The changing shape of comics
By Brian Doyle
Ever since I was a kid I have been absorbed by the comics, and not only the brilliant ones like Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury and Johnny Hart’s The Wizard of Id, or the hilariously lunatic ones like Gary Larson’s The Far Side and Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County, but the narrative ones, the soap-operatic ones like Apartment 3-G, Brenda Starr, Rex Morgan, Mary Worth, and Judge Parker. My city’s newspaper now carries only the last of these ancient strips, but I read it daily with pleasure, marveling at how the Judge never ages and how his wisdom never flags and his jaw is ever sharp and angular and stern.
In the last year or two, though, it seems to me that the women in the strip have become ever more voluptuous and ever less clothed in sweaters and jackets—none of the young women who are the judge’s clients and assistants and acquaintances seem to own shirts made of anything other than the sheerest silk; a startling number of them seem to spend their days in their negligees; and all of them seem to be eminently able to move into careers as international swimsuit or brassiere models, should they choose that direction. This inching toward what can only be called pulchritude in Judge Parker interested and puzzled me, so I called a friend who knows more about the history and craft of comics than anyone I know. Ladies and gentlemen, the fine Oregon essayist and newspaper columnist Steve Duin, author of Comics: Between the Panels:
“Yes, it’s true, and it has been for almost 75 years; the obsession of cartoonists and comic fans with the angular has nothing to do with Judge Parker’s jaw. In the 1940s, the ‘golden age’ of strips and comic books, Prince Valiant didn’t cut nearly as dashing a figure in Hal Foster’s sumptuous Sunday pages as Aleta, Queen of the Misty Isles. At Fiction House, a publisher that specialized in ‘good-girl art,’ the pencillers drew the women naked, trusting the inkers would eventually supply the negligees and leopard skins. Most of the results were so top-heavy that Fredric Wertham, the author of Seduction of the Innocent, drolly noted that ‘children call these headlights.’ Even the G-rated strips were illuminated by the high beams. Ernie Bushmiller introduced Aunt Fritzi to the innocuous ‘Nancy’ so that he could revel in the female form. If Dan DeCarlo didn’t have license to undress Betty or Veronica, he often posed them in ways that ensured we were drawn, like Archie, to those bulky sweaters. The great Stan Drake, who kept ‘The Heart of Juliet Jones’ beating for more than 25 years, long argued that the key to drawing a beautiful woman was her hair. But given the evidence presented in Judge Parker’s courtroom, most cartoonists continue to play it safe … and play the angles.” Whoa.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the novel Mink River. He writes the weekly Epiphanies column at theamericanscholar.org.