Compose Yourself

Posted by on June 28th, 2010 at 8:04 AM

There’s nothing wrong with this release last week on June 23 of Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey.

It’s a perfectly good gag—as always, executed with the professional panache born of years of cartooning experience. But the last panel presents us with an opportunity to ponder the kinds of challenges that drawing a comic strip presents.

The panel illustrates five distinct actions or developments: (1) Miss Buxley’s question, (2) General Halftrack’s response, (3) the unexpected arrival of his wife who overhears what he says and (4) probably misinterprets it, and (5) the General’s realization that his wife is likely to have misunderstood his otherwise innocent “Honey.”

If we were filming the incident for a movie, the sequence would follow pretty exactly the order I’ve just laid out. If Walker had more room to develop the gag than today’s limited space for daily comic strips affords, he might have done it by adding more panels to the strip: actions (1) and (2) above would appear in one panel (as here, the second in the sequence), the arrival of the General’s wife would take another panel all by itself, and the final panel would be a close-up of the General’s face, looking aghast as he realizes the kind of misinterpretation his wife was bound to make at overhearing the concluding fragment of a conversation.

In this arrangement, General Halftrack might not need to “think” anything: the sequence, staged as I’ve described it, might be sufficient in itself to suggest his alarm.

But Walker didn’t have all that real estate to play around in, so he was obliged to put all the action into two panels, most of it in the last one. As it transpires, the actions, using the numbering above, appear in this order: (3 & 4), (1), (2), and (5). The General’s comical realization of the likelihood of his wife’s misinterpreting his word takes place “a long time” after her appearance, which prompts his realization.

Has too much “time” gone by? I don’t think so: the gag is held together by the sheer sequencing of the speech/thought balloons.

Had Walker had more room—had he committed the joke in four panels (as in my aforementioned suggestion) instead of two—he might not have needed to express the General’s thoughts at the end. The sequence would have carried the “story” to its logical, and comical, conclusion without giving the General’s thoughts explicit expression.

But Walker didn’t have that much room and made do with what he had. As it is, the General’s thought at the end seems tacked on, an “after thought,” which is what it is, of course—the thought after the development that prompts it.

The depiction of the General’s thought, while perfectly positioned for its purpose, re-directs our attention to an “event” that happened two other “events” (Miss Buxley’s speech and the General’s) before, an awkward interval but a nonetheless functional maneuver.

As I said, the gag works as intended. But it makes me wish, anew, for more space for daily newspaper comic strips.

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