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Cigars and the Comics

Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

(continued from page 1)

By the mid-1920s, the comics had acquired enough clout to merit serious critical scrutiny. Gilbert Seldes' 1924 book, The Seven Lively Arts, contained several chapters on the comics. "Of all the lively arts, the comic strip is the most despised, and with the exception of the movies it is the most popular," Seldes wrote. "I am sure that a history of manners in the United States could be composed with the comic strip as its golden thread."

In the 1930s, the comics entered a new phase with the advent of adventure strips that told a continuing story--"Dick Tracy," "Buzz Sawyer," "Orphan Annie"--and their science fiction counterparts, "Buck Rogers" and "Flash Gordon." By the 1950s, perhaps due to the baby boom, television and the accelerated pace of life, gag-a-day strips once more became the most popular, with children, such as the "Peanuts" crew, the key characters. Satire and social commentary, never absent from the comics (Daddy Warbucks was always fulminating against the New Deal), resurfaced powerfully during the late 1940s and early 1950s with Al Capp's "L'il Abner" and Walt Kelly's "Pogo."

Kelly, born in Philadelphia in 1913 and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut, first went to work as a reporter and part-time artist for the Bridgeport Post. After stints as an animator for Walt Disney and a civilian illustrator of U.S. Army foreign-language handbooks during World War II, Kelly joined the New York Star in 1948 as its art editor. There he produced the first strips featuring Pogo, who won instant, lasting acclaim. Kelly soon was drawing "Pogo" for hundreds of papers and a readership estimated to be 37 million. By 1952, Pogo, a gentle, dewy-eyed opossum surrounded by an outrageous cast of "nature's screetures," as Kelly called them, had a fanatic following. Pogo for President Clubs sprouted on college campuses, and a rally at Harvard organized to promote his mock campaign led to a four-hour riot. Pogo's campaign buttons, echoing those of Dwight D. "I Like Ike" Eisenhower, said "I Go Pogo."

Kelly, who had briefly been an editorial cartoonist, filled Pogo with sly, subtle digs at the 1950s Red-baiting witch-hunts, the fatuity of Communism and the pomposity of "congersmen," whom he often depicted as tiny, cigar-smoking frogs. When Senator Joseph R. McCarthy was at the height of his power as a self-proclaimed Communist-hunter, Kelly had a McCarthy-lookalike bobcat named Simple J. Malarkey emerge in Pogo's Okefenokee Swamp and browbeat its innocent inhabitants. When the portly Nikita S. Khrushchev was the Soviet Union's dictator, Kelly depicted the invasion of the swamp by a Khrushchev-like pig, dressed in pirate garb. Albert the Alligator, chewing furiously on his cigar, frightened the pig away. In 1954, Kelly was the first comic strip artist invited by the Library of Congress to contribute original drawings to its collection.

Kelly, like Goldberg, was partial to Cuban cigars, recalls Steve Kelly, 43, one of the cartoonist's six children. "He used his cigar boxes for storing art supplies, and I've kept a few. One's for the La Corona Queens of Alvarez Lopez and Company. I think he also smoked Romeo y Julietas."

The younger Kelly recalls that his father's cigars were "fairly omnipresent" around the house, and one of his childhood chores was to clean out his father's ashtrays. "He put a sort of signature chaw on his cigars. I wish I'd kept a few and had them bronzed." Kelly says his father and Rube Goldberg were known to exchange banter at cartoonist conventions. "They wielded their genius like they wielded their cigars."

After Walt Kelly's death in 1973, Pogo, Albert and their confréres slowly faded into comics' history, although their legacy endures. Kelly has been cited as an inspiration by such present-day cartoonists as MacNelly, Garry Trudeau of "Doonesbury" and Berke Breathed of "Bloom County" and "Outland," all of whom have made topicality the hallmark of their work; as well as Bill Watterson of "Calvin and Hobbes," whose superb draftsmanship and keen eye for fantasy have made his strip the most remarkable new addition to the comics in years.

Both Trudeau and Watterson have complained bitterly that comic strips are treated shabbily by newspapers today, mostly mined by syndicates as merchandising opportunities, and are stagnating as a medium. Comics have been reduced in size, and many strips that began decades--even generations--ago still fill space that might feature more contemporary comics. Some critics call these venerable strips the "living dead," relics that persist on the comics page long after their creators went to their Creator.

Watterson, a very private person who refuses to speak to the press or even allow his photograph to be published, gave a speech at Ohio State University in 1989, lamenting and lambasting the medium that has made him fabulously wealthy. (A comic strip that appears in as many papers as "Calvin and Hobbes," an estimated 2,300 worldwide, earns a cartoonist about $500,000 a year in newspaper revenues alone; according to Forbes, Charles M. Shultz's "Peanuts," which appears in some 2,400 papers and is widely merchandised, earns Shultz nearly $20 million a year.)

Why, Watterson asked, are so many comic strips today "poorly drawn? Why do so many offer only the simplest interchangeble gags and puns? Why are some strips stumbling around decades after their creators have retired or died? Why are some strips little more than advertisements for dolls and greeting cards?"

And why, he might have asked, are cigar-smoking cartoon characters now so scarce? Apart from Shoe and the eternal Jiggs, cigar-smokers such as Pogo's pal Albert seem largely to have disappeared. "There's no smoking in strips anymore," says a slightly exaggerating editor at King Features Syndicate who preferred anonymity. "If you appear in the mass media, you must be politically correct--and that affects comic strips, too."

Of course, comic-strip figures are occasionally seen puffing away, but regular cigar-smoking appears to be associated most frequently these days with another category of characters to which cigars, alas, have ever been linked: the villains. J. Jonah Jameson, the nemesis of Spider-Man and odious editor of The Daily Bugle, is always chomping on a cigar; and the revived, completely revised "Terry and the Pirates," just launched by the Tribune Media Services syndicate, features a loathsome, 300-pound character named Papa Python, who is "very much a cigar-smoker," observes editor Mark Mathes. Tribune Media also distributes "Shoe," and Mathes reports never having received a complaint about his cigars. "Smoking a cigar is still permissible in the comics," Mathes says.

While that may be true, in all of the top 10 comic strips today--"Peanuts," "Garfield," "Calvin and Hobbes," "Blondie," "Hagar the Horrible," "Beetle Bailey," "For Better or Worse," "Doonesbury," "Andy Capp" and "The Family Circus"--nary a cigar-smoking character can be found. Now they primarily reside in museums and university repositories devoted exclusively to cartoon art.

The International Museum of Cartoon Art broke ground in Boca Raton, Florida, last December for a new, multi-million dollar complex to house its collection of 130,000 original pieces of cartoon art. Building it has been the personal crusade of many top comic strip artists, led by Mort Walker, creator of "Beetle Bailey" and "Hi and Lois." A new National Gallery of Caricature and Cartoon Art opened last month in Washington, D.C., right across the street from The National Press Club. The core of its collection will be the astounding private trove of more than 40,000 pieces of rare, original cartoon art amassed over the past half-century by Art Wood, a Washington-area resident and one-time political cartoonist for The Washington Star and other papers. The Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco has been in operation for years, and The Ohio State University Cartoon, Graphic and Photographic Arts Research Library owns more than 200,000 pieces of cartoon art, which it loans out to museums periodically.

Despite the criticisms of Trudeau and Watterson, and contrary to the grumpiness of Breathed, who quit drawing his strip this spring and branded comics an artistic medium "in decline," comic strips remain among the most popular features in the press.

"Comics are one of the top two or three elements of any newspaper," says Lee Salem of Universal Press Syndicate. "People look at the front page, sports, the classified ads and the comics." Comic strips are known to have their fans in places high as well as humble. In 1988, Ronald Reagan's spokesman, Larry Speakes, said that the President faithfully read every strip in The Washington Post--a task that took eight minutes a day. Garry Trudeau said he was "reassured" to know that "the leader of the free world has spent a total of 14 days, 16 hours and 48 minutes of his presidency reading the comics."

The kind of controversy that Trudeau's "Doonesbury" can spark has been common since the beginning of comic strips. Early in this century, clergy and educators denounced the comics as "vulgar"; today, the story line in "Doonesbury," "For Better or Worse" or "Cathy" can prompt temporary cancellation and reader mail, pro or con.

Jeff MacNelly dismisses as premature any talk of the death of the comics. "I don't think comics are a dying art. I think it's evolving. I'm experimenting with all sorts of things, like computers. There will always be comic strips, not only in newspapers but in other formats. As long as you can create interesting characters and tell good stories, there will be a market for comics."

Perhaps the current revival in cigar-smoking will find itself reflected in today's comics, just as other trends still are turning up in the funny papers. That would suit Jeff MacNelly's Shoe just fine. Then he would have a larger audience for his column, "The Cigar Corner Sewer," to which a reader recently wrote: "Dear Mr. Shoemaker: I'd like to enjoy cigar smoking on a regular basis but I find that they burn my tongue. What can I do?"

Shoe replied: "Next time try putting the other end in your mouth."

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist and the author of Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber (University of Nebraska Press).


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