Sex in the Funnies

Posted by on February 8th, 2010 at 2:35 PM

Well, why not? We’ll turn to this subject from time to time because there’s more sex in the funnies these days than ever before, and that’s notable. Used to be, there was no sex in the comic strips; now, there’s a good deal more of it. The sea change is worth noting and worth discussing. Besides, we’re all vitally interested in sex and continually look for opportunities to engage in it, but we can talk about it much longer than we can actually perform it.

Here’s a Sunday comic strip that has been called the happiest, truest insight into the human sapien (sic) male attitude about sex ever published in a comic strip. (And maybe anywhere else, too.)

The strip, you notice, is Arlo and Janis—one of my all-time favorites—named for its protagonists, husband and wife, former hippie types of the early 1980s, conjured up, ever since their debut on July 29, 1985, by Jimmy Johnson, himself doubtless a former hippie type.

You can scour the Web for information about Jimmy Johnson, but you won’t find much. He has produced his strip now for almost 24 years, and he operates a blog (arloandjanis.com) whereat he muses about his strip’s daily installments, one at a time usually, and about various other sundries that crop up. But he doesn’t say much about himself in any sort of orderly biographical way. You need to go to lambiek.net to find that he was born in Alabama and studied journalism at Auburn University. At Wikipedia, we learn that he graduated in 1974, presumably at about the age of 22, and went to work in the university’s public relations department and as a reporter. By about 1980, he was a newspaper reporter and editor, and, part-time, he drew editorial cartoons. In 1983, he earned a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award honorable mention for his 1982 editorial cartooning; at the time, he was working full-time in Mississippi as an editorial cartoonist at the Jackson Daily News. He started Arlo and Janis in 1985, as noted; syndicated by NEA. It was one of the smartest things NEA did.

“When I first sold the strip,” Johnson wrote in his blog a couple years ago, “the family had no name. The strip itself had no name! Preparing to launch, the syndicate brain trust decided, ‘Let’s make their name Day and call the strip Day by Day.’ However, it turned out there was an old, semi-defunct newspaper column called Day by Day, and legally timid heads prevailed. The strip was named Arlo and Janis. I subsequently kept the name ‘Day’ [as their family name]. Why not?”

Arlo and Janis had a small son, about eight years old then; he was named Eugene McCarthy Day after a popular anti-war Senator who ran for President in the mid-1960s and earned the respect of everyone under the age of 35 at the time for his candor and outspokenness about the war and other evils. Gene is now older and going to college, so he’s not in the strip much. In 1993, a cat showed up; eventually, it was named Ludwig, and on Sundays, he’s purple.

Johnson’s drawing style is plain and simple, with just enough wrinkles in clothing to suggest that clothing wrinkles; no more. On many days running, Arlo will stroll through the strip, panel by panel, thinking out loud, without there being any background details at all. Usually, Johnson doesn’t put any visual details into the strip unless they’re needed for the day’s comedy. He has to draw a couch of he wants Arlo to be seated next to Janis on it. But chances are, if they aren’t seated, there’s no couch.

Unless they’re having breakfast together, and then there’s a kitchen table and visual clues about chairs.

Whoever wrote the Wikipedia entry for Arlo and Janis correctly observes that many of the jokes in the strip “are based on sexual attraction, especially Arlo’s desire for Janis. Despite having been a couple since meeting in college in 1973, Arlo and Janis are still besotted with each other. The libidinous content of the strip can be surprisingly overt to readers accustomed to more sanitized newspaper comics. And in a medium where long marriages are often presented as either sexless or antagonistic (Blondie or The Lockhorns), these strips that show the couple’s love and ongoing attraction to each other offer a [delightful] alternative.”

I don’t mean to suggest that the strip is all about sex or only about sex. It’s about marriage and relationships, and sex is a part of that. More in this vein on Wednesday, February 10, when we’ll encounter “the dirtiest Arlo and Janis” strip (so-called by Scott Shaw; but I don’t believe it for a minute).

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