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Shakespeare in Dogpatch

August 05, 2007|Albert Goldbarth | Albert Goldbarth is the author of more than 20 books of poetry, including, most recently, "The Kitchen Sink: New and Selected Poems, 1972-2007." He has twice won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry.

"AIN'CHA goin' to the dance, Clarabelle?" asks Mickey Mouse in the first panel of "The Race for Riches," his newspaper comic strip story that begins on June 3, 1935. But no, Ms. Cow has "too much trouble" -- the bank is going to foreclose on her house. Then, on June 25, our hero discovers ("Boy-oh-boy! Hot dawg!") a map in a trunk in Clarabelle's attic that points to her gran'dad's buried gold. Eleven days of hijinks later, Mickey and Horace Horsecollar pack their gear and start the drive out West, with the nefarious Pegleg Pete and Eli Squinch in what used to be termed "hot pursuit."

It was the great age of daily newspaper comic-strip narrative continuity -- plots as twisty and compelling as anything found in standard prose. Surely, Little Orphan Annie's epic Depression-era adventures are the complex equal of those of that other orphan, Tom Jones; the dabs of crosshatched licorice black that puddle under the moon of some midnight scenes -- as she and the Asp and Uriah Gudge square off against villainy -- hold all the mysterious depths of Raymond Chandler's noirish back alleys.

These were extended narratives that stretched, in self-contained daily units, over many cliffhangered months. When Captain Easy was shanghaied onto a whaler, his adventures lasted for 107 Monday-through-Saturday installments

15 weeks. When Krazy Kat left Coconino County on a mission to bring back catnip tea, the story unfolded from June through December 1936. Prince Valiant's Viking saga. Buck Rogers' cosmos-kavooming romps. Mickey's thrill-ride in "The Race for Riches" ends on Sept. 28 (Clarabelle no longer imperiled, the bad guys stewing moodily in their comeuppance)

more than 14 weeks of roller-coastering plot. Here, we have the early scrappy Mickey, full of can-do gumption, not the later emasculated (emouseculated?) subur- banite.

This was the era when people across a democratic range of socioeconomic statures loyally followed "the funnies" with the avidity of "Sopranos" devotees today. Family members fought one another to be first to see the latest daily increment of "L'il Abner," "Brenda Starr," "Dick Tracy." A true American popular art, one of the few, along with jazz and the blues. It was reminiscent of all those throngs on the docks of New York four generations earlier -- the banker, bricklayer, brothel madam -- jostling together excitedly as the newest chapter of Dickens arrived. Was Little Nell alive, or

? Everybody needed to know. In the 1940s, the revenue from Disney's comic-strip department kept the studio fiscally afloat.

I missed the gleaming of that golden age -- born, as I was, in 1948. But the continuity strip remained alive through the days of my childhood reading. The Phantom ("The Ghost Who Walks!") still kept the peace of the jungle. In the talented hands of artist Mac Raboy, Dale Arden (Flash Gordon's squeeze) continued to hint at adult pleasures waiting to be awakened from under her futuristic adventure-wear. My parents brought my sister Livia home from her birth at St. Lutheran Deaconess Hospital on a Sunday; I remember it as the day the Sunday comics didn't appear in our house.

Today, the god-awful question-and-answer session that seems required after every poetry reading always includes some inquiry on "my influences." Whitman? Dickinson? Kenneth Koch? Keats? The King James Bible? Ginsberg? Blake? Of course. All that, and more. But let's not forget the formal invention and rigor of the now-long-gone adventure strips of the daily papers.

We seem to arrive from the womb prepared to be stamped by first experience: Think of Konrad Lorenz's studies on what makes goslings trail their mother goose in a faithful follow-the-leader line

or what, for two full years now, has a swan in Germany making dead-end courtship displays to a swan-shaped paddle boat. For me, the exemplary shape of a daily "Apartment 3-G" or a "Mandrake the Magician" left its imprinted legacy mark.

By this I don't mean the characters themselves (although Mark Trail and Mary Worth and Dogpatch's citizenry are 20th century icons). I don't mean the language (although the olla-podrida verbal oomph and talkathons of Krazy Kat and Barney Google and Terry's GI comrades are a veritable Big Bang of lingual creation). And I don't even mean the quality of the art (although an entire Sunday page in the hands of Frank King or Hal Foster became a canvas for work as estimable as Rockwell Kent's or Thomas Hart Benton's).

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