My local newspaper has just stopped carrying Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant comic strip, a feature arguably more engaging and attractive than the rest of the paper. The very reasons for the strip’s prestige are doubtless the reasons it was cut: its dramatic story, continuous since the beginning in 1937, and its extraordinary epic panels using narrative rather than speech balloons. In spite of the constant reiteration of similar adventures, the highly conventionalized characters, and the frequent recourse (especially in recent years) to fabulous beasts, I could never resist reading Prince Valiant. In fact, as Eco demonstrated so persuasively in the case of Superman, its repetitive qualities constitute the charm of the genre.
There were at one time many such comics with dramatic stories, told in serial fashion, with only a few pictures every week (or day) to advance the story from one crisis to the next. Mandrake the Magician, often regarded as the first modern superhero, battled iniquity with his third world associate Lothar (in a role like the Green Hornet’s Kato, Lone Ranger’s Tonto, and Red Ryder’s Little Beaver, not to mention Queequeg, Jim, and Chingachgook). As it happened, my grandparents had cardboard boxes containing years of Sunday color comics, so I could experience the almost guilty pleasure of reading one episode after another in quick succession.
In the golden age of comics, they were meant for adults as well as children, just as on screen animation included Grim Natwick’s risqué Betty Boop and Ub Iwerk’s version of Minnie the Moocher (who learned in Chinatown “how to kick the gong around”) with a walrus as Cab Calloway. Since Gilbert Seldes’ 1924 The Seven Lively Arts convincingly argued that popular arts were among America’s most significant cultural contributions, cultural criticism has provided the neat cooptation two-step of reinforcing Seldes’ assertion of the value of studying these works with the very most academic of rhetoric while at the same time ignoring his aesthetic discernment of difference. In fact, some of his aesthetic judgments look sound after all these years: Chaplin, jazz, and Krazy Kat are secure in a newer canon.
My own juvenile reading was focused more on comic books of the “talking animals” type, mostly Disney: the great Carl Barks’ Duck episodes in exotic locales accompanied by stirring and literate writing (such as “The Seven Cities of Cibola”), Mickey Mouse serials in the back with Mickey as a sort of more wholesome Bogart, Uncle Scrooge from the inception. I liked Marjorie Henderson Buell’s Little Lulu and devoured Classics Illustrated, but the book form (52 page comic as many proudly declared) and film animation as well are altogether different from either daily or Sunday newspaper strips like Prince Valiant.
Among the strips from the classic era of this genre, I never cared for the cuteness of William Donahey’s Teeny Weenies. (Palmer Cox’s Brownies had more weirdness, individuality, and art.) Nor was I particularly fond of the inhabitants of Frank King’s Gasoline Alley whose domestic epic of moved in real time and (so far) four generations (while the more recent For Better or Worse by Lynn Johnston, has had time only for a single generation to come to maturity). I do admire George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, but will leave its praise to others who have included E. E. Cummings and Jack Kerouac, as well as Seldes who said it was "the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America today." Windsor McCay’s strips Little Nemo features grand and fantastic panoramas and his Dreams of Rarebit Fiend is probably staged as far back in the subconscious as any comic.
Some of the sense of beauty and mystery in McCay and Herriman lingers for me in work like Carl Anderson’s Henry, Otto Soglow’s The Little King, and Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby (where the subject of fantasy itself is engaged in a fashion later explored by Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes), but none of these is a match for Major Hoople of Gene Ahern’s Our Boarding House. I can be enthusiastic about the Major’s costume: the striped pants and wing collars, looking formal if rumpled, and the wonderful fez. His language strove for grandiloquence, though his speeches were regularly punctuated by a wide variety of inarticulate wheezes and coughs, perhaps in part the result of his cigar habit. His conflicts with his wife, a mighty and square-jawed woman were unending (quite a contrast to W. C. Field’s wives who, though shrill, aimed for gentility), Still for all his bulging gut and bulbous nose, the reader would much prefer to inhabit Major Hoople’s coarse majesty than to be one of those critical, rather enigmatic, though normative young men of the boarding house.
Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy was painted by Andy Warhol and appeared in the style of a dozen modernists in a celebrated Joe Brainard Art News cover. These artists may, like myself, have found beguiling Bushmiller’s super-reductive scenes with their geometric simplification of form, his gags, sometimes astonishing in their flatness, but often infused with wonder, with surprise and synchronicities blossoming like orchids in a world of utter convention. A large question mark, suspended in the air in an all but empty living room! Is it numinous?
I am pleased that the strip I most enjoyed as a child seems to me equally worthy today. Walt Kelly’s Pogo seems to me unexcelled in its Shakespearean luxuriance of language, its word-play, inside jokes, and general verbal exuberance. The Okefenokee ability to stretch and disrupt language began with the verbal freedom of regional usage, on top of which each character spoke a specific expressive idiolect. Kelly is one of the great exponents of the comic strip breakthrough beyond language, using words like mumph. Queerp, whooie or “mm.m…mMM an’ MmmmmM” (Howland Owl smelling a tasty pot of food shortly before falling in). He exploited graphic possibilities, using different typeface for P. T. Bridgeport, Sarcophagus Macabre, Deacon Mushrat, and others. He packed the strip with intertextuality, making references to a dizzying range of history and culture. I knew Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered as shady, well-traveled bats long before I had heard much of Ella Fitzgerald, and I read a proverbial sort of warning in Pogo, “You can’t tinker for ever with chance” before I learned there had once been a day when the Cubs were winners. And the pure poetry that sometimes erupted like a glorious geyser in the middle of the page! Who else could declare with such energy:
Come all you young sports,
come eat up your warts,
for that is the way to grow!
Perhaps this is the best-loved of his effusions:
Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., an' Kalamazoo!
Nora's freezin' on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!
Kelly could be lyrical (for a moment) as well:
Have you ever while pondering the ways of the morn
Thought to save just a bit
Just a drop in the horn
To pour in the evening or late afternoon
Or during the night
When we're shining the moon
Have you ever cried out while counting the snow
Or watching the tomtwit warble hello
Break out the cigars!
This life is for squirrels
We're off to the drugstore to whistle at girls