- Historic Sites
May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
The American comic strip once swam proudly through the central currents of twentieth-century popular culture, but it has by now been reduced to little more than a guppy floating in a media food chain with Hollywood sharks at the top. At the dusk of the twentieth century, very few even know or care about the medium enough to overrate it. In fact most of the desultory comic strips fighting for air in the cramped ghetto of today’s comics pages are barely worth rating at all.
Take Dilbert , for example. Scott Adams’s drawing has been politely described as minimalist, but he obviously doesn’t hold a candle to such past comics masters of minimalism as, say, Crockett Johnson ( Barnaby ), Otto Soglow ( The Little King ), and Jules Feiffer. Adams’s art is soulless, bankrupt, and incompetent. In that respect I suppose it might be argued that form follows function, since those are the subjects of Adams’s strip. It’s not the drawing that has made Dilbert popular. I guess it’s the humor (which I personally find formulaic and as flat as the artwork). More precisely it’s the strip’s tone, a flat, depressed whine that strikes a responsive chord in office drones. It safely transmutes the reader’s anger at stupid bosses from revolutionary impulse into a perfunctory laugh that allows them to continue on in quiet desperation. All too often popular culture is more interesting as sociology than as art, and Dilbert is hardly worse than Cathy or Garfield . All are symptoms of the sorry state of today’s newspaper strips.
In a more interesting and more interested world, one might better pin the tag of “overrated” on another embattled wage slave, Dilbert’s distant cousin Dagwood Bumstead. Chic Young’s Blondie , one of the longestlived and most popular comic strips in history, also tended toward formulaic humor after its earliest continuities, and Young also made a career out of offering his middle-class readers momentary feelings of superiority along with a chuckle of recognition. Young’s gag sense and drawing were models of machinelike efficiency and craft, but though he was awesomely competent by today’s standards, his drawing hardly came up to the cartooning virtuosity of some contemporaries like Billy DeBeck ( Barney Google ), Frank King ( Gasoline Alley ), or Cliff Sterrett ( Polly and Her Pals ), and his humor was hardly ever as surprising as, say, Elzie Segar ( Thimble Theater ) or Milt Gross ( Nize Baby ). Still, the patina of time serves Chic Young’s work well; the strip towers like a monument of wit and artistry over most of today’s offerings.
My reservations about Blondie have to do with its blandness: It not only portrays tepid middle-class values, it embodies them. Contrast this with my candidate for most underrated comic strip in our history: Harry Tuthill’s The Bungle Family , a domestic comedy strip that ran off and on from 1924 to 1945 and was fairly popular in its day but rarely gets a mention in books on the medium—and has certainly never been honored with a U.S. government postage stamp, as Blondie has. Tuthill’s grubby, uningratiating drawing style and the verbose density of his balloon prose hardly make a good first impression; Tuthill’s genius was as a writer able to put over one of the darkest visions of American life this side of Nathanael West. The lower-middle-class Bungles, George and Josephine, have no more charm than the style they’re drawn in. They are petty, mean-spirited, with no self-awareness, constantly bickering and backbiting between themselves as well as with their neighbors and landlords. There is no one panel or sequence that can encapsulate this strip’s sardonic qualities: Hell is in the details that accumulate in the repeated daily doses that the newspaper-comics theater can provide. Tuthill’s misanthropic vision (he’s the funny pages’ Céline) is painfully real, though the strip careened through surreal episodes, especially in its later years, that included visitors from outer space and time travel. Visually deadpan, genuinely hilarious once you tune into its frequency, with a great ear for dialogue and an unsurpassed sense of character, The Bungle Family grows on the reader like a fungus until, like all great art, it becomes a central reference point in one’s way of understanding the world.