanting more! Perhaps more to the point, as a great scholar, her work encourages others to refine their research questions.
In fact, I’ve ordered a reprint of the Yellow Kid comics and intend to blog about their storytelling techniques when it comes in.
To be continued…