One of the great cultural losses as the print media goes down would be the comics. That’s where I think the most incisive social and political commentary in newspapers today can be found.
And with an election coming up next month, it is probably a better place to look for candidate role models than Meg Whitman’s millions, Jerry Brown’s antecedents and John Campbell’s disappearing act when his audience isn’t in his bag.
Those meditations set me to wondering about the impact that the “funnies” had on me when reading them was as fixed in our routine as brushing our teeth.
I seriously doubt whether even comic strips and radio combined ever had one-fourth the impact that TV has on today’s young people. But comics were unquestionably a factor in forming both our life styles and our fantasies — perhaps more than we realized 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 the strips that most helped shape our thinking were running stories with continuing characters.
For example, I learned from “Blondie,” “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 had no shades of gray. There are good guys and bad guys, and God help the person who fuzzes these 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 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 Great Depression childhood. However you want to slice him, Daddy Warbucks was an unembarrassed fascist, bebopping around the world, ignoring domestic and international law to zap what he perceived as really bad guys (mostly Bolsheviks, a term that to Daddy encompassed every bad guy, from Russian bomb throwers to union organizers to Democrats.) Actually, Daddy didn’t do the dirty work himself. He turned most of it over 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 wound up embracing Franklin D. Roosevelt.
This must have had Harold Gray, who drew Annie with the philosophical help of the owner of the Chicago Tribune, Col. Robert McCormick, spinning in his grave.
While 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, along with the long, slow build-up 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. 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 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 — and selective — comics reader today.
Some interesting things have happened to the “funnies” over the years. First, most of them no longer seem to be intended, even obliquely, for children. Even the delightful “Calvin and Hobbes,” now sadly departed — whose protagonists were a small boy and his stuffed tiger — was written at a high level of sophistication. So, currently, is “Zits.”
Second, the doctrinaire strips have veered off from the political right of my youth into two new directions: the political left (“Doonesbury,” “Dilbert”) and a kind of bemused anarchy (“Pearls Before Swine,” “Non Sequitur”). Over many years of research, I’ve found that politicians who read the comics have a clear edge over those who don’t. So I would urge this as a question in any future political debate. I’m highly suspicious of candidates who don’t read any comic strip at all and grade those who do on how closely they share my feelings.
Objectively, of course. So go, Doonesbury.
JOSEPH N. BELL lives in Newport Beach. His column runs Thursdays.