Updike: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Fan
January 14, 2015 | by Jeet Heer
“I can’t remember the moment when I fell in love with cartoons, I was so young,” John Updike once recalled in Hogan’s Alley magazine. “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.”
This is one of many passages where Updike talks about his childhood love of comics, a theme that recurs not just in essays but also in poems and short stories. What deserves attention in this passage is not only what Updike is saying but the textured and sensual language he’s using when he recalls the “oilclothy paper” and the “buttony furniture.” His tingling prose, where every idea and emotion is rooted in sensory experience, owes much to such modern masters as Joyce, Proust, and Nabokov, but it was also sparked by the cartoon images he saw in childhood, which trained his eyes to see visual forms as aesthetically pleasing. Indeed, the comparison with Nabokov is instructive since the Russian-born author of Lolita was also a cartoon fan. The critic Clarence Brown has coined the term bedesque (roughly translated as “comic strip-influenced”) to describe the cartoony quality of Nabokov’s fiction, including its antic loopiness, its quicksilver movement from scene to scene, and its visual intensity. I think one reason Updike felt an affinity for Nabokov is because they both wrote bedesque prose.
The origins of creativity is a riddle that can never be solved; yet if we love an artist, we want to find clues to the secret source of his or her gifts. Literary biography—an enterprise Updike regarded with some skepticism—is largely a hunt for such deeply buried evidence. As an aid to future biographers and anyone else interested in pursuing the mystery of Updike’s prodigious talent, I’d suggest paying attention to his lifelong love affair with cartooning, a passion that burned hottest when he was young but remained warm until his dying days, when he ceased to draw but still repeatedly referred to the comics he had loved in childhood.
The outlines of the story are clear enough. Before he could read, Updike was enamored by the anthropomorphic kingdom of talking rodents and fowls presided over by Walt Disney, enjoying both the moving Mickey Mouse seen on the silver screen and the still Mickey found in Big Little Books and newspaper funnies. This passion for all things Disney fed early ambitions of being an animator. Updike’s interest soon spread to all the other characters found in the newspaper funnies section, and he was regularly following strips like Barney Google, Captain Easy, Terry and the Pirates, Alley Oop, Little Orphan Annie, Li’l Abner, and many others.
Branching out from comic strips and animation, the young Updike also developed a taste for comic books, a new form of pop-culture ephemera that mushroomed in popularity in the 1930s and that initially reprinted old strips but soon offered vibrant four-color fantasies featuring masked vigilantes and superbeings like Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman. Updike’s taste ran toward the more humorous of the superheroes rather than the more earnest examples of the genre: C.C. Beck’s Captain Marvel, Jack Cole’s impossibly stretchy Plastic Man, and Will Eisner’s masked avenger the Spirit.
On the cusp of adolescence, Updike’s cartooning fervor intensified when he discovered the single-panel gag cartoons found in magazines like Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post. When he was twelve, his Aunt Mary bought his family a subscription to The New Yorker, which quickly became the most important magazine for Updike, as he yearned to appear in its sophisticated pages. Although he would go on to become the preeminent New Yorker writer, he was at first far more interested in the drawings by Thurber and Steinberg than in the magazine’s acres of prose.
The teenage Updike mailed off a steady stream of cartoons in the hopes of breaking into the visual-humor market. He would continue cartooning as an undergraduate at Harvard, where he sprinkled the pages of the Lampoon with his drawings, but Updike’s undergraduate years also marked the end of his cartooning career and his transformation into a writer. He felt that the other artists at the Lampoon were simply much more talented than he was, and he’d also discovered his facility for light verse and narrative prose. It could be that Updike was too harsh on his early cartoons. The samples reprinted in his collection More Matter (1999) display a memorably jagged bluntness that calls to mind the work of Virgil Partch, who was on the cutting edge of the stylistic revolution of the forties and fifties that opened up cartooning to energetically angular, poking shapes. In any case, Updike’s past as wannabe cartoonist has left many residual traces on his work, like little flecks of ink that get caught in an illustrator’s fingernail. “One can continue to cartoon, in a way, with words,” he noted. “For whatever crispness and animation my writing has I give some credit to the cartoonist manqué.”
The connection between Updike’s drawing and writing is evidenced, too, by the letters he sent off to newspapers and cartoonists. When he was nine or ten, the local newspaper stopped carrying the Mickey Mouse comic strip, provoking the future novelist to write an indignant protest letter. That missive was the first in a long string of comics-inspired correspondence that included his beseeching inquiries to cartoonists asking for original art. “Our acquaintance was slight but long,” Updike recalled of his affection for Steinberg:
In 1945 I wrote him from my small town in Pennsylvania asking that he send me, for no reason except that I wanted it, the original of a drawing I had seen in The New Yorker, of one man tipping his hat and another tipping back his hat with his head still in it. At this time I was an avariciously hopeful would-be cartoonist of 12 or 13 and Steinberg a 31-year-old Romanian Jew whose long American sojourn had begun but four years before. Perhaps he thought that his new citizenship entailed responding to the importunities from unknown American adolescents. He sent me not the original but a duplicate he had considerately made, with his unhesitant pen, and inscribed it, in impeccable New World Fashion, “To John Updike with best wishes.”
As with Nabokov, Updike found in Steinberg an unexpected kindred spirit, someone who taught the American-born writer to see his native land with foreign eyes. Steinberg, when Updike wrote to him, was in the midst of instigating a stylistic revolution at The New Yorker. While artists such as Otto Soglow and James Thurber had already expanded the stylistic range of magazine cartooning by bringing in starkly simple and expressive drawings, Steinberg took this newfound liberty a step further by doing cartoons that avoided easily understood gags based on social humor and instead offered elliptical comments on the American visual landscape. In Steinberg’s cartoons, the line between words and pictures disappeared as he drew glyphs and signs that conveyed human passions. Appropriating images from advertising and popular entertainment while giving them a satirical tweak, Steinberg in the 1940s anticipated everything from the paintings of Andy Warhol to the experimental fiction of Donald Barthelme. Steinberg also prefigured the future attempts of his fan John Updike to write poems and stories that mashed up words and images, as in “Mid-Point” or “The Invention of the Horse Collar.”
Aside from the Steinberg drawing, Updike solicited “treasures” from other artists. In a letter to me, he mentioned that his dispatches to cartoonists earned him “an Otto Soglow Little King, and a Thurber dog he drew for me when he was all but blind. Also I have a Barnaby strip with the pasted-on lettering falling off, and half of a ‘Sunday Mickey Finn.’ I must have had 20 or more in my prime.” Luckily enough, at least two of the letters the adolescent Updike wrote still survive.
On September 6, 1947, Updike wrote to Milton Caniff, then among the most famous cartoonist in America for his two major strips, Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon. Terry and the Pirates was one of the great comic strips of the thirties and forties: it had action, lovely ink-rich noir art, a winsome young hero who matures during the course of his adventures, an exciting Asian backdrop (which in the late thirties became timely and even urgent), and sexy femme fatales (most prominently the famed Dragon Lady). In 1946, Caniff left Terry and started a new strip, Steve Canyon, a move that caught the attention of comic strip fans all over the nation. John Updike, then fifteen and living in his mother’s ancestral farm in Plowville, Pennsylvania, was one such Caniff follower and used the fact that Caniff was in the news to entice him to send some original art.
Updike began his letter, “For a long time, I was under the impression that Terry and the Pirates was the best comic strip in the United States. Imagine my dismay, then, when I heard that its creator, its mastermind, was going to desert Terry, leave it in the lurch, and wander off to some new interest, called Steve Canyon. Apprehensively I subscribed to the paper that carried Steve Canyon and waited for the results. It didn’t take me long to discover that Steve Canyon was now the best comics strip in the United States. Obvious conclusion: Milton Caniff is the best cartoonist in the world.” The charm of this letter is inseparable from the exuberantly adolescent longings that course through it. Already a fluid writer, Updike manages to be brassy even as he lays on the flattery in an obviously obsequious manner. Part of the tone of the letter owes something to the very cartoonist Updike was praising, since Caniff’s dialogue tended toward wise-guy knowingness.
Updike never forgot Caniff. In his last novel, The Widows of Eastwick, a trip to China includes a description of the country’s history in the early twentieth century that shows the author was still mindful of Terry and the Pirates: it is a land of “Pearl Buck peasants, dragon ladies, rickshaws, and comic-strip pirates.” What started as a fannish passion became part of Updike’s mental furniture till the end of his life.
A few months after writing to Caniff, Updike sent some equally enthusiastic fan mail to Harold Gray, creator of Little Orphan Annie. A Dickensian melodrama about a poor orphan named Annie who struggles against an oppressive society while being intermittently aided by her guardian, “Daddy” Warbucks, Gray’s strip was notable for its strident right-wing politics. In Gray’s universe, the bad guys were invariably do-gooding reformers, union bosses, pointy-headed academics, and other liberal types while the heroes were he-man entrepreneurs. I’d guess that in growing up in a household that cherished Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Updike would have had little use for Gray’s politics, but his love of cartooning transcended any ideological litmus test. Dated January 2, 1948, Updike’s letter to Gray contains a marvelously confident and crisp account of Little Orphan Annie’s blustery melodramatic universe. “Your villains are completely black and Annie and crew are perfect, which is as it should be,” he wrote. “One of my happiest moments was spent in gloating over some hideous child (I forget his name) who had been annoying Annie toppled into the wet cement of a dam being constructed.” This is an extremely astute bit of criticism. As in traditional melodrama, Gray orchestrated his audience’s indignation by showing his heroine constantly suffering at the hands of self-satisfied brutes. The moments when these villains get their comeuppance are always a highlight. Yet while much has been written about the strip by journalists and academics, few have gotten to its emotional core with as much insight as the teenage Updike.
Updike’s future career as a part-time art critic can also be seen in the authoritative way he describes Gray’s art. “Your draughtmanship is beyond reproach,” he wrote. “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.” Updike’s attention to details such as Gray’s portrayal of hands or his distinct lettering style bespeaks the eyes of a fellow craftsman. The cartoonist Chester Brown once told me he loved Gray’s expressive use of hands. He was surprised when I told him that John Updike had also taken note of the same aspect of Gray’s art.
Updike’s poems, short stories, and novels are rich in cartooning allusions. His sensual prose—which was arguably nonpareil in its responsiveness to the visual world—owed something to the long hours he spent pouring over cartoons and learning to draw. But what exactly did Updike mean when he wrote that “one can continue to cartoon, in a way, with words”? I’ve often talked about Updike with my friend Chris Ware. Like me, Chris is an Updike addict. He once told me that he felt Updike’s attempts to cartoon with words can be most effectively seen in the Maple and Bech stories. Although both these story cycles deal with very adult subjects—notably adultery and divorce—they are often written in a bright, chipper, affectionate tone that evokes classic cartooning.
The critic William H. Pritchard notes that the first Bech book was written with a “comic lightness and brio” that distinguished it from some of Updike’s weightier fiction of the sixties. Pritchard takes note of a sentence from the story “Bech Panics” where the hero goes to a hotel for an unsuccessful assignation with a lover:
But the overflowing meal at the boorish roadside restaurant, and their furtive decelerated glide through the crackling gravel courtyard of the motel (where a Kiwanis banquet was in progress, and had hogged all the parking spaces), and his fumbly rush to open the tricky aluminoid lock-knob of his door and to stuff his illicit guest out of sight, and the macabre interior of oak-imitating wallboard and framed big-pastels that embowered them proved in sum withering to Bech’s potency.
Pritchard rightly sees Nabokov as a source for the adjectival mirth of this passage (“boorish” and “aluminoid”), but behind the Russian master there is also Updike’s love of cartooning with words. What makes this passage cartoony is the playfulness of tone, achieved by Updike’s attention to surface visual details (“crackling gravel courtyard”) keeping comically incongruous company with diction that runs from the excessively abstract (“furtive decelerated glide”) to the implausibly poetic (“embowered,” which echoes Milton’s account of Adam and Eve in Paradise). When he wanted to, Updike could write with clear-glass transparency, but in a sentence like this one, he is writing gleefully attention-getting prose, as stylized and artificial as the comic strips he loved. It’s no accident that the covers of the Bech books all contain caricatures of the hero done by one of Updike’s favorite cartoonists, Arnold Roth. Nor is it surprising that in “Bech Noir” the writer takes on a superhero identity, becoming a kind of literary Batman avenging writers who have been mistreated by critics. Bech as Batman even has a sidekick named Robin, an eventual lover and spouse.
A full inventory of the impact of cartooning on Updike’s writing would require a much longer essay. It would include a discussion of a poem that features Al Capp (creator of L’il Abner); Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom’s resentful affection for the girlie comic strip Apartment 3-G; the superhero references in the later Rabbit books; the story “Intermission,” about a young writer of comic strips; the novel Marry Me, which features a character who works in advertising animation; and the essays Updike devoted to cartoonists such as Ralph Barton, James Thurber, and Charles Schulz. Such a discussion would also look more deeply at the visual potency of Updike’s prose and also his habit of limning vividly grotesque secondary characters (think for example of the story “The Madman”), a fictional practice that owes as much to the tradition of caricature as to the model of Dickens.
Updike stopped cartooning while he was an undergraduate at Harvard. This is a factually true statement, but it ignores a larger reality. While Updike might have ceased cartooning, the visual language of comics was never far from his mind. Cartooning was an inextricable strand in his creative DNA.
Jeet Heer is a Canadian cultural critic and the author of two books: Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays, & Profiles, from which this essay is adapted, and In Love with Art: Françoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman.