The Kin-Der Kids
Come on: things were just better in the early twentieth century. War and disease were still rampant worldwide, leading to fewer lines at dry goods stores and public entertainments, and a nickel would buy you a Senator to do your bidding. And newspapers had better ideas to boost circulation.

Today, you boost circulation by talking about a murderer above the break. Everyone knows that. In 1906, you boosted circulation by hiring German Expressionist art pioneers to draw frivolous comic strips about a group of disgusting children.

Lyonel Feininger--"Your Uncle Feininger", as he's known in the terrifying premiere episode of The Kin-Der Kids, which shows living beings dangling on strings from his lank German fingers. Lyonel Feininger, eventually a lecturer at the Bauhaus, distinguished member of the Degenerate Art Exhibition in Berlin 1936, distinguished exile from Germany in 1937, eventually famous for his abstract cathedrals and his wood-block children that told you horrible things.

And first famous for the Kin-Der Kids!

There are three major Kin-Der Kids. There is Daniel Webster, gentleman and scholar. There is Piemouth, a revolting glutton. There is Strenuous Teddy, who occasionally beats people up. There is the dog, Sherlock Bones, and there is the mechanical Japanese stereotype, Little Japansky the clockwork waterbaby, who diligently powers whatever vehicle the kids have decided to use. There is Mysterious Pete, who horrified me as a child and who travels on a cloud with a dog that stares into your soul. There are Auntie Jim-Jam and Gussie, two skeletal relatives who pursue the Kin-Der Kids seeking to dose them with castor oil. There are British people, invariably depicted as hideous shadows in porkpie hats, eyes full off hatred. The narrative makes no sense--at one point Piemouth is rescued from Auntie Jim-Jam by a chimneysweep; why? Why?--and this completely does not matter.

One of the best parts about the Kin-Der Kids is its attitude to violence. American violence comes from anger: someone calls you "buddy" when he shouldn't, jets of steam burst from your ears, your knuckles are on his teeth. American violence carries a moral weight, a system of permission, of action, of guilt. German violence is morally neutral. It is a tool to be used or not to be used, depending on the situation and on nothing besides. Daniel Webster smiles as he slices into the belly of a gigantic fish with a knife that is as large as him. Strenuous Teddy chortles as he spears the heart of a whale with his "Jiu-jitsu" and showers in its CMYK blood. Wolves are rendered not merely accurately but with an all-too-German sympathy for their ravenous nature, their need to kill, their ability to disguise this need as technical expertise. It is perversity melded with laughter.

This comic only existed for some six months before the American public would have none of it. They demanded the expulsion of the German menace from their funny papers and eleven years later went to war against them for good measure. That this comic existed at all is one of the best-kept secrets of the history of the funnies.

You've all heard Scott McCloud talk about Trajan's Column or the Bayeux Tapestry or what-have-you. Fuck that. This is comics history. And more: this is the entirety of comics history.

A stunted German imp balancing a whale on the tip of his spear in four-color ink on newsprint. A senseless death, the exercise of violence without necessity, without emotion, rendered in a broken, beautiful line.

That is the symbol of the comics, forever.

Posted by future on Mon, 03 Mar 2008 17:13:02 -0500 -- permanent link

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