Cigars and the Comics
Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
Jack Nicholson, Summer 95
P. Martin Shoemaker, a bird of indeterminate species but impeccable taste, puffs on his cigar while typing his newspaper column, "The Cigar Corner Sewer."
"To fully appreciate fine cigars, it's important to recognize the various types of cigars," writes Shoe, who edits the Treetops Tattler. "There are two basic categories of cigar," he advises his readers. "The lit and the unlit."
"Shoe," published in more than 800 papers nationwide, represents more than just the cigar-smoking philosophy of the artist who created it, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Jeff MacNelly. By savoring cigars, both Shoe and MacNelly carry on a tradition as old as comic strips themselves, which are celebrating their centennial this year. Many of the founding fathers of this uniquely American art form smoked cigars -- as did their cartoon characters.
A mirror of American culture and a profound influence upon it, comic strips have always reflected and affected the way we see ourselves. The characters in them have chronicled our society in times of peace and served as morale-boosters and mascots in times of war. Comics have even shaped the way we speak. Comic-strip artists have been unsurpassed as "diligent coiners of neologisms," opined H.L. Mencken in The American Language. "Their influence upon the general American vocabulary must be very potent," wrote the Baltimore Sage, perhaps while puffing on an Uncle Willie.
"Jeep," "goon," "boloney," "bam," "zowie," "plop," "wow," "wham," "heebie-jeebies," "horse feathers," "hotsy-totsy," "23-skidoo," "drugstore cowboy," "cat's meow," "security blanket," even "hot dog"--all are words or expressions that originated in the comics.
Cartoon characters have become stars of Broadway musicals, motion pictures, radio programs and television shows; they've been featured on every imaginable kind of merchandise. "There is a warmness and affinity for comic-strip characters that you don't see in any other medium," says Lee Salem, vice president and editorial director of the Universal Press Syndicate, which distributes "Doonesbury," among other strips.
As an especially potent symbol frequently employed by comic-strip artists, the cigar has served as an emblem of the plutocrat, politician or boss, all ripe for ridicule, and as the comfort of the common man. The cartoon cigar conveys confidence and cockiness; mischief and majesty. "The cigar suggests to me a kind of worldly gruffness," says MacNelly, "so that's why I installed one in Shoe's beak."
When MacNelly, 47, wants to look worldly and gruff, he tends to favor Ashton Churchills. "The best thing about smoking a cigar is that I find it to be a very effective [form of] crowd control. No one bothers me in my studio while I'm smoking cigars."
An impressive roster can be compiled of cigar-fancying comic-strip artists whose drawing boards were enveloped in smoke long before MacNelly's. Some of them are among the most influential figures in the history of the medium, including Thomas A. Dorgan, or "Tad," coiner of more popular words and expressions than anyone else; Rube Goldberg, creator of preposterously complicated inventions for performing eminently simple feats; and Walt Kelly, whose deft adaptation of Captain Oliver Hazard Perry's famous victory message from the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie ("We have met the enemy and they are ours") became a slogan for the 1970s and beyond: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."
An equally impressive list can be assembled of cigar-smoking comic-strip characters who preceded Shoe, giving his fondness for a smoke a distinct pedigree, even if his avian ancestry is obscure.
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