So, Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. John Rose, the current cartoonist, has made a habit of having Google reappear in his comic once or twice a year. This week looked like the start of one of those visits. Surprisingly soon after Barney Google’s last visit, but that happens sometimes.
After the first panel, though, Barney dropped away. Instead we saw and focused on what, I believe, is a new character, who’s been the star of this whole week’s strips:
Spark Plug the racehorse was one of the first great fads of Billy DeBeck’s Barney Google comic strip. Sparky caught the public’s imagination. The young Charles Schulz picked up the nickname Sparky in honor of the character, and friends of the Peanuts creator used it his whole life.
Spark Plug fueled a bunch of horserace-themed stories that DeBeck expertly used for publicity. (I’m drawing this from Brian Walker’s fascinating Barney Google and Snuffy Smith: 75 Years of an American Legend, which gave me a better appreciation for the strip’s craft.) Sometimes in surprisingly easy ways: he’d ask readers to write in names for horses and used the best-sounding ones for the rest of the horseracing field. (I am legitimately impressed with how simple but good a scheme that is.) Eventually DeBeck realized, or maybe intuited, that there were great possibilites for the strip by incorporating hillbilly humor in it. He introduced Snuffy Smith and clan, who took over the comic and squeezed Barney Google and Spark Plug out. Except for the occasional guest week.
This week we’ve seen a bunch of strips about Li’l Sparky, Spark Plug’s grandson. So far as I know, this is a new character. He makes a lot of horse-themed puns. This seems thin for a recurring character but, eh, I can’t blame John Rose for trying. The Wizard of Id’s pet dragon Henry and Peter’s pet Wolf in B.C. opened those strips up too.
What’s also caught my eye is that John Rose’s signature is accompanied by a Sarah Rose. I guess a relative, but don’t know. I also don’t know whether Sarah Rose is a new partner on the comic or is just contributing stuff for Li’l Sparky. If I get any news I’ll pass it along. Anyway you’re not the only person to notice the credit.
Mark Trail had a mortal enemy last time we checked in. Not, so far as I’m aware, Dirty Dyer, who we’d last seen practicing his flamethrower skills on a Mark Trail mannequin. This one is J J Looper, supply store owner. Looper has agreed to supply and guide Mark Trail’s search for gold in the Sonoran Desert. But he is a man with facial hair. Stubbly facial hair. The lowest of the low, in the Mark Trail moral hierarchy.
The ocelot and javelinas chase each other off. Looper gets back to exposition. He’s heard of the Vanishing Mine. Looper says he doesn’t think Doc’s treasure map is anything. There might be some gold nuggets out there, but nothing much. And if there were, it would’ve been cleared out long ago. But he’ll look at the map, if he can photocopy it, scan it into his computer, and put it away for safekeeping.
He can make some sense of the map. It even seems to point to a spot where Cochise supposedly had a gold mine in the 1870s. So they agree to the expedition I had thought they’d already agreed to and get supplies. Mark, Doc, Leola, and Looper head out for the Chiricahua Mountains. Leola by the way is the widow of Doc’s friend who had the treasure map. I had mistaken her for Cherry Trail last update because I’m very bad with names. One of the things I like about comic strips is how often characters say the name of whoever they’re speaking to. If a comic strip goes two days without doing that I’m lost again.
They spend a night at the campfire, thinking of what if the gold were real. Looper points out how the four of them could carry back a million dollars in gold. And it would let him get out of this place where, to be honest, he’s always been stuck.
The morning starts off with nice weather, slopes that are less steep than Doc remembered, and an attack by Africanized bees. The slopes being too gentle is a bad sign. Either the terrain’s changed a good bit or they’re not where Doc remembers being. The bees are a good sign, it turns out. In dodging the bees, Mark Trail falls down a hill. When looks up, he sees Skull Mountain, exactly as on the map. And this is lucky. From another angle it might not be recognizable. Looper, who took a couple bee stings, can almost taste the gold already.
Mark Trail is skeptical, noting that even if there was gold, there’s been plenty of time for it to have been taken. Leola talks about the nature of gold rushes, and the mad dashes they inspire. The ephemeral nature of the rush but the lasting effects of the lives changed by it.
The next day they come across an abandoned mine claim. Leola points out people here must have found gold. Looper acknowledges this, but that sooner or later the mine runs dry, if it produces at all. Mark Trail gets to wondering why Looper is so down on this Vanishing Mine. Looper explains he knows about gold fever and hey, weren’t you as skeptical about whether the mine exists yesterday? It’s a fair question. Mark Trail and JJ Looper have been trading off whether they think they mine exists, and whether there might be anything in it.
But now Mark Trail’s had enough. He admits to Doc not trusting Looper at all, and Doc admits something seems off. What, exactly? … Another fair question. Apart from salivating over the idea of gold he later says he doubts exists, Looper hasn’t done anything suspicious besides be scruffy. But, again, Mark Trail. You know?
Anyway, it’s a new day, so it’s time for Nature to try killing everyone again. The method this time: flash flooding. Everyone gets swept up in the suddenly appearing rivers, and the strong currents. Mark Trail’s able to rescue himself and Leola from the river. They find Doc walking in the rain. And Looper? … No idea. The last Doc saw he was running from the flood, and carrying the map. Which … they don’t have a photocopy of?
They search for Looper, without success. Mark Trail suspects foul play. And yet — even without the map, there’s hope. Doc recognizes weird rock formations, and a winding path that seems familiar. They climb for higher ground to spot the mine. Maybe also Looper in case he’s actually dead or injured or lost from the storm. Never know. That’s where we stand: atop the hills, maybe in view of a legendary gold mine.
Sunday Animals Watch
What soon-to-be extinct animals and plants have the Sunday Mark Trail panels shared with us recently? And how long is it going to take before we finally destroy them all? Let’s review.
The Vaquita Porpoise, 7 April 2019. They’ve got, like four months to live.
Tremella Mesenterica (“Witches’ Butter”), 14 April 2019. About five years.
The Crest-Tailed Mulgara, 21 April 2019. 28 months.
The Vietnamese Moss Frog, 28 April 2019. Like, maybe through lunch tomorrow.
Ocelots, 5 May 2019. 40 weeks in the wild, indefinitely in captivity.
Wallace’s Giant Bee, 12 May 2019. Three years.
Hammerhead Sharks, 19 May 2019. Ten years.
Spix’s Macaw, 26 May 2019. In the wild: not since like 1986. In captivity: for as long as they can convince people they’re the birds from Rio.
The Arizona State Tree, 2 June 2019. Is a fictional construct anyway.
The Indian Giant Squirrel/Malabar Giant Squirrel, 9 June 2019. 18 years.
Bombardier Beetles, 16 June 2019. Two years in its native habitat, then it turns invasive.
Syndicated Newspaper Comic Strips, 17 June 2019. Died finally when Richard Thompson had to retire from Cul de Sac because bodies suck.
Hummingbirds, 23 June 2019. For as long as people decorate their backyards with hummingbird-feeder tubes of sugar water, those people will be visited by situationally-unreasonably angry, angry hornets.
Formosan Clouded Leopard, 30 June 2019. Till about the next time you brush your teeth.
Oh. Oh. I have some of the happiest words that any snarky comics blogger can have. I plan to look at Karen Moy and June Brigman’s Mary Worth next week. How well did it go when Mary and Toby explained to Estelle that, in fact, Artheur Zerro was not a world-famous construction engineer and Nobel-prize winning astronaut rock star who’ll be joining her in Charterstone and his private mansion in Gold Monaco — it’s like normal Monaco, except way more elite because it’s made of gold — just as soon as he sends her (INSERT RETIRMENT SAVINGS HERE ONLY IN BITCOIN) in seed money?
Oh man now I want the Mary Worth story where she explains bitcoin scams and I am not going too far when I say so are you.
Gasoline Alley, as of Saturday, is a century old. If I haven’t overlooked something, it’s the second (American) syndicated newspaper comic strip to reach that age without lapsing into eternal reruns. (The Katzenjammer Kids was first; it started running in 1897, and was still producing new strips once a week until 2006, and we noticed that in 2015.) And I’d like to add my congratulations to it, and to Jim Scancarelli for being the cartoonist there at the milestone. He’s only got to keep at it through 2027 to beat Frank King’s tenure on the strip. (As credited artist and writer, anyway. Scancarelli was assistant to Dick Moores, responsible for the comic from 1956 to 1986.)
There are some more comic strips that, barring surprise, will join the centennial family soon. The next one, if it counts as a comic strip, will be Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Robert Ripley’s panel first appeared the 19th of December, 1918, as a sports-feats panel. It mutated by October 1919 into the general oddball-stuff report that it still is.
The next — and it’s been mentioned this week in Gasoline Alley — should be Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. That comic started the 17th of June, 1919. I don’t know whether Barney Google is planning any centennial events, but they’re missing a chance if they aren’t. Thimble Theatre, known to mortals as Popeye, began the 19th of December, 1919. The strip has only been in production on Sundays since the early 1990s, though. And Popeye took nine years to show up in it.
But to Gasoline Alley … I admit not having childhood memories of the strip. It probably ran in the New York Daily News, so I’d see it occasionally at my grandparents’ house. But I don’t remember the experience. I’ve come to it late in life, when part of my day is just reading lots and lots of comic strips, including the story strips. I’ve also heard the occasional episode of its adaptations to radio. Not enough to understand the series as a radio show. But enough to be driven crazy trying to think where I know that voice from.
It won’t surprise anyone that I like the comic strip. I like comic strips to start with. And Gasoline Alley has this nice, cozy tone. It’s got an old-fashioned style of humor that feels nostalgic to me even when it’s new. That Scancarelli shares the love I have for old-time radio adds a layer of fun as, hey, I recognize he’s tossed in a character from The Mel Blanc Show.
And then I always have a weird reaction to things. I recently read the Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, a 1977 compilation that tried to give some idea of the breadth and scope of American newspaper comics. The editors felt it impossible to show Gasoline Alley fairly by samples of the daily strips, as the stories needed too much context for any reasonable number of dailies to make sense. But it included some Sundays, which — under original artist Frank King, as with today — would be stand-alone panels. And one of them was just … this full-broadsheet-page, twelve-panel piece. The whole page, together, was an aerial view of the neighborhood of Gasoline Alley: houses, streets, parks, businesses. Each panel was just a tiny bit of stuff going on at that spot at this time on this day. And it was beautiful. The composition was magnificent. Each panel made sense, and each panel was magnificently drafted. Houses with well-defined, straight rooflines, streets that lead places, fences that have structure. And each panel fed logically to the next, so the page was as good as a map. And somehow I was angry, that a comic strip could be this beautiful.
It’s not as though we don’t have beautiful comics now. There are magnificently drafted comic strips, Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley quietly among them. The compositional conceit of a strip that’s a vast area seen at one time is hardly gone. Even the specific variant of the vast area being rendered in panels is rare but still done; indeed, I think Frazz has even done it recently in daily panels. No newspaper comic has the space that Frank King had, a century ago, true. I can’t even show you the comic; it’s too large, at the reduced size for book publication, for me to scan, and taking a photograph of the page would leave the thing illegible. And no web comic could achieve that effect of space, except for those people with the six-foot-wide computer monitors. But to be angry to see a beautifully done comic strip? That’s a strange reaction. To have that dominate my thinking as the comic reaches its centennial? That’s even stranger.
Well, may everyone who creates at least once do something that makes someone angry that it was that good.
OK, this time I think I have this pesky “order” of things worked out. With luck, I’ll soon do two Talkartoons in a row in the way they should be. We’ll see. This week’s is Fire Bugs, originally released the 9th of May, 1930. If Wikipedia’s right this is the first Fleischer Studios cartoon to credit the animators. So we know two of the people responsible for its look and humor: Ted Sears and Grim Natwick. Sears would go on to be the first head of the Disney story department. Natwick is famous for something coming up next week if I can do time right. I give that a 50-50 chance of happening.
So. First thought. There was a time when nobody had thought to use Franz Liszt for a cartoon. There was, incredibly, a first time that the strong beat and wonderfully varied melody and great, riotous structure of the Hungarian Rhapsody Number 2 was first set to an animated creature clowning around on the piano when something more urgent was under way. This was not that time. The earliest I’m aware of is the 1929 Mickey Mouse cartoon The Opera House. It’s hard to imagine there are many earlier cases. Still, Fire Bugs is one of the early examples of this song becoming the Golden Age of Animation composition.
I had stopped tracking when suspiciously-Mickey-Mouse-like mice appeared in these cartoons because we went a couple weeks without any. This cartoon more than makes up for their absence. Kind Of Mickeys are all over the first scene, in many of the subsequence scenes, and pretty well fill out what would otherwise be negative space in this cartoon. They never quite do much, but they run around, and that can be enough. At least one gets a good gag of being picked up by the fire hose.
There is a lot of fun in this cartoon. It’s a great example of the rubber-hose style where nothing just moves. It has to be wrangled out of shape and then it consents to move. It’s a look I really enjoy. It feels lively.
The title makes sense; it’s a cartoon about a fire fighter that I suppose is our second Bimbo cartoon. And the story parses too; the fire call comes in, Bimbo(?) and his horse Sparky make their way to the scene; they rescue the longhair musician despite his best efforts to finish his piece. It ends at a logical point, as the Hungarian Rhapsody does. Sensible.
There’s not really a blink-and-you-miss-it joke, or else I blinked. (The ‘Fire Water’ barrels in the basement are on-screen too long to really count.) I do like the swapping of positions between Bimbo and Sparky as they slide down the firepole. There’s also, yeah, some dull bits where they drag out a bit of animation, maybe to make sure we saw the pansies dancing, thank you, now move on. Maybe to make sure the cartoon didn’t come in too short. You’d think an apartment fire would be enough for a good cartoon.
The musician at the end saying “My father thanks you, my mother thanks you, I thank you, goodbye” is a pop culture reference. It’s riffing on the tagline of The Four Cohans, or as we know them if we watch a lot of Turner Classic Movies, James Cagney as George M Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy.
The horse’s name is surely a pop culture reference too. Sparkplug, or Sparky, was the name of Barney Google’s flea-bitten horse in the comic strip that, back then, was incredibly popular. I mean, like, popular in a way you’d think I was joking if I told you about. Peanuts creator Charles Schulz was nicknamed “Sparky” after that horse. I haven’t read the strips of the 1930s so I have no informed opinion about whether everybody was just crazy back then. But Comics Kingdom has been running the Barney Google strips of the early 40s, and yeah, they’re pretty interesting. The strip, like many back then, was a serial adventure comic. I could believe it being justifiably a craze.
I already was enjoying the cartoon, even if it stalled for time before getting to the apartment building, when the Liszt kicked in. After that I was fully delighted. Glad to see it.
I am embarrassed to admit this is a story summary done in greater haste than usual. Somehow I’d got in my head that I was due to review Gil Thorp and was thinking about that storyline all week, and then late Saturday actually looked at my schedule. I’ll try to be fairly complete about this anyway. And for those hoping to understand Terry Beatty’s Rex Morgan, M.D., thanks for reading. If it’s much past September 2017 when you read this, the story might have drifted. If I have more recent updates they should be at or near the top of this page.
My last summary of Rex Morgan, M.D. missed by one week the conclusion of the Kelly-Niki-Holly love triangle plot, when it was revealed Niki didn’t know Kelly was jealous of his time with Holly. Niki needed some advice from her parents on how to cope with a non-heterosexual friend because millennials have so much trouble coping with this stuff than their parents do. That’s all.
The 2nd of July started the new and current storyline, when June Morgan’s childhood friend Margie Taylor dropped into town. She bring along her son Johnny, played by Norm Feuti’s Gil, who instantly gets along with Sarah and Michael Morgan. Margie talks about how she’d had to leave town as a teen when her mother died, and how screwed up her life had gotten, and how she’s straightened out enough things that she had the courage to look up June Morgan again.
So yeah, Margie’s dying. June’s the first to mention it, to Rex, who does enough medicine to agree. It takes a couple weeks of reader time for Margie to open up about it. But she’s got third-stage plot complications and expects them to be imminently fatal. Margie panels the people in Rex and June Morgan’s lives about how good they are as parents and the reports are favorable. “Yeah, there was that weird thing where they let a mob widow muscle the Museum into publishing and buying a zillion copies of her book of horse drawings, and I guess June’s pregnancy did get into the tenth trimester before she gave birth, but they’re basically pretty good eggs,” answered person after person, verbatim.
Margie asks June if she and Rex will adopt Johnny. June, hoping to stall long enough for the writer to change his mind, agrees to consider it if Margie agrees to see some specialists that she and Rex will think up. Margie agrees. While June and Rex take seriously the question of whether to adopt an all-but-certainly-orphaned boy, Margie tells babysitter Kelly that she’s off to run some errands, hugs Johnny, and walks out. She leaves behind a letter to the court asking that the Morgans be named Johnny’s guardian, and a note to not try to find her.
So that’s an exciting development. The police are vague about whether this does count as child abandonment or any other specific crime, which surprises me. I grant the situation’s not common, but it seems like it’s got to be something everyone who does child and family welfare cases has to hear about. I’m also curious what actual real-world case law suggests. My gut says that yeah, it wouldn’t be abandonment to leave a child with someone responsible who’d given you a verbal agreement to an adoption, along with a letter stating your intention to give the child to their custody, and contact information for your attorney (who’s presumably been clearly told the intention). But if I learned anything from watching too much of The People’s Court as a kid, the thing that seems instinctively right is contravened by actual law. (There must be some guide for this for soap opera writers, mustn’t there? So that if they want the story to go in a crazy direction they can do it in ways that don’t sound obviously crazy?)
And that’s where we land in mid-September. I am surprised to have another child airlifted into the Morgan family. For one, in previous months someone else in the comic — I forget who — had mentioned how she wanted a child. It seemed like a solution being set up for a problem. Also having a ready-made new child dropped into their lives feels a little like a return to the gifts-bestowed-on-the-Morgans format that Terry Beatty had drawn back from. There’s important differences, though. Particularly, the Morgans here think early and often about how much responsibility this child is, and how adopting him messes up reasonably made plans. Kids are work, and there’s been no discussion between June and Rex suggesting they’re thinking of how fun a third child could be.
Curious touch: Johnny is mentioned as having been born the same day as June and Rex’s second child, Michael. The adults remarked on the coincidence. It’s a remarkable coincidence. And none at all, of course, since Beatty got to choose when Johnny was born. So I’m left pondering: what is the artistic choice being made in having the adopted child be born the same day as the non-adopted one? It feels meaningful, but I can’t pin down what the meaning is to me. I’m curious if other readers have a similar sense, or thought about what it does mean.
Oh, also, I want to point out my mathematics blog, with its weekly review of comic strips that mention mathematics in some way. Yesterday I put in the comics for the week prior and that included Pi Day so you can imagine just what sort of merriment was filling the comics pages. OK, that was filling three or so strips worth. But it was there. There isn’t a lot more to say on this point, but I want to say just a touch more because of the Responsive Design theme I’ve got on this. It rearranges stuff based on how wide the browser is. And with the browser I post stuff in, at the width I like it being open to, I have this slender column on the left with a posting’s dateline and tags and Leave A Comment link and all that. And if I include a picture that’s far enough down the page that it’s past the Leave A Comment link then it gets to use that horizontal space for itself. So it gets to appear bigger by virtue of an optical illusion created by having more horizontal and vertical space. (It’s a very convincing illusion.) And I like the picture bigger, so that’s why I’m going on until I have enough words that I can
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The index dropped one point today as Dan thought he saw a sewing magazine promise “three alternatives to clapping” and he was stumped trying to think of a third. The trading floor broke out into one faction pointing out that the magazine cover promised alternatives to stitching and another faction saying sure, there’s snapping fingers, and there’s stomping on the floor, but what would be a third? And then the day ended in squabbles about whether it counts as an alternative to clapping if you slap your hand against some other body part, like your thigh or something.
Way, way back in the day Barney Google and Snuffy Smith was a story comic. It was always funny or trying to be, but it was also doing a storyline. Comics Kingdom is reprinting strips from that time. In like 1940 or so Snuffy Smith got drafted and the strips since then have put him in a bunch of goofing-around-the-Army-camp stories. In the current one Barney Google, stationed in Australia, sent a kangaroo over to his friend. Snuffy used it first to set up boxing matches that turned into some pretty solid comedy, with the poor human begging outwitted handily by the kangaroo. And now as of September 1942 Snuffy Smith is using the kangaroo to pass messages along for money. And now we get to this comic:
And I guess I’m just stuck thinking, when this was published the Battle of Stalingrad was barely through its first month. US Marines were trying (unsuccessfully) to pass the Matanikau River on Guadalcanal. Four Royal Air Force bombers sent to Oslo on a civilian-morale-building raid failed to destroy the Gestapo headquarters but did kill something like eighty civilians, and lose one of the bombers in the process. The British destroyer Somali finally sunk in the Greenland Sea four days after being damaged by German submarine U-255. Four ships of Allied convoy QP 14 had just been sunk by U-435. Japanese forces landed on the Gilbert Island of Maiana. And the British destroyer Veteran and the United States Liberty ship Stephen Hopkins were days away from being sunk. And … Snuffy Smith’s kangaroo was dancing. And I feel like this is utterly mad and then I think, well, what am I doing, and why that? I think what I’m saying is I don’t want to feel like I need a hug just because a kangaroo’s dancing to swing music.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The index jumped nine points, but its knees aren’t what they used to be, and it had to fall down two of them before finishing, wincing and groaning about it all.
So you kind of vaguely remember Snuffy Smith, the star of the comic strip Barney Google. I only just wondered: is ‘Snuffy’ his proper name? Or is it a nickname? If ‘Snuffy’ is a nickname then what’s his given name? Snufftopher? Snylvester? Mephisnuffales? Snarf? Snuffocles? Chrisnuffter? Oh, he probably got some name in that World War II-era movie where Snuffy Smith was drafted and his moonshine turned out to be rocket fuel or some such nonsense, but that’s hardly canonical naming. And it was probably something hi-lariously goofy like “Vivian Lester Cholmondeley Reginald Ho-ho-kus Fortescue Smith” then anyway. I mean his actual name.