Zinsser on Friday

Blondie and Dilbert

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By William Zinsser


 

The New Year begins with a journalistic bombshell. As of January 2, 2011, Brenda Starr, Reporter, will do no more reporting; her syndicate announced that it is canceling the comic strip after 70 years. Seventy years! That’s one of the great American streaks, no less impressive than Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.

As a literary form the comic strip is a textbook for any writer seeking the grail of simplicity. Every day, in four tiny squares, it tells a story that also embodies a truth we recognize from our own lives. In my case Blondie was that ideal narrative, the amiable companion of my childhood and middle years.

I first focused on its durability in the late 1960s, when I happened to read that Chic Young had written and drawn 14,500 daily and Sunday strips since the early 1930s. It was then running in 1,638 newspapers—500 more than its nearest rival—and reaching 60 million readers in 17 languages, including Urdu, so saturating the globe that it could hardly be sold anywhere else. The Dagwood sandwich was known in the heart of Africa.

But who was Chic Young? At that time I was writing for Life, and I decided to try to interview him. I began by looking him up in the magazine’s files. Nothing! Not one article. I only found two small items stating that he had won a cartoonists’ award. I managed to get his mailing address in Clearwater Beach, Florida, and wrote what I thought was a persuasive letter asking if I could visit him. He wrote back and said he’d rather not do an interview. I wrote again and asked if I could call him and further introduce myself. He sent me his telephone number and we talked for a while.

“Oh, Bill, it’s just a comic strip,” he said. But he finally agreed.

A large and gentle man in his late 60s greeted me at his Florida beachfront house. Before we did anything else he wanted me to meet his wife of 42 years, Athel, a former concert harpist from Rock Island, Illinois, and hear her play. As Chic Young and I sat peaceably on a sofa, enjoying the ripples of music, it struck me that my host was a man totally at home with the idea of home. Home was listening to Athel play the harp.

I asked him why Blondie was so durable. “Because it’s simple,” he said. “I keep Dagwood in a world that people are used to. He never does anything as special as playing golf, and the people who come to the door are just the people an average family has to deal with. The only regular neighbors are Herb and Tootsie Woodley. If a new neighbor came over with his problem, nobody would be interested.”

He pointed out that Blondie is built on only four elements. “Two are things that everybody does—eat and sleep. The third is sex, which I can’t use, so I substitute raising a family, and the fourth is trying to get money.” The comic variants on those four themes have been as endless in the strip as they are in life. Dagwood’s efforts to extract more money from Mr. Dithers find their perpetual counterweight in Blondie’s efforts to spend it. “My real favorite, of all my strips,” Young said, “is one that’s beautifully simple.” For example:

BLONDIE: Dagwood, what’s that bulge in your suit?

DAGWOOD: It’s my wallet.

BLONDIE: Well, it looks very bad. (Takes some bills out.) There, now it won’t bulge so much.

“Someone might say, ‘You’re not going to dump that out in all those newspapers!’” Young told me. “But it’s easy to read and easy to look at, and the philosophy is so basic.” In only 22 words the strip compresses two fundamental truths: that a wife never thinks her husband looks quite right when he leaves the house, and that she never thinks she has enough money to run the house he is leaving.

Another Young favorite shows Blondie sorting the contents of her purse. Dagwood says, “Why do you keep all that junk? You don’t use half of it.” She says, “I know—but I never know which half I’m not going to use.” A nice joke, but not such a scream that it pulls the strip out of shape. “I think up a lot of funny ideas that I reject,” Young told me, “because they just wouldn’t be something Blondie or Dagwood would say. Boy, you stick to your characters! You don’t monkey!”

Chic Young died in 1973 at the age of 72. His son, Dean, who helped with the strip in his father’s frail final years, took over the writing of Blondie and is still at it today. Speaking of great streaks.

I would hear from Chic Young one more time. On February 13, 1972, reading the color comics in my Sunday newspaper, I found Dagwood trying to give away two tickets to the new hit musical Hello Henrietta, which he won in an office raffle. Blondie can’t make it (“My club is having elections tonight and I’m up for president”). Neither can Herb Woodley (“Sorry, Dagwood—the O’Neils are coming to play bridge”), or Otis Finney (“My mother-in-law is coming over—I’d get killed if I went with you”). Another neighbor says, “Not a chance, Dagwood. This is our square dance night.” Finally Dagwood says, “I’ll try Bill Zinsser.” The door is opened by a none-too-bright-looking fellow leaning on a crutch, his foot elaborately bandaged. “I can’t go out with my sprained ankle, Dagwood,” he explains. I took that as a high honor. Afterward, Dagwood runs into the kid Elmo. The final panel shows Dagwood and Elmo walking down the aisle of the theater. “Some date!” Dagwood says.

The world of Blondie perfectly reflected the simpler America of a simpler time. That world is long gone, but Chic Young’s formula is as old as Adam and Eve, and his strip has found its perfect successor in Dilbert, created in 1989 by Scott Adams, which now appears in 2,000 newspapers in 65 countries and 25 languages. Where in earlier decades the center of American life was the home, a closed universe with a familiar cast of characters facing familiar situations, today’s American home is the office, an equally closed domicile where both Dad and Mom work until 8 p.m. with a family of men and women whose capabilities and crotchets they intimately know. Dilbert is Dagwood reincarnated in a hive of computer geeks micromanaged by the inevitably stupid Pointy-Haired Boss. Some things never change.

William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.


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