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.
A surprisingly large number of other comic strips paid tribute to John Graziano’s comic strip today. I mean, I don’t remember anyone mentioning Gasoline Alley‘s centennial besides Jim Scancarelli, and there’s no reasonable question to raise about that being a comic strip. Maybe Ripley’s has better publicity agents. Comics I noticed saying something about the strip today included Mike Osbun’s Animal Crackers, and Greg Cravens’s The Buckets, a newspaper headline in Joe Staton and Mike Curtis’s Dick Tracy of course, and Don Wimmer and Pat Brady’s Rose Is Rose. And it’s not a syndicated comic, but Donnie Pitchford’s Lum and Abner, based on the old-time-radio serial comedy, did a Ripley’s bit on Sunday.
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.
So to that first Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!. Also true; the strip started out as a panel about sports accomplishments and had the title Champs and Chumps. D D Degg, over at The Daily Cartoonist, has that first panel in a readable size, as published in the New York Globe the 19th of December, 1918. Also the note that Art Lortie discovered the strip printed in several newspapers several days earlier. This includes it appearing in The Washington (DC) Star on the 15th of December and the Buffalo (NY) Evening News the 18th of December. It’s a reminder that no fact is a simple thing, and we need to understand that to understand anything.