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The Bell Curve:

The funnies have pegged politics

May 05, 2010|By Joseph N. Bell

One of the great cultural losses as the print media goes down would be the comics. That’s where I think the most incisive social and political commentary in newspapers today can be found.

And with an election coming up next month, it is probably a better place to look for candidate role models than Meg Whitman’s millions, Jerry Brown’s antecedents and John Campbell’s disappearing act when his audience isn’t in his bag.

Those meditations set me to wondering about the impact that the “funnies” had on me when reading them was as fixed in our routine as brushing our teeth.

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I seriously doubt whether even comic strips and radio combined ever had one-fourth the impact that TV has on today’s young people. But comics were unquestionably a factor in forming both our life styles and our fantasies — perhaps more than we realized then or now.

A lot of comics in the 1930s were four-panel jokes — strips such as “Krazy Kat” and the “Katzenjammer Kids” and “Mutt and Jeff.” But the strips that most helped shape our thinking were running stories with continuing characters.

For example, I learned from “Blondie,” “Bringing Up Father” and “The Gumps” that the real iron in our society is provided by women, and they somehow have to hold things together despite the good-hearted but semi-idiot men in their lives.

From “Dick Tracy” I learned that law and order had no shades of gray. There are good guys and bad guys, and God help the person who fuzzes these two clearly defined areas. From Uncle Walt and Skeezix in “Gasoline Alley,” I learned that perseverance, pluck and hard work will win out every time, no matter the odds.

But the comic strip that made the greatest impact on me was “Little Orphan Annie,” who — despite her daily aphorisms — was really only a shill for the hero of my Great Depression childhood. However you want to slice him, Daddy Warbucks was an unembarrassed fascist, bebopping around the world, ignoring domestic and international law to zap what he perceived as really bad guys (mostly Bolsheviks, a term that to Daddy encompassed every bad guy, from Russian bomb throwers to union organizers to Democrats.) Actually, Daddy didn’t do the dirty work himself. He turned most of it over to a pair of hit men named the Asp and Punjab.

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