Opus 36:

1. Pulpit Meltdown and Desperate Times (9/20)

2. Belated Blondie: The Strip’s 70th Anniversary (9/20)

1. Pulpit Meltdown and Desperate Times. After 66 issues, the Preacher folds his tentshow and rides off into the sunset. And what did it all come to--all 65 of the previous issues pitting Jesse against all manner of divinities and demons? He was bound for glory, Garth Ennis kept telling us. He was gonna kill God for betraying mankind and abandoning His place in Heaven. Edgy stuff. Breast-beating adolescent blasphemy. There it was: the new religion for the new millennium. Something different. And this was going to justify all the blood and gore shed en route. Well, Jesse doesn’t make it.

Jesse backs off because he loves this woman, see. And he’d rather go with her. So the actual killing is left to this old desert rat, who, after shooting God’s head off, is left to stew in his own hate. Proving that vengeance is never what it’s cracked up to be. But we didn’t need a new religion to know that: even the old time religion told us that.

Meanwhile, what our blasphemous hero discovers is that God is love--or, more precisely, that the desire to be loved and to love rules our lives just as if it were a god. Nicely ironic, considering that his criticism of God is that He wants to be adored. A perverse way of proclaiming that age-old verity, the universality of love. But then, the post-modern world is nothing if not perverse, eh?

Elsewhere, Chris Eliopoulos has ventured into new territory with his Desperate Times, a comic strip that so far has seen publication only in comic book format (although the thing is pretty obviously designed as a daily strip--which, as we shall see in a trice, may be DT’s secret weapon in a quest for wider readership). DT runs in the back pages of the Image comic book, Savage Dragon; and a year or so ago, Eliopoulos moved it to a book of its own. But through a series of dunderheaded flukes, the book wasn’t printed in sufficient quantity and/or didn’t ship on time and/or received little or no notice (except here, where it came too late, alas) in time to forestall cancellation.

"The biggest problems we have in comics today is getting new readers," Eliopoulos said via e-mail. "People have to seek out comic books, but if they’re not accessible, they may never know the wonderful stories being told out there."

In his latest maneuver, Desperate Times will take print form in a comic book published by After Hours Press and Jam Books--and, simultaneously, in an "e-book" on the Net. Fans can choose which they want. Downloading the e-book will cost only $1.

"Hopefully," said Eliopoulos, "with a humor book that reads like a comic strip, it will appeal to folks who would never dream of picking up a comic book."

Desperate Times sequences will also be published in Cracked. All this outreach is worth watching because of what it may suggest about the future distribution of cartoon products.

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2. Blondie Belated. See? They even have a word for it--belated. Overlooked occasions. Missed remembrances. And the greeting card factories have build an entire industry around this human failing. Forget your spouse’s birthday? Anniversary? They have a card for it. Belated birthday. Belated anniversary.

Not to be outdone by an entire industry, "Belated" is our theme for today’s sermon. I missed taking note of Beetle Bailey’s 50th on September 4 (Labor Day), and I was asleep at the keyboard when Jules Feiffer bid adieu with his last weekly cartoons. (Yes, plural: he took all of June to say good-bye--four cartoons, the last dated the 25th. He took so long that I feel like Rip Van Winkle.) And I didn’t wake up in time to notice that Blondie (which ranks in the top four circulation strips in the world) sneaked by her 70th almost without notice on September 8. I know women don’t like to tell their age, but this carries authenticity in characterization to a ludicrous extreme. She’s a comic strip character, after all.

Blondie differs from Beetle and Peanuts (two other autumnal anniversaries) in one key respect: the strips we see are no longer being produced by its originator, Chic Young, who died in 1973. Today’s creative team on the strip is its seventh. Unprecedented!

Blondie was Young’s fourth pretty girl strip. He started with NEA in 1921, doing The Affairs of Jane, which lasted only six months (debuting October 24). Then he moved to New York and did Beautiful Babs (starting July 15, 1922) for Bell Syndicate for four months until leaving to join King Features’ art department, where he created Dumb Dora in 1924.

Dora proved popular enough to endure longer than its forerunners, and when the stock market crash wiped out his savings, Young lobbied for more money. But Joseph V. Connolly, King’s energetic and imaginative general manager, was not inclined in that direction. Young threatened to quit; Connolly still resisted.

So Young packed himself and his wife off to the French Riviera to make his point. When Connolly wired, pleading him to return, Young consented--but only for a bigger piece of the action and his own comic strip. Connolly agreed, provided Young could come up with an acceptable creation.

Returning to New York, Young spent the summer of 1930 devising a new strip. It was yet another pretty girl feature so it couldn’t have taken that much devising, but this one would run for the next 70 years, as we’ve seen. And for most of that period, it reigned as one of the world’s most widely circulated comic strips. But it did not achieve this prominence as a pretty girl strip.

In fact, as a pretty girl strip it was about to fade away after a couple years until Young and syndicate officials hit upon a way to resuscitate their somewhat dingy blonde. They decided to marry her off, and they picked Dagwood Bumstead, heir to the millions generated by the Bumstead Locomotive Works, whose parents, sadly, did not approve of Blondie. To persuade his parents to consent to the marriage, Dagwood went on a 28-day hunger strike--a stunt that attracted considerable press at the time and, naturally, stimulated circulation. The Bumsteads finally gave in but disinherited their son, paving the way for the newlyweds to take up housekeeping in much the same state as every other couple getting married during the Depression--virtually penniless.

They married on February 17, 1933, and the strip became a domestic comedy, and with Baby Dumpling’s birth on April 15, 1934, the strip established itself as the pace-setter for the genre, inspiring almost as much merchandising in its heyday as Peanuts did in its (and still does, for that matter). As a measure of its popularity: when Blondie and Dagwood produced a daughter in 1941 and Young ran a contest to name the new arrival, 431,275 people submitted suggestions. "Cookie" was the result.

Young employed assistants almost at once. Ray McGill was first, but Alex Raymond started at about the same time. He is reputed to have produced most of the wedding day strip, and certainly the walk-on characters of this sequence look more the product of his hand than Young’s. When Baby Dumpling finally got a real name, Young used "Alexander." (The namesake was, by this time, producing Flash Gordon, Secret Agent X-9, and Jungle Jim, not a Baby Dumpling among them.)

Alex’s younger brother Jim joined the Blondie enterprise in the fall of 1935 and made a career of the strip. In 1937, Jim Raymond both wrote and drew the strip for a year while Young, recovering from the shock of his first son’s death, escaped to Europe. (At the time, the strip was loaded with jokes featuring Baby Dumpling, and thinking of gags was undoubtedly too painful an exercise.)

Raymond continued to assist on the strip thereafter, taking over the drawing entirely in 1950 when Young’s eyesight began to fail. By the time he died in 1981, Raymond had worked longer on the strip (46 years) than its originator had (43 years).

Chic’s second son Dean, after a stint as a sales promotion executive for a chain of grocery stores, had joined his father in 1963 as a writer, and he continues in that role today.

He and Raymond (who started sharing the byline in 1974) were the strip’s fourth creative team, and Raymond’s assistant for 17 years, Michael Gersher, inherited the drawing chores and became half of the fifth team. Then came Stan Drake, followed by Denis Lebrun, who continues it today.

Drake’s work, while thoroughly competent (and, in some respects--backgrounds, say--even realistic), always struck me as a little stiff (and occasionally excessively detailed for the style of the feature). His Blondie and Dagwood seemed wooden. But Lebrun has revived the lively Raymond line, and the strip looks better today than it has for years.

In fact, it looks better than a lot of its company on the comics pages. At a time when Cathybert and its ilk have made vacuous, stilted drawings the vogue, it’s refreshing to find a strip in which the characters change positions from panel to panel and register emotion and sometimes leap unrealistically up into the air, over high fences, into bathtubs, or race madly after disappearing buses, speed lines flaring, or trample postmen--behaving for all the world like characters in a comic strip (heaven forfend!).

It is also one of the few strips in which relatively complex drawings of characters stand at their full height in virtually every panel, tightly drawn, every detail in place, background figures completely rendered (including, often, the entirely superfluous dog Daisy--perhaps the best cartoon dog ever--who reacts to events like a miniature Greek chorus).

Young has attempted to bring the strip into contemporary suburban America by giving Blondie a catering business to run, but the focus of the strip remains pretty much what it has always been: the basic aspects of ordinary living--eating, sleeping, making money, and managing a household.

Dagwood and his family are ordinary folks, and most of Dagwood’s adventures begin normally enough. But before a strip reaches its punchline, a manic inventiveness, an impish perversity, inspires a zany deviation from the norm, and Dagwood, cowlicks akimbo, transcends the mundane and achieves the implausible. For those of us who lead similarly ordinary lives, the famous Dagwood sandwich is the emblem of this transition: even the humble sandwich can attain heroic, if lunatic, proportions. Thus, in the most common of our pursuits, the seeds of laughter germinate, threatening to redeem us from an unremitting sense of self-importance.

A couple of footnotes. First, about that single big button adorning Dagwood’s shirt front. Dean once explained that his dad joked that he drew a single big button because it was easier to draw than several little ones. Indubitably true. But it doesn’t really explain this oddity. Close inspection of some of Dagwood’s early appearances suggest that the button in question is the residual remains of a shirt stud, the sort that you found on the fronts of starched dress shirts in the thirties.

And as for Dagwood’s distinctive hair-do, it, too, is a graphic distortion gone wacko. Dagwood’s hair at his first appearance (in the first Blondie strip) is quite normal for its day--parted in the middle and slicked down. Subsequently, the slicked-down sides started curling up at their ends, sticking out. And the more Young drew the hair sticking out, the more stuck out it became--until, at last, it achieved the antenna-like prominence it has enjoyed for most of Dagwood’s life.

Aren’t you glad you asked?

For more comic strip history in this vein, consult a book of mine, The Art of the Comic Strip. Click here for more about that.

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