RYAN STANDFEST Black Humor And The American Comic by ryan standfest
Black Humor And The American Comic
by ryan standfest

(Published in FUNNY/not funny | Rotland Press | 2010)

A Definition of Black Humor

The original use of the term “black humor” referred to a black bile produced by the brain that was believed to be the cause of melancholia, as suggested by the arcane medical theory of the “four humors” prior to the 19th century. It was in 1939, in the book Anthologie de l’humour noir, that Surrealist founder André Breton repurposed the term and applied it as a label for the identification of a temperament present in the work of forty-five mostly European authors, thereby launching Black Humor as a literary attitude. In part, Breton defined this attitude using an essay written by Sigmund Freud, Der Humor (1927), in which Freud writes “The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure.”

American comedy in the mid to late 1950’s was developing along the lines of what was called Sick Humor, in which comedians joked about the difficulty of fitting into the social environment of the day. This form of humor rooted in suffering naturally lent itself to an even darker sensibility, which began to manifest itself in American literature in the early 1960’s. Critics eager to define this emerging form of transgression resurrected the label “black humor.” By 1965, the term was firmly entrenched in the lexicon of popular American culture, thanks in part to the anthology titled Black Humor, edited by Bruce Jay Friedman, the work of authors such as Terry Southern, Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut, jr., and films including Dr. Strangelove (1964) and The Loved One (1965). On the heels of this American revival of Black Humor, it was not surprisingly that Breton’s earlier anthology was revised and republished in 1966.
But what is the attitude behind Black Humor? There is some debate as to whether the parameters are clear enough to make it a genre, and indeed when one attempts a definition, the very contrary nature of Black Humor itself tends to muddy categorization. Wes D. Gehring, in his 1996 study of Black Humor in American film— American Dark Comedy: Beyond Satire— identifies three core interrelated themes that seem to recur: “man as beast, the absurdity of the world, and the omnipresence of death.” As it is manifested in popular American examples of literature, cinema and stand-up comedy, Black Humor is a form of expressive revolt that, unlike Sick Humor, speaks to the ills of the world rather than just that of the “sick” individual. It is considered black for a reason. Its very blackness, the result of an ironic negation, in fact makes it a form of anti-comedy. That is, it takes as its raw material subjects and situations that are often considered taboo and fundamentally not funny and by achieving a certain distance, recasts that material as something funny. However there remains a tension, an uncomfortable air surrounding Black Humor, due to the oppositional forces at work within it, each slightly negating the other. It is this very tension that makes Black Comedy a form of cultural terrorism—the inherent danger becomes a strategy for comic provocation. If there is an intended use for such provocation, then it is to liberate an audience unaccustomed to this type of untethered spirit-- the provision of a bracing experience to realign one’s engagement with the world.

Black Humor holds nothing sacred as it skewers convention, looks beyond and through racial and gender identity, and mocks sexuality and death. With non-conformist zeal, it does not strive for respectability, nor does it respect the values of its audience. In fact, Black Humor is not concerned with the moral quality of society and instead aims to deconstruct moral certitude. It avoids staking out a specific intellectual position, and embraces the juvenile in order to goad the conservatively-minded toward a natural state of hollow outrage and shock, and to trip up the liberal-minded with a refusal to address social reconciliation.

When American society convulses, Black Humorists respond. The postwar desire to aggressively shape a singular middle class “American Dream” eventually resulted in a new brand of comic subversion in the mid to late 1950’s. It was then the threat of “the bomb,” the escalation of the Vietnam War and the explosion of social unrest in the U.S. that fueled the aforementioned revival of Black Humor in the 1960’s. This period is often viewed as a “golden age” of Black Humor that casts it as a particularly American form of outrage. For although it may be characterized as fatally absurd, Black Humor is at its heart sustained by a fundamental American optimism that deplores the institutional dissolution of an individual’s rights, thereby becoming a potent gesture signaling intellectual independence.

A Brief History of Black Humor as Manifested in American Comic Art

Black Humor has been defined primarily as a literary conceit with the occasional nod to stand-up comedy and cinema. However, rarely has there been a comprehensive attempt to locate its presence in the visual arts, nor in the popular culture medium of comics. Although there is an undercurrent of Black Humor throughout the history of editorial cartoons in America, these works do not fully embrace its attitude. American artists such as Thomas Nast, Joseph Keppler, Art Young (of note is his series of cartoons depicting hell on earth) and Jack Levine, followed European satirical traditions and often used grotesque caricature and images of violence as a means to address dire social circumstances, but with a specificity of intent that adhered to topicality in a way that Black Humor does not.

American comic art has gone through phases in which the presence of Black Humor has been more or less pronounced at certain points on the cultural timeline. Although there are antecedents to be found in the work of Al Capp, Charles Addams and Abner Dean, it wasn’t until 1950 that publisher William M. Gaines’ E.C. comics threw open the doors to Black Humor in its horror line-up and set the tone for other pre-Comics Code Authority horror publications. That is until Congressional hearings in 1954 focused on the presumed harmful effects that such comics may have on children, and led to the end of these supposedly mayhem-inducing titles. At E.C., artist and editor Harvey Kurtzman concocted a new blend of satire laced with the occasional dose of Black Humor in the influential Mad comic book (1952-1955; magazine: 1955-present), a tone which also surfaced in Panic (1954-1956), E.C.’s own aggressive Mad knockoff edited by Al Feldstein. This American variety of Juvenalian satire and Black Humor continued in measured doses throughout the Kurtzman productions Trump (1957), Humbug (1957-1958) and Help! (1962-1966), as well as existing with greater stringency in the cartoons found in Paul Krassner’s magazine The Realist (1958-2001), most notably with its Disneyland Memorial Orgy by Wallace Wood. The work of Black Humorist Gahan Wilson, began to appear in Playboy magazine in 1957. It should not be overlooked that Playboy was first published in 1953, on the heels of Mad, when a need to dismantle the rigid push for the conformist Postwar “American Dream” was beginning to fill the air. Wilson was clearly at home with Hugh Hefner and Playboy in their shared strategy to upset the establishment. The old E.C method of fusing humor with horror appeared again in 1962 when Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. introduced the trading card series Mars Attacks! With a renewed assault on all-American values through the tongue-in-cheek depiction of sex and gross-out violence, parents and communities were outraged until the threatened action of a Connecticut Attorney General brought an end to the series. Not only should these cards be considered an example of American Black Humor in comics—the 55 cards are after all a sequential visual narrative, but a similar commitment to this vein of humor resurfaced in Topps’ production of the Wacky Packages (1967), Garbage Pail Kids (1985) and Toxic High (1991) series, shaped respectively by cartoonists trafficking in Black Humor such as Art Spiegelman, Mark Newgarden and Drew Friedman. The last vestiges of the horror sub category of Black Humor, was also given a home in comic magazines published by James Warren, publisher of Kurtzman’s Help!, with the titles Creepy (1964), Eerie (1966) and Vampirella (1969). As with the earlier E.C. horror titles, these later entries pushed the envelope with regard to sex and violence often laced with humor. This was aided by Warren’s decision to publish his comics in a magazine format, so as to sidestep any possible censorship imposed by the Comics Code Authority. For most of the history of Black Humor in the comics medium, there have rarely been publications running it from cover to cover. Rather, it has taken the form of strips and gags, or individual stories collected within publications that have varied content, so far as humor goes. However, a new era of Black Humor comics was ushered in with the advent of underground comix in 1968, led by Robert Crumb and Zap Comix, in which the page count for such caustic provocation had greatly increased. The roots of this later phase of Black Humor comics, continuing to this day, have less to do with pulpy genre-bound material and emerge instead as the offspring of Sick Humor, the Kurtzman satires and the Black Humor literary trends of the 1960’s. Around this time there also appeared a satire of the comic book adventure genre, steeped in Black Humor— The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-geist. Written by Michael O'Donoghue and drawn by Frank Springer, it was originally serialized in The Evergreen Review beginning in 1964, before being published by Grove Press in 1968 in book form. O’Donoghue (head writer on Saturday Night Live from 1975-1978) would later inject his highly toxic brand of Black Humor into the comedy magazine The National Lampoon (1971-1998), which also heralded cartoons in this vein. Notable comic anthologies that continued to host Black Humor, included Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith’s Arcade (1975-1976), Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s Raw (1980-1991) and Robert Crumb, Peter Bagge and Aline-Kominsky Crumb’s Weirdo (1981-1993). These three publications served as a bridge from the American underground comix era to that of the American alternative comics of the present, which continues to be an increasingly active territory for an engagement with Black Humor.

Notes on the Formal Relationship Between Black Humor and the Medium of Comics

What are the unique formal attributes of cartooning that welcomes the use of Black Humor, when compared to its usage in other media? The medium of comics first and foremost provides a visual reading space dependent upon sequencing. The interstice that exists between the text and the image creates a pause in the reading that is not unlike the pause a standup comic utilizes prior to delivering a punchline. If there is an absence of text, the same can hold true when reading an image that occurs earlier in a sequence and then passing through the space that exists between it and the image that follows. Such a break in the reading rhythm can be manipulated to emphasize a humorous effect as that little “breath” in time works wonders in constructing a scaffold from which to hang the joke. It all boils down to the timing. There is real humor to be found in that delay. This certainly addresses the reason as to why the medium should never be confused with that of illustration, as it concerns a symbiotic, time-based relationship between sequenced fragments of information, be they text + image or image + image, rather than one element being subservient to the other.

The preferred delivery vehicle for many Black Humor cartoonists (see: Charles Addams, Abner Dean, Gahan Wilson, Gary Larson and Ivan Brunetti), is that of the gag cartoon—a single panel image with an accompanying caption. The standard gag cartoon is intended to elicit a simple quick laugh. The Black Humor gag cartoon leaves a bad taste that lingers. Its quick and effective form of delivery is deceptive, as it insinuates itself into the viewer’s gut, long after the punchline has been delivered. The reason for this, is that traditionally the gag panel presents a one-way arc in which the image is the set-up for the joke, and the caption releases the joke, forever altering the meaning of the image in one quick move. The same holds true for the Black Humor gag panel, however the “gag reflex” results from a greater than usual tension between the text and the image. More often than not, the text of the Black Humor caption is barbed with the power of language that resides with “hot-button” words or phrases meant to provoke. One is reminded here of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words, with the ability of language to disturb the peace regardless of context.

Additional consideration should be given to the manner in which economics determines form. When examining the history of Black Humor as it surfaces in the medium of comics, it becomes clear that such a relationship is based in part on the low-cost production and distribution opportunities provided by popular, underground and alternative comics. Since by its very nature Black Humor is a transgressive form of expression, it is worth noting that it is common for such work to be introduced into the culture at a lower cost—born of necessity rather than luxury. As is often the case when the disaffected are motivated to respond to social conditions, the cheapest and most accessible means of getting that response into the public is creatively employed. The comics medium has long been a home to the do-it-yourself approach, which carries with it the ability to work outside of mainstream values, free from so many of the restrictions on content placed over more popular art forms. Black Humor is therefore allowed to continually flourish without being neutralized by the marketplace. It is because of this, that the Internet and alternative comics are currently the guerrilla forms of choice to address contemporary existential crisis through the use of Black Humor. This is a democratic means not only for artists and authors, but for the economically challenged audience as well, who would be more inclined to visit a blog or purchase a comic book or zine rather than pursue the high-priced art object. The comics form follows economic function and the medium itself carries with it the opportunity for transgression, as alternative comics publishing demonstrates that we are experiencing an upsurge in the presence of Black Humor in comics.

-Breton, André. Anthology of Black Humor. Trans. Mark Polizzotti. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997.
-Davis, Douglas M. The World of Black Humor: An Introductory Anthology of Selections and Criticisms. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1967.
-Friedman, Bruce Jay, ed. Black Humor. New York: Bantam Books, Inc, 1965.
-Gehring, Wes D. American Dark Comedy: Beyond Satire. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.
-Schulz, Max F. Black Humor Fiction of the Sixties: A Pluralistic Definition of Man and His World. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1973.
-Shikes, Ralph E. The Indignant Eye: The Artist as Social Critic in Prints and Drawings from the 15th Century to Picasso. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.
-Winston, Mathew. “Humoir Noir and Black Humor.” In Veins of Humor, 269-284. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972