One of the classics among gag cartoons shows a little blonde in a diaphanous negligee sitting on the lap of a beefy old Casanova in a bathrobe. “But, Daddykins!”, she is wailing, “If we’re not engaged, what are we?”
Sometimes when I am tricked into confessing what I do for a living, my questioner explodes with all the righteous wrath of a zealot scorning a heretic: “Those aren’t comic strips. They aren’t funny!” And, like the distressed doxy in the cartoon, I start brooding. If they aren’t comic strips, what are they?
Actually, it isn’t the semantic problem that bothers me. It is the accusing tone with which the charge is hurled, as if writing a serious “comic” strip were as revolting a crime as skinning Aunt
Harriet to make a lampshade. Granted, the term is an awkward misnomer, carried over from the past, but we are continually using words which have lost their original reference. Any kind of a weapon, even an air-gun, is “fired.” Because we once drove horses, we continue to “drive” automobiles. Turbine-propelled ships always “sail.” And I have a notion that all non-editorial cartoons, regardless of shape or content, will forever be called “comic” strips.
The memories of critics get fogged by nostalgia when it comes to comics. “Why aren’t all your features funny,” they ask an editor, “like they were when I was a kid—rich, native American humor?” I have grim news for the critics. I went back recently and read some of that native American humor. If it were printed today, anyone who laughed at it would be gently led away to the loony-bin. Most of it was the crudest of pointless slapstick.
This, of course, is not unnatural. In the history of a cultural form, the comic usually comes first, the serious follows. Just as stone-age humor marked the early comics—”Happy Hooligan,” “Her Name Was Maud” and the rest of the hit-on-the-head school—so did the Keystone Cops dominate the early flickers and so did corny comedy monopolize the pioneering programs on radio and television. Today, in the latter medium, the Emmy awards go to shows like “Playhouse 90.”
The story is repeated in the history of comic strips. The public was beginning to tire of “Wham!” and “Pow!” humor some 30-odd years ago, when Sol Hess began experimenting with continuity in “The Gumps.” Hess kept the characters comic, but a serial story replaced the daily “joke.” The new device was a real lifesaver. Comics creators, quick to sense a trend, went for it as whole-heartedly as 1957 car designers went for the shark-fin fender. Serial strips soon replaced the newspaper serial story as a circulation builder and, within a few years, Life magazine was to term them “America’s favorite form of fiction.”
Along in the late 30s, a further seep toward making the comic strip a legitimate narrative art form was taken when some of us started probing hitherto unexplored psychological depths, beefing up dialog for stronger characterization, and striving generally for the same audience reached by slick paper fiction in consumer magazines. Perhaps we are still shore of that goal, but story strips are more mature every day.
An aggressive syndicate salesman walked into the office of a great newspaper’s editor recently and proposed that he throw out “all those soap-operas” and buy some of the new gag strips.
“We took a survey here recently,” the editor replied, “and five of the six top ratings went to human interest fiction strips. One of the most widely acclaimed humor strips of this decade finished last. Apparently, nobody likes story strips except the readers!”
Obviously, this editor would never throw out humor and put nothing on his comic page but human interest. He knows that a successful Broadway season calls for both “Visit to a Small Planet” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”; that amusing novels and starkly realistic novels rub covers on every public library shelf; that farce follows “Studio One” on television screens; that the same reader can enjoy gag strips and adventure strips.
I once attended a school where the athletes were called “Little Giants.” That phrase is about as paradoxical as “serious comics.” Some of the boys were little and some were giants. But they worked together, as a team, realizing that you needed both 130-pound quarterbacks and 200-pound tackles. And they won a lot of games.