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Cigars and the Comics

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

(continued from page 4)

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.


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