Fag: NORAM 102 American Popular Culture
Tidspunkt: Høsten 2002
Topic: Choose two or three of your favorite American
comic strips and discuss their significance in the context of modern American
For this assignment, I have chosen the three strips Krazy Kat, Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes, three of the most artistically renowned and acclaimed strips of the 20th century. Beyond their ability to entertain, they are also able to say something meaningful about philosophical and social issues. There is also a creative link between them, as the creators of the two latter strips have been influenced by their predecessor(s). I will try to give a brief introduction to each strip before assessing predominant themes and subject matters.
George Herriman: Krazy Kat (1913)
Herriman (1880-1944), the creator of Krazy Kat, succeeded in becoming a comic strip aritst in 1909, when the Hearst newspaper New York Journal started printing his The Dingbat Family (later renamed The Family Upstairs), in which Krazy and Ignatz were peripheral participants. Krazy Kat became a strip of its own in 1913, and got a Sunday page in 1916. However, it never became a commercial success, and was able to survive only because of Hearst’s admiration for the strip. His editors begged his permission to lose the strip (most readers were puzzled and down-right bored by Krazy Kat), but Hearst persisted. Fortunately, according to all critics and connaisseurs of the medium. It ran until Herriman’s death in 1944. The strip is today described by Maurice Horn as being “universally acclaimed as the greatest comic strip” (Horn 1999:457), and in 2000 was announced the number one comic strip of all time by The Comics Journal. Other admirers include Ernest Hemingway, E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot and Pablo Picasso.
The spatial setting of the strip is Coconino County, apparantly a poetic picture of the deserts of Arizona; the temporal is late 19th/early 20th century. The environment is surrealistically described by Herriman: Day changes into night from one frame to the next, buildings and vegetation disappear and reappear or metamorphose and the landscape in general is less than constant.
The three main characters of the strip are the cat Krazy Kat, the mouse Ignatz and the dog Bull Pupp. Krazy Kat is hopelessly in love with Ignatz, Ignatz in his turn despises Krazy, and Bull Pupp is in love with Krazy and tries to defend her from the tempered and violent Ignatz. There are also other, more or less interesting, more or less enduring peripheral characters, but the participants of the love triangle always remain the core of the strip’s universe.
Krazy’s declarations of love for Ignatz are always rewarded by firm blows of bricks to her neck, mistaken by Krazy as expressions of love. For his misdeeds, Ignatz is always put in jail by Bull Pupp. This simple, static plot is repeated over and over in all kinds of imaginable manners. Their is no real progress in Krazy Kat. However, the strip also tells other funny, touching, macabre or odd stories most oftenly including peripheral characters. Otherwise, it would have gotten dull, no matter how poetic it is.
Herriman did not conform to the visual nor linguistic norms of his day, he often tampered with the formal lay-out of the strip, and the constant onomatopoea, slang, spelling mistakes, puns and other ortographic games are trademarks of the strip. Also, Herriman gave the characters an androgynous nature, quite unheard of at the time of its publishing.
The significance of Krazy Kat and its enduring popularity among besserwissers can first and foremost be ascribed to its portrayal of love unfulfilled and isolated emotions. As the song goes: “The world will always welcome lovers/as time goes by” (Hupfield), its theme is timeless. We are presented with various kinds of love in this strip, of which many of us are able to familiarize with one or more.
Krazy is no masochist enjoying Ignatz’s brick-throwing, nor is she a martyr loving him despite it. She simply loves him in all her naïvité because he makes her “a heppy, heppy ket”. Pupp, on the other hand, is probably only able to cultivate his passion in masochistic silence. And he fails to recognize that his police protection is not for Krazy’s own good. Yet, in his ignorance, he may be happy after all. He has got his secret love, and the certainty that he is a law-abiding citizen. Whereas Ignatz, poor little thing, is the only unhappy one of the three. He is frustrated beacause all of his attempts at extinguishing Krazy’s love have an opposite result. But Ignatz fails to comprehend this. If he had, then he probably would have stopped, and thus achieved his goal. As wise men have always known, love makes blind. And, apparantly, so does hatred.
Seen from another perspective, shouldn’t Krazy - if her love is truly borderless and not only self-centered - fulfill Ignatz’s wish of leaving him alone? There is something truly terrifying about Krazy’s absolute - and perhaps near-psychotic - love: Ignatz has no chance of escaping it. Meanwhile, it also blinds her from Bull Pupp’s more earthbound, quiet love. That is not to say that she would have been as happy with the bourgeois Pupp as with the anarchistic Ignatz.
E. E. Cummings described the strip as “a burlesque melodrama”, illustrating that the democratic ideal (Krazy) can only become reality if and when society (Pupp) no longer succeeds in oppressing the individual (Ignatz).
Others, like Horst Schröder, have seen the androgynous nature of the charachters as a spring board to understand the underlying evolutionary theme of the strip: - If a crazy she cat can become a “krazy person kat”, then perhaps the so-called homo sapiens will once evolve into persona sapientior. (Schröder 1982:66).
Charles M. Schulz: Peanuts (1950)
Schulz (1922-2000), one of the legends of the industry, was contracted in 1950 by United Feature Syndicate. His name suggestion Li’l Folks was rejected, and the strip would be known as Peanuts. It ran until his death in 2000. One of the most commercially successful strips ever, it made Schulz a very rich man, and according to Guinness Book of Records (1996) it runs in more than 2300 newspapers in 68 countries. Compilations are constantly being published, and the merchandise income is considerable. 16 cartoons and 2 animated feature films and a musical have been produced. Nonetheless, the commercial appeal of the strip has not had any effect on critics, the strip being praised by an almost universal press corps, and ranked second only to Krazy Kat in the aforementioned Comics Journal ranking. Analysts and exegets like Robert Short and Jeffrey Loria have written several insightful books on the strip.
The setting of Peanuts is the latter half of the 20th century in WASP Suburbia. Schulz’s depictions of this environment and its inhabitants are visually fairly plain. Not to say that they are boring, but the attention to detail and the exciting use of color in such different strips as Little Nemo in Slumberland (Winsor McCay) and Superman (Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) are features totally absent from the strip.
The main character is Charlie Brown, the everyman. He is in love with a never-depicted red-haired girl in his school. His best friend Linus van Pelt is a fragile intellectual who is unnaturally connected to his security blanket. Linus’ sister Lucy is a crabby child-bitch who complains about everything and everyone, especially Charlie Brown. Yet, she has a tender spot: Her unanswered crush on Schroeder, a musically gifted boy with an admiration for Beethoven. Then there’s Sally, Charlie’s sister, who has an ambivalent attitude towards school and an unanswered crush on Linus. The rough but generous Peppermint Patty, who fosters an unanswered love for Charlie Brown (or Chuck, as she calls him), and her apprentice-like, shy friend Marcie make up the rest of the central human characters. More or less peripheral are Rerun, Pigpen, Franklin and a few others. Snoopy, on the other hand, occupies a place of his own in the strip. He is (in his imagination, at least), the antithesis to Charlie Brown: A great writer, a great lover and a flying ace. His canary sidekick Woodstock is also worth mentioning.
There is no linear plot in Peanuts, nor is there one repetitive plot as the one in Krazy Kat. Instead, we are presented with fragments of the kids’ lives, told coherently through one or (more often) more strips. Nevertheless, some things are revisited time after time: Baseball matches, Linus’s belief in the “Great Pumpkin”, Lucy pulling the ball away from Charlie Brown and so on.
The most important theme of this strip, to which it owes its significance and its endurance, is that of the great American unsuccess story. The various defeats and the unhappy romances of the kids, their trials and tribulations with regards to friendship and loneliness dominate the strip. Like most of us, there is nothing truly special about Charlie Brown. He is the average student, the manager of a rather unsuccessful baseball team, the unhappy kite-flyer and he can never seem to summon enough courage to go over and talk to the little red-haired girl with whom he has fallen in love. Lucy appears to be confident, but she is really a very confused, insecure girl; frustrated and crabby because she seems to be unable to bond with other people. Linus is obviously the most insecure of them all despite his academic talents, and year after years he is disappointed by the failure of the “Great Pumpkin” to show up for Halloween. Sally is truly angstful about school and education in general, and like many of the others, she lives each day with an unanswered love inside of her. The children who act and reason like adults, the situations in which comedy is but a thin veil thrown over underlying sadness and melancholy, the cruelty hidden under laughter, all this endows Peanuts with a bittersweet quality and a subtle ambiguity. However, the kids never seem to lose their faith in love. In fact it is pretty strong, as Loria points out in her book What’s it all about, Charlie Brown?. In the last twenty years of its existence, the strip seems to have mellowed a bit. Examples of this “softening” is the fact that Charlie Brown eventually engages in a romantic affair and that he gets to hit a home run. But beware, this mellowing is only skin-deep. As Schulz himself said about these things:
- We all fight and compete one way or another, in sports and games or at work - and we all lose some time. We don’t get where we want, and we don’t get what we want. I want to show that there is some kind of humor in all of this.
- When I had signed the contract my confidence was peaking. I ran home and proposed to the woman I loved. She thought about it, said no, and married my rival. I don’t think you ever fully recover from the disappointment and the pain you suffer when being rejected by the one you love. And I allow myself to deal with these issues in my strip, not many artists do that.
The only one who seems to be happy is the somewhat naïve Peppermint Patty who from time to time lives in her own little world, who never worries about anything and who refuses to let setbacks get the better of her. Whether Schulz here tries to illustrate that ignorance is bliss remains doubtful. More likely, it is a tribute to optimism.
Comics about kids prior to Peanuts had always been about naughty, disobedient rascals ever since The Yellow Kid and The Katzenjammer Kids. The children in Peanuts represent the complete opposite. They respect the rules set by their parents, they never cross any borders, they have a Christian-religious platform. They know that their place is in the home with their families, and pay attention to family members’ birthdays and holidays, Christmas in particular. They also understand the value of a good education - though ambivalent feelings occur from time to time. This slight hint of Conservatism is also reflected in the kids’ appreciation of art. They prefer traditional artists like van Gogh, Eakins, Wyeth, and listen to classical music rather than popular. Good old fashioned values and nostalgia, that is what it is all about.
The rebel in all of this is, of course, Snoopy the beagle. Athlete, writer, legendary WW I flying ace etc. His dog house has two floors. Some critics have argued that the character of Snoopy is Schulz dealing with schizophrenia and general daydreaming. Whatever one’s response towards this kind of depth-analysis may be, it is inarguable that Snoopy does not live in the same world as the rest of us. He is also a generally satisfied and happy character, and thus produces a counterpart in comparison with the kids.
Bill Watterson: Calvin and Hobbes (1985)
Watterson (1958-) knows how hard it is to make a living as a comic artst. For five years he was rejected, until finally in 1985, Universal Press started publishing his strip. It has been the most successful strip to appear for the last twentyfive years, and its creator has been deemed a genius by many comics experts. Watterson, however, stopped writing the strip after only ten years, claiming that the restrictions and limitations of the medium made it impossible to keep on going. Also, no legal merchandise from the strip exists, as Watterson would not allow it. Although he could have made millions of dollars on this, he felt that the characters belong only to the universe of the strip. He now lives a secluded life in New Mexico.
The strip is set in late 20th century in WASP Suburbia. Watterson’s drawings when the action takes place in the “real world” are, as Schulz’s, fairly plain. However, when Calvin in his imagination visits a dinosaur period or travels to another dimension, Watterson’s unquestionable talent as a graphic artist shines through.
The protagonists of the strip are Calvin (named after Jean Calvin, 16th century Church reformer), a six-year old boy, and his pet tiger, Hobbes (named after Thomas Hobbes, 17th century philosopher). The pet tiger appears to be inanimate when grown-ups are around, but as soon as they are gone he comes alive. At least to our comprehension. As Watterson put it: “I don’t think of Hobbes as a doll that miraculously comes to life when Calvin’s around. Neither do I think of Hobbes as the product of Calvin’s imagination”. Most of the conversation is between Calvin and Hobbes. His dad is a sarcastic, somewhat remote figure, his mother a disciplinarian and nurturing woman. Moe is the schoolyard bully, Susie Derkins is his neighbor, with whom he entertains a love-hate relationship. Miss Wormwood is his teacher and Rosalyn is the understandably well-paid babysitter.
The plotting in Calvin and Hobbes is fragmentaric, longer or shorter stories are told through one or more strips. Some elements have a tendency to reoccur, such as Calvin’s imaginary alter egos “Spaceman Spiff”, “Tracer Bullet” and “Safari Al”, Tommyball and his and Hobbes’s club “Get Rid of Slimy Girls”.
The appeal and significance of Calvin and Hobbes lies in the strip’s ability to fuse philosophy with humor. The strip raises more questions than it answers, and to a greater extent serves to illuminate different topics than to tell you right from wrong. Nevertheless, in some strips it is pretty obvious what Watterson’s point is. The conversation between the two main characters make the platform from which the questions take off. On one side, you have the crabby, querulous, manic Calvin; on the other, you have the suave, laid-back Hobbes. The good-natured tiger adds a dash of sophistication and a whiff of wisdom as a willing participant in Calvin’s many adventures and escapades. The interplay between boy and tiger, in turn joyful and introspective, complicitous and antagonistic, gives the strip its peculiar charm along with undertones of pathos and poignancy. The odd couple comments on various elements of post-modern society such as merchandising, name-branding, art theory and art hypocrisy, populism in politics, psychoanalysis and yes, comics as an art form. Throughout the strip’s history, however, more basic philosophical terms such as nihilism, egotism, narcissism, ethics of various kinds, hedonism, hybris and others are also commented upon.
Perhaps just as much, though, the strip can be seen as a bittersweet ode to childhood, this dremland of yore. Where fantasy is abundant, and where everything sems new and exciting. But also where almost nothing is permitted, and where you are controlled by other people. The world is a place waiting to be conquered, but can also be a place of unimaginable boredom. Calvin’s summers go by to fast, and his school lessons far too slow. Calvin is forced to deal with pain when he loses his Hobbes for a short period of time and when the two of them find a dying squirrel. But when they go trolley riding in the woods, there is only joy in the world. He is beaten up by the bully Moe for lunch money and thus learns about one of the many unfair aspects of life. On the other hand, he experiences true friendship with Hobbes. Calvin is also forced to deal with guilt, for example when he ruins something of his father’s. In other words, Calvin is going through the process of growing up, a bumpy ride as it may be. Even though he often acts and reasons like an adult, he is still but a kid.
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