Monomythography of an Art Form: A Prelude to Considering “The Only Living Boy”
The Greil Marcus-edited A New Literary History of America offers insight into the deeper cultural DNA of David Gallaher and Steve Ellis's The Only Living Boy.
Written by David Gallaher and drawn by Steve Ellis, The Only Living Boy releases three new pages a week, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It chronicles the journeys of young Erik Farrell, a runaway who finds himself traveling through some bizarre mirror-world of Earth, where a dragon rules a fairy-story kingdom from its roost atop the Empire State Building. The Only Living Boy is written with such skill and dedication, it almost immediately makes you want to dispense with the nomenclature of “YA,” and call the production label by its full title of “Young Adult.” It’s not at all hard to see that both Gallaher and Ellis are dedicated to the project, to producing the story with a certain level of skill and craft. It’s equally obvious that The Only Living Boy can be read as a metaphor for growing into adulthood. But what catapults Gallaher and Ellis’s project beyond the ordinary coming-of-age fantasy YA (before we even get to discussions about the creators’ personal stories behind wanting to tell this story), is its deeply-rooted cultural DNA.
The Only Living Boy’s cultural DNA is a story about the period between 1900 and 1905, a period thrown into high relief in the Greil Marcus-Werner Sollers edited New Literary History of America. Skim the contents pages of the volume, and you’ll get a relative idea of how fraught the time was; chapter titles evoke the invention of the blues, Henry James’s return to America after an absence of two decades, the dedication of Emily Lazarus’s poem “New Colossus” being affixed to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, Gertrude Stein’s moving to Paris. But, for the era bookended by the years 1900 and 1905, the cultural DNA of serialized YA comics comes shining through in two chapters, the first, the 1900 chapter dealing with L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and the second, the 1905 chapter, dealing with the debut of Windsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. The former chapter deals with content and cultural fixation of YA storytelling, while the latter deals with the serialized format, both focus deep issues in the cultural modes of The Only Living Boy.
In his essay, “The Wizard of Oz,” Gerald Early examines a strange confluence between America’s really coming into its own culturally (as hinted at in the 1903 chapter, “‘The Real American has Not Yet Arrived,’” and as perennially revisited by Scott Snyder in American Vampire), and the sociocultural “birth” of a new conceptualization of childhood. Early writes:
Baum’s turn-of-the-century book ushered in what Swedish sociologist Ellen Key called the Century of the Child. Notwithstanding latter-day critical interpretations, Oz was and very intensely is a children’s book and is much more engaged with debates swirling around the nature of children’s literature than with anything else. At the same time, Oz ushered in the American Century. It tried very hard to be an American book in its sensibility. Indeed, Baum was determined to create a children’s literature made exclusively of American objects, images, and ideas. In 1901 he published a collection of tales called American Fairy Tales, in which every tale is set in the United States.
The fact that Baum gave Oz a geography and a regional preoccupation resembling the United States—and the humbug character of the Wizard, a P. T. Barnum-type confidence man—has led readers over the years to read the book explicitly as a story about America. Henry Littlefield broke fresh critical ground when he argued in 1964 that the book was a pro-Populist allegory about the monetary crisis of the 1890s… Many interpretations of the book are inventive, even occasionally incisive. But there is no evidence that Baum intended his book to be read in such a way, and it is clear that he did not write the book as an allegory. The idea that children’s literature must be read as some sort of encoded adult literature is an insult to both the literature and the audience, as it assumes that this is the only way that children’s literature can be important. Baum would have been appalled by such prejudice.
In “The Comic Strip Wakes Up,” Kerry Roeder writes:
New York City at the turn of the century was a metropolis teeming with novel and spectacular visual experiences. City dwellers navigated a new social landscape: advances in the speed of public transportation, combined with overcrowded streets, transformed notions of both time and space. The stresses of modern life led people to seek comfort in new forms of leisure, from the amusement parks to department stores and nickelodeons. Among the most popular diversions were the daily newspapers, whose eye-catching deadlines, graphic illustrations, and rectilinear columns mirrored both the chaos and the order of New York’s urban fabric. The weekly comics in the newspapers’ Sunday supplements supplied both light entertainment and an opportunity for readers to grapple with the new experiences of modernity.
And again, later:
Hogan’s Alley was not the first (comic strip); earlier comic panels and caricatures, widespread in Europe, were presented in broadsheets, comic albums, pictorial papers, and satirical journals. American newspaper comics were distinguished by the use of color and recurring characters, which enhanced their popular appeal. Comics proliferated throughout the nation as newspaper barons competed with each other for readers and printing processes were refined , resulting in eye-popping color supplements in most major city newspapers. The comic strip’s portability and ephemerality were ideally suited to the early twentieth-century urban American. Despite—or perhaps due to—their accessibility, comic strips were devalued by cultural elites from their inception. Resisting neat categorization, they represent a delicate marriage of words and pictures, as well as art and commerce.
Following the course of Erik Farrell’s journey through a blasted, post-apocalyptic fairytale landscape, these two issues of format and content are brought into sharp focus. Like Baum with Oz before him, Gallaher wrestles with the last vestiges of the Victorian Era conceptualization of children as adults in miniature who lead secret lives in The Only Living Boy. Like Baum, Gallaher’s verdict seems to recast an opportunity for an authentic kind of fictive childhood. Erik’s journey is very much a child’s journey that faces a threshold of childhood’s end.
At the same time, Gallaher and Ellis wrestle with the “the delicate marriage of words and pictures, as well as art and commerce.” In that The Only Living Boy remains available on the website, the comic re-evokes that same “portability and ephemerality” of the original comic strips, while at the same time introducing new experiences that mirror the world around present-day readers (like the mouse-overs that provide creators’ commentary for each page), or the free-to-the-web, purchasable-as-collection business model that allows for donations as much as relying on patronage.
But more than anything, Gallaher and Ellis’s work on The Only Living Boy takes us into uncharted territory, where we ourselves must begin to overturn the various shibboleths of ‘90s era comics criticism. It provides us with an artistic monomyth (or Hero's Journey) for comics as a medium. Must we, The Only Living Boy asks us to confront, continue to hold as true that comics can only be relevant and meaningful if they’re “not for kids.” It’s harder and harder now not to simply discard that formulation—the idea that one kind of social acceptance must at the price of butchering a longstanding and productive part of the art form. And harder still to imagine those fateful words being uttered in a Frost/Nixon like showdown, “But you know, politically the pressure on me to let them go, that became overwhelming. So, I did it. I cut off one arm then I cut the other and I'm not a good butcher.” I can hear ‘90s Comics Maven now: “The pressure on me to let childish things go, that became overwhelming. So, I did it. I cut off one arm then I cut the other and I'm not a good butcher.”