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To countless children who grew up in the age of the newspaper, the Sunday comics constituted a sacred space. Even though people kind of sell comics short—they aren’t really given much weight either on the pop-culture playing field or in the curated realm of what one might call high art—the medium has demonstrated a remarkable and singular expressiveness as a popular form. Specifically, comics are uniquely capable of mixing both highbrow and lowbrow themes through their mix of often-whimsical illustration and text. Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” put the words of philosophers into the mouth of an irreverent, precocious six-year-old. Charles Schulz’s “Charlie Brown” was as much a chronicle of a round-headed, yellow-shirted, continual existential crisis as it was a fun-loving story about an average boy. For almost as long as they have existed, comics have concerned themselves with mashing together aesthetics associated with high and low culture, thus exposing those cultures as in many ways equivalent. Who’s to say Charlie Brown’s anguish is any less deep than that of Jay Gatsby? Who’s to say a green glob’s “To be, or not to be” is any less compelling than a performance by Richard Burbage?
As print media moved towards the digital world, though, the status of comics was inherently threatened. Without the widely syndicated platform of a newspaper comics page, how could comics maintain the same mode of cultural commentary in such a broadly accessible way? Beyond the obvious counter that the internet is the most broadly accessible thing in human history, how could a comic on the web attract a new, sufficiently large audience in order to have the same kind of subversive influence? The past decade of webcomics has revealed some surprising new conduits for the medium, which has discovered a byway in one of internet pop culture’s most powerful nascent forms: the meme.
At their core, memes are an important addition to the comic medium: They rely largely on the interplay between a pictorial and textual narrative for their meaning. Memes have a broad range of concerns; in the last week, I’ve come into contact with memes trying to convince me to vote for Bernie Sanders, forswearing the internet for the day, and celebrating the aesthetics of a ’90s Dixie cup. While memes, like comics, travel along avenues considered typically lowbrow, their concerns are anything but mundane.
Illustrated webcomics, like Kate Beaton’s “Hark! A Vagrant” and Ryan North’s “Dinosaur Comics,” have ridden the cultural meme-wave to breathe fresh life into the subversive mixture of registers for which comics have always stood. Beaton is most famous for a comic that has become a meme in itself, in which Tom Buchanan tells an indignant Jay Gatsby that his money is “old as balls.” The comic has given birth to numerous reworks, some by Beaton herself, and subtly entered the internet lexicon. North’s comics function most closely to image macro memes, where text is superimposed on a pre-existing image: Each comic has the same six panels, depicting three different dinosaurs in various poses. They’re the kind of illustrations that might be found on a children’s website about archaeology. North uses the constraints of his form, though, to address lofty subjects in the text of his comics, reaching as far as the many-worlds hypothesis and the intersection between human psychology and the failure of language. In fact, the mundane form that North chooses practically forces the subject matter of his comics to be interesting and nuanced; if they weren’t, the comic would be simplistic and boring. Superimposed text is easy to dismiss as a lazy form of commentary, but North uses it for the exact opposite end. North’s technique points towards the truth that the difference between highbrow and lowbrow is a myth; all forms of expression are merely tools, and a certain outward form or manner does not predict anything about a work’s content.
This subversion of the lowbrow/highbrow divide has stakes that reach far beyond simple aesthetics. Much of Beaton’s work concerns itself with undermining the dignity of historical or literary figures typically considered to be respectable. This seems a simple and somewhat inconsequential gesture until Beaton makes clear that the acceptance of that respectability denotes an ignorance of marginalized stories. Beaton gives delightful life to the less-heard-from figures in mainstream history and literature: She gives a voice to the prostitutes that Joan of Arc scorned; she pokes fun at the male savior complex behind Dirty Dancing’s “nobody puts baby in a corner”; she gives respect where it’s due to geneticist pioneer Rosalind Franklin and to women in science in general; and she lampoons the sexualization of female martyrs like the tragic Saint Cecilia. Breaking down the myth of things highbrow doesn’t just have to do with what gets put in museums. It has to do with empowering disenfranchised voices.
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