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Still Tapping Funnies as Social Commentary

March 24, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

I was talking with a small person in my family the other day about the comic strips we had when I was a child, and it was an easy step from there to wonder about the impact they had on me--and on my generation--when I was growing up.

I seriously doubt whether even comic strips and radio combined had one-fourth the impact that TV has on today's young people. But comics were unquestionably a factor in the forming both our life styles and our fantasies--perhaps more than we realized either then or now.

A lot of comics in the 1930s were four-panel jokes--strips such as "Krazy Kat and the "Katzenjammer Kids" and "Mutt and Jeff." But others were running stories with continuing characters, and these were strips that helped shape our thinking.

For example, I learned from "Blondie" and "Bringing Up Father" and "The Gumps" that the real iron in our society is provided by women, and they somehow have to hold things together despite the good-hearted but semi-idiot men in their lives.

From "Dick Tracy," I learned that Law and Order has no shades of gray. There are Good Guys and Bad Guys, and God help the person who fuzzes those two clearly defined areas.

From Uncle Walt and Skeezix in "Gasoline Alley," I learned that perseverance, pluck and hard work will win out every time, no matter the odds.

But I suspect the comic strip that made the greatest impact on me was "Little Orphan Annie," who--despite her daily aphorisms--was really only a shill for the hero of my Depression childhood: Daddy Warbucks. However you want to slice him, Daddy Warbucks--at least in retrospect--was an unembarrassed fascist, bebopping around the world, ignoring domestic and international law to zap what he perceived as bad guys (mostly Bolsheviks, a term that to Daddy encompassed everyone from Russian bomb throwers to union organizers to Democrats). Actually, Daddy didn't do the dirty work himself. He turned over most of it to a pair of hit men named the Asp and Punjab.

They made a sappy musical about Orphan Annie a few years ago in which the producers--obviously young--refused to take either of two tacks that might have worked: to send it up or to play it absolutely straight. Instead, the show took a middle course in which social issues were fuzzed, villains were made comic and Daddy Warbucks ended up embracing Franklin D. Roosevelt--which must have Harold Gray (who created Annie) and Col. Robert McCormick (who introduced Annie in his Chicago Tribune) still spinning in their graves.

Reflecting on the early days of Orphan Annie, it hit me what a bunch of outrageously mixed signals were sent to those of us who grew up in the 1930s.

In real life, we were seeing bread lines and incipient pockets of revolution and social changes so profound we couldn't begin to grasp their impact, and the long, slow buildup to a global war. But our fantasy life was symbolized by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in top hat and lace dancing on clouds. And by Daddy Warbucks with his yachts and his mansions and his millions.

I can remember dealing with the distress--economic and domestic--in my home by fantasizing myself on one of Daddy Warbucks' yachts. I was ready to throw in with him instantly. I could not care less how he made his money. It was an attitude that unfortunately stuck with me until the excesses of Sen. Joseph McCarthy mercifully forced me to take a hard look at the political scene and to rethink what I really believed. This, in turn, set me on a new philosophical course that brought me a lot closer to my patient, gently Democratic father than to my adopted Daddy Warbucks.

Did Daddy Warbucks really have enough impact on me as a child to influence my political thinking? That is impossible to measure, but Orphan Annie was certainly one of the complex of factors in the unshaped man who went off to World War II. And if nothing else, the impact of those early strips has made me an inveterate comic reader today.

Some interesting things have happened to the comics over the years. First, most of them don't seem to be intended, even obliquely, for children. Even the delightful "Calvin and Hobbes"--whose protagonists are a small boy and his stuffed tiger--is written at a high level of sophistication. Second, the doctrinaire strips have veered off from the political right of my childhood into two new directions: the political left ("Doonesbury," "Bloom County") and a kind of bemused anarchy ("B.C.," "Crock"). Finally, the satire even in the daily gag strips ("Drabble," "Tumbleweeds") is often very sharp.

I think the most incisive social commentary in the newspaper today is found on the comics page. So I am grateful I formed the habit by growing up at a time when reading the "funnies" was as fixed in our routine as brushing our teeth.

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