A European or American Phenomenon - Sample Essay

In the 1990s, sociologists looking back on the process of globalization, considered whether and if, in how far, a particular nation state could have a leading role in the homogenization of culture. While many scientists, like Featherstone or Smith (cf. Ritzer, 1998, pp. 82-83) deny the dominant role of any nation-state in exporting cultural values, Ritzer and Dezelay argue that “fast-food restaurants and credit cards are beginning to flood the globe, and to bring with them the Americanization of local cultures” (Ritzer, 1998, p. 84).

This view is based on Ritzer’s earlier concept of “McDonaldization” which he consideres “the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as of the rest of the world” (Ritzer, 1993, p. 1). Since Ritzer emphasizes that ‘McDonaldization’ aims to the spread of the “means of consumption” (Ritzer, 1998, p. 83) and not to that of certain products, it becomes interesting to examine in how far this concept is applicable to single sectors of popular culture.

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In this context we focus on comics and we will try to find out if this branch is a truly American phenomenon, or if this can be disproved by discussing the existence of equivalent cultural developments in Europe. It is of central interest to discover mutual influences and probable existant peculiarities of the American or European comic culture. We will focus on initial trends, and developments against the background of the Second World War and the postwar years, in order to show why the United States dominate the European comic market and how nevertheless typical European comics remained important.

The European comic was influenced until the beginning of the twentieth century by the “form … Rodolphe T�pffer gave his fanciful picture stories about Monsieur Cryptogame or Monsieur Jacob”1 (Fuchs, 1972, p. 220). The Americans revived the trend originating from Europe and developed the comic strip. In 1895 the first coloured newspaper comic strip appeared in America. Richard Outcault’s The Yellow Kid2 in Pulitzer’s metropolitan New York World (cf. Encarta, 2004) was vastly appreciated by the readers so that other newspapers picked up the idea and fostered the publication of the comic strip in American newspapers.

At the same time, in Europe, comic strips were still “restricted to pictures with accompanying texts, which were only published in children’s magazines” (Fuchs, 1972, p. 220) . This was due to the fact that Europeans at the beginning of the twentieth century falsely regarded comics as a media restricted to children readership. In 1908, for example, a series called Les Pieds Nickel�s from the French drawer Louis Forton was published in a children’s magazine, “although the political hints in it were rather addressed at adults” (Fuchs, 1972, p. 220). American comics, though, were, especially through their publication in daily newspapers, mainly addressed to adults.

The developments in the United States were even great enough to influence international comic artists who adopted the American newspaper model and published comic strips first on a weekly and later on a daily base (cf. Lefvre and Dierick, 1998, pp. 16/17). It is interesting to note for instance that the technique of using baloons was originally European, since it existed already in the Middle Ages and was used in “English caricatures at the end of the eighteenth century” (Sackmann, 1998). But only the American drawers started to implement this technique intensively in the 1920s, since according to Sackmann these American artists were influenced by a “mixture of artistic unconcern and the pressure to produce something sensational and new” (Sackmann, 1998).

Thus as early as in the 1920s this technique, which became one of the most decisive features of the comic strip, was regarded as an “American way of narrating comics” (Fuchs, 1972, p. 225) i.e. by the French comic drawers Saint-Organ and Georges Remi. Some researchers and critics go even further and accuse American comic weeklies to be in “the habit of borrowing freely, plagiarizing … from England … Germany and France” (Lef�vre and Dierick, 1998, p. 159). An example for this ‘theft’ might have been the American comic The Katzenjammer Kids of 1897 from Rudolph Dirks3, which was based on Wilhelm Busch’s Max und Moritz, and originated from William R. Hearst’s enthusiasm for Busch’s art (Lef�vre and Dierick, 1998, p. 16).

After the great success of the newspaper comic strip in the early twentieth century, the first publication of a comic book followed in 1933 with an edition of a regular Sunday newspaper strip titled Funnies on Parade (cf. Benton, 1989, p. 15). More ‘Funnies’ followed and in the late 1930s the first Superman-comic appeared, introducing the age of the superhero-comic. In contrast to this we can observe that there did not evolve an immense or overwhelming European comic production in the 1920s which would be equivalent i.e. to the Disney or superhero comics in the United States.

Of course, there are popular European comics like the French Asterix or Tintin and the Belgian Smurfs with their distinctive characters. But since the beginning of the twentieth century until today a large number of comics sold in Europe are imports from the United States. One explanation for this might be again the fact that Europeans regarded comics as children’s literature. Thus, also European comics targeted to adults were published only in children’s magazines and therefore publication brought with it delays and costly censoring (cf. Fuchs, 1972, p. 224). This procedure had the effect that “a series manufactured in a home country was seven times more expensive than an imported one” (Fuchs, 1972, p. 224).

Finally, the Second World War caused drastic differences between American and European comic culture. On the one hand, the war brought an end to the trend of the 1920s, when numerous comic series in Europe broke with the tradition of text written under the pictures (cf. Fuchs, 1972, p. 225), starting to use speechballoons, based on the American model. The main reason for this stop in producing modern comics was the prevailing scarcity of raw materials, like paper, the war brought (cf. Fuchs, 1972, pp. 225/6). Thus, in the 1950s, Europe had to rely on American comic imports because obviously Europe lagged two decades behind the American development.

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