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Comic Strip Blog


Comic Strip Blog

My previous blog, left up far too long--more than two weeks--was a serious one, looking back over my past career and assessing my present state. This one will be un-serious; it will begin with a note on a movie and go on to write about comic strips.

I introduce the movie by mentioning a planned video-lecture: it will be titled “Chance Comings-together” and will make the argument that major achievements in art  (including movies and ballet) can come about through happenstance, when people and circumstances fall into place as if directed by providence or auspicious forces to bring into being some highly successful work. I’ve collected images and information for several of these, including (older examples) Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” Fitzgerald’s “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’ translation. And for more recent examples, Leonide Massine’s “Tricorne” (Three-cornered Hat) ballet  and Jean Renoir’s “Rules of the Game” movie. So, what if a similar conjunction of people and circumstances happens again--will they all fall into place once more to produce a major, successful work? Last night I watched with high anticipation a 1956 movie, shown for the first time on Turner Classic Movies, that raised that question. The English title was “Elena and Her Men”; the director was the same great Jean Renoir whose “Rules of the Game” is my favorite of all films. Cast included Ingrid Bergman, and as her co-star (along with Mel Ferrer and Juliette Greco) Jean Marais--he who played Orpheus in Jean Cocteau’s haunting movie of that name, and also (with fur all over) the Beast in Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast,” a film that all children should know by heart before they are teens (mine all did). So: with all these coming together, was another great movie produced? My own view: no, it was a disaster--I could hardly stay awake for the whole 95 minutes. Everything went wrong. The people and the circumstances just didn’t fall together into a successfuj work this time. But perhaps being unrepeatable is the very essence of my chance comings-together.

My main topic for today, however, inspired by my secret inner feeling (still present after decades) when I read the NYTimes every morning (“All very well, but where are the comic strips?) is: Why hasn’t any comic strip of the kind that one really anticipates reading at the start of every day, as we used to do, emerged in recent years? For decades I and my children and family would greet the morning paper, wherever we were--not the NYTimes but a local paper--to see some particular comic strip for that day. Most of you will remember them: the ones that somehow went beyond the daily little joke, that really engaged reader-viewers with the characters in them. Just for starters: in recent years, “Calvin and Hobbes,” before its creator stopped doing them; before that, “Peanuts” (Charlie Brown, Lucie, and the crew); before that, “Pogo”--and so on back. Why no successor, no comic strip with characters and situations that one really cares about, becomes emotionally involved with? (Yes, I know, there is “Doonesbury,” but that’s become more political than engaging, at least for me.) In Vancouver I used to buy the Vancouver Sun and other local papers, or read them at the supermarket, partly to read the comics pages. Anyway, let me go back over some of the comics that have been, in this way, seriously engaging for large audiences over the decades--the kind we used to talk about among ourselves (“Did you see what happened to Snoopy this morning?”)

I’ll begin--no, not with “Little Nemo”, I’m not that old--but with George Harriman’s great “Krazy Kat” series, which ran in daily papers from 1913 until the author’s death in 1944. About that, let me only say that I’ve bought pretty much all the “Krazy Kat” reprint collections as they came out, and gone through them with fascination and pleasure--they form a tall pile on one of my bookshelves. If there is a cartoon that rose to the level of high art, this is it. With one simple plot and three main characters, Harriman strung out a rich world of endless invention, crafting a hybrid language for them to speak (New York Jewish/Yiddish played a big part in it) and placing them in a quasi-surreal landscape that changed from frame to frame. (The same Harriman did the illustrations for the early publications of “Archy and Mehitabel,” but that appeared in daily column, not as a comic strip.)

Some I will name without commenting on in detail include “Bringing Up Father” (Maggie and Jiggs, a wife with high-society pretensions vs. a man who kept his low Irish taste for the likes of corned beef and cabbage); “Barney Google” (I can still sing several verses of the song if one pushes the right button); “Mutt and Jeff;” “The Katzenjammer Kids,” which took us back to German Expressionism, Struwelpeter, and Lionel Feininger; “Popeye,” with Olive Oyl, Wimpy the lover of hamburgers and Alice the Goon Girl; the extraordinary “Smokey Stover,” the ultimate surrealist strip--“Nov schmoz kapop” is still part of my inner vocabulary, although I haven’t used it much in actual conversation, and I can never visit a notary without wanting to tell him or her about “Notary Sojak.” “Gasoline Alley,” starring Skeezix and others in a family drama with characters who really aged with the years; “Blondie,” starring the ill-starred Dagwood and his endless troubles with his boss, his next-door neighbor, and people who came to his door. Popular adventure strips included “Prince Valiant,” for which I always admired the drawing (tradition of Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth) more than the story; and “Terry and the Pirates,” with an exciting serial-like story line that intersected with real events.

Then there was ” L’il Abner,” which ran from 1934 to 1977, and introduced political and social commentary to the comic strip. Everybody read it, knew about Sadie Hawkins Day when the girls pursued the boys, and about Mammy and Pappy Yokum (I still find myself repeating his line “It war mainly true” on relevant occasions.) All these have their websites of special admirers and collectors, as I find on Googling them. (I am leaving out the comic-book characters such as “Superman” and “Batman”--I wish I had kept the first Superman which I bought for ten cents at a store in Fort Bragg--I did keep, fortunately, a run of early “Mad” Magazines that my daughter Sarah still treasures.)

Then there was--and still is, in numerous reprints and picture- and song-books, of which my younger children have quite a few--the great “Pogo,” the possum who lived in the Okeefanokee Swamp in Florida along with Albert the Alligator and a rich cast of other characters. It ran from the 1940s until after Walt Kelly’s death in 1977. If there was a strip (other than “Krazy Kat”) that created its own language, this is it; and it created also an endlessly entertaining world of place and characters, rich comic-narrative invention. It carried on the tradition of injecting social and political commentary into the stories and characters, even including a bitterly mocking portrait of Senator Joseph McCarthy. We could all sing, around Christmas, “Deck us all with Boston Charley, Walla-walla Wash and Kalamazoo.”

Coming to more recent times, and strips that will be remembered by those much younger than myself: the great American (and foreign) favorite was of course “Peanuts,” about which I needn’t say much of anything. The trials of Charlie Brown and his friends Lucie, her brother Linus, and Schroder who played Beethoven on the piano, of Charlie’s dog Snoopy who imagined himself a World War One flying ace and led a scout troop of little birds, and all the rest--nothing more need be said. And then, bless the gods, there was “Calvin and Hobbes,” whose daily and Sunday adventures we followed until its creator decided to stop drawing them. My wife Hsingyuan and our twin sons still treasure the Complete Calvin and Hobbes that I bought them as a Christmas present.

So, then, to my question: Why has there been no such daily and Sunday strip in more recent times? OK, I can think of and name a few that readers may call to my attention, such as the long-running one about the Viking warrior and his dominating wife, or the endless soap-opera about Mary Worth--those don’t qualify, in my book. Have we (as I sadly believe) entered an age that doesn’t encourage or welcome the creation of these alternative comic worlds and the lovable characters who used to populate them? Just about the only continuing joke that raises an inner smile in me is the NYTimes editorial columnist’s one about Mitt Romney’s dog riding to Canada on the roof of his car. And that allows me to conclude this long blog by writing: It’s been only a few hours since I watched the owner of that car make his much-admired speech at the GOP convention in Florida, and I’m inspired to worry: have we lost our ability to see through such false posturing, lacking as we do the comic-strip characters such as Pogo and L’il Abner who would have exposed him for the fraud that he is--a cold fish who is misportrayed, with bottomless funding, as a caring individual?  If so, alas for my poor country! And with that, good night. (August 30th 2012.)

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