[Note: This article was written in 2006. I adapted it for my bio of Mort Meskin “From Shadow to Light” from Fantagraphics in 2010 but it is published here in its original entirety for the first time.]
In his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, author Michael Chabon writes of his character “It was that Citizen Kane represented, more than any other movie Joe had ever seen, the total blending of narration and image that was. . . . the fundamental principle of comic book story telling. . . . Without the witty, potent dialog and the puzzling shape of the story, the movie would have merely been an American version of the kind of brooding, shadow-filled Ufa-style expressionist stuff that Joe had grown up watching in Prague. Without the brooding shadows and bold adventurings of the camera, without the theatrical lighting and queasy angles, it would have been merely a clever movie about a rich bastard. It was more, much more, than any movie really needed to be. In this one crucial regard—its inextricable braiding of image and narrative—Citizen Kane was like a comic book. ” 1 Though fiction, Chabon here touches on fact, the symbiotic relationship between Orson Welles and the birth of the American comic book. In fact Welles and the pioneers of the comic book interactions and influences on each other still resonates today. Not surprisingly, they share similar inspirations: the triumvirate of German Expressionism, The Pulps and Newspaper Comic Strips had a lasting effect on their respective mediums and our culture.
As a youngster Welles’ original desire was to become a musician or artist, but his father ruled against it. “…he was bitterly opposed to my interest in music and painting and everything like that. As far as he was concerned, if I was going to be an artist, it’d be better to be a cartoonist, like his friend George McManis, who drew “Jiggs and Maggie,” otherwise known as “Bringing up Father”—that’s where the money was.” 2 Welles maintained a love of cartoon strips, and later on, comic books, though out his life.
This love of popular writing and art extended to the pulps, and in 1933, at the age of eighteen, he began writing for them while living in Morocco and Spain, and was eventually published in the well known Ellery Queen magazine. “ It took me fifty dollars a week to live like Diamond Jim Brady, and I made that by holding up every once in a while and grinding out stories for the pulps.” 3 According to Welles biographer Simon Callow, Welles read pulp fiction his entire life and he “had suitcases and suitcases of it.” His radio career began with the Walter B. Gibson character born of the pulps and comic books, The Shadow, in 1937.
Welles remained true to his populist roots throughout his life. A 1942 press release written by the publicity department of RKO Radio Pictures, to whom he was under contract, states “Welles is a big man, well over six feet, who tips the scales around 200 pounds. He has no hobbies, considers working at his chosen professions enough to keep his mind occupied. He likes clothes and designs his own suits and dressing gowns. He is tremendously loyal to the members of the Mercury company and is using most of them in his pictures. It is his ambition to keep a permanent acting group. . . . He is an avid reader of comic strips and is particularly fond of “Terry and the Pirates.” He believes comic strips mirror contemporary American life.”
Welles cared little for what others considered “high art” versus “low art” and took his unabashed love of popular forms of storytelling with him to Hollywood. He disliked the pretensions of intellectuals while at the same time was dismayed at the irony between what was considered high and low, and what was considered to be art at all “The arts and artists of our theatre have been so busy for so long now teaching their public to reject anything larger than life unless it be stated in the special language of glamour and charm that I’m afraid many good citizens who read comic strips with the utmost solemnity will laugh out loud at Eisenstein’s best moments. Our culture has conditioned us to take Dick Tracy with a straight face. But nothing prepares us for Ivan the Terrible.” 4
He applied dramatic devices taken directly from comics to his films. For example, the clock tower ending of The Stranger was a device used many times in the early 1940s by Batman writer and co-creator Bill Finger. As Welles notes “(It was) pure Dick Tracy. I had to fight for it. Everybody felt, ‘Well, it’s bad taste and Orson’s going too far,’ but I wanted a straight comic-strip finish.” 5 Dick Tracy, created by Chester Gould, had began life as a comic strip in October, 1931. Another comic book mainstay that Welles utilized to great effect in the famous mirror sequence of Lady From Shanghai was the carnival setting, also right out of the pages of Batman. And the overall environ of a sailor and femme fatale had a direct antecedent in Terry and the Pirates. In addition, The Trial begins with sequential art to tell the tale of the law.
Thus it is clear that Welles was not only cognoscente of the comic strip and comic book as a visual and literary form, but actively engaged it in his work. Visually, his odd, edgy, upward proscenium-like angles and forced perspectives owed much to the comic strip and early comic books, which was reciprocated on their part, and back and forth, creating an interplay between the mediums that reached its zenith in Welles work in Mr. Arkadin and Touch of Evil.
The American comic strip first attained definitive form in the Sunday The Yellow Kid page, drawn by Richard Felton Outcault for Joseph Pulitzers’ American Weekly comic supplement to his New York Journal in 1896.6 The Yellow Kid became one of the paper’s star attractions and was soon embroiled in a battle between publishing rivals William Randolph Hearst, and Pulitzer. Hearst had begun a series of raids on Pulitzer’s staff the previous year, in true Citizen Kane like fashion, and this included Outcault. Pulitzer then bought Outcault back, but Hearst upped the ante once again. Pulitzer then hired George Luks to do their own version of The Yellow Kid, with rival identical characters appearing in both Hearst and Pulitzer papers simultaneously. This ensuing battle between the publishers coined the term “yellow journalism” a reference to the color of the Yellow Kid’s nightshirt. The strip was read by over 200,000,000 people everyday, nearly 75 billion a year.7
Ever the showman, Hearst advertised his comic pages thusly:
NEW YORK JOURNALS’ COMIC WEEKLY—EIGHT FULL PAGES OF COLOR THAT MAKE THE KALEIDOCOPE PALE WITH ENVY . . .
Bunco steerers may tempt your fancy with a “color supplement” that is black and white and tan—four pages of weak, wishy washy color and four pages of desolate waste of black.
But the JOURNALS COLOR COMIC WEEKLY! Ah! There’s the diff!
In January 1912 Hearst introduced the nation’s first full daily comic page in The Journal, adding it to his other papers from coast to coast. Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff, Rudolph Dirke’s Katzenjammer’s Kids, Windsor McCays’ Little Nemo were among the earliest to by syndicated nationwide, soon joined by the aforementioned Jiggs and Maggie by McManis. Cartoonists were the superstars of their times, many under contract earning upwards of one million dollars per year and going on national tours to give chalk talks to a willing public.
The pulps also first appeared around the turn of the nineteenth century and combined serialized writing with often lurid cover art. Pulps satisfied an urge for exaggeration: Athletes were stronger, heroes were nobler, and women more luscious—with a dollop of sex to spice things up.8 These pages contained intrigues of crooked cops, clever criminals, sinister spies, and dangerous femme fatales that were grist for the mill for Welles’ radio shows and films to come.
Cartoonist and writer Milton Caniff was born in 1907 in Ohio, and in 1934, he was hired by the New York Daily News to produce a new comic strip, Terry and the Pirates, which made him famous. Initially the strip told the tale of an American sailor and his adventures in China, battling both pirates and femme fatale The Dragon Lady. At the onset of the war Terry enlisted into the armed forces. One of the innovations Caniff brought to the medium was the use of changing viewpoints from panel to panel, to arresting effect. This, and dramatic use of shadow and light combined with beautiful women who he fashioned after the movie stars of the day influenced the film noir cinema to come in general, and Welles in particular.
Another writer and artist, Will Eisner was born in New York City in 1917. He first sold strips to Wow, What A Magazine! in 1936, and in 1939 created his seminal character The Spirit, a masked detective brought back from the dead to avenge his own death. Depicting a city rife with crime, Eisner also employed tongue in cheek humor and deep shadows along with a gritty view of the criminal world. Combined with Eisner’s innovative use of dramatic perspectives and bird and worm eye views this work would also pave the way for Welles’ films and the film noir that would follow shortly.
Comic books first appeared in the mid 1930’s, originally as reprints of the Sunday newspaper strips that Pulitzer and Hearst had championed. In 1938, Superman premiered in Action Comics Number One, and the superhero was introduced into popular culture. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, it owed much to the movie serials and pulps of the day. Originally created as a proposed comic strip, visually Superman was full of charm, but fairly straight forward in its storytelling technique. It would not be until the follow year with the birth of Batman, created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, that German Expressionism would find its way into these pages. Steeped in shadow, The Bat-Man, as he was originally called, was the “dark knight”, donning a vampire like outfit replete with black cloak, to avenge the murder of his parents years earlier. The character was a direct descendant of the hero Zorro from the pulps, written by Johnston McCulley, who first appeared in 1919 in All-Story Weekly. Another prototype was the pulp figure The Shadow who starred in his own magazine from 1931 to 1949. In addition Batman’s gallery of villains soon resembled those of Gould’s Dick Tracy. Still, Batman ultimately was a totally original creation, and one that was in sync with late depression era angst.
Cartoonist Jules Feiffer summed up the differences this way “ Batman’s world was more cinematic than Superman’s. Kane was one of the early experimenters with angle shots . . . though he was not compulsively avant-garde in his use of the worm’s eye, the bird’s eye, the shot through the wine glass. . . ” 9
Surprisingly, artist Bob Kane’s (né Robert Kahn) dual influences for his creation were both Milton Caniff and Welles, but not in the way one would expect. “Milton Caniff was my greatest inspiration. . . . the first year of Batman was heavily influenced by horror films, and emulated a Dracula look. I also loved mystery movies and serials; The Shadow on radio was a big influence. . . . I was particularly fascinated with the mysterious Shadow, whose ominous voice cut through the air waves, ‘Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men . . . . ’ And he would end his prologue with that ominous basso laugh which sent chills down my spine.” 10 The aural effect on Kane and others in the field may have not ended there. The Mercury Theatre was known for its pioneering use of sound effects for dramatic effect on the radio, and the written equivalent of these sounds effects rapidly became part of the comic book genre. Writer Bill Finger concurred about the influences: “My idea was to have Batman be a combination of Douglas Fairbanks, The Shadow, and Doc Savage as well. . . My first script was a take-off of a Shadow story. . . … . . I patterned my style of writing Batman after The Shadow. . . . I always liked that dramatic point of view. It was completely Pulp style.” 11
It was Bob Kane’s art, soon assisted by Jerry Robinson, that introduced the world to the odd angles, and deep shadows on the comic book page, displaying directly the influence of German Expressionism and also the horror film pictures of Hollywood. In fact Batman’s most famous villain, The Joker, was a direct descendant of a German film. As Robinson notes “When Bill (Finger) came back with a script, he brought in a picture of Conrad Veidt. . . . Bill knew about Veidt because he was into German expressionist films and had seen the movie.” 12
This visual presentation was not lost on Welles, and ironically, as the comics were influenced by film, Welles was influenced by the comic book. Thus began a yin-yang relationship between Welles and the comic book that would last throughout his career. According to comic book historian Les Daniels “A favorite film of the Batman staff was Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane (1941). Its dramatic lighting and camera angles struck a responsive chord, as did its hero’s surname; less obvious is the fact that this film and their comic book share a similar plot. Psychologists say that it’s a common if transient daydream among children to be rid of their parents, but having it actually come true is the stuff of nightmares. Neither Charles Foster Kane nor Bruce Wayne ever recovered, perhaps in part because they experienced survivor’s guilt over the price they paid for wealth and power. We’re told that Batman adopted his dark disguise to scare criminals, but there could be other reasons why he felt compelled to dress as ‘a creature of the night, black, terrible.’ Consumed by guilt and grief, this was a fellow who needed a friend.” 13
Superhero comic books were wildly successful from the onset, selling in the millions per copy. As their popularity grew, they began to replace the pulp magazines, a victim of the paper shortages of World War II. While the original auteurs of the comics maintained artistic control for a very brief time, much like Welles with Citizen Kane, this environment didn’t last long. Soon comics would change in tone and look. Spearheaded by Dr. Fredric Wertham, a child psychologist, in his book Seduction of the Innocent, published in 1954, a campaign was begun that viewed comic books as the corrupters of youth, with damaging Freudian overtones. The Comics Code Authority was established as a way of censoring content, and much like Welles after Kane, the creators and early artists and writers lost full control of their creations. Dark expressionism was replaced with light-hearted humor, and deep shadows and chronicles of revenge with fanciful tales of aliens and alternate dimensions, and other far fetched story lines that impressionable youths couldn’t replicate at home. Still, the unusual point of view of the panels remained.
Ironically, it would take a television to bring comic books back into popular culture. Like many of his generation writer Rod Serling was influenced the radio shows of his youth, especially the Mercury Theater productions. The Twilight Zone, which was broadcast from 1959 to 1964 displayed some of the visual techniques and themes of cold war alienation that appeared in Welles’ films in the 1950s and early 1960s, and the title was also published by Gold Key as a comic book form 1962 to 1979. In fact, creator Rod Serling had pitched the pilot to the network with the idea of Welles as narrator, but Welles asked for too much money, and it was decided that Serling should do the narration.
Welles’ influence on comics reached its peak, and some would say its downfall with the Batman television show that first appeared in 1966. A broad parody of comic books, the show featured the same low angle shots, odd perspectives and extreme close-ups familiar to students of Welles, here played for laughs. Interspersed between sound effects (Pow!) and sight gags, and in color, the twisted perspectives and close-ups are at once the visual equivalent of the comic book panel and Wellesian in ambiance.
In 1989 director Tim Burton adapted Batman for the large screen, again employing many of the same visual techniques as the television incarnation, albeit more respectfully. In his second film in the series, Batman Returns the corrupt Citizen Kane like capitalist is named Max Schreck, in tribute to the star of Nosferatu. Sadly, the next two films, in lesser artistic hands, fell back into caricature, with ever increasing twisted angles and exaggerated story lines and acting.
In 1992 Batman: The Animated Series began as a Saturday morning cartoon, and once again artist Bruce Timm and writer Paul Dini revisited comic book’s roots. “Movies themselves contributed to the look and the feel of the series” Dini noted. “A short list of films favored by the artists included such film-noir classics as The Big Sleep and The Third Man (starring Welles), thrillers such as Vertigo and The Night of the Hunter. . . and examples of German Expressionism such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis.” Timm concurred: “(The backgrounds) had weird shadows that aren’t actually motivated by light sources but give a kick to a scene. They help create that kind of chaotic, Caligari look. It’s an effect based in part on German Expressionism, which in turn influenced Orson Welles and Greg Toland on Citizen Kane and after them the whole film noir school.” 14
The comic book has since become a pervasive part of our culture, now more than ever. Film series based on comic book characters such as Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four and the soon to be released Superman appear to be in endless supply, with more on the way.
A recent serious attempt at recreating a comic book on the screen took the form of Frank Miller’s Sin City in 2005, co-directed by Miller and Robert Rodriguez. Shot mostly in black and white as a virtual panel by panel recreation of the film noir styled graphic novel, the film was quickly compared to Welles and Kane in several reviews. “The connections between comics and films go back to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and have operated in both directions. Welles wanted to do something different with the near unlimited creative freedom he’d been given to make the film, yet he’d never directed cinema in his life. His experience was as a broadcaster and theatre director, and much as Miller would look outside the convention of his medium in the 1980s, so did Welles in 1941 make a film about a news broadcast. More importantly for comics, Welles took perspectives found in the audience of a proscenium arch and replicated them in film. Shortly after the release of Kane, comics started to change: the flat side-on perspectives were replaced by a roving comics eye. While Welles’ had to dig up studio floors or construct elaborate rigs to get his desired shots, the freedom of perspective he inspired in the work of comics artists like Will Eisner was unlimited.” —Little Ben.
“The visuals are quite extraordinary – one could easily compare the stylized effect that Robert Rodriguez achieves here with the same sort of amazing things you see Orson Welles doing with camera and light when you discover Citizen Kane (1941) for the first time.”—Richard Scheib
The relationship between comics and Welles reached new heights in 2003 when well known comic book writer Mark Millar posted a story on the Comic Book Resources website, detailing the newly unearthed plan for Welles to direct his own film version of The Batman in 1946. The article details the proposed casting (Basil Rathbone as The Joker, James Cagney as The Riddler, Marlene Dietrich as Catwoman!) and even included a production sketch with detailed information. Supposedly Welles was in negotiations with RKO Pictures and DC National Comics to bring this to fruition from 1944 to 1946. All this was based on an upcoming biography of Welles by author Lionel Hutton, due out the following year. Alas, none of this was true, Millar having perpetrated a hoax in the spirit of Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast 65 years earlier. An Amazon search of biographer Lionel Hutton turns up blank. The article even went so far as to say Welles wrote a review of a new comic books series in The Village Voice, entitled The Real Counter-Culture Lives Here in 1973, raving about the Denny O’Neil/ Neal Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow comic book, but a search of the archives for that year turns up empty. Still, this apocryphal tale and the willingness of so many to believe goes a long way towards exemplifying the relationship between Welles and the comic book, and afforded all a chance to dream what might have been.
In today’s climate of the Hollywood blockbuster, with 100 million dollar plus price tags, and little risk taking or experimentation, it is doubtful Orson Welles would have more luck today bringing his vision to the screen than he did in his own lifetime. However, the graphic novel (as comic books are now called) and by extension films based on them, are alive and well, and encompass a wide range of styles and creative explorations. Ironically, Orson Welles’ influence is still yet felt, in the most unexpected of places.
“Create your own visual style… let it be unique for yourself and yet identifiable for others. ”—Orson Welles
Blackbeard, Bill and Williams, Martin, The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, Smithsonian
Institution Press and Harry N. Abrams, 1966 (13)
Chabon, Michael, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Picador, 2000 (362)
Daniels, Les and Kahn, Jennette, DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World’s Favorite Comic Book
Heroes, DC, 1995.
Dini, Paul and Kidd, Chip, Batman Animated, Harper Entertainment, New York, 1998. (no page
numbers in book)
Feiffer, Jules, The Great Comic Book Heroes, The Dial Press, 1965. (28-29).
Kane, Bob with Andrae, Tom, Batman and Me, Eclipse Books, California, 1989 (2-45)
Print, September/October 2003, Heller, Steven, Pulp Fiction (108)
Robinson, Jerry, The Comics: An Illustrated History of the Comic Strip, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1974 (12)
Welles, Orson and Bogdanovich, Peter, This is Orson Welles, Da Capo Press, 1998, (65-190)
http://www.moria.co.nz/index.htm, The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review, Sin City,
Richard Scheib, 2005
http://www.musicalbear.com/Shooting Frank Miller: Comics in Hollywood, Little Ben, 2005
1. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, p. 362.
2. Welles and Bogdanovich, p. 65.
3. Welles and Bogdanovich, p. 44.
4. Welles and Bogdanovich , p. 144.
5. Welles and Bogdanovich, p. 190.
6. Blackbeard and Williams, p. 13
7. Robinson, p. 12.
8. Heller, p. 109.
9. Feiffer, p. 29.
10. Kane and Andrae, p. 2–45.
11. Kane and Andrae, p. 45.
12. The Man Who Laughs, 1928, Directed by Paul Leni.
13. Daniels and Kahn.
14. Dini and Kidd.