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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Too often the sanitary minds of the educational fraternity, being proper, are properly not interested in laughs. Yet the laugh hooks the audience or the reader. When an educator is interested in a laugh, he performs in the manner of a German clown, using exclamation points to denote a socalled surprising fact or observation. Exclamation points should be legally consigned to comic strips and certain news headlines. Children's books should be out of bounds. The news "Timmy's dog had a blueberry on his nose!" is not exactly stoppress information. If it is used at all in a child's book, it should rely on its own strength to drive the child reader into paroxysms of astonishment. Using the exclamation point is like wearing padded shoulders.

People who rely on the exclamation point are playing intellectual squat tag with the child. He expects more from human beings who are supposed to be grown-ups. If the humorist or writer wants to engage the attention of the child, he has to use funny words and devices that the child considers honest.

Children, like most primitive people, make diminutives out of simple nouns, possibly to make the object named more familiar and less alien. Dobig this, they sometimes put an -ee ending on "dog" or "Mom," but they also double the use of the noun - "car car," for example. But mothers of the world must face the fact that any adult who goes around saying, "We went to our potty-potty, weren't we good?" will be regarded by one and all as an idiot. It is better not to talk that way; it just destroys the faith of children in their elders.

A certain few adults who happily recalled that they once were children have written books from time to time using words or inventing words which are the delight of children. Lewis Carroll was always honest with his invented words; Edward Lear was a little complicated and sometimes cute, but his inventions were funny and did the job. Beatrix Potter invented ladylike expressions, but they were good on the whole and did not insult the child's intelligence.

Today, aside from the regular comic strip artists, we have one gifted man who makes funny drawings and invents funny words for a living. Dr. Seuss, Ted Geisel, is a solid performer. The child gets no pap from this doctor. When he invents a word, it is funny, short, and serviceable in many emergencies. Ying and Gox and Voom are something a child can grasp. Much better than "puttytat." Too many made-up words are, in the English schoolboy phrase, just a little wet.

Mother Goose probably should receive a little credit for being a storehouse of invented words, most of them intended to be funny. But much of Mother Goose is a file of folk expressions, and time, not being the wisest of editors, has merely knocked off the corners. This has often made round stones out of what may have once been square-cut gems.

Over the past thirty-five years or so the animated cartoon industry has contributed mightily to the supply of noise words. The musical sound track made it possible for all sorts of noises to be used in the many crashes, falls, and splashes with which the ordinary animated cartoon film is studded. In order to define these noises before the picture was shot, storyboard men took to making up their words to denote the various calamities. The storyboard artist works as if he were drawing a huge comic strip. The action develops panel by panel on a huge wallboard through more or less rough sketches. If a horse falls out of a window, he is probably going to make a noise. Naturally, the artist would spell this noise "krumpf!", or possibly "blamp!" This practice of using noise words of one's own invention spread to comic strip and comic book artists, many of whom had at one time or another worked in animated cartoon studios.

For some reason the classic noise for hitting a friend on the head became "boing!" If you ask the nearest child, he will pronounce it for you, the public having become privy to the information through TV reruns. It is a combination sound coming out of a pig's oink and the unfurling of a tightly wound spring. Very effective.

Some of us have from time to time tried to break away from too close an observance of the rule. Harrison Cady, who drew the Peter Rabbit strip for many years, used a device that I always admired, although I was not strictly a Peter Rabbit fan. When a rabbit ran, little words followed his footsteps. They were "run, run, run." If a bug rolled down a hill, the words were "roll, roll, roll."

It must be admitted that this was inspired noise-word making, inasmuch as it depended on the word of the action and was, as far as I know, the only funny thing about Peter Rabbit. The idea, however, led me to experiment at one time with noise words. Rather than using an unimaginative "pflomp " I decided that if a fellow fell on his head, the noise might be "Charlie!", or if he was playing a horn, the noise coming out of the bell would be "Schenectady!" Things like that merely puzzled the children and infuriated people named Charlie living in Schenectady. I realized that instead of going to the extreme of playing acondescending game of squat tag with my readers, I was going to the other extreme and was acting with a callous sophistication. True, I was tired of "pflomp!", but the children were still amused by it, and, what is better, they understood it. It is hard to go around with every comic strip or book arid explain why the noise "Terre Haute" comes ringing out of a shotgun. Fortunately, the device never became a real trend, and comics were saved.

Children were the ones who put into vocal action the staccato of an automatic rifle. No soundeffects man or cartoonist was called in. They had to make a noise, and so they made it, using the rapidly opening and closing glottal stop, thus making a gladsome intimidating noise not heard since the last Sumerian drove his last bargain.

Parents always object to such exercises, which break into the funereal quiet of the class-A or TV-less home. All these adults would be enchanted by the babble, chatter, and sheer shrill of the Damascus bazaar, but that is in another country and has charm. At home the poor kid never learns any language except parlor prosaic. Thus, for relief we have the street and the cartoon.

In order to accommodate the taste of the young for something colorful just short of the pool hail, cartoonists have long used swearword substitutes. If somebody annoys Albert, the Alligator, he does not hesitate to say, "Dagnab that backslaggin' dogboned old basket!", which can be translated any way you'd like, according to size and taste.

Frank Willard was a great freehanded cartoonist who, until his death, drew Moon Mullins. He would have his men, largely raffish street-corner types of about the early-twenties era, take a drink at the corner saloon and use expressions just short of profanity. One that we can reprint here was "Holy H. Smoke!" The child mind taking this in recognizes it for a paraphrase of the name of one of the Trinity into whose name the freewheeling talkers sometimes place an initial while dealing rather loosely with colorful language. Moon Mullins was an honest strip that attracted and held child readers, partly because of its honesty in using language.

So it is that the Pogo strip attempts something honest when it has a sorely wounded member scream "rowrbazzle!" This is an unlikely noise in an unlikely strip and therefore likely. The main thing to keep in mind is not to have a word used in an improper setting. Peanuts could holler "rowrbazzle !", upon payment of royalties, and get away with it, but, again, Steve Canyon would have trouble.

"Peanut butter" is a phrase that everybody understands at an early age. You can change it to "peaner buckle" without fear of losing flavor or comprehension. The term "caterpillar," without question, is made to be converted into several things; "caterpiggle" was one I used one time and was deluged with fan mail. One of my sons still uses an invention of his own; it is "callerpitter," which gets the idea across, but he hasn't received any fan mail to speak of.

It occurred to me one year that everybody was talkin' 'bout Christmas but nobody was goin' there: The radio-TV sandblast of carols for commercial purposes grated not only the ear but the sensitivities. So about 1949 I had the characters parody a carol. The attempt was to parody the use of carols, but even though this was a poke at the usage, it was chancy. Readers make mistakes sometimes and think you're making fun of something else besides the real object. It's a risky business. So the choice of carol had to be rather cool. It was discovered finally that one of the few songs used as a carol that had no sacred connotations was "Deck the Halls With Boughs of Holly."

A few of the Pogo carolers got together and did a straight parody of the sounds made when you sing the right words to the carol. It came out:

Oh, deck us all with Boston Charlie,
       Walla Walla, Wash., and Kalamazoo!
Nora's freezin' on the trolley...
       Swaller dollar, cauliflower, alley-ga-roo!

This caught on with a number of elderly child minds, and finally children themselves. There was relief in it, and few feelings were bruised. Those who protested against this violation of all that was holy were told as gently as possible that the carol in question was one that was left over from the midwinter pre-Christian pagan rites celebrating the return of the long day in ancient Britain.

Usage of this kind, plus varying type faces, is probably more acceptable in comic strip form than in any other form, and so the Pogo strip violates a lot of rules, but the readers seem to enjoy the violations. There is nothing particularly brilliant about the different concoctions of sounds, type faces, and languages; it is just that in the ordinary business of being involved daily with the public, too few writers or cartoonists seem to think it worthwhile to try something unusual. I think it is worthwhile. It saves you from having to be clever at times. As I say, it's a little like wearing a lampshade at the party.

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