Survey 1 Comic Strip Essays: Melanie Gillman on “Polly and Her Pals”

Note: This is the sixth in a series of essays written (and, in this case, drawn) by the current Class of 2012 for Survey of the Drawn Story I, CCS’s comics history class. They are posted here in approximate chronological order of when their chosen subjects—comic strips—were either first published, or in their heyday.

These were class assignments, and should be enjoyed in that context; these are not necessarily indicative of the work the individual artists/writers would do in paid professional venues. This is work assigned in class with a tight deadline, completed while juggling many other class assignments. That said, it is all of high caliber, or we would not be sharing it with you here. Enjoy!

Students have the option to either write an essay, or to draw their essay in comics form. This is the first of the comics-format essays we’re presenting; enjoy! There are more to come. Survey I instructor Stephen Bissette has added the author info and “further reading” notes after this comics-format essay.

NOTE: To enlarge these comics pages for easier reading, just click on the image itself to open larger scans in another window.

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[The above is ©2010 Melanie Gillman, all rights reserved; it is posted with permission.]

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About the author/student:

  • Melanie Gillman‘s blog/website Contriveathon is here, and it’s full of art, writing, comics, links, and more; explore and enjoy!

  • Melanie also has shared her comics online at Sub-Scribe (here’s the link)
  • and at ColoredChalk.com (here’s that link), among others.

  • (PS: You can also visit Melanie on Facebook, if she chooses to ‘friend’ you, natch.)
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    Further reading & resources:

  • Cliff Sterrett‘s The Complete Color Polly and Her Pals, Vol. 1 (1991)
  • and The Complete Color Polly and Her Pals, Vol. 2 (1991), though long out of print, can still be found on amazon.com and via other online venues.

  • You can presently pre-order the forthcoming Polly and Her Pals: Complete Sunday Comics 1925-1927 at amazon.com, too (here’s that link).

  • We also recommend you check out Barnacle Press‘s gallery of Cliff Sterrett‘s Polly and Her Pals comic strips (various, from 1914-1936, incomplete) which are free and visible online right now via this link. Enjoy!

  • A number of Polly and Her Pals collections are in the Schulz Library‘s permanent collection.

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    7 responses to “Survey 1 Comic Strip Essays: Melanie Gillman on “Polly and Her Pals”

    1. You know, the one thing that is funny, I think, is that back when this strip was around people had actual soapboxes to stand on. Times have changed in that regard– spurious moralizing, on the other hand, and as this comic demonstrates, has remained a relative constant; funny that.

    2. As, apparently, have anonymous comments.

      Please note the context in which this was created—a classroom assignment—and also note that “spurious moralizing” cuts more than one way.

      That said: thanks for your prompt comment.

    3. I dunno Steve, I’m with Mr Anonymous on this one.
      From a queer perspective, this essay “works against itself” just as much as Sterrett’s apparently does.

      Gillman states:
      “As cartoonists, we have a responsibility to not promote harmful stereotypes such as these.”
      Cartoonists have no responsibility to do anything other than cartoon. And since cartooning is caricature, and therefore a reductive medium, you will inevitably end up with stereotypes, harmful or otherwise.
      You would therefore expect cartoonists to be particularly self-aware when it comes to acting like harmful stereotypes. As this essay proves, that’s not always the case.

    4. I’m happy to hear out criticism of this essay, but would like a little bit of clarification: Ben, Anonymous, it seems like the crux of your concern has something to do with the ethos of the narration in this essay — how I present myself as a character, and the kind of reaction I have to Sterrett’s work. Ben calls my narration a “harmful stereotype” in of itself, but doesn’t say outright what stereotype he has in mind — would you mind telling me what you were thinking of? I wonder, too, is simply being A) Female and B) Upset at a sexist portrayal of women sufficient for being a “harmful stereotype” — maybe a ‘feminazi’? Maybe you would prefer it if I presented myself as a female who complacently observes the sexism and homophobia in Sterrett’s work?

      I suspect, however, that these critiques of my narration and character in this comic might be a mask for some deeper disagreement with one or more of the actual claims that this comic makes — which everyone seems to be tip-toeing around. If the actual content of this essay — not just my self-portrayal — is what is actually making people uncomfortable here, I would be happy to debate that, too. But I can’t simply guess what is causing this discomfort, if no one is brave enough to step forward and tell me what it is exactly that they disagree with. So, please, be bold! I’m very interested to hear what you have to say.

    5. Melanie:
      Firstly, I have no problem with the motivation for your essay, and I fundamentally agree with your argument. I just think your outrage was misdirected here. The ability to find a queer reading in anything doesn’t mean it’s always relevant, and in this case, it feels like grasping at straws. Expecting “Polly & Her Pals” to be progressive simply because it had the first female newspaper strip protagonist is setting yourself up to be outraged, considering the universality of certain stereotypes at the time. I’m not suggesting that this excuses Sterrett from indulging in such stereotypes. But to condemn a work according to what it shared with almost every other work of its kind from the time, and not telling us what its strengths were, or at least what made it different, is not only like shooting fish in a barrel, but also poor scholarship.
      Secondly, your suggestion that “exploiting real-life sexual oppression for humor also tends to normalize it”: maybe, but on the other hand, if such problems are common enough to be the subject of humor, than they’ve already been normalized. Humor is a way of acknowledging that, as well as being more effective in dealing with it than censoriousness, unsmiling moral superiority and self-righteousness. In the last three panels in particular, it feels like the strip has become simply an afterthought.

      In other words, I don’t object to your principles. I do object to your lack of self-awareness in hijacking a work of art and applying an ill-fitting analysis to it, in order to propagate views that could be directed at more relevant targets.

    6. Ben:
      One of the motivations I had for choosing this particular topic, out of all the possible topics I could’ve written about concerning “Polly and her Pals”, is that there was almost no work I could find that discussed — or even mentioned! — the sexism and homophobia in the strip. There are plenty of essays and critical analyses already out there dissecting its artistic merits; I think Sterrett’s talents (and those of his assistants) get enough airtime as it is. At the same time, I found the strange conjunction of Sterrett’s pre-feminist prejudices and his feminist views on the oppressive nature of marriage to be something distinctive and intriguing about his work — so, I chose to write about that, rather than add yet another laudatory artistic-merits essay to the already cumbersome stack. Content is as important an aspect of art as form; and it would be unfortunate if we lived in a world where critical analyses of art were limited to only the latter, at the expense of the former.

      I have a hard time, too, swallowing the argument that people’s prejudices should be forgiven according to the time they lived in. I don’t want to discount the fact that sexual oppression and discrimination was a very real and harmful factor in the lives of the people who were reading Sterrett’s strip in their newspapers those thirty-some years it ran — and that reading material with messages like “It’s funny when men shoot their wives for annoying them” certainly wasn’t helping them out very much. Sterrett wasn’t the only sexist in his time, to be sure — but that doesn’t excuse him from culpability for using his strip to promote his sexual prejudices. You could just as soon argue that, since even today we live in a sexist society, that it is still morally acceptable to publish sexist material and encourage sexual discrimination.

      Is Sterrett too easy a target for this kind of discussion? Yes and no. Certainly, the sexism in his work is prevalent and easy to point out; but, at the same time, historical sexism still has reverberations and relevancy today. Sterrett’s work is still being read, and is still garnering a lot of positive critical attention. And the fact that there are, apparently, people out there willing to rush to Sterrett’s side to try to justify him suggests that his sexist views are maybe not quite so controversial as we’d all like them to be.

    7. I guess I’m giving the modern audience for Sterrett’s work – which is unlikely to extend far beyond the generally left-leaning comics-scholarly community – the benefit of the doubt by assuming they’re reading it primarily for its visual artistry, and have enough common sense to treat the sexism and homophobia (and racism) as an unfortunate residue of the past. I also feel like you can observe those aspects of the work objectively without being guilty of complacency, or of “forgiving” Sterrett.

      In any case, I appreciate your argument. Unless you have anything to add…shake hands?

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