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The Comic Strip: A Gloriously American Institution

The newspaper comic strip section is a particularly and peculiarly American institution. I can’t deny that, being British, when I open the special Sunday edition comic pull-out—six pages’ worth, and all in color!—I feel a twinge of self-consciousness.

But I also won’t deny that I fight through that DNA-inscribed British snootiness to read on—and I’m always rewarded with more than just a chuckle. There’s plenty of underappreciated wisdom in the comic section.

Snoopy’s philosophizing in Peanuts alone is enough to justify checking in. By way of illustration in a recent panel: Charlie Brown and Linus are strolling past Snoopy. “Do you ever feel like running away?” says Linus, to which Charlie Brown replies, “Of course…sometimes I feel like I want to run away from everything.” Snoopy watches them walk on before thinking to himself: “I remember having that feeling once when I was at the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm…I climbed over the fence, but I was still in the world.”

Deep wisdom touching on self-knowledge and futility, with hints of T.S. Eliot’s “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Bizarro manages to hit home with just one illustration—the “single gag panel”—as it did when depicting a piece of fruit well past its sell-by date that has two flies on it. “Maybe it’s the rotten fruit talking,” suggests one of the flies, “but let’s find a nice decaying carcass, settle down and raise some maggots together.” Is that a message about the state of the environment, or is it a reflection on the capitalist free market model? Either way, the humor gets you thinking.

WUMO usually has something apt to say about the racy times in which we live. Two women are having coffee at a table; one of them looks rather concerned as the other, sprouting dog ears and a mussel, rhapsodizes: “It’s so smart! After having the dog filter surgically grafted onto my face, I save 20 minutes every day on Snapchat!”

That partly explains why the newspaper comic strip has such a role to play currently—never have its creators had such a rich trawl of material to work with, from the lunacy of our politicians to the lunacy of our own selves.

Comic strips, wherever found within a newspaper or without, have a sound pedigree. The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the most famous medieval examples of storytelling, using a sequence of pictures to depict events leading up to and culminating in the Battle of Hastings and the Norman conquest of England (boo). Another medieval form is the Biblia pauperum—Pauper’s Bible—basically a picture Bible, in which scrolls depict biblical events with words coming out of the mouths of the figures featured. William Hogarth’s 18th-century English cartoons include both narrative sequences—such as A Rake’s Progress—and single panels.

That notwithstanding, should comic strips really reside in a newspaper read by so-called adults? The most that a venerable British broadsheet allows is a single cartoon tucked away neatly in a small box on the front page. And we Brits know what we are doing, right?

There is a time and a place for artistic mirth, after all. And it isn’t just Brits who aren’t sure about newspaper comic strips. In his 1990 book Iron John: A Book About Men, the American poet Robert Bly takes issue with the comic strip Blondie for reinforcing stereotypes of males as buffoonish and lazy.

American writer Paul Fussell has no time for newspaper comic strips in his 1991 book Bad, Or The Dumbing of America. He says that when it comes to the worst newspapers in the country, “By their features ye shall know them: comic strips…and daily horoscopes.” (I admit that when reading the comic strip my eyes have been known to wander to the neighboring horoscope—it’s uncanny how accurate they are! How do they do it?)

Fussell’s wider point about comic strips being an example of the atrophying of serious reading habits, set within a general malaise that afflicts the newspaper industry, has credence. Nevertheless, I think the situation has changed. At least regarding comic strips, the decline of newspapers and discerning content continues and doesn’t show much sign of abating as media conglomerates purchase papers to extract maximum revenue from minimum resources.

The simple format of four panels or fewer on a newspaper sheet works similarly to Twitter, but Twitter on a good day, with all the usual vitriol replaced by old-fashioned humor to address the maddening complexities of the world. Given a choice, I know which one I’d rather learn from. The writers John Updike and Ray Bradbury both spoke of their childhood collections of comic strips clipped out of newspapers.

Comic strips hold up a distorted mirror to contemporary society, as opposed to Twitter, which too often shows a highly biased reflection, telling you that you are indeed the fairest of them all, or barking out political and social orders without a gnat of nuance.

Comic strips have often caricatured prominent politicians, especially the likes of Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, whose August 12, 1974 strip was awarded a 1975 Pulitzer Prize for its depiction of the Watergate scandal.

It’s interesting to check which newspapers do and don’t carry comic sections. I was surprised, pleasantly, when I found that the Washington Post has one (so needed after all those pages focusing in minute dry detail on the president and Washington politics).

The New York Times and The Guardian do not have comic strips—other than the latter featuring Doonesbury—an absence I can’t help find indicative of a weakness to which both succumb: they take themselves and everything else so seriously.

Their harried reader is left wading through pages and pages, or screens and screens, absent a ray of humor—or even much hope. I appreciate that we live in serious times, and that the job of internationally significant media is to report on terrible and usually underreported things. Still, you have to leaven the blows with something, as the following illustrates.

In the poetry anthology Other Men’s Flowers, the author Field Marshall A.P. Wavell recalls a soldier he knew commenting on why it was vitally important to take a moment at each day’s end to turn away from the potentially all-consuming torrent to reflect, read, and ponder. “Without the hour of meditation,” remarked the solider, “we are already far advanced into the darkness.”

The same can be said about humor—including being applied to where you might not feel it appropriate. Because if you don’t keep a sense of humor about what assails us and the world, then you are again “far advanced into the darkness.”

I have never forgotten the advice given to my 21-year-old self by my platoon instructor during my end-of-course interview after finishing a somewhat strenuous year at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, which I was just as surprised as anyone to have scraped through. “Officer Cadet Jeffrey, I think you will be all right,” intoned my instructor, his words all the more keenly felt thanks to his strong accent: he was an Australian exchange officer. “But always remember to keep a sense of humor. Otherwise you’ll be fucked.”

One last one for you, from Mother Goose & Grim. There’s a bunch of disgruntled-looking cats leaving under a banner for a Cat Motivation Seminar. “I can’t believe I paid $99.95 just to hear some guy keep calling us ‘Nice Kitty,’” says one of the cats. Doesn’t that just sum up so much of the self-help wellness industry and all the modern-day fads it churns out?

James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist who splits his time between the Horn of Africa, the U.S., and the UK, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey.

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