Thursday, July 13, 2017

Not Even Past

I'm going to indulge in my habit of liberal quoting again for a moment, because I'd like to give the entirety of the criticisms leveled about old comics. I'm not reprinting the whole of the descriptions of them, but pulling out the sentences that concern us here.

1905: Little Nemo in Slumberland
Shame about that Jungle Imp character, though, who serves as a cold reminder that blithely racist stereotyping has been a part of the visual language of the comics medium since its inception.

1929: Tintin
And racially iffy.

(Hot tip: Skip Tintin in the Congo. Trust us.)

1934: Terry and the Pirates
Milton Caniff's two-fisted action adventure strip about a boy named Terry, his frequently stripped-to-the-waist mentor Pat, and — regretfully enough — a Chinese man name Connie who speaks, well, pretty much like you'd imagine a Chinese character would speak in an American-made comic strip from the 30s and 40s. More's the pity.
The Old School: Classic Strips That Continue To Shape Comics
In the ongoing debate over absolute versus relative values, the stereotype is often that the Right are absolutists, believing that their understanding of right are wrong are objective facts of live not subject to a person's lived experience, and that the Left are relativists, believing that different people can come to differing but equally valid understanding of ethics and morality. But the Left does have its own version of moral absolutism, and that is that advanced Western societies should always have espoused values that line up with modern understandings of race, class and gender issues.

Note that the knocks on Little Nemo in Slumberland, Tintin and Terry and the Pirates are not for being out of step with the times in which they were written. It's that they're not in line with the values of 80 to 100+ years after they were written. And implicit in that is a wager that, come 2100 to 2130, people will see the world of 2017 as being thoroughly modern and in line with their contemporary values. But it's just as, if not more likely, that people (especially the 15 to 35 set) in that time will find barbarism and backwardness in something that we don't think of as particularly wrong. We could hope that the early 22nd century sees the end of judgmentalism, but that seems like a long shot, at best.

Instead, I suspect that they will judge us, and our works, by their contemporary values, and regard them as somewhat shameful, iffy, regretful and worthless, even as they see them as valuable for their staying power and historical context. Of course, in that I'm making a wager myself, and on flimsy evidence at best - namely that over the next 80 or so years of human existence, societies won't decide that judging the past by the standards of the present is simply an exercise in self-righteousness. After all, the fact that "it's always been done that way" doesn't mean that it always will. Still I'd like to see us to a better job of understanding that values evolve, not because human history is a steady progression from Bad to Better, but because of people doing what works for them in the contexts in which they find themselves, and those contexts change over time. The best way to ensure that the future breaks with the habit of looking down its nose at the past, is to break with it ourselves.

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