I was reading The Year We Had No President, Richard Hansen’s early-1960s study of the United States’s inadequate constitutional provision for a disabled or incapable President because … uh … I don’t know. I guess I interrupted a fairy circle and they enchanted me to be like this? Well, whatever. The point I got to this choice quote about President Garfield’s administration:
Except for Secretary of State [ James G ] Blaine and the young Secretary of War, Robert T Lincoln … the names of the Cabinet members are forgotten by all save historians.
Now. I will concede that Robert Todd Lincoln is a little bit remembered. He was at his father’s deathbed when President Lincoln died. He witnessed Charles Guiteau’s shooting President Garfield. And he was right outside the building at the Pan-American Exposition when Leon Czolgosz shot President McKinley. So everyone who got way too into Ripley’s Believe It Or Not as a kid remembers him.
But James G Blaine? Yes, of course I remember Blaine, Blaine, James G Blaine, Continental liar from the State of Maine (PS Burn this letter). But that’s because I’m a freak who merged with this college-level US history text I somehow got hold of as an eight-year-old. Even granting that Richard Hansen was writing sixty years closer to the events? I’m going to say he was way overestimating the non-historian recognition of James G Blaine.
Maybe I am wrong. Maybe in 1962 James G Blaine leapt to the average person’s tongue the way Cordell Hull’s or Henry Stimson’s do today. I want to see Hansen’s citation is all.
Like anyone who pondered it would have guessed, the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! for today was about itself. It’d be strange to focus on anything else. I suppose you could make a fair argument about whether Ripley’s is a comic strip or a feature panel. I’m not sure it’s an argument that would advance our understanding of comic strips, though. Let’s call it a comic strip and celebrate what I think is the third (United States) comic strip to make it to a century of publication.
But to John Graziano’s own tribute. As a kid, as a young nerd, I was of course fascinated with Ripley’s and its kin. You have no idea how important David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace’s The People’s Almanac 2 was to me. All these fussy little esoteric bits of information, ready for the absorption into a mind that … maybe didn’t actually need that. There is a certain kind of nerd mindset that sees information as a kind of game. A power play, really. The chance to show that, by knowing a thing which is true, you are superior to someone who does not. It’s a dangerous attitude. It’s one thing to know esoteric stuff. And it’s one thing to be aware of subtle distinctions. It’s another to lay traps for other people to show you can correct them. One running theme of my journey towards maturity has been my realizing that the only time anyone likes my bringing up a technical point is when I’m being funny about it. Quibbling over a definition is not funny. Being funny about caring about a definition can be funny. That’s why I’m still workshopping my bit that blows the lid off the so-called “International Date Line”.
But there is still good in the Ripley’s sort of trivia. One thing that always distinguished Ripley’s, I was told when young, is that the strip would occasionally include hoaxes and leave it to the reader to find them. Or work them out. And that’s great. Collecting trivia needs to be done with a skeptic’s eye. If you can learn how to work out the truth of whether, as this particular panel offers, Charles Lindbergh was the first man to fly across the Atlantic, then you’re building skills that help you evaluate information that might ever matter. Mind you, though, I’ve never come across a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not where the correct answer was “not”. That is, I’ve never seen a panel with a deliberately fake “fact” in it. Not in my reading the strip, and not when I’ve seen retrospectives of it. I’m prepared to say the presence of hoaxes in Ripley’s is itself a hoax. At the least, it’s much rarer than publicity would make out.
A better thing, though. Look at the clickbait-ish Charles Lindbergh claim of this panel. Everybody knows Lindbergh was the first person to fly across the Atlantic. This is because of historical compression, though. Dozens of people flew across the Atlantic before him. Some on airships. Some on airplanes that made stops along the way. Some flying to Brazil instead of North America. At least one flying across the Arctic. Lindbergh’s flight was several major firsts. But you learn something in looking at what those firsts were. In particular, you learn that history is messier than you thought. That pretty any “first” is really one event that happened to draw our attention, out of a bunch of competing plausible alternatives. That there is an arbitrariness in what we choose to celebrate. If we take the right lesson from this we learn to appreciate the world as vaster and more complicated and possessing more gradations than we easily remember. Even the simple stuff has complications and we should notice this, and understand why other people might see the same thing differently.
For example, this Ripley’s asserts that 66 other “men” flew the Atlantic before Charles Lindbergh. The Straight Dope article I link to in the previous paragraph notes that different compilers have found numbers from the high 60s to the low 90s. Its author, Bibliophage, had been able to track down 84 people, and acknowledges there may be others. Bibliophage found a list of 18 by airplane and 66 by airship. 66 at least agrees with John Graziano’s figure.
The Ripley’s trivia about (in 1929) the United States having no national anthem was true enough. At least, no anthem recognized by any action on the part of the federal government. There’s a neat short subject, one featuring Ripley himself delivering trivia, that Turner Classic Movies has run at least once. And in that he presents some history of The Star-Spangled Banner and points out it never had any official recognition as anything but a catchy, extremely singable little jingle. The Warner Brothers archive has this and about two dozen other shorts available on DVD.
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.
All right, so, wait. I got myself all ready to believe that Gene Mora’s Graffiti has got to be in reruns because at the top it reads “Copyright 2018 UFS Dist. by Andrews McMeel for UFS”. And UFS here is the United Feature Syndicate, which hasn’t been around since 2011. It had sold its licensing over to Iconix Brand Group, whose Wikipedia page claims they could get licensed products into Sears, KMart, and JC Penny’s. So I’m sure these are people who can handle the future of licensed Fort Knox merchandise. And then it sold the rest of itself to Universal Uclick, as part of that stage of pre-revolutionary capitalism where every thing is divided up between the bigger company and the smaller company. So it’s got to be reruns, with the copyright date just changed because somehow they can do that when they reprint comic strips for some reason. And fine. But then I got looking at one of John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not strips from last week.
OK, and that’s also got a Distributed by Andrews McMeel for UFS sticker on it. And that strip talks way too much about quirky oddball news items, printed one lead-time after everybody heard about them, for them all to have been made before 2011. Unless John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not is eight years into the most astounding string of forecasts of future mildly quirky events ever known to humanity and they’re saving that to reveal on the comic strip’s centennial this December.
That or both Gene Mora and John Graziano got like ten thousand “Distributed by UFS” stickers printed up and they’re not going to waste them until they’ve used every one of them up. Or someone at Comic Strip Master Command decided to keep the name UFS around, as a sentimental thing for fans of comic strip syndication companies. Which, all right. So that’s something for me and maybe like nobody else in the world ever.
So in short I don’t know what’s going on with this weird minor comic strip. And if I ever find out, it’ll probably be a little bit disappointing.