False Alarm (Drat)

Posted by on February 3rd, 2010 at 7:28 PM

I thought we might be in for a historic week on Blondie, but it didn’t happen. On Monday, as you’ll recall, Dagwood visited his barber, who, in a moment of wild abandon, clipped off Dagwood’s distinctive hair antenna. And I thought maybe we’d spend the rest of the week watching Dagwood trying to grow them back. But it took no particular skill: on Tuesday, Dag’s hair was perfectly in place (that is, terribly askew as always), and neither Dag nor his hair seemed any the worse for the scalping on Monday. Too bad: you look for continuity, and it isn’t there.

But we’ll take the opportunity this aborted discussion affords to bring modest resolution to two of the strip’s reigning mysteries—namely, Dagwood’s askew hair and the single large button on the front of his shirt. What is that hair all about and what is the single button supposed to be?

The hair is easier to explain but more difficult to understand. As you can tell from the illustration below, Dagwood’s hair was first depicted—in the very first Blondie strip on September 8 (or September 15, the date is in doubt)—as slicked-down and parted-in-the-middle, a style then in fashion among dashing young men-about-town. On either side of the part, however, are slight suggestions that not every hair is perfectly in place.

By 1932, those suggestions have become definite indications of unruly locks. Over the ensuing years, the merely unruly became rampant and antenna-like, assuming the odd configuration that has distinguished Dagwood’s head all these years. What started as one or two hairs out of place became, gradually, through the sort of evolution that exaggeration in cartooning fosters, a distinctively weird hair-do.

The shirt button was once explained by the current writer of the strip, Dean Young, the son of Blondie’s creator Chic Young. In Blondie and Dagwood’s America, a book that commemorated fifty years of the strip, Young fils said: “My dad once joked that one big button was easier to draw than several little ones—but he was seriously sorry he started drawing it that way because it caused so many, many questions.”

But I submit that he is as wrong here as he is when he claimed Dagwood’s hair was devised expressly in order to give the character a distinguishing physical characteristic. Not likely. The hair is an accident; so is the button. Nothing deliberate about either.

The button, like the hair, is the vestigial remnant of the earliest version of Dagwood. When he first appeared, Dagwood was the son of a wealthy tycoon, and he often wore the uniform of his class, evening dress, which, in those antique times, included a starched front shirt with a stud button in the middle of the white expanse across his chest. Today’s single button in the middle of Dagwood’s front is all that is left to remind us of the fortune he gave up when he married Blondie and his father disowned him.

The button doesn’t show up much these days. Dean Young has systematically tried to bring the strip into the last decades of the 20th century by various means. Blondie joined the working women when she started a catering service, for instance. And Dagwood now often wears a pull-over polo shirt when lounging around home, so there’s no button. Too bad: we always hope for signs of permanence in life.

Jeff Parker, the editorial cartoonist on Florida Today, was, until the end of July 2005, one of the cartoonists producing Blondie. He once mentioned other visual oddities in the strip. “There’s an eye issue,” he said: “Dag’s two big elipses are like no other character’s eyes in the strip (apart from his clone, Alexander). Did they just morph out of the small ovals that he originally had? They always look very out of place to me since no one else in the strip sports big ovals for eyes.”

My guess is that Dagwood’s eyes just morphed—like his hair and that big button on his shirt front. Parker also noted the strange whimsy that the Bumsteads’ neighbor, Herb Woodley, and the mailman, Mr. Beasley, look alike, “the only distinctions being that Herb has a cleft chin and Beasley has a solid round chin—also, harder to notice since the mailman is always wearing a hat, but Beasley has less hair than Herb.”

And we can’t see the cleft chin unless Herb is looking at us; in profile, he looks like Beasley.

Enough mystery. Take the afternoon off.

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