John Updike on Comics: a dream anthology

John Updike, as seen by David Levine in 1978.

Years ago while doing some research at Boston University on the papers of the cartoonist Harold Gray, the creator of the Little Orphan Annie, I came across a fan letter that was unusually eloquent. When I looked at the name of the bottom right hand corner of the type-written page it all became clear: it was a missive sent in 1948 by John Updike, then an aspiring cartoonist, when he was 15 years old.  As I got to know Updike’s writing I started to realize that the letter was a simply one thread in a large and comfy biographical quilt. Like almost all American kids of his generation, Updike consumed comics even before he could read, so they were intertwined with his earliest experiences of art. Cartooning appealed to him as a potential vocation and he composed his first fledgling fan letters around 1942, when he was ten. After Updike settled on a literary career, he often returned to comics as a way of giving visual and mnemonic potency to his prose. His most recent writing on cartooning was his review earlier this year in The New Yorker of a much-disputed Charles Schulz biography. (For more on Updike and comics, see the articles I’ve written for the Boston Globe and the Guardian).  

I’ve long dreamed that some enterprising publisher (Alfred A. Knopf, are you listening?) would gather together all of Updike’s stray comments on comics, incidental and fugitive writings that extend for more than six decades. You could easily make a nice compact chrestomathy entitled Updike on Comics. In lieu of this bookish fantasy, I’ve put together a mini-anthology below. It is very partial. Instead of taking from some of the longer essays (like the well-researched portrait of cartoonist Ralph Barton found in Updike’s first book of art criticism, Just Looking), I’ve aimed to bring together some of the more obscure and wayward remarks that often appeared as marginal asides in novels or memoirs. The idea is to show how comics pop up in Updike’s head even when his mind is elsewhere. 

Updike on Comics: A mini-anthology 

Earliest memories. “I can’t remember the moment when I fell in love with cartoons, I was so young. I still have a Donald Duck book, on oilclothy paper in big print format, and remember a smaller, cardboard-covered book based on the animated cartoon Three Little Pigs. It was the intense stylization of those images, with their finely brushed outlines and their rounded and buttony furniture and their faces so curiously amalgamated of human and animal elements, that drew me in, into a world where I, child though I was, loomed as a king, and where my parents and other grownups were strangers.” From an essay in Hogan’s Alley, reprinted in More Matter (1999). 

On Little Orphan Annie: “Your draughtsmanship is beyond reproach. Your drawing is simple and clear, but extremely effective. You could tell just by looking at the faces who is the trouble maker and who isn’t, without any dialogue. The facial features, the big, blunt fingered hands, the way you handle light and shadows are all excellently done. Even the talk balloons are good, the lettering small and clean, the margins wide, and the connection between the speaker and his remark wiggles a little, all of which, to my eye, is as artistic as you can get.” From a 1948 fan letter. 

On Captain Marvel. A scene from the early 1940s, with two kids reading a comic book: “Captain Marvel was fighting some bald scientist who was within a whisker of having the secret that would permit him to rule the universe, along with the Axis powers. One panel showed him talking to Hitler over the phone, with electric zigzags leaping around the curve of the earth.” From In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996). 

Apartment 3-G.

On soap opera comics trip Apartment 3G. Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is reading the newspaper want ads: “He skips down through Insurance Agents and Programmers to a column of Salesmen and then turns to the funnies. Goddam Apartment 3G: he feels he’s been living with those girls for years now, when is he going to see them with their clothes off? The artist keeps teasing him with bare shoulders in bathrooms, naked legs in foreground with the crotch coming just at the panel edge, glimpses of bra straps being undone.” From Rabbit Redux (1971). 

On the Spider-man comic strips: “Or was it simply that I was walking back to enjoy the [Boston] Globe’s sports headlines, Arts Section, and Spider Man (the only one of the “funnies” I still follow, as he juggles his tingling “spider-sense,” his improbable double career as a student and professional photographer, and now his marriage to the voluptuous Mary Jane), while I consumed my invariable breakfast of Erewhon New England Style Honey Almond Granola and orange juice?” From the memoir Self-Consciousness (1989).

On Mickey Mouse. “His ears are two black circles, no matter the angle at which he holds his head. Three-dimensional images of Mickey Mouse – toy dolls, or the papier-mache heads the grotesque Disneyland Mickeys wear – make us uneasy, since the ears inevitably exist edgewise as well as frontally. These ears properly belong not to three-dimensional space but to an ideal realm of notation, of symbolization, of cartoon resilience and indestructibility. In drawings, when Mickey is in profile, one ear is at the back of his head like a spherical ponytail, or like a secondary bubble in a computer-generated Mandelbrot set. We accept it, as we accepted Li’l Abner’s hair always being parted on the side facing the viewer. A surreal optical consistency is part of the cartoon world, halfway between our world and that of pure signs, of alphabets and trademarks.” From the introduction to The Art of Mickey Mouse (1993), edited by Craig Yoe and Janet Morra-Yoe, reprinted in More Matter 

On David Levine’s caricatures for the New York Review of Books. “Levine, instead, flung himself in a fury of crosshatching upon his subject. His style looked past Beerbohm to the three-dimensional grotesques of Daumier and Tenniel. No weary pucker or complacent bulge of physiognomy could slip through the supple net of his penstrokes, and every corner of the face – that vulnerable patch between the eyebrows, the unseemly area behind the chin, the mute folds of the ears – was brought into a focus were keenness transcended the mild demands of ‘humor’. On the gray expanses of the NYRB pages his etched homunculi seemed astoundingly there; one wanted to pick them up and put them on the shelf. Now, in the form of this book, one can.’” From the introduction to David Levine’s Pens and Needles: a collection of literary caricatures (1969), reprinted in Picked-Up Pieces (1975).  

Samuel Beckett as potrayed by David Levine in 1967.

On Levine’s caricatures of Samuel Beckett. “Of the three Becketts, the smallest and earliest has the innocence of wit; it puns the man with buzzard. The simile is absorbed and heightened in the alarming metaphor of the profile, with its drastically eroded cheek, its delirious pinpoint eye, its incredible chapping-knife of an ear. And the lava contours and volcanic turtle-neck of the third drawing seem gouged from chaos and quite intimidate any thought of satire.” From the same source as above.   

On Saul Steinberg. “Like Nabokov and Milos Forman, to name just two other affectionate adult immigrants, Steinberg saw America afresh, with details to which natives had grown blind or numb. America parades, American cowboys, American mountains of Art Deco, New York taxis in their screaming, bulbous décor, the quaint gingerbread pomp of suburban mansions and railroad stations – these visual events were mixed, not so paradoxically, with the emblems of intended Utopia, the Latinate slogans involving Lex and Lux and Pax and Tax and Vox Populi, the Statue of Liberty enjoying her deadpan marriage with Uncle Sam, the practical partnership of S. Freud and S. Claus.” From an obituary in the New York Review of Books (February 24, 1999) which I think is reprinted in the new book Due Considerations (2007). 

15 thoughts on “John Updike on Comics: a dream anthology

  1. Hi Jeet,
    I’ve written extensively about Updike. Youmight enjoy looking at my entries on “Cartooning” and “Comedy” in my “John Updike Encyclopedia” (Greenwood, 2000), pp. 92-93; 114-17.

    Also check out the bibliography attached to “Cartooning.”

    I was sorry to see I’d missed your articles on Updike when I compiled (with my co-author Michael Broomfield) a bibliography on Updike to be published this month by oak Knoll press.

    Please provide me with the titles, place of publication, dates and page numbers of your pieces on Updike. I would be happy to include them in the Supplement to our book.



  2. I’m going to use this space to keep a running list of other Updike on comics references:

    From the tale “A Desert Encounter,” The New Yorker, October 20, 2008: “The encounter, when all was said and one, had been no stranger than those in ‘Krazy Kat,’ which had given me my first idea of the American desert.”

  3. And here is a letter that Updike wrote to the Boston Globe about Spiderman in 1994:

    Thursday, October 27, 1994
    I can’t believe that you’re cutting “Spiderman” — the only comic strip in the Globe, except for “Doonesbury” half the time, worth reading. Do think again in making way for what sounds like one more jejune set of unfunny panels pitched at the nonexistent (or at least nonreading) X-generation.
    And what ever happened to “Mac Divot” — the most helpful set of golf tips I ever read?
    Beverly Farms

  4. From the story “Bech in Rumania” (written in April 1966, available in Bech: A Book and The Complete Henry Bech). Bech remembers his childhood: “Their ugliest quarrel had concerned comic strips, whether or not the artist — Segar, say, who drew Popeye, or Harold Gray of Little Orphan Annie — whether or not the artist, in duplicating the faces from panel to pank, day after day, traced them.”

  5. Hi, Jeet Heer:

    You might want to check Updike’s foreword to Al Capp’s
    “My Well Balanced Life on a Wooden Leg,” published in 1991
    by John Daniel & Company, Santa Barbara.

    Best regards–


  6. From the story “Bech Presides” (written in February-April 1997 , available in Bech at Bay and The Complete Henry Bech, p. 360): “Her white hair, cut in Prince Valiant fashion, trembled at the thought.”

    From the story “Bech Noir” (written in August-October 1997, available in Bech at Bay and The Complete Henry Bech, p. 427): “Robin, like Spider-man’s wife, Mary Jane, worked ina computer emporium.” Note, the whole story is really an extended pastiche of both pulp noir novels and superhero comics: Bech has a sidekick named Robin, and becomes a caped avenger.

  7. Updike’s story “The Guardians” from his last collection, “My Father’s Tears”, is threaded with references to the protagonist’s youthful cartooning. “Once, irritated at how his hair kept falling over his eyes as he tried to copy a comic strip while lying on the floor, he had taken his toy tin scissors and cut some off; his mother acted as if he had cut off a finger or his nose.” (p. 58-59); see also p. 60 and elsewhere.

  8. “and a painful jarring, perhaps inaccurate overlay printing, in the colors of the Sunday comics section.” Couples, p. 161.

  9. New Release: Death of the Black Haired Girl by Robert Stone.
    Surely Robert Stone is one of the best writers of individual scenes in all of our literature – think of the scene in A Flag for Sunrise where Tabor shoots his dogs, or in Children of Light where members of a film crew mistake the phrase “Bosch’s Garden” for “Butch’s Garden”, which they speculate is an S&M joint in Los Angeles.

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