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.
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.
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.