There are a lot of reasons to be annoyed at Tom Batiuk and Dan Davis’s Crankshaft right now. Let me set up the background: the Valentine was a failed sidewalk movie-palace theater in Centerville, Ohio. After it closed it got reopened as a strip joint that, somehow, failed even faster. Now, movie star Mason Jarre and his partner Cindy Summers have ventured over from Funky Winkerbean and it sure seems obliterated the ten-year gap between the events of Funky Winkerbean and of Crankshaft. (Since 2008, both strips have taken place in “the present”, but one was ten years behind the other. So characters from Funky Winkerbean are ten years younger when they’re in Crankshaft, and Crankshaft characters are ten years older when they’re in Funky Winkerbean. Until now.) Jarre gets the idea to buy the Valentine and reopen it as a movie theater which, luckily, it’s still basically okay for. And he calls the real estate agent on the sign.
So, look, fine. The Funky Winkerbean and Crankshaft timelines are unified again and we’re not going to ask nosey questions about character ages and when events took place. (This after Cindy just went to her 50th reunion in Funky Winkerbean, a strip which earlier this year showed Crazy Harry in high school in 1980, a date not fifty years ago yet. Fine.) And Lois Flagston isn’t so comfortable selling a commercial property since she’s always been about selling houses. Fine. And for some reason Crankshaft is hanging around while Lois shows Jarre around a place he’s already clearly decided to buy. And Jarre is acknowledging that Lois Flagston is a fictional character, existing as she does in the comic strip Hi and Lois. Fine. I will take all that for the sake of doing a story.
But by God and Rube Goldberg, Hi and Lois is set somewhere in New England, it feels like probably Connecticut, and there is no excuse for her having a listing in Ohio, and there is no possible way she is in a short driving distance of someplace that’s a day-trip to Cedar Point. I do not accept it, and shall not accept it, good day sirs.
I’ve had some time this week to sit in a room with no particular expectations or Wi-Fi and so that’s got me all introspective. So this is going to be hard. I’ve gotten around to thinking of my middle school experience. Here are some things that, on reflection, I think contributed to that whole scenario.
So you know there was a Pac-Man cartoon in the early 80s, where Pac-Man and Pac-Family hang around Pac-Land, occasionally eating ghosts and sometime getting chopmed by them. So, there was this episode where the Ghosts got their hands on the Pac-Space-Shuttle. Unless that was the Space-Pac-Shuttle. Honestly not sure at this remove. Anyway, they harvest all the Pac Pellets in the world from off the Pac-Trees. They flew this whole load to, I believe, the Pac-Moon. I know what you’re thinking and no, I was not bothered that the Pac-Space-Pac-Shuttle might land on the Pac-Moon. It would be a gross presumption of us to suppose that the design limits of our space shuttle necessarily apply to the Pac-Space-Pac-Shuttle-Pac in this fictional universe, however much they seem superficially similar. (Oh, this is helping me see why other bloggers treat me like that.) No, what bothered me is that in the face of this Pac-Pellet shortage caused by the world harvest being stolen, Pac-Man, in space, eats the entire contents of the Space-Shuttle-Pac, every power pellet in the world, all at once, when we’d seen in other episodes that one was enough for him to chomp ghosts. Two, if he needed to be really confident in his ghost-eating powers. And that is what bothered me: this unnecessary gluttony would make the power pellet shortage continue for at least a full growing season. And these Pac-Pellets are the fruits of Pac-Trees. This is going to screw up geenrations of trees to come. I was very cross with Pac-Man over this.
On the evening news they would always talk about what the New York Stock Exchange had done that day. And yet they never mentioned the Philadelphia Stock Exchange, which I supposed had to exist, or Los Angeles or San Francisco or anywhere else. Yes, I grew up in the New York metro area so of course the local stock market might be of interest but this injustice extended to the national news, and surely there must be some days that, like, the Saint Louis Stock Exchange had the most exciting stock-related exchanging going on.
[ I would like to emphasize that I am not reading my current weirdness back into the young me. These are as best as I am able reconstructions of thoughts I had in the mid-80s. ]
According to the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons manual if exactly the right things lined up you could just be a vapor, forever, and everyone would just have to let you play like that.
So in South River, New Jersey, there was this liquor store, and its sign was this representation of beloved drunk neighbor Thirsty from the beloved comic strip Hi and Lois. And I thought it was wild and belovable that in all the world we happened to be not too far off from the world’s only Hi and Lois-themed liquor store. And wondered at how much money must have changed hands for Thirsty’s Liquor to be set up in this really very average beloved Middlesex County town.
Also every power pellet in the Pac-World fit into one Space-Pac-Shuttle Cargo-Pac-Bay? Space shuttles aren’t that big.
Sure, we all have urged the rain rain to go away and come again some other day. But why was there no chant to urge the rain to come today, when nothing particularly needing dry conditions is going on, and thereby forestall rain coming some inconvenient later date? We need a certain amount of rain per year and there’s no good reason not to rush to get that done when the day’s already all wet.
While I do not think this very incomplete list justifies the whole of my middle school experience I am forced to admit that, yeah, everybody kind of had a point there.
When I was growing up there was one author and one comic strip on the pages that was just the comic strip, the thing so great it was kind of the reason newspapers were made, so it could carry this. That was Charles Schulz and Peanuts, naturally. But it’s not like that was the only strip I read. I read all of them, at least except for the story strips, which always looked like these dark, muddy things about realistically-drawn adults saying they’d have to talk about stuff. But the rest of the comics page was exciting stuff.
I knew there were better and worse strips, yes. But I also recognized there were some strips that just seemed central. Comics that all the other comics were kind-of-like. Some that drew closer to the Platonic Ideal of the 1970s/80s comic strip. So if you read the subject line or the comics news the past week you know what strips I’m talking about.
And yet I was kind of a dumb kid; it took a newspaper article about an upcoming visit Beetle Bailey was going to pay to Hi and Lois for me to realize they were made by the same guy, or were set in the same universe. Still, that was mindblowing, in the way that Muppet Show where they have to do the show from a train station because the theater was being fumigated was. It revealed to me something comic strips could do.
Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois were the Mort Walker strips I always saw, of course. But somewhere along the line I realized that Hagar the Horrible had some connection to all this (Dik Browne, co-creator of Hi and Lois, created it). And now and then, in out-of-town newspapers, I’d see other weird alien comic strips clearly from the same hand, like Boner’s Ark or, rarely, Sam and Silo. And I do remember at least excerpts of Walker’s Lexicon of Comicana, about graphic design elements, appearing in newspapers and being read. (I have a particularly strong memory of reading one at the house of my aunt in Connecticut, on a family visit that I think coincided with when they took the toll booths out of the Connecticut Turnpike and the roads were torn up for that. I may be collapsing memories together.) I think that his last original comic strip, Gamin and Patches, might have run in a newspaper I read, but I’m just not at all sure.
Oddly, for all that I recognized Mort Walker had this style that everybody was roughly imitating, and for all that I liked reading any of these strips, I don’t remember doing stuff like redrawing characters from it. Garfield, Popeye, Snoopy, sure, but somehow not these. Seems like a shame; I suspect that, like, Sarge or Beetle are pretty fun to draw. There’s something in their line.
Yes, I’m aware Mort Walker drew some “adult” installments of his strips, for the naughty fun of it. Not interested in them. I’m also aware there was an animated cartoon based on Beetle Bailey in the 60s, and a half-hour pilot made in Like 1989. I’ve never seen those but a a little curious. Apparently there was a musical, too, created in the late 80s because every comic strip made a musical in the 80s for some reason.
Comics Kingdom has among its vintage comics Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois from the early 60s. They also have Boner’s Ark, from the early 70s, running. There’s some interesting stuff in them, not least the running thread that the Pentagon told General Halftrack not to call them anymore and hasn’t sent any orders in years. One of the snark community’s recurring jokes is that Camp Swampy is this nonsense pretend camp the actual Army would be embarrassed to be affiliated with. I’m amused that Walker had that joke a half-century sooner. And the vintage strips are, mostly, better than their contemporary versions. There’s more detail to the art and the characters and scenarios are 55 years less worn down. It can be easy to forget that comic strips that seem old and fusty — things that have been running in every newspaper since the glaciers receded — mostly got there by being novel and exciting, and staying so for a good long while.
Art moves on, and styles pass from fashion. Mort Walker-touched comics aren’t as dominant in setting the style of newspaper comics anymore. So it happens. There’s a lot of art, and a lot of what people thought art could be, that he guided. It’s amazing work.
Also I’m reminded of a Mort Walker quote in some Peanuts retrospective about how, yeah, his comic strip took off in the newspapers way earlier than Schulz’s, starting nearly the same time, did. But when Schulz’s came out in book collections those books just started selling and never stopped. This point can’t fit in the essay at all logically, but I don’t want it to go to waste either, so here it is, in a paragraph after the end of the essay.
It’s easy to forget that comic strips that’ve been around since the Battle of Manzikert, puttering on without anyone really liking them, earned their spot by being funny in the ancient past. That’s why I’m glad that Comics Kingdom, particularly, has a rich page of vintage strips so that I can see that Mort Walker and Dik Browne’s Hi and Lois really was … well, hilarious is a bit strong, but at least it was reliably funny in that Mid-50s Sitcom Moderne fashion, back in the 1950s. And the vintage strips allow for the rediscovery of aspects that the strip has dropped, like the number of boardroom jokes at the company where Hi works, or the fear of the god-like computer making decisions for the company. Some recurring gags got dropped because you just don’t do jokes like that anymore, and I’m thinking here of the Chinese Laundry. Chinese Laundry gags were discontinued sometime about 1970, when Racist Joke Command discovered there were a number of people from non-white countries who drive taxis and ordered a switch to joking about that instead.
And then there’s something like this one rerun last Thursday (originally run the 12th of July, 1957), which delights me in many ways. There’s the faint 50s Whitebread Xenophobia, particularly, at the idea of those scary exotic weird moon-man foods like imported tea or bagels or pizza or eggs Benedictus. (Is there anything weirder than running across a late-50s or early-60s punchline that depends on the idea that “eating pizza” is inherently a funny thing to do? Yes: it’s people freaking out at the “long-haired” Beatles of 1964, when they had individual hair follicles reaching out as much as three-quarters of an inch from their scalps.) I should be sympathetic: the 1950s in America were a time when suitable nutrition was believed to be pasty white things boiled into uniform shapeless mush, as seen on the plates of comic strip characters ever since. But she’s scared of tea.
And then there’s also the idea of being dependent on the recipe for a tea. I concede it’s possible for there to be tea that requires special preparation. But I also insist that if you go with “put it in boiling water; after a couple minutes, remove, if that’s what you like. Then put in sugar and milk if you like that” you’re going to be able to make a fairly palatable tea regardless of how finely imported it is. It’s maybe not as safe as making macaroni and cheese from a box, but, it’s still not something risky like making powdered oatmeal.
I guess what I’m saying is, if there is a Peak Hi And Lois this might well be it.