From Dogpatch to Slobbovia
The “superior” or “OK” comic strip, aimed at an audience that might include readers of books also, cannot be very ancient. While I was growing up, there always seemed to be at least one around. (I don’t mean to include Mutt and Jeff, by the way, enshrined among the allusions in Finnegans Wake.) I always think of them as occurring in sequence, although they undoubtedly overlapped for years; at different times in my life one or another would seem worth reading. Thus, the starkly lyrical Krazy Kat appeared in the Sunday comics during my child-hood (Herriman’s strip might be said to be the first of the “OK” series), but it was not until I had been thoroughly corrupted by a sense of history and, alas, by an appreciation of archetypal paradigms, that I realized that Krazy was authentic and visionary. But the rest of the series follows historical periods clearly enough. There was Barnaby during my popular-front high school days; Crockett Johnson’s hard-edge, watered-down Crock of Gold seems so inseparable now from the very format of PM that I wonder how it ever outlasted its original showcase.
Then, suddenly, Pogo was upon us and, after the inevitable too much of a good thing, I seem to remember people’s interest shifting away from the static strip to the first unquestionably original graphic techniques of the early UPA animated cartoons. But when the sophisticated abstraction, parody of animation and dubbing, and casual plots of the UPA group were taken over by the producers of the same old tedious and appallingly silly cat-flatteners, suddenly there was Peanuts to be pointed out to one by some technological, non-literary friend. And so it will no doubt continue.
It must be said, though, that all the time this was going on, there was Li’l Abner for those who cared. It outlasted so many of the other advanced strips because its particular virtues never seemed tied to the pace of any one decade. Krazy Kat’s Beckett-like reduction of reality to a few stage props may seem modish today, but the spirit of the strip is still that of pre-depression, marginal city life. Barnaby, for all its rather Parisian de-mythologizing of myth, was really, after all, in the words of PM’s immortal manifesto (have you forgotten it?) “against people who push other people around.” Pogo’s forte was primarily for language, and its dense and detailed pictorial space always seemed to me to support rather than outshine it. But then again, after all, Pogo was the anti-McCarthyite comic strip, and after it seemed obvious that Adlai Stevenson would never get to be President, its whole world seemed somehow less relevant. And so on. The elegant seriousness of the children in Peanuts, the whole collection of middle-class characterological prototypes, still beautiful because still unwrecked by suburbia, may withstand reality for a little while longer.
But this, too, shall pass. Only Li’l Abner would seem to be with us always. Its origins in an urban, New Deal view of all of…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.