Can You Imagine Standing in Line Just for a Newspaper?

Saturday, 30 June 1945. 11am, Retro Remote rolls out of bed, bright and early, no reason in his sleepy lil’ head to think of anything but what adorable and subversively right-wing mess Orphan Annie would find herself in today. As he rubs his blurry eyes and retrieves his slippers from beneath the pile of empty gin bottles, he thinks to himself that there’s certainly ‘no reason to contemplate what life without newspapers would mean’. Or…is there?

‘Suddenly and with little warning: STRIKE!’

So began a 17-day newspaper delivery strike that prevented newspapers from getting to newsstands and doorsteps, as immortalised in the 1945 short, 17 Days: The Story of Newspaper History in the Making. Though produced by The News: New York’s Picture Magazine, this ain’t no propaganda piece, chum. In fact, we’re proudly told that it’s ‘written by the PUBLIC of Metropolitan New York’, and capitalised at that, so you know it’s just gotta be legit.

Aside from the always wonderful glimpse of historical social standards (‘women went about their housework and later their day’s shopping’), and the complete dismissal of any real worker and union concerns (an attitude that’s still not so antiquated), 17 Days is an interesting comparison to a lot of the newspaper rhetoric we’re hearing in the digital age. Its basic premise is this: if newspapers can’t come to people, then people will come to the newspapers.

Meanwhile, new technology can’t fill the needs of the public; the film has little time for ‘news by radio’. Sure, it’s there at the turn of a dial, but ‘something was lacking. An appetiser is a poor substitute for a full meal. A starving man languishes on a Hollywood diet. Radio was apparently not the right answer’.

Well, with that pesky radio no good for anything but Hollywood gossip, people wanting news had no choice but to hit the streets and head to the publishers themselves, and we see lines for newspapers stretching through the streets. If we ignore the spin and the shabby dismissal of the strike itself, which apparently appeared out of thin air only to disrupt the activities of happy citizens (our only really direct mention is of one striker who bought the newspaper anyway after the picket line closed down for the night), it’s still an intriguing and relevant event.

Newspapers today are struggling with the best way to deal with the Internet, as they have with just about every new technology, and some newspaper men, like Rupert Murdoch, are pushing the same conclusion: ultimately, people will still go out of their way (i.e., pay) to access newspaper content online, despite other information being available for free.

It’s a complicated issue: traditional journalism may offer (well, in theory) standards that the free media may not feel compelled or able to match (‘the miracle of journalism’ says 17 Days), while it also brings with it the baggage of being a commercial enterprise and one that can attempt to exert social control for personal or corporate interests (dear ol’ Rupert Murdoch again). ‘End of the Free Ride’, an intriguing episode of Media Watch, an Australian media watchdog that’s part of Australia’s important and respected public government-funded broadcaster (rest-of-the-world take note) covers some of the issues nicely.

Meanwhile, Retro Remote is really just interested in the funny pages.

The best moment of 17 Days is undoubtedly the final few minutes, where we cut to black and white newsreel footage of New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia: ‘N.Y. Mayor LaGuardia Solves Newspaper Strike For Kiddies’. How did he solve the problem for the kiddies? He read them the funny pages over the air, of course. (Does that make him a scab? In fact, La Guardia was apparently quite union-friendly, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt)

‘Ah, here’s Dick Tracy!’ announces La Guardia from his mayoral desk, lurching excitedly towards the microphone as though it was a real child waiting to be terrified, then proceeds to describe the panels to the listeners at home and act out the voices and sound effects in a way that makes me want to go vote for him right now.

Then he takes off his glasses and goes in for the kill: ‘say children, what does it all mean? It means that dirty money never brings any luck! No, dirty money always brings sorrow and sadness and misery and disgrace’.

New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia On Air

While there’s at least one clip out there of kids looking enthralled, I’m not sure the funny-pages-by-radio was really where the future lay (although I’d pay big money to hear La Guardia read Krazy Kat). Still, new media is always trying to soak up what came before: right now we’re faced with the (re-?)emergence of digital and ‘motion’ comics’. Who needs comics in comic-form when you could have them in iPhone-form? And they move! (Sort of.)

I’m not sure that the current ‘motion’ and ‘digital comics’ push is really too far removed from Mayor La Guardia’s temporary substitute (awesome though it was): a nifty way of distribution, but one that tends to point out its own inherent differences as a medium rather than recreating an existing one.

Chris Sims over at ComicsAlliance gives a pretty nifty run-though of some of the problems with ‘motion comics’ in a review of the Astonishing X-Men, making a pretty good comparison with the limited animation Marvel cartoons of the ’60s – you know, those ones where they zoom in on still pictures to substitute for motion and most of the time only the characters’ mouths seem to move (when they’re even in shot).

Actually, I have a soft spot for them, but only because they come across as really crappy cartoons, and not as really good comic books. One of my favourite comic books, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in January 1963’s The Incredible Hulk #5 featuring a space-gladiator Hulk at his most arrogant, isn’t really transposed directly to cartoon form but just serves as a foundation for a cartoon that has its own unique (to put it politely) identity.

That wasn’t the only attempt to send comics to kids via television, with weird ‘Telecomics’ from the ’50s making the Marvel adaptations look seriously ambitious.

The real joy in these, whether it’s Mayor La Guardia or Marvel, is the fun and obvious failure to present the ‘life’ of a comic book in another medium (and the absolute childlike enthusiasm it’s done with). But with grown-up seriousness replacing enthusiasm, it’s hard to see what kinds of real benefits the process actually offers; ‘motion comics’ may have an uphill battle looking like anything but ready-made relics (except to those who somehow think that anything on an iPhone is interesting). Replacing reading with audio is one thing, but it’s controlling where people look that really strips comics of their vitality and readers of their natural responses. It’s not the mere fact that they exist which is interesting, but the sense that they’re being presented, more or less, as the same thing as their print counterparts.

Other adaptations, of course, never really claim to be interchangeable: there always seems to be a clear product distinction between, say, the radio adaptations of characters like Little Orphan Annie and Superman, and the comic books they appear in. Of course, a character like Superman would be shaped in different ways by the media he appeared in, a constant process of change and reunification as various media forms conspired to construct that big blue boy scout.

In fact, these radio adaptations may prove to be much more fertile ground for modern media alteration than the comic books that inspired them: many of the well produced audio adaptations of comic book characters would make ideal soundtracks for a modern visual element. This was demonstrated nicely by the recent DVD release of Doctor Who: The Invasion which was faced with the problem of missing episodes that had long been destroyed (the inexcusable destruction of ‘worthless’ pop culture is something that still needs to be guarded against: can we really trust film studio execs to preserve their low-profit past?). Soundtracks to the episodes still existed thanks to fans and collectors recording the television broadcast to audiotape, so the complete serial was created by producing an animated version to fit the original soundtrack.

An extremely high quality radio serial like Superman would seem to be the perfect source for new media engagement. After all, stolid and superficial voice acting remains one of the key problems in most animation (big stars love to talk about what a breeze voice acting is, and it shows): radio has a vocal vitality that animation studios often struggle to recreate. And at around 15 minutes (less without the original sponsorship plugs), they’re perfect for quick and easy distribution and consumption. Of course, like everything else, before you serve it up, you just have to trick a bunch of consumers into thinking that it’s ‘new’.

As for ‘motion comics’, unless Marvel scores a coup and delivers the late Mayor La Guardia as the voice of Magneto, Retro Remote is going to skip the wobbly Wolverines and jiggling Juggernauts and stick with good old fashioned print.

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