Ka-Platz: The Delight in the Unexpected

One of this country's most popular cartoonists, WALT KELLY has attracted more than fifty million readers in the United States and abroad with his POGO comic strip. Mr. Kelly is a student of languages, and he here tells us how to interest children in words by means of sound and the colorful use of the unexpected.
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THERE may be madness in the method, but there is reason behind the silent noise-language seen in comic strips. An old friend, the late Representative Maury Maverick of Texas, once told me that he thought comic strips were the best means to convey the sounds he heard coming out of government. He himself, a man of well-tuned ear, gave a name to the noise. He called it gobbledygook.

Striking out at pompous epic poetry one time the Reverend Charles Dodgson coined words with comic abandon and made as much sense as is probably possible with the crutch of language in "Jabberwocky."

Children are wonderful people to deal with in using language because it is not completely necessary to communicate with them. It is just as good, if entertainment is the object, to conjure. What wriggling eels of thought are roused in the minds of most of us young when the line "'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe" comes splendidly into view. Lewis Carroll felt it necessary to explain this for some reason, though he was a man of some impatience. Humpty Dumpty is made to say that "brillig" means four o'clock in the afternoon - the time when people begin broiling things for dinner.

This is a theory that can be put down only to Dumpty's brash know-it-all manner. "Brillig" doesn't mean that at all to me. It means about four o'clock, all right, but it has to do with the weather. However, what was probably important to Dodgson at the time was the fact that in getting Humpty Dumpty and Alice to analyze "Jabberwocky," he was able to extract several pages of delightful material from the original egghead.

The noises in comic strips - "plink," "pow," "sock," et cetera - are somewhat in this pattern. If you have a noise, you might as well have a funny noise; not that you'll have to hold your sides when you behold "plink," but I think it's about 33 times funnier than "crash." Who laughs at the word "bang"? It used to be very important, but "bang" doesn't have much bang anymore. The better strips are using other words. Some of them in foreign languages, for impact.

very important. It would not do for Steve Canyon to fall with a Li'l Abner noise. Canyon is a dignified man and a sort of status symbol in the comic strip game. Likewise, Dick Tracy could never get hit on the head with a "whacko" noise. It should be noted that noises do not usually have more than one syllable. Put a noise into several syllables, and it begins to get lively. A bucket falling down the cellar stairs is a case in point. Especially if it comes to an unexpected end, such as hitting the dog.

Thus, when noises are transposed into speech, talk gathers interest for the child if it takes on some of the color of that bucket. Incidently, "bucket" is a funnier word than "pail." If you use your ear this way and put one word after another, pretty soon, as Jim Thurber remarked on a different occasion, pretty soon you'll have a. comic strip.

Inserting bounces into already formed speech, you get something like "horribobble." There is no deep meaning behind the device; it is just the same thing as wearing a lampshade at the party if your jokes are not going over. The Pogo speech pattern is full of noises signifying nothing more than the grunts of a determined grandfather eating corn.

We should remember that language is a tool and keep in mind Dumpty's injunction never to let the word be the master. Language not only is a tool; it is a recent and imperfect tool. In my business it should do what the child mind of any age desires it to do.

Whereas it is important to conjure up images, it must be admitted that it is also important to communicate. It is not important to communicate exact shades of meaning, but it is necessary to get across a sense of fun. Once the child understands that this is not at all a serious message, he begins to understand what's going on even if it is only his version of the proceedings. So he starts to enjoy himself, and that is the only objective.

Serious language can be carried on to such lengths that we have become a little like the Egyptians, who finally got so enmeshed in officialese that special people had to be trained to read the formal handwriting. We're in just about that shape with our legal briefs. How could they have acquired the name "briefs"? The ordinary lawyer requires two lead paragraphs just to inform you that presently he will have something to say further down the page. Naturally, such gobbledygook lends itself to caricature, and the noise of legal writing becomes the stuff of comic strips.

Recently Howland Owl (who seems to be the Pogo character most involved in language) ran across an article on rapid reading in a magazine belonging to Miss Sis Boombah. The name of the 'Tiagazine was Cultural Sports, and it said that its piece could be read by the trained eye in two seconds fiat. The Owl read it aloud to Churchy La Femme: "Well, it seems this IN girl waif put her nose tothewindowan'wasstarvin' todeathan' bzz zip zip zat HOWEVER zz zip swishwhosszhip zap zap zap wap wap BAM BAM BAM."

That hodgepodge is not a caricature of actual noise so much as it is intended to be a revelation of the electric impulses running wild in the mind as a man tries to swallow meaning whole as a dog would eat his dinner.

Children seem instinctively to use the noise which is handiest to convey meaning. Perhaps the child rather than the academician is master in the use of the language. Who is to say which form has the most immediate impact: bring, brought, brought, or bring, brang, brung? Not very many children have to have the latter form pointed out to them; they gravitate toward it. Not laziness but ease of comprehension may be the impulse. The practitioner and not the historian may be the real authority when it comes to actual usage.

The young, or carefree, users of language enjoy new and strange words in much the same manner that adults read with pleasure a Sid Perelman essay employing a strange, exotic, and insanely appropriate vocabulary. As he delights us by throwing caution to the winds, so does the unusual, even the invented word free the child from inhibition. The child is under fetters as he grows because we feel we must shape him to our own ends, rough-hewn or not. He welcomes relief, and with relief comes delight. The wise child never confuses this delight with escape. Escapism is avoidance, and a child learns through daily bruises that there is no escaping the real.

So, wisely, he accepts relief-delight for what it is, a hearty chuckling hunk of self-indulgence. For him the word "hunk" is better than "bit," partly because it has more muscle in its sound and partly because it is a break with the proper. He is sick to death of the proper. Later, lamentably, he will lose his grip on childish things and get relief from the proper through dirty jokes. (It is interesting that some of the greatest wits and humorists have abhorred the dirty joke. This is not out of prudery so much as out of boredom. The unexpected brings a laugh, and to the trained joke mechanic a dirty joke payoff is never unexpected.)

As an illustration of what sort of laughter is most sure for the working comic strip cartoonist or other so-called humorist-writer, consider the Christmas tree. Most children laugh when they first see one. They are at an age when things have been getting steadily duller. They are being trained in various primitive fields of accomplishment, and the humdrum of eating and sleeping has begun to weigh heavily on them. Then at last there is a break with routine. There's a tree all dressed for Sunday. Result: laughter. This laughter springs from delight, just as it springs from wit or humor, which provide delight or a break with routine.

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