Back When the Comic Strip was Comical

THE president of my college, who is a retiring man, offered some farewell remarks at the recent annual congregation of the righteous, and admitted in passing that he is an addict of what he called the ``comic strip.'' So was I, somewhat, back when they had a tendency to be comical. It is the privilege of anybody, I grant, to retire when he's a mind to, and I believe an octogenarian should speak of things lost and forgotten lest they remain so. I also believe that all practicing octogenarians should reread the poignant tale of Gil Blas and the Archbishop of Grenada at least every six months; I start on it again next Tuesday. It would make a good comic strip. Our college president is not yet an octogenarian, and as I count on my fingers he need not be the final authority on comic strips.

Milton Caniff, who did ``Terry and the Pirates,'' used to say his job was not to sell today's paper. It was his function, and Terry's, to sell tomorrow's paper - today's was already printed and in the reader's hands. Thus the cliff-hanger technique replaced that of ``leave 'em laffin'!'' Most strips became no more than pictures of a continued story.

When I spent three months in Germany back in 1953, I didn't see ``Dick Tracy'' until I came home, and I found him and Gravel Gertie precisely where they were when I left, cliff-hanging daily to entice tomorrow's crowd.

At that time the German press was doing little with cartoons and regarded them as cheap American trash, the exception being a couple of the sensational asphalt papers openly imitating what was considered ``yellow journalism'' of The States. There was one such tabloid in Munich called a ``Revolverblatt'' that liked crime and disturbance, and printed a translation of ``Blondie.''

Blondie proved appealing to the Germans - not for the American humor of the English language strip, but because no German could believe that an American husband would put up with the indignities Dagwood took from Blondie. Dagwood, incidentally, translated as Dinkwart. Here, he could be laughed at; over there he was pathetic, but great for laughs. Those stupid Americans!

The German editors' disinclination for comic strips had a curious side, since German cartoonists played a big part in their early success. Thomas Nast was born at Landau, and while not (pardon the term) a strip artist, he had his influence on caricature.

Then there was F. Opper, who did ``Alphonse & Gaston,'' ``Her Name Was Maud,'' and ``Happy Hooligan.'' He also did drawings for Bill Nye's best book, his ``Comic History of the United States.''

Then came Dirks with his ``Katzenjammer Kids.'' There was a hassle over that strip, and competition hired another German, Knerr, to do ``Der Captain and the Kids,'' little more than a duplication. Both were long successful, and had a Till Eulenspiegel quality that was always punished in the last square when Der Captain spanked the kids.

Perhaps an answer to this German paradox can be found in a remark of Charles Addams. He said he considered his best drawings were the ones that needed no captions, but that when one of these would be reprinted in a German publication, the editor always added the line, ``This cartoon needs no caption.''

One strip which might have been ``Polly and her Pals'' had a father character that never took off his hat. He still wore it in the wrong places and at the wrong times. He looked something like this:

Along about 1920, agitation developed (perhaps instigated by an astute editor such as mine) to make the guy take off his hat when he should. This was played to the hilt, and as time ran along everybody was waiting for the hat to come off. One day, glory be! it did, and Father looked like this:

Based on that kind of thing, my award for the dullest strip goes without contest to ``Little Orphan Annie,'' and my gold watch with its brocade fob goes to ``Bringing Up Father'' by George McManus. It had Jiggs and Maggie and lots of corned beef and cabbage. Hon. Ment. goes to ``Dick Tracy,'' but only because it was drawn by Chet Gould and the prototype for Gravel Gertie was great-great-great-grandmother Millicent Moody Gould, a common ancestor. Millicent was noted for shooting bears.

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