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Cigars and the Comics

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

(continued from page 3)

"Such a descriptive phrase for such an event!" Goldberg wrote nearly a half-century later. After he had begun using the "that's a lot of boloney" tag line about six years later, it caught on because it satisfied Americans' "favorite hobby of branding anything a fake."

The scope of Goldberg's seven-decade career was remarkable. In addition to comic strips, sports cartoons, single-panel gags and sculpture, he was an editorial cartoonist for the New York Sun and the Journal-American, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1948. He knew, however, that he would be remembered most for his inventions, the products he credited to the fevered imagination of Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, his cartoon alter ego.

Lexicographers recognized Goldberg's impact. Webster's Third International Dictionary lists "Rube Goldberg" as an adjective, defining it as "accomplishing by extremely roundabout means what actually or seemingly could be done simply." When Goldberg died in 1970 at the age of 87, The New York Times editorialized: "Long before 'Parkinson's Law' and 'The Peter Principle' and 'Up the Organization' codified the notion that there are two ways to do things--the simple way and the way they actually are done--Rube Goldberg was telling Americans to watch out or the machines and technocrats would overwhelm us."

In the early years of Goldberg's career, comic strips mostly were confined to the Sunday papers. That changed on January 12, 1912, when William Randolph Hearst--in many ways the greatest promoter comic strips ever had--introduced the nation's first full daily comics page in his New York Journal. The following year, George McManus began "Bringing Up Father," the slapstick saga of Jiggs, a cigar-smoking bricklayer suddenly enriched by the Irish Sweepstakes, and his social-climbing wife, Maggie. Jiggs' fireplug physique, red nose and ever-present cigar echoed those of McManus.

By the time Jiggs began smoking his cigars and dodging Maggie's rolling pin, the comics already had passed through their initial phase of experimentation. Chroniclers of the comics have discerned distinct phases in the medium's evolution, with that first period highlighting fantasy ("Little Nemo") and stressing the comics' appeal to kids--even though in reality, most comics have always been aimed at adults (they're the ones who buy the papers). Jiggs and Maggie epitomized domestic comedy; by the 1920s, with that decade's post-World War I semi-liberation of women and the initial stirrings of suburbanization, working-woman strips ("Tillie the Toiler") and husband-and-wife, suburban-life strips emerged as popular themes. "Blondie," which made its debut in 1930, remains one of the most popular strips in the world.

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."

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