So - instead of weighing in on Geoff and Andrei's back-and-forth about the Ur-text of Modernist comics, I'm going to take my cue from commenter Jason Ramos and look at the larger picture historically and structurally - to try and articulate definitions of Modernism/Postmodernism broad enough to apply to early comics as well as other media.
(Occasionally I'm going to make use of a pair of loaded terms: "high" and "low" culture. I don't mean these in the irritating heirarchical sense of "high" being better than "low" (I tend to like the "low" stuff myself - just ask my wife) but I'm using them anyway because of their handy old Modernist associations: with experimentally inclined artists working for a smaller, critically engaged audience on the one hand ("high") and craft oriented artists working for a larger audience disinterested in experiment ("low") on the other. Please bear in mind that it's just for the sake of convenience. Agreed? Okay, here goes:)
From a very broad perspective, Modernism seems to me to be mostly about the technologically-driven erosion of geographically-based difference. The rise of industrialization demanded the rise of standardization, so that widgets produced in Birmingham would be interchangeable with widgets produced in Chicago. This also applied to labor - instead of extended families rooted to local village traditions of craft, Modernity wanted the "nuclear" family, headed by an "individual" worker who could be shuttled from place to place as capital dictated.
At the same time, new communication technologies were making the rise of national and international popular culture possible for the first time. Decoration and embellishment were stripped away so things could be mass produced and as cheap as possible. For instance, by midcentury people had so many clothes that for the first time most new homes included closets to put them in (too late for my World War I row house in Jersey, sadly). The high water mark for this process was sometime in the 50's/60's, when it seemed for a while as though the whole world would be speaking English, watching Milton Berle on television, and eating McDonald's hamburgers.
(images collected by Roadsidepictures)
Then, to just about everyone's surprise, it all started to shatter. New differences appeared, but this time they weren't based on geography. Instead, they resulted from overproduction: once industrial abstraction had triumphantly delivered TV sets and too much food into every home in the western world, new indiosyncracies could (had to) emerge. Three TV networks became three hundred channels, and eventually three million websites. Rock music became punk, heavy metal, prog, emo and on and on. Coca-Cola became New Coke, and Coke Classic, and then Diet Cherry Caffeine-Free Crystal Coke - you get the idea.
None of these new micro forms ever seems to go away - they just splinter into tinier and tinier sub-genres, each with its own increasingly narrow demographic. That's Postmodernism in its broadest sense - the abandonment of the single abstract Truth around which we could all rally (or be herded) in favor of millions of lifestyles we can mix and match. Instead of being defined by your town or neighborhood as in premodernity, or belonging to a global monoculture as in moderism, postmodernity allows us to form borderless tribes - the Goth kid from Montreal recognizes his tribemates in San Francisco without ever having been there before.
(Bangkok punk gig. Image by Cedric Arnold)
Mostly this is a familiar point: trends in culture are driven by trends in technology and economics. But these forces express themselves differently in different media: in architecture and industrial design it's easy to see how a loss of ornamentation could be driven by a need for standardization, but in visual art it's more complicated. Painting was forced into abstraction by the invention of photography - it had to reinvent itself once its traditional role as the recorder of visual reality was usurped. Comics, as Jason Ramos points out, are themselves the product of a typically Modernist set of technologies of mass reproduction and had no need to reinvent themselves until television starting killing their market.
So does that make early-to-mid 20th century comics Modernist? In the broad sense I described above - sure, why not... they mass produced 'em, right? Are they Postmodernist now? In that same sense, yes - the million selling pop comics of 1950 (see: Walt Disney's Comics and Stories) have been reduced to the 100,000 selling "fanboy" comics of today. Moving down the spectrum of popularity, hundreds (thousands?) of increasingly niche-y titles are produced for ever smaller audiences connected not by geography but through comic book shops and websites (and blogs).
But this hardly satisfies the problem of relating comics - especially "art comics" - to trends in "high" culture. Prior to the 1960's, comics had genres like the rest of mass culture but not yet a real axis of "high" to "low". Suppose painting never had an avant garde, only a populist mainstream. Was Norman Rockwell more "abstract" than Howard Pyle? Does it really matter?
(top image by Howard Pyle, bottom image by Norman Rockwell)
Only after "underground" comics emerged - right as Modernism ruptured! - and provided American comics with its first deep break from mainstream populism did these questions start to make sense. That break multiplied in a typically Postmodern way: underground comics begat "ground level" comics and "art comics" and "indie comics" and "literary comics" and "abstract comics" and on and on. These forms, produced in the context of a real engagement with "high" culture, finally bear direct comparison with it.
So, when Andrei (Molotiu) says, in one of his comments on Geoff's first post:
"The problem is that from the chronological standpoint that sees modernism as somehow surpassed by postmodernism, my own interest--abstract comics--could be seen as old hat. I don't think it is (obviously!), but I also don't think it could comfortably fit into a specific pomo section of art history..."
-- I think he has nothing to worry about. Abstract comics are entirely Postmodern in a way that abstract painting - because of its history - never could be.