The early 1900’s were the years of the immigrant, the crowded city, and the nouveau riche class.
Some critics have observed that most of the early comics involved pretty coarse or unsavory characters in rough settings –
“The Yelow Kid” and his friends from Hogan’s Alley were slum urchins
Mutt (of “Mutt and Jeff”) was a huckster and opportunist
“Happy Hooligan” was a hobo
“Barney Google” was a gambler
“The Katzenjammer Kids” were pranksters (delinquents?) with minimal respect for Der Captain.
Although few strips mentioned the World War, in 1918 a number of newspaper cartoonists (including Gaar Williams, Rube Goldberg, Clare Briggs, and H.T. Webster) contributed strips to The Cartoon Book, to encourage the sale of Liberty Bonds. (link)
The “Roaring Twenties”, were represented by “Flapper Fannie” and “Joe Prep”. The era was chronicled by John Held Jr., Gladys Parker, and Jefferson Machamer
“Tillie the Toiler,”, “Winnie Winkle (the Breadwinner),” and “Polly (and Her Pals)” were
all working/ career women, another new phenomenon of the early years of the last century.
The poverty and bleakness of the Great Depression was seen through the eyes of “Apple Mary” and “Little Orphan Annie.” Many felt the tough climate of Chicago in the 30’s, portrayed in the early “Dick Tracy” pages.
...“The trauma of of the Great Depression was explicit in the work of Harold Gray, Chester Gould and Al Capp. Economic collapse, unemployment, labor unrest, and the gangster era – such are the subjects of “Little Orphan Annie” (1924), “Dick Tracy” (1931), and “Li’l Abner” (1934)...Utilizing diverse storytelling techniques, including editorial comment, moralizing exemplum, and tall tale, each expressed his outrage at the anarchistic thirties while yearning for a simpler place and time.” (O’Sullivan) (4)
After the nation was attacked at Pearl Harbor in 1941, several of our favorite comic characters signed up with America’s armed forces-
Skeezix enlisted in the Army.
Joe Palooka joined the Army.
Scorchy Smith signed on with the Air Force.
Captain Easy became an Army intelligence officer.
Snuffy Smith (Barney Google’s hillbilly friend) joined the Army.
Meanwhile, Don Winslow (of the Navy), Terry (and the Pirates) Lee, Buz Sawyer (U.S.Navy) and Sgt. Stony Craig (Marines) were already in uniform and fighting against the Axis forces.
The suburban culture of the 1950’s (“Hi and Lois”, “Morty Meekle”, “Willie Lumpkin”)
The mood of the early ‘60’s and the Cold War were captured in an editorial in the Saturday Evening Post:
“Time was when the most serious crisis in the funny papers occured when Maggie walloped Jiggs with a rolling pin or Ignatz hurled a brick at Krazy Kat. (Today), Dan Flagg rescues a beautiful undercover agent from Castro’s Cuba. A Khruschev-like figure shows up in Pogo. Steve Canyon is south of the border investigating Chinese Communist infiltration of Mexico. Little Orphan Annie’s Indian friend has discoverd uranium on the reservation, and Buz Sawyer’s wife and child are hostages on a ship that has been hijacked by South American revolutionaries.” (5)
The Vietnam conflict of the 1960’s and early ‘70’s intersected the comics page in “Tales of the Green Beret” and in “Doonesbury”, as B.D. went off to war wearing his football helmet
News items reflected in the funnies of the ‘70’s included Skylab (“Peanuts”), cults (“Spider-Man”), discos (“Dennis the Menace”), an energy crisis (gas crunch gags), the environment, the Equal Rights Amendment (“Tank McNamara”), and cloning (“Dick Tracy”)
The 1970’s also brought several new perspectives to the funnies-
“Cathy” (1976), by Cathy Guisewite, centers on the struggles of a young single career woman.
“Cathy is a young, unmarried junior executive torn between feminist and traditional beliefs. ‘I have it all....the worst of both worlds.’” (6)
“Doonesbury” (1970) by Garry Trudeau featured Zonker Harris, “an aging flower child” and Joanie Caucus, who escaped from her husband and children to become a liberated woman and attend law school.
“Splitsville” (1976) by Reynolds Dodson and Frank Baginski broke new ground by featuring a divorced couple and their world. Georgia Dullea described the strip’s characters this way: “Carmen Singleton is rechanneling her energies into joging, yoga, therapy, est, and Transcendental Meditation. Her ex-husband Marcus, spend his time working, bowling, paying alimony, and faling asleep in front of the TV set. Their eight-year-old daughter, Aida, lives with Carmen and visits Marcus on weekends.” (7)
THE FUNNIES REFLECT US
The comics, taken as a whole, are certainly a mirror of society, reflecting us “warts and all.” Unlike the movies, they are still sufficiently unreal that people are seldom pushed to copy the looks and lifestyles of their favorite funnies.
“Examine the comics in any daily newspaper,” suggested Inge, “and each will be found to support some commonly accepted notion or standard of society. ‘Blondie’, ‘Archie’, ‘Mary Worth’, ‘Li’l Abner’, and ‘Gasoline Alley’ in different ways support the idea that the family is the basic social unit. ‘Judge Parker’, ‘Rex Morgan’, ‘Mark Trail’, and ‘Gil Thorpe’ support the concepts of decency and fair play among the professions. While ‘The Wizard of Id’, ‘B.C.’, ‘Peanuts’, ‘Funky Winkerbean’, ‘Dooesbury’, ‘Bloom County’ and ‘Shoe’ are overtly satirical, they also provide a rational standard against which the abberations they portray can be measured and found laughable.” (Inge) (8)
What was American society like at the end of the 20th Century? Judging form the funnies, we would surmise that
Most Americans work to support themselves and, usually, a family
Most Americans dislike paying taxes and bills – they complain, but pay
“Pop,”asks the young girl (Priscilla), “What do you think of our government?”
“I find it very taxing!” replies her dad with a smile. (“Priscilla’s Pop” 1-6-83)
Most Americans look forward to weekends (especially the golf course) and vacations
Most Americans are basically patriotic
Most Americans own a car, a television, and read a newspaper
Most gags revolve around the daily things of life - home, family, and relationships,
work, leisure activities, technology and computers.
From certain strips we would pick up hints of the culture that wouldn’t have been present a hundred years earlier-
“How was the wedding?” asks Thirsty’s wife. “I can’t get used to these modern ceremonies,” replies Lois.”Now, instead of saying ‘I do,’ they say ‘I already did.”
(“Hi and Lois” 8-18-86)
“Adam” (by Brian Bassett) is a househusband, taking care of the kids at home while his wife, Laura, works as a stockbroker.
Syvia, daughter of Earl and Opal “Pickles,” until recently was a single mom raising a young son in her parents’ home.
Fifteen –year old Jeremy Duncan (“Zits”) wants his parents (downstairs) to communicate with him, and send meal menus, by e-mail.
“What do you have that’s off the beaten track?,” the prospective buyer asks realtor Lois Flagston. “I’m looking for a house to go with my new S.U.V.” (“Hi and Lois” 10-9-2001)
“Dilbert” gets thrown when the office e-mail server goes down-
“Don’t panic.. think.. how would the ancients handle this?..I’ve got some combustible materials..I can start some sort of fire..”
Chic Young, creator of “Blondie,” wrote the following advice to would-be cartoonists-
“A comic strip of national circulation must fit into a certain groove to entertain the greatest number of people and offend no one. A few ‘don’t do’s’: a comic strip should not lend itself to propaganda, its sole purpose being the amusement of the reader. Politics,
religion, and racial subjects should be avoided for obvious reasons. The comic strip is a medium that goes right into the home, and its contents should be of the most wholesome nature, this, in spite of the license now given to other forms of entertainment. I think reference to liquor should be avoided..the characters in ‘Blondie’ do not even use cigarettes. Divorce, infirmities of the body, sickness, and other such unpleasant subjects do not lend themselves to satisfactory humor for comic strips and should not be used.” (9)
Young followed his own advice with great success - “Blondie” appeared in more papers than any other other strip. Social issues, however, have come into the funnies with a flurry.
Recently, Tom Batiuk’s “Funky Winkerbean,” originally a gag-a-day strip set in a small town high school, has become a major venue for the discussion of serious social issues.
In the Sunday strip of Jamuary 21, 2001, the lead character, now graduated from high school and working for Montoni’s Pizza, finally had to walk into a room full of strangers and admit, “My name is Funky...and I’m an alcoholic!” Funky proceeded through an AA program and regained his sobriety with the help of supportive friends only to find by the following year that his attractive newscaster wife was leaving him for a job in New York City.
A previous sequence (from 1999) dealt with Lisa Moore in her battle with breast cancer. Lisa has worked part-time for Montoni’s Pizza while attending law school. Batiuk spent nearly four years researching and developing the six-month sequence in which Lisa discovers a lump, is diagnosed with cancer, undergoes mastectomy and chemotherapy, while husband Les tries to be supportive.
Thirteen years earlier, as a high school student, Lisa was the focus of a sequence that dealt with teen pregnancy.
Since its creation in 1972, “Funky Winkerbean” has tackled such issues as
Guns in school
For many years “Doonesbury” by Garry Trudeau, has plunged into social and political issues – to the extent that many newpapers carry the strip in the editorial pages, rather than with “Blondie” and “Garfield.”
Issues touched by “Doonesbury” have included
The Vietnam War
Women’s liberation (Joanie Caucus)
Marijuana (Zonker Harris)
The tobacco lobby (“Mr. Butts”)
The Gulf War
AIDS (the death of Andy Lippincott, 1989)
Corporate greed (Mark’s dad)
Energy policy (Duke)
War on terrorism / suicide bombers
and the foibles of every president since the strip began.
The announcement, in 1994, in Lynn Johnston’s “For Better or Worse” by Michael’s friend Lawrence that he was gay brought about 15 cancellations of the strip and 50
Requests for substitute material. (Lawrence has remained a side character and was best man at Michael’s wedding in 2001.)
Other issues spotlighted in the comic strips include-
“Luann” – cancer and chemotherapy (Delta), school cheating
“Crankshaft” – Alzheimer’s disease, illiteracy
“Bloom County” – racism, drugs, corporate greed
“Gil Thorp” – drugs, homosexuality
“Rex Morgan, M.D.” – drug abuse, alcoholism, AIDS, domestic violence, sexual harrassment, dozens of medical conditions
“Mary Worth” – delinquency, unwed motherhood, drug addiction, abuse, alcoholism, care for the elderly
(Mary’s traditional “sermons” have been: retirement isn’t the end of the world, marriage vows are solemn promises, disabilities do not exclude people from living.)
Politics, race, sex, and religion have found their way into the funnies.
COMICS AND POLITICS
COMICS AND RACE
COMICS AND S_X
COMICS AND RELIGION
1. Culhane, John, “The Funnies Are Us,” Reader’s Digest, June 1979, p.163.
2. Dyrness, William, “Funnies,” His, November 1972, p.27.
3. O’Sullivan , Judith, The Great American Comic Strip, Bullfinch, 1990, p.10.
4. O’Sullivan, p.14
5. “The Funny (?) Papers,” Editorial, Saturday Evening Post, Sept. 28, 1963.
6. Astor, David, Editor and Publisher, April 16, 1983, p. 31.
7. Quoted in Culhane, op.cit.
8. Inge, M. Thomas, Comics as Culture,University of Mississippi Press, 1990, xii.
9. Young, Chic, quoted in Robinson, Jerry, The Comics, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1974, p. 158.
Prepared by Paul Leiffer and Hames Ware
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