Here we go again, on a journey with our friend the freshman student Alice, back down the academic rabbit hole. Down, down, down. "Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next." Semiotics? Deconstruction? Faculty club Marxism? Small wonder that as she fell Alice cried, "Curiouser and curiouser!" -- she was "so much surprised that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English" and lapsed instead into profspeak.
When at last we landed with Alice at the bottom of the hole, what did we find? On a previous trip, you may recall, we were plopped into a classroom where the young scholars were studying the television program "M*A*S*H," with an eye to its fathomless cultural and sociological ramifications. Another time we hit the floor and found ourselves next to a professor who was explicating the epistemological underpinnings of intercollegiate basketball. As for the last time down, it put us smack in the middle of the popular-culture department, where graduate students were deconstructing Pink Floyd and Yogi Berra.
But this time ... ah, this was the grandest trip of all. This time as we tumbled down the hole, holding Alice's hand for dear life -- "Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end?" -- and praying for a safe landing, how could we possibly have known that our destination would be a suburb of Wonderland called -- yes! -- Comix World. We tumbled and tumbled, and when at last we awoke there we were, in the arms not of Morpheus but of Batman.
Downward we fell, only to find the drones of academia moving ever upward, like primeval creatures struggling up from the slime toward the earthly perfection that is humankind's highest vision. They've left "M*A*S*H" behind them, like some anachronistic dorsal fin, and shed themselves of Yogi Berra as if he were a vermiform appendix; now, with Utopia itself perhaps only a step or two away, they have come to Superman and Dick Tracy and Felix the Cat and -- hosanna! -- Donald Duck.
We found news of their progress reported in the official journal of Wonderland, the Chronicle of Higher Education, under the headline: "Looking for the Messages in Batman and Donald Duck: Researchers Turn to the Comics." Its reporter, Ellen K. Coughlin, wrote: "Ephemeral and seemingly trivial, comics are nevertheless attracting the attention of an increasing number of academic researchers, who regard the crudely drawn characters who speak with the aid of white balloons as serious forms of art, narrative and cultural expression."
In her travels through Comix World, Coughlin found many strange and wondrous creatures. One of them, called Thomas Inge, professor of humanities at Randolph-Macon College and "a specialist in the history of the comics," confessed to her that "among all forms of popular culture, we're at the bottom of the heap," but one of the great things about life in the rabbit hole -- why else do they call it "Wonderland"? -- is that all things are possible. Thus it is that Inge was able to say as well: "Things are falling together. We are now witnessing a birth of comics scholarship."
A great moment in the history of the cosmos, that: Let us pray that Stanley Kubrick or Steven Spielberg -- better yet, both! -- was on hand to put it on film. The birth of the universe, the birth of the messiah, the birth of a nation, the birth of comics scholarship ... it all just sort of runs together in a seamless web, the universe triumphant.
So there we sat, on our tuffet, dumbfounded at the very thought of this incontrovertible evidence of the existence of God, when along came our old friend the White Rabbit, chairman of the English department and head cheerleader and director of public relations for Wonderland. He was as always in a terrible hurry. "Come come!" he said. "You must come along! Ellen K. Coughlin is interviewing another of our strange and wondrous creatures!"
Indeed she was. His name was Joseph Witek, and she told us that he was an assistant professor of English at Stetson University. He was quick to speak. "Comics pose a fascinating semiotic problem," he said, as we gasped at this deft use of the academic vernacular. "People have been thinking about words and pictures together, and pictures as a form of language. This is a narrative form that has developed that approach for a long, long time."
Once again we were dumbfounded, as our minds cast back to the earliest days of comics, when illustrators plied their trade with foolscap and quills, and Alley Oop roamed the land. We were musing thus -- Alice said she particularly liked to think about the Katzenjammer Kids -- when Ellen K. Coughlin broke in to put it all into historical perspective. She said:
"The early comic strips are prized for their artistic creativity and experimentation. George Herriman's 'Krazy Kat' is held up as an early example of American Dadaism. Windsor McKay's 'Little Nemo in Slumberland' is considered one of the most beautifully drawn strips ever. Milton Caniff's cinematic technique in 'Terry and the Pirates' and 'Steve Canyon' could be a primer in the use of framing, angles and lighting."
Speechless again! And soon to be all the more so, for the White Rabbit dashed back in and sped us right along, following pell-mell in the faithful Coughlin's footsteps as she raced to the next, and unquestionably the climactic, leg of her journey. There we found her talking to David Kunzle, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, a man of so many parts that they required elaborate enumeration. He is "an art historian who is interested in the 'social effects' of comic art"; he is "the author of two volumes on the historical precursors of the comic strip"; and -- voila`! -- he "studies comics from a Marxist perspective."
Yes. Coughlin told us that Kunzle "has looked at the cultural messages in the Donald Duck comic books." Really? Yes, the scholar said, "They're very imperialist." Remember how Scrooge McDuck made his fortune in Middle East oil fields? The McDuck stories "reflect American foreign policy very clearly, from the Korean War to the Vietnam War." Wow. And then double wow when Kunzle applied the clincher. "The Disney Corporation shudders to hear this," he told us, "and thinks it's just a crazed Marxist talking. But it's clearly true."
Up in the tree the Cheshire Cat looked down and grinned his famous grin. "Clearly true," he said, and laughed weirdly at the very thought of the Disney Corporation brought shuddering to its knees by a mere citizen of Wonderland. His laugh got a little out of control, so at last Alice, who by now was rather worried, asked him, "What sort of people live about here?"
"In that direction," the Cat said, waving its right paw round, "lives a Hatter; and in that direction," waving the other paw, "lives a March Hare. Visit either you like; they're both mad."
"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat; "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."
Well. That gave Alice pause. She sat there thinking about it for a while and then all of a sudden, poof! and there she was, back at home. "Oh, I've had such a curious dream!" she said, and she told her sister, "as well as she could remember them, all these strange Adventures of hers that you have just been reading about." Strange, yes, but oh so wonderful.