Cameo Appearances in Strips

Posted by on February 2nd, 2011 at 9:36 AM

I’m not sure who started it. Having characters from other strips put in guest appearances in strips not their own, I mean. Maybe it all began with the fondly recalled (and completely reprinted by Fantagraphics) Sam’s Strip, a monumentally fond achievement by Jerry Dumas and Mort Walker. But maybe not.

Probably cameo appearances had an earlier manifestation. (Someone will surely tell us in the comment section at the end.)

Around 1900 or so (I’m not looking it up; sorry), every once in a while, the Hearst comic strip characters would all assemble in a drawing or a strip. And Maud (a cranky mule), Alfonse and Gaston and Happy Hooligan convened in the same strip every once in a while, thanks to their creator, Fred Opper.

But as a general rule, comic strip characters stayed in their home strips. Lately, however, they’ve been turning up in other venues.

Frank Cho occasionally included Cathy or Jeffy in Liberty Meadows. And Mark Trail put in an appearance there, too. (Or maybe it was only a “Mock” Trail.)

And now the practice is fairly general. We see “foreigners” in our favorite strips not infrequently. This practice takes advantage of another cartoonist’s character, temporarily employing him/her as the punchline. On the one hand, it seems like cheating—making your joke dependent upon someone else’s creation.

On the other hand, the maneuver speaks to the pervasive popularity of comic strips generally: the cartoonist who drafts someone else’s character for duty in his/her strip knows his readers will probably recognize that interloper and know him/her well enough to get the joke. And the recognition is predictable because of the ubiquitous place comics occupy in our culture.

It’s important to pick a character whose home strip is widely circulated, of course. In a recent Pickles, for instance, Brian Crane has the family cat, Muffin, look in the mirror and see—:

Garfield, who is in so many papers that everyone who reads newspaper comics has probably encountered Jim Davis’ cat.

By the same token, the characters in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury are widely circulated enough that Stephan Pastis is confident Zonker and Michael will be recognized by readers of Pearls Before Swine.

Speaking of Pearls, you may remember a contretemps we had hereabouts a year or so ago in which I unburdened myself of a few thoughts about Pastis’ drawing ability. Among other things, I said Pastis insulted his colleagues by drawing less expertly than his ability would allow. (You notice that he’s pretty good at drawing Zonker and Michael.) Some of Pastis’ colleagues got all wee-wee’d up about it, kidnaped me and tied me to a stake and then set fire to the stake. I burned up.

Pastis, however, is smarter than all of us. On the back cover of his latest Pearls reprint, When Pigs Fly, he publishes the following blurb:

“Pastis is an arrogant egomaniacal blowhard who scoffs mercilessly at his readers and his fellow cartoonists. How can I say that? Come now: anyone who names his comic strip Pearls Before Swine is expressing an overweening disdain for his readers. Day after day, he casts his ‘pearls’—his comic strip—before the ‘swine,’ his readers. The conclusion is inescapable.”

The quotation continues: “When he draws his characters in a way that they resemble hors d’oeuvres on toothpicks, we know he’s doing minimal work, artistically speaking. In effect, he’s ridiculing his hardworking fellow cartoonists, many of whom spend almost every waking hour making the elaborate drawings in their strips. I can almost hear Pastis scoffing: ‘You fools! You spend your lives pushing ink around on paper, but I have achieved fame and fortune with the barest resemblance of drawing in my strip. Don’t you wish you’d thought of this?'”—R.C. Harvey

This quotation is followed immediately by this:

“You fools! You spend your lives pushing ink around on paper, but I have achieved fame and fortune with the barest resemblance of drawing in my strip. Don’t you wish you’d thought of this?”—Stephan Pastis

Not only does Pastis get the last laugh, he proves that, all along, while everyone around him was setting their hair on fire and running around screaming, he, with his pervading sense of self-deprecating humor, saw comedy where others saw only bad manners.

I finally met Pastis, by the way, at last summer’s Sandy Eggo Con. Jeff Keane, president of the National Cartoonists Society, had to step between us to prevent Pastis from tearing my throat out, as you can see in this photo taken by Keith Robinson.

That’s me, cringing on the left, Keane in the middle, and Pastis, doing an imitation of an infuriated cartoonist, on the right. As any fool can see (I can see), Pastis is much better at this than I am.

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