Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Johnny Hart: An Unappreciation

I am not and was not ever a fan of the late Johnny Hart's strips. Not The Wizard of Id. And certainly not B.C. Hart's "humor", at least in the last twenty years, had been unrelievedly labored, hokey, and unfunny. When it wasn't being reactionary, preachy, or self-righteous.

In the week since his death, many of the post-mortems and obits have focused on the controversy engendered by his desire, if not "need", to proselytize from the three-panel pulpit, the two most notorious cases being the Easter, 2001 strip wherein he appeared to advocate the view that Christianity had supplanted Judaism and the November, 2003 strip wherein, through the juxtaposition of the onomatopoeic sound-effects and symbols which make comics such effective visual shorthand, it appeared that he was comparing Islam to a reeking outhouse. In both cases, Hart denied culpability and malicious intent. I myself thought he was lying through his fucking teeth, particularly in the case of the "Islam" strip where any other "interpretation" would've rendered the strip utterly, almost surreally, nonsensical.

And, if nothing else, Johnny Hart was not one to dabble in the nonsensical. In a medium whose visionaries have imagined little boys riding space-warping beds and kat-mouse-pupp love triangles in Joycean trialogue, his strip, despite its prehistoric setting, was prosaic and Middle-American in the extreme, populated by generic characters differentiated only casually by an extra stroke or a longer nose and scripted from a jokebook that was old when the world was young. The two, count 'em, two women in B.C. were unnamed save for the descriptors "Fat Broad" and "Cute Chick" which effectively described his roles for women: domineering battleaxe or ditsy babe (he was not alone in this; compare the same dichotomic distaffing in, to name only a few, Beetle Bailey (Martha Halftrack/Miss Buxley), Hägar the Horrible (Helga/Honi), Blondie (Cora Dithers/Blondie Bumstead), and the Hart-scripted Wizard of Id (Blanch/Gwen). He relied heavily on puns not even worth the groan. His setting, the mise-en-scène of his strip from which the humor and characters would spring, was as often ignored as observed. Anachronistic elements and situations were introduced in a way that made The Flintstones look like a BBC period drama, nowhere more obviously than in his Christianity-themed strips. Because unless I'm missing a page in my Creationist playbook, I don't think Jesus co-existed with homo erectus. I just don't.

Now, I have read that Hart's early B.C. strips were, in fact, funny. Inventive. Hip in a late-50s/early-60s beatnikish way. I've read praise of his early style, its clean lines and simple design. But its devolution into a daily sanctimonious crapfest and the fact that Creators Syndicate announced that his family will continue the strip (apparently, according to the Comics Curmudgeon, "'Family members have been helping produce the strips for years, and they have an extensive computer archive of Hart's drawings to work with...'") bring up the topic of superannuated strips and of legacy strips or, as your sobsister prefers to call them, "zombie strips".

What's the difference, you may ask? Well, Beetle Bailey is a superannuated strip, that is to say, its creator, 83-year-old Mort Walker, is still alive albeit likely not involved in the day-to-day production of a strip which itself has lived considerably beyond whenever might have been considered its creative zenith and now hangs around the office like that geezer who just won't retire and still tries to ingratiate himself with the new boss by telling jokes that slayed 'em back in the Eisenhower administration. Blondie, on the other hand, is a zombie strip, that is to say, its creator, Chic Young, died over thirty years ago and the strip has been drawn and written since then by his son Dean. (There is actually a third type of comics page space-filler, the rerun strip. The most prominent example currently is, of course, Classic Peanuts.) There are very, very few cases where superannuated or zombie strips have matched, much less surpassed, the early or original work on the strip.

Which leads one, inexorably and ineluctably, to ask, why the fuck would anyone want to read these strips? For the same reason, presumably, that anyone would want to eat at McDonald's: the setting is familiar, everyone knows the menu backwards and forwards, and while there is very, very little hope of surprise or delight, there is little danger of shock or disappointment. So, day after day, readers walk the treadmill. Oh, that Dennis sure does like to annoy Mister Wilson! Look at that Garfield eat a whole meat loaf! Those rascals, Billy, Jeffy, and Dolly all said "Not Me"!

By dint of the continued pride of place which these strips hold on the comics page, one is forced to reach four key conclusions:

1) comics page editors are spineless weasels (which, understood literally, would mean that, at best, their locomotion is severely curtailed) whose overriding mandate is not to annoy subscribers by replacing gummy, rheumy veterans with fresh, sassy, inventive newcomers. Now, some people opine that there just aren't that many new strips that are either good enough or immediately-accessible enough to attract and retain readers, that strips take months, if not years, to build a readership, that blahdeblahblah. This is called "rationalizing lazy editors' refusal to educate or challenge their readership". It is a Bad Thing.

2) comics page readers who would rather read the five-billionth iteration of Dagwood's love for overstuffed sandwiches than encounter new strips that may or may not be funny/inventive/"easy" are pablum-gargling idiots who deserve to be beaten with the collected works of George Herriman.

3) comics pages prove on a daily basis Sturgeon's Corollary: ninety percent of everything is crap. Given that this is the case, my own preference, if I must be served crap, is for shiny new crap rather than musty old crap.

4) comic strips are extremely difficult to write non-stop, day after day, for twenty, thirty , forty years. A handful of characters, a few settings, a limited number of permutations. This is why the few men who have produced consistently high-quality strips over several decades are considered geniuses. Charles Schulz drew and scripted Peanuts alone for almost fifty years! The brilliant Herriman drew and scripted perhaps the greatest daily strip ever committed to paper, Krazy Kat, for just over thirty years! The fact that it effectively requires genius to produce a quality strip for anything longer than a five-year run should be argument enough against keeping mediocrities on life-support into their third, fourth, and fifth decade. The list of creators (Watterson, Breathed, who abandoned top-flight strips after comparatively-short runs speaks to the integrity of the artists and to the scarcity of those willing to forego a steady income in favor of quality and, possibly, sanity.

So, yeah, Johnny Hart. His work will apparently live on through the cut'n'paste work of his family. Whether they are motivated by love of art, lucre, or parent is not for your sobsister to say. But one of the more interesting thoughts (and Christ knows I have an assload of "interesting thoughts", don't I?) to suggest itself to me is that, in almost all cases involving zombie strips or superannuated strips whose creators have effectively abdicated an active creative role, it's very difficult to tell where the seams are between the original and the successor. Did anyone notice a marked change in Hi and Lois after Dik Browne died? Was there a sudden shift in subject matter, visual style, or level of sophistication in Dennis the Menace after Hank Ketcham died? And yet imagine Krazy Kat in someone's hands other than Herriman's. Little Nemo continued by someone other than McCay. Li'l Abner drawn and scripted by anyone other than Al Capp. Thimble Theatre (not Popeye) done by someone other than Elzie Segar. Christ, even good ol' Nancy after Ernie Bushmiller died. It either couldn't happen or the break was so obvious as to be glaring and jarring both. So...what does this prove besides the obvious--brilliant strips by brilliant creators are irreproducible while mediocre strips by journeyman creators can be hacked out for decades by others with no discernible diminution in quality? Not much. Yet, what seems obvious in analysis does not translate to policy on the page. And so, your children and their children can look forward to decades of that darn Garfield kicking Odie off the table and scarfing down entire turkeys at Thanksgiving and hating Mondays like the plague. God bless us, every one.


Meg said...

It spears me in the heart that you didn't once mention Walt Kelly and the Pogo gang.

As for the rest of it, I agree whole heartedly.

the sobsister said...

mea culpa on the Great Kelly.

I didn't post everyone who did great dailies over long stretches and I'm not as familiar as I should be with Pogo but, yeah, point taken.