I love newspaper comic strips. A day’s compilation of strips in a each paper may only elicit a few chuckles, but I really enjoy reading the funnies. Maybe it’s a fascination due to an odd nostalgia for a time I never lived through or maybe it’s as close as I’ll ever get to time-travel by reading syndicated humor that’s been running for decades in a nearly irrelevant medium. Maybe it’s the oddly meditative and familiar aspect of it, like watching a movie you’ve seen twenty times and finding it provides a kind of inexplicable comfort. I don’t know that I could fully explain why I enjoy the funnies, maybe it’s because they’re just fun. I don’t know.
My fascination with comic strips began in my childhood when I discovered a bunch of old paperback collections of “Peanuts” and “B.C.” strips that my dad bought back in college (or high school). I pored over them for hours. I read through those editions over and over again, ravenously consuming each page of antics featuring Charlie Brown and the gang in faded black print on the yellowed pages of those tiny books. I purchased collections of “Big Nate” or some other strip at almost every book fair throughout grade school. Later on, around the time I became a teenager, nabbing my dad’s collections of Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” became a regular occurrence. And when I made it to college, I was lucky that the University of Missouri had a newspaper readership program that allowed me access to free papers everyday. The strips in those newspapers got me through a lot of boring lectures.
In my time with the funnies, I’ve developed a strange appreciation for many of their quirkier aspects. I’ve learned “Mark Trail” is best read aloud as though it’s an informative government video from the ’50s. I’ve gone from hating the “Family Circus” to finding it ironically funny to just enjoying it because it is so weird. And I learned to appreciate that fact that the cast of “For Better or Worse” is the only family within newspaper strips where the characters age and mature—there’s something to be said for that (Actually, I guess those kids in “Baby Blues” grew up, too. Huh.). All in all, some of it may be kooky and dated, but there’s a lot to love within the newspaper’s comics section.
Still, while the funny pages aren’t without their faults (Turns out “B.C.” is pretty much just around now to fire off offensive remarks from its bitter conservative agenda and “Cathy” is never less than 100 percent annoying.), I think it’s the classic stuff that has never really endeared itself to me, even with all my love for the comics section, that I find to be one of the oddest aspects of this whole, antiquated beast.
Among those strips that I’ve never been able to really get behind is, unfortunately, the work of fellow University of Missouri graduate Mort Walker. “Beetle Bailey” and “Hi and Lois” seemed vaguely interesting when I was young, and I’ve read them enough to know that they can deliver a laugh, but aside from a bit of classic funny pages art, Mort Walker’s stuff never really appealed to me. Today, I found a link via Newsarama that cast Mort Walker in a whole new light and has me looking at Mizzou’s most famous comics alum with new eyes.
Shaenon Garrity over at The Comics Journal has written up a piece about a book of Mort Walker strips that were too racy and crude for American newspapers, but just fine for Scandinavian audiences. I love Garrity’s assertion that strips of this nature are “what happens when you spend 60 years working in an industry where readers write scandalized letters to the editor if the kid from ‘Zits’ uses the word ‘nipple.’” Knowing that Mort Walker occasionally had to draw something wildly inappropriate just to break free for the Family Friendly Fest of the funny pages makes his work and career endlessly more interesting to me. What kills me is that this didn’t really occur to me earlier nor did I seek it out, because—as pointed out on TCJ— the “oft-ignored truth” is that “newspaper cartoonists tell the best and most dirty jokes.” In fact, I vaguely remember an editor of mine relaying some odd Mort Walker stories, so the seed should have been planted to track these down long ago.
Pride sometimes comes from unexpected places and these raunchy comics make me all the more proud of my alma-mater. I’ll be the first to say some kind words about Mizzou. I really enjoyed my time there and had tons of good clean, fun on and around that beautiful campus. That said, the tales of debauchery I could tell about my time at MU… let’s just say that I’m glad to see the squeaky clean work of Mort Walker has a dark side, as well. Safe to say, I’ll never look at this statue outside the Alumni Center the same again…