“The nation that controls gravity will control the universe,” wrote Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould.
There was a period in the mid-’60s when Tracy got weird. Or weirder, I should say. Junior Tracy married Moon Maid and the first interplanetary child was born: Honey Moon. Tracy and the police force floated around the city in anti-gravity trash cans. There were the Stop-Action Laser Gun, the atomic light and Diet Smith’s Space Coupe. And the two-way wrist radio gave way to the two-way wrist TV. The quintessential cops-and-robbers comic strip was going sci-fi.
It was the age of Barbarella, and Dick Tracy signed on to go where no man had gone before.
A predilection for prophecy had always been a part of Tracy. Some predictions were conscious, such as Gould’s early enthusiasm for a kind of James Bond forensic science: He made the easy jump from fingerprints to voice prints.
But others were unintentional: In the ’50s, Gould created the punk look with his villain Crewy Lou, who wore her hair in a crew cut on top and long down the back. She had a punk attitude, too.
Gould had Tracy on the moon five years before Neil Armstrong. And while there are no anti-gravity vehicles such as Gould predicted, the police do hover over the city in helicopters. The match isn’t perfect, but it is uncanny.
But in that mid-’60s mania, Gould also predicted the future of newspaper comic strips. And the future he predicted was dismal.
That prediction came in the form of a comic strip within the comic strip.
A group of four characters in the Tracy strip began drawing a thing called “Sawdust.” “Sawdust” was always the same: four identical panels that showed a crudely drawn pile of sawdust — a pyramid of dots — above which ran a dialogue of heavy-handed puns and wheezy Joe Miller jokes. Gould’s sense of humor was as subtle as a cinder block.
Gould was ostensibly satirizing Peanuts, which seemed at the time to him to be an incompetently drawn strip. Gould wasn’t alone. There were many then who didn’t see Peanuts as revolutionary, but as badly drawn and childish.
Gould is lucky he didn’t live to see the funny pages of today. He would have found an entire page of “Sawdusts.”
The art portion of the comic strip has become expendable; the jokes read just the same without the drawings.
From a Wizard of Id:
A — “The safety engineer requests permission to put a warning label on the guillotine.”
B — “What does it say?”
A — “Avoid contact with skin.”
Didn’t need pictures for that, did you?
You could plug that gag into almost any comic strip, and have almost any characters speak the lines. Worse, they read like Bazooka Joe.
The problem is that the nation has become increasingly apathetic to visual things. Even images no longer function so much as pictures, but as icons, like the stick figures that serve to keep men out of the ladies’ room and vice versa.
From Foxtrot to Blondie to B.C., the strips have lost their visual punch. The joke is verbal, pictures are superfluous. The comics have become talking heads.
Dilbert can be a tremendously insightful comic about corporate inanity and office shenanigans, but a strip might well be panels of identical drawings of the character with words unfolding a punchline.
Compare that with an even middle-quality strip from the 1950s, like Brenda Starr and see the difference. There are establishing shots, like in the movies, there is the splendid perspective shot looking down the skyscraper. Many panels include two or three points of interest, causing your eye to move, say, from the telephone in the foreground to our heroine behind it and finally, her pal, Hank O’Hair, coming in the door in the back.
Space is three dimensional. There is variety, and there are visual rewards to following the strip.
Older strips — at least in the Sunday “Funny Papers” — spent time and space on purely decorative visual geegaws. There was a febrile joy in the very act of drawing. You will look long and hard to find anything like that in today’s newspapers.
The Sunday comic section for most papers have shrunk both in page size and in page numbers. I miss those glorious Sundays waiting for my father to bring home the New York Journal-American and the New York Daily News. The primary reason for getting those papers was the comics. I’m not sure anyone actually read the news or looked at the ads, but we jumped on the funnies. There was Bringing Up Father, Katzenjammer Kids, Smokey Stover, Little Iodine, Terry and the Pirates, The Phantom, Prince Valiant, Moon Mullins, Gasoline Alley, and even that sappy, godawful soapy strip Dondi, which despite it’s mawkishness, was elaborately and cinematically drawn.
It’s all gone.
Or not quite gone. While it has left our daily newspapers, there is a fan base which latches on to the visual glories. They can be found poring over two related developments.
The first is called the “graphic novel,” and falls to the Frank Millers and the Art Spiegelmans.
They especially play off the noirish aspects of the older comic books, with shadows and streetlamps, gun-barrel flashes and knuckle-crunching thuds.
The readership is limited rather than the mass audience of the old Sunday Funnies, and for all its stylishness, the graphic novel is more a playing out of well-worn tropes than an original visual language. It exaggerates the tropes; it is a Mannerist artform.
The second development comes to us from Japan, and the wild popularity of the manga. It, too, is Mannerist.
Both these developments tend to feature adolescent fantasy stories and superheroes and their alter-ego arch-enemies. It’s a very narrow psychic space they fill, and, like heavy-metal music, tend to cultivate an audience much more in touch with the alternate world than the real one the rest of us inhabit.
At least, they are visual, with frame after frame stripped of unnecessary dialog. Like silent film, they tell their stories visually.
Unfortunately, that leaves us grown-ups without a common source of visually imaginative popular culture. We settle for talking diagrams.