Time and the Funnies

WE used to sing at morning chapel, when I was a schoolboy, presumably to cheer us up for the Latin class to come: —

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away.

This sad fact has inspired many writers other than hymnologists with the wishful dream of a life indefinitely prolonged. Even Mr. Shaw conceived a play in which certain characters, by a mysterious process called creative evolution, successfully defied Time and arrived at a stage of almost perpetual life where babies were hatched from eggs at the point of development represented by the youngest and most charming actress in the Theatre Guild company, and the oldsters enjoyed themselves by all talking at once like G. B. Shaw. The Wandering Jew was not so happy in his defeat of Time, and many of the plays and stories on this theme end with the refusal of the timeless one longer to accept his or her freedom. But that may be the author’s way of comforting his mundane audience, all of whom are painfully aware that to-morrow they ’ll be a day older.

There is one form of this escape-fromTime literature, however, which feels no necessity for reintroducing the inexorable advance of age as a climax, and which goes on and on as happily unaware of Time and Change as a cat by an abandoned mousehole. I refer, of course, to the comic strips in the newspapers. If you are not a follower of the comic strips, you are missing a chance to escape from the shackles of reality, from first pages loaded with tales of desperate revolutions in the world you have cherished, from inside pages where if you are middle-aged you turn to see who died yesterday, into a never-never-land where nothing changes, where nobody grows any older, where Time is not.

How many years ago it was — full thirty, surely — that I first encountered Mutt and Jeff in the old New York World! The World is no more with us. Its founder died. Its founder’s son grew up and grew weary, and one morning New York awoke to find this paper vanished from the stands. All its great staff were on the street, looking for jobs, which was change enough for them. But the other day I picked up a Sunday paper in Connecticut, and lo! from the sheet of colored ‘funnies’ there leaped to my eye the two once familiar figures, not altered in a single lineament, not a tittle more governed by the sobrieties imposed upon you and me by life’s hard realities. I pounced upon them with joy.

Since that day I have been paying renewed attention to the comic strips, even to some for which I have no affection. All of them have this element of timelessness. The world may have imposed a few changes, but only a few. The motorcar, for example, has supplanted the horse and buggy, and aeroplanes (of astonishing design) are frequently employed. But that is about all. Consider the Katzenjammer Kids, who began the persecution of their uncle and other adults certainly as early as the turn of the century. They ought now, by all the laws of reality under which you and I have to live, to be more than forty years old. But they are not. They have n’t grown a day older. Punishment has had no effect upon them. They continue to ‘express themselves’ with all the freedom of children in progressive schools, and to be even happier in the process. Caspar Milquetoast year after year demonstrates that the meek shall not inherit the earth and comes no nearer to either old age or self-assertiveness. Wash and Gozy, two soldiers of fortune who have no visible means of support, but who turn up in mythical kingdoms like Zenda or in Texas oil towns, always in the thick of the most exciting adventures, have been pursuing their stirring career in my home-town paper six afternoons a week I should guess for twenty years. They have known nothing of the depression. They have as little conception of a world of stern realities as — well, as Robert Louis Stevenson. They go on and on, ignoring Time and Change, on the next-to-the-last page.

You might suppose that each comic strip would perish when the artist did. But you would be wrong. Clare Briggs created a famous strip called ‘Mr. and Mrs.’ in which Joe and Vi enacted domestic scenes that appealed because of their homely familiarity. Briggs has been borne away on Isaac Watts’s ‘rolling stream’ lo, these many moons; yet Joe and Vi survive, untouched by Time or Change, ageless and eternal, in the pages of the New York Herald Tribune. They are, to be sure, copyrighted in Washington, but that seems unnecessary. It is a bit like copyrighting the North Star. Nothing earthly can touch them now. They are outside our restrictions altogether, in a metaphysical realm where there is no yesterday or no to-morrow, and panting Time toils after them in vain.