The importance of comic books
By LONN TAYLOR
Some years ago a Unitarian minister named Robert Fulghum wrote a best-selling book called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I could write a book about what I learned from the comic strips. Between the ages of five and twelve I devoured hundreds of thousands of panels of that vivid medium, both in newspapers and in comic books. Those images still remain with me and, I suspect, with most of my generation. Many of them raised puzzling questions. Here are some things that I learned from the comics:
People got out of bed at night to throw shoes at cats wailing on board fences, usually under a full moon. I always wondered if the shoe-throwers went down barefoot the next morning to retrieve their shoes, or if they kept worn-out shoes by the bed for the purpose of throwing them at cats and, if the latter, why my parents did not keep a stack of old shoes by their bed.
Men with brushes on long poles and buckets of paste roamed around towns sticking up posters on board fences despite the fact that the fences had the words “Post No Bills” stenciled on them. What did “Post No Bills” mean? Were these the same board fences that cats howled from at night? When these fences were not being covered with posters, small boys were watching baseball games through knotholes in them. We always watched baseball games from a grandstand.
Millionaires wore silk hats and spats and carried canes. They rode around in chauffeured town cars, the kind in which the chauffeur sat in an open seat in front and the millionaire sat in a closed compartment in back. I never saw a town car anywhere we lived. In fact I have still never seen one.
Dogs said “arf” and ducks could talk.
Tough little boys from the wrong side of the tracks wore flat caps and striped pullovers and were named Sluggo and Spike. Little rich boys had names like Marmaduke, Algernon, and Rollo and wore simplified versions of Little Lord Fauntleroy suits and brimmed hats with ribbons on them.
Most children were either orphans, like Little Orphan Annie, or lived with aunts and uncles, like Nancy and Aunt Fritzi and Huey, Dewey, and Louie and Donald Duck. Even Superman was an orphan. Why did all of my friends live with their parents?
Burglars wore little black facemasks that tied behind their heads and carried their loot in bags over their shoulders, like Santa Claus.
Door-to-door salesmen always peddled gadgets like musical can openers or combination wrench-screwdrivers. The only door-to-door salesman who ever came to our house was selling bibles.
“Buz Sawyer” taught me that sailors said, “Aye, aye, sir,” to each other, and that officers and enlisted men could be friends (remember Roscoe Sweeney?). “Popeye” taught me that sailors had anchors tattooed on their arms. You couldn’t tell if Buz Sawyer had a tattoo because he always wore long-sleeved shirts.
I learned from “Terry and the Pirates” that you could always tell a Japanese spy masquerading as a Chinese because, since Japanese men wore thong sandals, their big toes stood out from the rest of their toes. I am ashamed to say that the first time my family visited Japan, in 1949, I spent a lot of time looking at men’s feet.
Mary Worth will outlive all of us. As a child, I thought that Mary Worth was modeled on my grandmother Taylor, but she died in 1968 and Mary Worth is still around.
“Li’l Abner” and “Snuffy Smith” taught me that women who live in the Appalachians smoke pipes and men there carry flintlock rifles, make moonshine, and say, ”Time’s a wastin’.”
From “Our Boarding House” I learned that husbands spent boozy evenings at lodge meetings, and when they come home they were met by wives wielding rolling pins or frying pans. My father stayed home in the evening and read, and my mother never threatened him with anything.
From “Smokey Stover” I learned that men who hung around firehouses were nicknamed Smokey. My father used to take me to visit our neighborhood firehouse in Spartanburg, South Carolina, when I was a very small child. It housed an ancient fire engine with wooden spoke wheels and a spotted Dalmatian but there was no one there my father addressed as “Smokey.” Texas had a governor in the 1850s named James Wilson Henderson who was known as Smokey Jim Henderson to distinguish him from his more elegant contemporary James Pinckney Henderson, who also served as governor, but I did not know that as a child.
I recently learned where the dissonance between the world of the comic strips I read and the world that surrounded me as I read them came from. It was because many of the strips that were in the newspapers in the 1940s and 50s had been running since the 1920s or even earlier, and the characters, costumes, and situations had never evolved with the times. The comic strips of my childhood were presenting an America that was just emerging into the twentieth century; the America that I was living in was in the middle of that century. “The Katzenjammer Kids,” with its bewhiskered Captain and skillet-wielding Mama, first appeared in 1897 and when I was reading it had been drawn by the same artist since 1912. “Bringing Up Father,” which featured the silk-hatted Irish-American millionaire Jiggs and his fastidious wife Maggie, made its debut in 1913. “Our Boarding House” dated from 1921, and its main character, the blustering Major Hoople, was based on a Civil War veteran the artist had known. “Li’l Abner”, “Snuffy Smith”, and “Nancy” were all products of the 1920s. Even “Terry and the Pirates” dated from the 1930s; Milton Caniff put Terry in the Army Air Force after Pearl Harbor Day.
I learned all of this on-line from a website called Don Markstein’s Toonpedia (www.toonpedia.com), an encyclopedia of comic strips with 1,800 articles about those images that shaped our young minds. Markstein, who died this spring, was a journalist and one-time writer for Walt Disney Comics who was obsessed with cartoon art. His website is the perfect place for a rainy-day journey into childhood, if we ever get any rain.
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Lonn Taylor is a writer and historian who lives in Fort David. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Story filed under: West Texas Talk