Hazardous Work in the Funnies

Posted by on September 29th, 2010 at 7:47 PM

In our celebration of zombies last week, we stopped, briefly, at Mark Tatulli’s Heart of the City. Probably we should have visited his other strip, too. Tatulli once said: “As a kid, all I wanted was to do a syndicated comic strip; and now, as an adult, all I do is syndicated comic strips.” Or words to that effect. That’s right: two of them, both with Sundays as well as dailies.

And the two strips are entirely different, one from the other. Heart is a happy little girl, rendered with a juicy brush; the eponymous Lio, drawn with a spidery but unwavering line, is a mute boy with an all mute supporting cast and an insatiable taste for the macabre. His strip would have been a good place to visit during Zombie Week. But we didn’t do that; instead, we saved Lio for this week and another purpose altogether.

By way of introducing today’s topic (and, probably, Friday’s and maybe the ensuing Monday’s), here is Lio guesting in Stephan Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine, a comic strip that has made cameo appearances from other strip characters its stock in trade.

It probably didn’t begin, actually, with Pastis. Other cartoonists producing other strips have, from time to time, dragooned characters from other strips into their own for guest appearances. But not very often. Not over the yawn of time. Old Timers almost never did it. Of the present generation, Frank Cho may have started it in Liberty Meadows, into which he occasionally inserted Cathy or Little Jeffy (usually in a mildly derogatory way); Mark Trail showed up, too, once or twice.

But Pastis has made the maneuver a standard practice. Hardly a month goes by, you’d think, that a character from another strip doesn’t show up in Pearls. Pastis’s gimmick is occasionally appropriated by other cartoonists who evidently admire the trick. Tatulli, for instance, gets both Dick Tracy and Mark Trail to show up in Lio, as we see here:

But Pastis remains the champ.

The relative frequency of this device these days reveals something about our contemporary culture and the role of comics in it: “comics referential” cartoons depend upon our ability to recognize the visual irony, and we usually do.

Cartoons and comics have become so much a part of popular culture that the cartoonist can rely upon his readers’ grasping a joke when the joke itself depends largely upon a reader knowing who those “guests” are in the strip. In the above Pearls, for instance, much of our pleasure at the comedy derives from knowing that the Vikings in the last panel are the stars of another comic strip, Hagar the Horrible. In fact, if we didn’t know that, the joke would fall flat. We’d wonder why pig is suddenly having dinner with Vikings. Okay: he’s been relegated to “someplace else”; we’d realize that. But the comedy is enhanced when we know he’s joined Hagar’s household.

The device fails, however, if the cartoonist doesn’t choose a widely recognized character for cameo treatment. Hence the frequency of guest appearances by characters from The Family Circus, Cathy, Blondie, Beetle Bailey, Hagar, and Dick Tracy. The first five of these strips are published in over 1,000 newspapers; a lot of people recognize them. Dick Tracy no longer enjoys such wide circulation, but he’s a cultural icon. But is Lio in today’s first visual aid? His strip’s circulation is far below 1,000. In the mid-hundreds, I’m guessing. Thoroughly respectable but not huge.

And in the same strip, that’s Alice from Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac in the first panel—did you know that?

In this Pearls Sunday, how much is familiar?

We recognize the allusion to Peanuts by our familiarity with Lucy’s feet and Snoopy’s dog house. But who’s that crusty fellow in the last panel? Pastis knows Snuffy Smith isn’t as widely distributed strip as it once was—and nothing like, say, Blondie or Garfield—so he gives us a tiny clue: the typeset “MITH” that appears at the lower left (in imitation of Sunday strip title format) signals the final portion of the strip’s full title, Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. And if we have reasonably long memories (and since most readers of newspapers are over 55 these days, we can be fairly confident of that), shanghaiing Snuffy for this day’s gag isn’t too risky. But Cul de Sac’s Alice?

Snuffy, by the way, helped Beetle Bailey celebrate his 60th anniversary last month, but I haven’t been able to track down a copy of the strip.

More cameo stuff on Friday.

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One Response to “Hazardous Work in the Funnies”

  1. Jason M. says:

    Of course, no one did this sort of thing better–or more thoroughly–than Jerry Dumas and Mort Walker with “Sam’s Strip.”

    Personally, I enjoy this sort of thing even if I don’t recognize the reference, if only because it makes the comics page seem like the last bastion of good humor between peers. That said, getting the joke is always nice.