The Comic Strip Moves to the Suburbs: Settling For Less & Loving It!

One summer day back in 1974 I found myself leering at Daisy Mae and Moonbeam McSwine; two curvaceous figments from Al Capp’s Li’l Abner. These overdeveloped wonders of the funny pages were far more erotic than the foul drawings a certain school chum once dredged up from his father’s tool chest. They were also more wholesome than those oil-stained strumpets. My mother must have raised me right because it was this “wholesome,” yet sexy, quality that appealed to me.

Although Daisy Mae and Moonbeam were all luscious thighs and bulging breasts, I have to confess that I have always sought the fire hidden under the bushel rather than the flagrant burning of any given bush. That’s why Daisy Mae’s allure receded when compared to Blondie, my first real comic strip crush. It was subtle at first, but suddenly, Chick Young’s button-down bimbo was no longer just another ditzy blonde stuck with a dimwit husband. No, Blondie was more than that. She was the understated American beauty; wholesome, full-bosomed, dignified, caring, attainable.

Even so, what was I thinking? Blondie is hardly adventurous, her focus is sheerly material, she has no intellect, and no interests beyond housekeeping. This doesn’t mean she is without attributes. Blondie is never crude or suggestive, she is a dutiful wife without being docile, and she loves to shop. In short, she is the “American woman,” built to love and honor, though she rarely obeys.

Growing up in the suburbs wasn’t as deadly as my friends and I assumed. At best it was safe, and at worst it was boring. My neighborhood was filled with aspiring Blondies and Dagwoods, clotting their life’s blood with knickknackery, soulless trophies, and the latest gizmos. So much care went into maintaining appearances, from the lushness of one’s lawn, the lusciousness of one’s wife, and the status of one’s husband. In this atmosphere it is no surprise that a 12 year old boy would fall for this sexy, though sexless, domestic partner of the American Dream.

Although it has its advantages, the American Dream basically sucks. It sucks our energy, ingenuity, and eventually isolates us from our selves and each other. By the time we’re old and flabby we’ve learned to prize a manicured lawn, comfortable patio furniture, heat in the winter, air-conditioning in the summer. And when we’re feeling particularly randy (or depressed) we forever turn to the “Daisy Maes” of our youth even when we’ve got “Blondie” in our arms. But what happens when she is no longer the “dream girl” and we men are no longer worth dreaming about?

If the guys have it this bad, be sure that the women have it worse. In the suburban world pioneered by Chick Young, women are left holding the dirty end of the dish rag. Not only are they relegated to the home, but they actually have to live with these men, bear their children, and live a life of fluff. It’s the world Betty Friedan wrote about in The Feminine Mystique. Even now, 70 years after Blondie‘s debut, the married women of the suburban strip are limited in terms of experience. Either they are housewives like Mort Walker’s Lois (Hi and Lois) or they are nondescript office workers like Jimmy Johnson’s Janis (Arlo and Janis). In contrast, their female counterparts of the 1920’s were far more urbane.

The first flush of gals to dominate the comics were flappers like Cliff Sterrett’s Polly of Polly and Her Pals (1913), Charles Voight’s Petey Dink (1920), and Edgar Martin’s Boots (1924). These gals exhibited the “new morality” and the male reader could easily imagine them petting in the rumble seat, drinking elicit liquor, and dancing to Jazz. These ladies were accompanied by the more glamorous, socially ambitious and financially independent woman. “Career girls” like Martin Branner’s Winnie Winkle (1920), and Russ Westover’s Tillie the Toiler (1920) were not only a sign of the times, but a signpost to the future. In the following decades stronger, more desirable women would grace the funny pages. Readers across America responded to the likes of Alfred Andriola’s detective heroine, Kerry Drake (ca. 1943), Dale Messick’s investigative reporter, Brenda Starr (ca. 1947), or Alfred James’s urban bachelorette, Dilly (1958), among others.

Although women were no longer limited to the home, no matter how independent they were in spirit, they were still dependent on their men. As with today’s strips there wasn’t much about these men to admire. Women were always being courted by well-meaning bumblers with names like Lester LePester, the hapless suitor of Charles Voight’s Betty (1918). Since men were always at the butt end of the domestic joke, it’s no surprise that the archetype, the suburban Daddy of them all, should go by the unfortunate name of Dagwood Bumstead.

Today the “idiot husband” is not only a comic strip convention, over the years he has also become a staple of television sitcoms. Most of these gents are ineffectual, paper-pushing blowhards who bumble their way through life. They are eternally outsmarted by wife and children — and even the family pet gets the best of them. The new crop of Dagwood-inspired husbands not only lack the technical expertise Young employed as an artist, but they also lack the graceful ease in which Dagwood took his lumps.

Brian Bassett’s Adam is a good example of Dagwood-gone-awry. Adam Newman is emasculated to the point of being a wimpy house-husband lacking in charm, irony or insight. His wife and children show him no respect and neither does he demand it. Dagwood’s children may have been smarter than he, but there was no questioning his role in the family. Adam as a father and husband is useless, and everything about his character suggests impotence, sexual and otherwise.

It was Blondie who moved the comic strip to the suburbs. By reducing life to a relentless cycle of functions (working, sleeping, eating, shopping, rearing children…) Chick Young succeeded in creating a comic strip with which most Americans could identify. It was a formula that was unique for its time, and would soon set a standard for other “static” strips such as Hi & Lois, Hagar the Horrible, Adam, Drabble, and countless others. A “static strip” can be defined as “one in which the characters live in an unchanging world, have no tangible history, and never reflect on their situation and how it got that way.”

Most comic strips tend to be static to different degrees, and not all domestic strips are tainted with the Blondie syndrome. For instance, Jimmy Johnson’s Arlo and Janis is a domestic strip that skirts being static. There is even less variety in Arlo and Janis than there is in Blondie, but Arlo at least has an impish sense of humor, a sense of irony, and a sex drive. All of which Dagwood lacks. When Johnson has Arlo peeking down his wife’s blouse, or is caught hungrily eyeing her bottom, Johnson not only offends certain readers’ sensibilities, but actually humanizes his creation. In comparison, Dagwood is cheerfully oblivious to his own flaccid self.

Pat Brady’s Rose is Rose is deceptively saccharine. Although it is soaked in sentimentality, it really is a strange little strip. Brady’s themes are more expansive than the average “static strip.” Rose’s panels are filled with alter egos, weird perspectives, guardian angels, and a spectrum of emotional states that rarely assail other comic strip characters. The Jumbos have an ideal relationship that is, perhaps, too sugary, but they also have their problems. They go through periods of mutual discontent and resentment, play upon each other’s pet peeves, and pout about their insecurities. Unlike most comic strip housewives Rose has a vivid inner life. When Brady transforms the respectable Rose into her biker alter ego, he goes where Blondie could never even conceive of going-into her own world of fantasy and inner conflict. Whereas the Jumbos experience all of life’s pleasures and pains, the Bumsteads are always the same, always static, always predictable.

But Blondie wasn’t always that way.

When the strip was conceived in 1930 Blondie and Dagwood had more in common with Hollywood High Society films than they did with Peoria. Originally conceived as a billionaires heir, Dagwood was a goofy playboy who proudly courted Blondie, a dance hall coquette, much to his family’s disapproval. Their courtship continued until Dagwood asserted his will for perhaps the last time. He went on a hunger strike that lasted “28 days, 7 hours, 8 min. 22 sec.” The family finally acquiesced and the couple was married three panels later on February 12, 1933.

During the early years of the strip the characters aged in real time, and the plot lines were often carried through. But, once the couple settled down and the inevitable children arrived, the strip settled into a series of rotating gags, and the Bumstead’s became “America’s couple,” sexless, dull, predictable. Young’s niche was the All-American rut, and 70 years later, Blondie is still happily stuck in it.

Today Blondie is written by Chick Young’s son, Dean, and drawn by cartoonist Denis Lebrun. Although they are trying to up-date the strip, its course has been set. No essential changes in character have taken place even with Blondie’s thriving catering business, or their 1995 stint with a marriage counselor. If Dagwood ceases to slumber on the couch, he ceases to be Dagwood. If Blondie becomes “liberated,” she ceases to be Blondie. It’s apparent that the Bumsteads are going nowhere- which is right where they’ve always been.

But why blame Chick and Dean Young? Unless we continually rediscover our resources, life can only get boring. I’ve seen this happen to my parents, the parents of my friends, and now to my friends who have become parents. Life dissolves into a series of four-panel cartoons repeated incessantly, social circles dwindle into safe, familiar faces, and it becomes more important that your neighbors be “nice” rather than “interesting.” In the 1950’s Malvina Reynolds scored a big folk hit with “Little Boxes.” I still remember the chill of recognition I got the first time I heard the “Bumstead world” criticized so succinctly:

“And the boys go into business, And marry, and raise a family, And they all get put in boxes, Little boxes, all the same. There’s a green one and a pink one And a blue one and a yellow one And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky And they all look just the same.”

The majority of Americans now live in this “ticky-tacky” world, which is still a symbol of attainment. For a variety of reasons, one of them being financial, women are no longer staying home to raise the kids. They have careers, aspirations; a life outside of the home. Unfortunately, you won’t get this from reading today’s comics. Most of the women are traditionally cast as disciplinarian and caretaker of an infantile husband. So much for “diversity,” “progressive politics,” and “liberation.”

Rather than deal in extremes, today’s comic strip reflects society at its most mundane. Neither high society nor impoverished slum graces the comics page. A move uptown is construed as elitist, and the impoverished hayseed only makes us queasy. Instead we are stuck with a middle ground of little boxes and the middle class, middlebrow families that live inside them. Rather than expand the comic landscape our complacent cartoonist is too busy “keeping up with Bumsteads.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Joe Gallo is a freelance writer living in Boston, MA. Over the past few years he has written about the Boston theater scene and opinion pieces on the arts and culture. He can be contacted at [email protected].