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See You in the Funny Pages!
Though the eight-pager cartoonist was to find inspiration in any number of sources, the primary fount was surely the good old Sunday funnies, then the richest and most consistent mirror of the American profile. From our current position, awash in the Internet and drowning in television, it may be difficult to sense the warm urgency of this now all-but-bygone phenomenon; but to much of our country, particularly in the period between the two world wars, the funnies were an assumed companion and more. Intimate, knowing, and usually accurate, they were a prism through which we could see who we were and a way, too, of gently commenting upon what we saw. They ranged from ocean, from the teeming metropolis, incorporating both pent-house and slum basement, to the meanest hinterland of the republic. The comics left us with indelible types and with phrases that enriched our language. (Tad Dorgan, the great sports cartoonist, must have created a mini-dictionary of such phrases by himself. Hot dog! for one was his.)
Though thoroughly working-class in origin the Tijuana Bible encompassed the full spectrum of the Sunday funnies, lampooning everyone from fireman (Smokey Stover) to doctor (Rex Morgan, M.D.), from ballplayer (Ozark Ike) to sailor (Popeye), and even from caveman, for that matter (Alley Oop) to those forebears of NASA and Star Wars, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and Brick Bradford. And, especially in the socially imbalanced Depression, they ranged from the swanky digs of the filthy rich, as in the highly decorated home of Jiggs and Maggie, to the pad of the congenitally unemployed and derby-hatted lout Moon Mullins, amiddle-American dump where his equally derby-hatted kid brother Kayo, slept -- not unhappily, mind you -- in a top dresser drawer.
Given this amazing cast to work with, the eight-pager cartoonist was surely not wanting for material to transform. His aim was to create an alternative reality and to describe, in a manner that left no questions, precisely what couldn't be shown in the Sunday funnies, nor even in ten-cent comic books when they finally arrived, late in the thirties. It has been said that if the cartoonist is anything, he is direct -- and nothing could be more direct than these gadflies of the comic realm, stripping off all inhibitions, defying any and all accepted niceties: letting it all hang out, as it were, decades before the coming of Larry Flynt and Robert Mapplethorpe.
These cartoonists had their favorites, to be sure. One of them was Popeye, the virile and philosophic sailor man ("I yam what I yam and thass all I yam!" the seaman warned us). He had originally come into being as a minor character in the Thimble Theatre, created by E. C. Segar, but his quaint masculinity and thirst for action endeared him to any number of eight-pager cartoonists, some for more talented than others. Besides, he had that super ménage to accompany him: Olive Oyl, Wimpy, Sweet Pea, Poop-Deck Pappy, et al. Popeye was even teamed with Mae West (a sort of female Popeye) in several erotic adventures, a mating that rather presages the cinematic splice of sultry Seka and the late John Holmes in pornographic film some forty years later.
Moon Mullins, now largely forgotten, was perhaps the quintessential comic strip of the Great Depression, with its mélange of social types. The household included Uncle Willie and Aunt Emmy, who were broke; Lord and Lady Plushbottom, who still had titles; Moon, who took a job only if someone lay down next to him with it; the black chauffeur Mushmouth; Moon's girlfriend Little Egypt, a burlesque queen; and Kayo, the child who thought like a man. Moon Mullins was the ultimate stew of the American moment, and thus an utterly grand set for the pornographic shenanigans-that took place in umpteen eight-pagers.
The comic pages provided endless variety for plots that, essentially, varied very little; but the form was particularly fond of husband-wife strips like Toots and Casper or girlfriend-boyfriend strips like Tillie the Toiler and her Mac. This was so much the case that the little books were often called Tillie-and-Mac books or Toots-and-Casper books. Both couples are now, alas, at one with the distant pulp past. Blondie and Dagwood, though, are still with us, having outlived endless artists not one of whom has depicted the suburban duo with the joie de vivre they enjoyed in this taboo milieu.
Illustrations and accompanying text copyright © 1997 by Bob Adelman Introdution copyright © 1997 by Art Spiegelman Text copyright © 1997 by Richard Merkin and Bob Adelman