Sunday, October 18, 2009

Lazy Sunday # 89: The Sunday Funnies


When I was a kid, Sunday mornings before you had to get ready for church were filled with the Funny Pages.

The Regina Leader-Post, my newspaper of record at the time, actually didn’t publish a Sunday paper. But the Saturday edition came with a thick insert of full color cartoons that my brother and I stashed unread until the next morning.

We’d get up and turn on the radio, where a couple of the local DJ’s would giggle and snicker and read the comics to you. They had theme songs for each section and described every panel in exquisite detail, in case you didn’t have the comic section or you might have missed the hidden visual joke in the bottom right hand corner.

The show filled up an entire hour with nothing but two guys cackling over the adventures of “Pogo”, “Blondie”, “Superman” and whoever else graced the hand drawn pages of newspapers back then. It was an hour that allowed harried parents to sleep in while inventing what may have been the first multi-media entertainment format.

And I just realized that in describing this I’ve handed CanWest or some other low-rent Canadian broadcaster another hour of inexpensive programming they won’t have to pay writers to create…

…although they’ll probably need to find a way to own, synergize and vertically integrate all the cartoons first…

…and not just in their executive offices…Ba-Dump-Bump!


What was great about the combination of that radio show and those funny pages was the way they attracted you to characters and stories you might otherwise have never allowed yourself (or been allowed) to be exposed to and also helped you to appreciate them.

Walt Kelly’s “Pogo”, for example, was not a comic strip for kids. But it lead off the Leader Post comic pages (and therefore the show) and it was obvious by how much fun they had with the stories that the DJ’s liked it a lot. This was political and social satire of the first order and far above my head. But the sense you got was that this was something other people really enjoyed and maybe you should bookmark it for future reference.

Later in life, when I was able to decipher who the Pogo characters really were and what their “swamp talk” meant, I understood why J. Edgar Hoover had gone so far as to have FBI cryptographers search for “hidden messages” in the content.

But additionally crammed into those brightly colored pages were more story variety and differing styles of humor than can be found in any night of prime time television programming.

There was the whimsy of the Disney strips and the Wisdom of “Peanuts”. There was the classy family fun of “Hi and Lois” and slapstick of “Dennis the Menace”. And there were also serial adventures set in the worlds of fantasy and pulp like “Superman” and “Red Ryder”.


There were also a couple of strips the guys on the radio skipped, such as Milt Caniff’s “Terry and the Pirates” probably because it would have taken an entire hour just to get through the dark plots, complex visuals and lengthy dialogue.

As a trivia note, at the time I was exposed to them, many of those strips were inked by Sonny Grosso, a budding New York cartoonist who became the French Connection Cop, then technical advisor on “The Godfather” and later producer of several TV series.

An avid consumer of these strips also couldn’t help noticing over time that the same joke you laughed at one week in “Beetle Bailey” might pop up again later in “Mutt ‘n Jeff”. But each had a completely different approach to the material, a point of view skewed by its inner reality and an alterantive visual style in which to sell the punch line.

In a way, those competing strips were a triumph of style over content, less concerned with what they were saying than how they said it and always aware that they had to engage and excite you in the process.

The color comic sections have either disappeared from today’s newspapers or remain only as a shadow of their former selves. Maybe they’re not cost effective anymore. Maybe the level of creative talent they require has moved to greener pastures.

But what we’ve lost is not just the fleeting enjoyment they offered, but the easy exposure to a story or visual style one audience or another hasn’t previously embraced.

That social aspect of Cartooning is among the many elements of the craft explored in detail by Robert Mankoff, cartoonist, cartoon editor of the New Yorker and creator of The Cartoon Bank in a documentary available online at Big Think and excerpted below.

It’s a wonderful exploration of what’s funny and why and almost as much fun as reading (or listening to) the funny pages themselves.

Enjoy your Sunday.

1 comment:

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