IF A general slowdown of the nation begins to set in, a few years hence, we shall be able to trace its origin, without difficulty, to the comic strips. An era will open in which anything decisive or at all conclusive is impossible. The most trifling activities will be preceded by weeks and months of brooding, of uncertainty, self-doubt, tiny squabbles. Years of static bewilderment will accompany an attempt to design a new taillight edifice for an automobile. The miracle ride, the miracle detergent, the miracle laxative, the miracle lotion — all will be the same old miracles we had before; they will all remain on the verge of improvement, but the action point will never quite be reached. Eventually, the slowdown will come to a dead stop.
Such, at any rate, is the forward view one gets from the “family” strips which seem to be proliferating once again. We all know how the comic-strip characters helped to win World W ar II and launched a generation into supersonic travels in outer space — relatively old hat today. The rough-stuff comics, once believed to be the cause of all juvenile delinquency and most major crimes, are on the way out. Not for some years now has a safe-cracker won a genial probation by pleading that he learned his trade through reading the comics in his youth. The dragon women and snake queens arc shifting into frilly aprons and gingham. Child characters turn up, not in outer space or the lair of The Avenger, but back in the family living room with Mom and her chump consort, Dad, who never swung a blackjack in his life and who thinks Halloween masks are something that children wear on Halloween.
The dull character of Dad is what permits the family-strip artist to fragmentate a single small idea into a limitless string of daily episodes. Instead of having to produce an idea or a point to be made every day, the artist needs only a half-dozen ideas or so to get through the year. By offering about one sixty-fourth of an idea each day, he can take a month or more to account for even the simplest episode. Let us envision, for example, Pooky, a strip dealing with the activities — or rather the lack of hem — in the Hapless household. And let us assume that Pooky, a teen-age girl, is urging Dad Hapless to buy a new car. (It could just as well be a TV set, but the prudent artist knows that most newspaper editors feel the less said about TV the better — a horrid form of competition which, if steadfastly ignored, might go away altogether. A new car costs more, and it’s also something that the editor can point out for the advertising manager to show his Detroit connections.)
Pooky hammers away at Dad Hapless under her own steam. Dad feebly resists: the old car is good for another five years, he thinks. After ten days of this and needing a new voice, the artist puts Mom on the stand for a week or two of goodhumored bickering about what the family can afford.
At the end of three weeks Dad Hapless announces that he has made his decision.
Follows a week in which Pooky and Mom wonder, singly and jointly, what he has decided. They conjecture with their friends and neighbors. Dad Hapless is not stepping out of character by mystifying his womenfolk. He is still just as undecided as ever, and he has named a due date in a weaker than usual moment. A very weak character, Dad Hapless.
The due date arrives, and Dad Hapless is about to announce his decision to Pooky.
A new crisis: he can’t find Pooky. Where can Pooky be? It won’t do for Pooky to have run away. The family strip is too respectable for that sort of shenanigans. Dad finally finds a note in her girlish hand: she is baby-sitting next door to help pay for the new ear. This unhorses Dad Hapless all over again. After changing his mind three times the next day, Dad Hapless declares that a new car it shall be!
The next few months of the Pooky strip afford the editor many a fine by-product to show the advertising manager. A long interval of tussling over what car to buy discloses the Hapless family, like all good Americans, to be thoroughly informed and enthusiastic about the wonderful new features of the '56 models. Safety, styling, the special devices to gladden Pooky and Mom — never forget that cars are designed for Pooky and Mom and not for any notions that Dad Hapless may harbor — all these are debated for another long stretch.
This brings the strip along comfortably to late spring, when a new period of indecision is ushered in: where, once the new car has been delivered, will the family go in it for Dad’s two weeks’ vacation? Dad is necessarily a small-timer, like his readers, so two weeks are all he gets. But the argument over where to spend them is a corker. Alaska? Mexico? The Laurentians? The advertising manager himself is following Pooky from day to day by this time, as he amasses his annual Travel Supplement. Forty-three more papers have taken on Pooky, it transpires, since the first of the year. A fine, wholesome series — even funny every once in a while — the strip is going great guns.
In Pooky’s slow-motion world, one is tempted to recall early Mutt and Jeff, when a comic-strip character made a split-second decision every day and acted upon it instantly and on the dead run. Mutt and Jeff were, at the time, the vehicle for a daily tip on the horses, and the action was nothing more than a disclosure of how Mutt received, with assistance or hindrance by Jeff, the powerful hunch which sent him legging it, in the final panel, for the nearest bookie. It was all forthright action. A comicstrip Old Man, for example, would encounter our two friends in panel 1, take offense in panel 2, and throw a tantrum in No. 3. This was enough, in the days when people really got around and did things, to set Mutt in motion for Panel 4, money in hand, shouting: —
“Two seeds on Grandpa’s Spells in the Fifth at Belmont!”
It would take the Hapless family at least six months just to find the bookie.