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Character Sketches : Corny? Yes. But Highlights' morality lessons still appear in 2.6 million copies a month.

May 11, 1995|MICHAEL HAEDERLE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There are two boys. One is ve-e-ery, very bad. Call him Goofus. The other is good--too good to be true. He's Gallant.

Goofus throws stones at birds; Gallant prefers to feed them. Goofus grabs toys from others; Gallant asks politely. If Goofus litters, you can bet Gallant will stick his candy wrapper in his pocket.

Don't confuse them with their alliterative cartoon counterparts, Beavis and Butt-head.

They don't set fires. They don't ogle super-models or watch music videos. In fact, they're not even on TV.

For nearly half a century, Goofus and Gallant have been found exclusively in the pages of Highlights for Children, a 2.6-million-circulation magazine for the under-12 set.

Every month they present kids with a relentlessly old-fashioned morality lesson. Be kind. Pick up after yourself. Don't cut across people's lawns.

Parents who shudder to hear their preteens muttering "heh, heh" in homage to MTV's animated sociopaths may be reassured to know that the Goofus and Gallant they remember from their childhoods haven't really changed.

Amazingly, "Goofus and Gallant" is still one of the most popular features in Highlights, says Kent Brown, the magazine's editor and a grandson of its founders.

" 'Goofus and Gallant' is the thing that's most permeated the culture," he says. "It's snuck into the American consciousness."

For instance, Brown says, a journalist once described Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan as "the Goofus and Gallant of the skating world."

Goofus and Gallant have also been much-parodied in college humor magazines, eliciting obligatory protests from the magazine's editors. ("Secretly, we're flattered," Brown says.)

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The feature still follows the format established by the late Garry C. Myers, a psychologist who with his wife, Caroline, founded Highlights in 1946.

One panel shows Goofus engaged in some antisocial behavior, which is described in a caption beneath the picture. The other panel extols Gallant's praiseworthy comportment.

The contrast is as stark as the cartoon's pen-and-ink artwork.

Ne'er-do-well Goofus always puts his worst foot forward. He's impulsive, greedy, lazy and hedonistic. A Jungian might say he represents our shadow side.

For decades Goofus was depicted with a demonic scowl, and while that has been toned down, he still has a stubborn flip in his hair that spells trouble.

He plainly was born under a bad sign, a fact that has not been lost on the magazine's young readers, some of whom write indignantly on Goofus' behalf.

"We get letters from children who believe nobody could be as bad as Goofus all the time and nobody could be as good as Gallant," says Jean Wood, the senior editor who has written the feature for the past 10 years. "I tell them we don't think of them as good or bad. It's their behavior that's good or bad."

Nevertheless, Gallant gets all the good press.

He's a neatnik, polite to his elders and always thoughtful. With a smile on his face and a song in his heart, he makes the world a better place. A Jungian might say he represents our sunny side.

And while he's not technically perfect, he always does the responsible thing, even when he makes a mistake.

Mr. Spontaneity, he's not, however. We can easily imagine him as an adult weathering a mid-life crisis, wondering why he never had any fun.

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Naturally, kids more readily identify with Goofus than Gallant.

"I got a letter from an attorney who'd grown up with the feature," says Rich Wallace, the magazine's coordinating editor. "He had something he wanted to get off his chest: 'Gallant was a wussy.' "

Despite all we know about Goofus and Gallant, we haven't many clues about their backgrounds.

Are they related, or even acquainted? Where do they live? What about their families? How old are they?

"What you know about them you build in your mind," says Brown, the editor.

It's been that way since the beginning.

Garry Myers started the feature in October, 1938, while he was an editor at a magazine called Children's Activities.

In those days, the cartoon was called "The G-Twins," and Goofus and Gallant were depicted as elves, with pointy ears, jerkins and shoes with curly toes.

Garry and Caroline Myers retired from Children's Activities and started Highlights on a shoestring in the small town of Honesdale, Pa. A few years later, they bought out Children's Activities, acquiring the rights to "Goofus and Gallant." Still elves, the pair first appeared in Highlights in June, 1948.

They lost the elf look and the Spock ears, and by September, 1952, they appeared as ordinary kids in a middle-class setting.

Goofus and Gallant originally were identical twins. Later they became non-twin brothers. "Now they really aren't even brothers," senior editor Wood says. "They're just two boys."

(Wallace, the magazine's coordinating editor, has a different take: "I've theorized they're two sides of the same kid.")

Garry Myers penned the text for the cartoon until his death in 1971. Others carried on until Wood took over in 1985.

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