For several generations, our cultural beliefs and family life have been reflected in newspaper comic strips. Even today the comics are so much a part of the daily routine of readers young and old that most people have a very personal tradition of the order in which they read them... they may turn to the comics first or save them for a final treat after reading the rest of the paper. Most people even have an order as to which strip they read first... often saving their favorite for last.
Since the 1890s, comic panels and strips have provided a laugh, kept readers involved in an ongoing saga or provided social commentary -- and some strips do all three over the course of what is usually a very long run... successful comic strips are often carried on by other cartoonists even after their creator is gone.
Fathers in the Comics
As Father's Day nears, I decided to take a look back at some comic strip fathers to see how dads have been depicted over time. After a little research, I decided to hopscotch through time and take a look at the father figures in Gasoline Alley, Blondie, Dennis the Menace, and the more recent Family Circus and For Better or For Worse.
To my astonishment, the oldest strip I looked at, Gasoline Alley, created by Frank King (1883-1969) in 1918 offered a perfect role model of a loving and involved father in the main character Uncle Walt. The strip itself first ran in the Chicago Tribune, and its name derived from the fact that it was about a group of men who spent their spare time tinkering with old cars. However, the co-publisher of the Tribune wanted to shift focus so that women might also take a look at the strip. Here, King faced a dilemma as Walt Wallet was unmarried, and no other character had a significant back story. However, Frank King came up with a plot device: Walt wakes up one morning to find a baby in a basket on his front doorstep, and thus, he becomes a single father.
Gasoline Alley was notable for permitting the characters to age, and the relationship that develops between Uncle Walt and Skeezix, the boy he raises as a son, is one of the most loving and caring relationships imaginable. Two prime examples come from both father and son: When Skeezix is only a toddler, Walt takes the much-too-young Skeezix to the circus because Walt is so excited to share the experience with him. Walt points and shares and enjoys all that they see; Skeezix remains focused on the balloon Walt buys him. (How many parents can identify with that overwhelming desire to share what you love?) Much later, Skeezix is serving in the infantry in Europe during World War II, and at mail call, he receives a couple of letters. Skeezix eagerly rips into one of the letters, saying, "Nina first! I hope Uncle Walt doesn't mind." (Skeezix goes home to marry Nina and run Walt's garage for him as Walt ages.)
Any father today could turn to Uncle Walt as an example of the beauty of a caring and involved fatherly love.
Blondie, the strip by Chic Young (1901-1973) that we actually know more for the bumbling Dagwood, started out with a very different plot line; it wasn't about a family at all. The strip was launched by King Features in 1930 and was about Blondie Boopadoop, a flapper and her many boyfriends. But it seemed that Americans in the Depression were not amused by Blondie's superficial social problems. When sales of the strip stalled, Young and the syndicate came up with a plot twist. Blondie would marry one of her rich boyfriends, Dagwood Bumstead, and his family would be so upset that they would disinherit him. This propelled Dagwood and Blondie solidly into the middle class, facing regular family woes.
Though Dagwood fulfills the stereotype role of reluctant family participant in things like chores, Blondie and Dagwood's offspring turn out well. Son Alexander is a star high school athlete; Cookie, their teen daughter, is an A student. While Blondie plays the more active part in parenting, Dagwood is a lovable family member and is often seen with devoted dog Daisy by his side. Dagwood is far from a stellar role model for fathers today, he obviously radiated enough good qualities to be a part of a good and loving family.
More recent comic strips bring life more up-to-date. Dennis the Menace, created by Hank Ketcham (1920-2001) in 1951, is still enormously popular. Dennis, always age 5, expresses childhood innocence as well as an abundance of curiosity, and he has a streak mischievousness that often lands him in trouble -- he is sent to the corner to sit in his rocker and think about what he has done. His father Henry is tolerant and relatively involved but he is probably best remembered for his various intonations of "DENNIS!" depending on the level of Dennis' most recent transgression. Dennis' sweetness is underlined by the fact that his bedtime prayers often include a Dennis-style apology for any wrong doing.
More up-to-date families are depicted in comics like Family Circus, created by Bil Keane (1922) in 1960. Keane realized his own family was providing him with daily ideas for a comic panel. The strip started with three children and added a baby, PJ, bringing the kid count to four. After a few years of letting them age, Keane locked the children into specific ages and stages, ranging from Billy, the oldest at 7, and PJ, the baby, one and a half. While the mother in the Family Circus does the bulk of the house and child care, the father is very much in the center of what is happening.
More Recent Dads
For Better or For Worse drawn by Canadian cartoonist Lynn Johnston started in 1979. It still runs in numerous newspapers but Johnston quit drawing original strips in 2008, so the strip continues in repeat. During its 30-year run, the characters, Elly and John, raised children who grew up, got married and had children of their own. They also wrestled with very real problems like the death of the family dog, and social issues involving sexual orientation of friends and a favorite high school teacher who was paraplegic.
But for my money, this Father's Day, I would send readers off to look at the oldest strip I investigated. The loving relationship between Uncle Walt and Skeezix in Gasoline Alley shows that the spirit of fatherhood is in the heart, not necessarily the genes. It would be hard to find a more loving father-child relationship than that shared by Walt and Skeezix.
Happy Father's Day to dads everywhere -- chances are you have a good bit of Walt in you.
This month's newsletter from America Comes Alive will provide a few more nuggets about the history of comic strips. If you would like to receive this free mailing, write me: firstname.lastname@example.org and put Comics in the subject line.