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A CENTURY OF COMICS

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Just about a century ago, American newspaper readers fell in love with a jug-eared, barefoot, gap-toothed urchin who spoke street-smart wisdom in dialogue printed on his flour-sack nightshirt.

The romance changed the shape of the nation's mass pop culture.Out of it came the "comics," bringing humor and vicarious adventures, adding new words to the American language, spawning songs, movies and Broadway musical comedies, as well as influencing the pop art painting movement. That continues today.

But a not-so-funny thing happened to the comics as they neared their 100th birthday: They are charged with rampant sexism, purveying violence, eroding family values and undermining political correctness.

For instance:

Some editors dumped Andy Kapp, the scruffy little British pub crawler and quintessential soccer hooligan because of the way he treated his lady.

The randy General Halftrack in panting pursuit of Miss Buxley in Beetle Bailey took strafing fire from feminists.

More than 50 newspapers either canceled or furloughed the popular family strip For Better of For Worse because of a five-week sequence in which one of the characters announced his homosexuality.

A number of papers are still undecided whether Doonesbury belongs on the comics or the editorial pages.

And it's been years since Hagar the Horrible draped a damsel across his shoulders. Looting and pillage are acceptable behavior for a marauding Viking, but date rape is out.

Even the elegantly drawn, meticulously researched Prince Valiant, praised by educators, is jousting with readership surveys that suggest today's TV-nurtured audience no longer has time for printed narratives.

Stories told in pictures go back 5,000 years to the low-relief sculptures depicting the life and times of the Pharaohs carved on tombs and temples along the Nile.

Queen Matilda and her royal sewing circle stitched together the Bayeux Tapestry, a 250-foot long sequence of cartoon panels that portrayed husband William's Norman conquest.

The magnificent stained-glass windows in Chartres cathedral in France trace Christ's genealogy in lead-lined panels called "cartons" in French.

Today's comic pages had their genesis in the cut-throat newspaper circulation wars near the turn of the century that engaged the imaginations and bankrolls of press barons William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, James Gordon Bennett and Joseph Medill Patterson.

When the public had its fill of trans-Atlantic yacht regattas and cross-country motor car races, of reporters tracing missing missionaries in Africa or circling the globe in less than Jules Verne's 80 days, Pulitzer turned to artist Richard Felton Outcault to attract new readers to his New York World via cartoon comedy.

With the urbanization of America already under way, Outcault on May 5, 1895, unveiled in black and white a picaresque set of slum characters dwelling in the tenements of Hogan's Alley. That's when the nameless street urchin appeared.

The kid made journalism history a few months later when composing-room boss Charles Saalburgh decided his nightie, rather than the fashion page, was made to order to test the World's new four-color rotogravure presses. Yellow was the color chosen, and the Yellow Kid became so instantly popular that Hearst promptly waved his checkbook and appropriated Outcault for his New York Morning Journal.

Pulitzer bought him back and when outbid again by Hearst, hired George Luks, later associated with the historic Ashcan School of Art, to draw a rival Yellow Kid. Thus the term "yellow journalism" entered the language, the first of many to come from this new cultural medium.

Using the Yellow Kid as his cover star, Hearst introduced the American Humorist, the first Sunday color comics supplement or, as he touted it, "eight pages of polychromatic effulgence that make the rainbow look like a lead pipe."

Soon most of America was prostrate in obeisance to the new entertainment kings, sprawled on the living room carpet Sunday after Sunday, keeping up with the slapstick antics of Maggie & Jiggs, the Katzenjammer Kids, Mutt & Jeff, the Gumps, Barney Google and his nag Sparkplug and a host of others.

As H.L. Mencken noted in "The American Language," the terse comic strip dialogue written mostly in balloons enlivened the native idiom with words and phrases like jeep, goon, drugstore cowboy, yes, we have no bananas, heebie jeebies, horsefeathers, red hot mamma, phooey and you tell 'em. After adventure strips like Terry & the Pirates, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Scorchy Smith and Jungle Jim appeared in the '30s, new action words were born: wham, pow, socko, whap, glug, bam, zap, zowie, wow and plop. Ronald Reagan's zap of the Soviet Union as "The Evil Empire" was first aimed at the realm of Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon.

After women got the vote and joined the work force in droves, family-centered comics were joined by working-girl strips like Winnie Winkle, Tillie the Toiler, Dixie Dugan, Somebody's Stenog and Brenda Starr, drawn by a woman, Dale Messick.

Almost from the beginning, politics and a social conscience hovered over the drawing board.

"There was a lot of politics in the Yellow Kid," pointed out cartoon historian and critic Rick Marschall of Ardsley, Pa., who has written 23 books on comic strips and is an avid collector.

"Outcault drew a huge panel with over 100 characters and had lots of room in balloons and banners as well as on the kid's nightshirt to poke fun at William McKinley, William Jennings Bryan.

"Winsor McCay, who drew Little Nemo in Slumberland, had been an editorial cartoonist and took up a whole range of social issues like women's suffrage, hunger and urban blight. Mutt and Jeff, the first daily strip, lampooned Taft and Hughes and other political figures."

New Deal zealots put pressure on editors to curb the rugged individualism and conservative views permeating Little Orphan Annie, drawn by self-made millionaire Harold Gray. Gray's loathing of government controls during World War II, despite Daddy Warbucks' staunch patriotism, extended even to a caustic caricature of his neighborhood gas-rationing official.

"You only had to read one panel of Li'l Abner to know where Al Capp stood politically," Marschall says. "His blatant stereotypes of feminists, hippies and Vietnam War protesters were social satire at its most savage."

Mort Walker, creator of both Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois, points out that, "Walt Kelly did a lot of political stuff in Pogo. He did Lyndon Johnson as a mule and took on Sen. Joe McCarthy with his devastating Sen. Simple J. Malarkey. And, of course, Gary Trudeau is always in hot water with Doonesbury."

Walker, whose lampoon of Army life was "booted out of the Stars & Stripes several times for making fun of officers" and now appears in more than 1,500 newspapers, admits to having "toned down the sexy stuff" after getting a barrage of mail from feminists.

"I dress Miss Buxley more modestly now, in business attire," the cartoonist says in an interview in his Stamford, Conn., studio that once belonged to Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum. "The general doesn't leer at her anymore, and he always gets the ax. I had always drawn him as the lecher that he is, without condoning it, but they thought I was promoting sexism."

Historian Marschall, who served as a cartoon editor at United Features, the Chicago Tribune Syndicate and Field Enterprises, believes that "overall it's more difficult being a cartoonist these days because they have to jump though hoops. Critics are more vocal, editors more sensitive and syndicate sales departments are much more nervous."

Murray Tinkelman, professor of illustration at Syracuse University, regards comic strip art, along with jazz, as America's unique contribution to the arts, yet Europe was much quicker at recognizing its cultural value. In France, where the comic book has been elevated to the graphic novel, cartoon art was taken seriously almost from its start. The Louvre early on gave a one-man show to Tarzan, drawn by Burne Hogarth. In Europe, the Yellow Kid statuette awarded for the best in cartoon art is as prestigious as an Oscar."

American museums, as cartoonist Jerry Robinson has pointed out, were more interested in mounting exhibits of Roy Lichtenstein's pop art paintings of comic characters than originals of the strips themselves.

If the art world was slow to recognize a new art, show business was not. At the turn of the century, The Yellow Kid was a hit musical. Victor Herbert in 1908 wrote the score for "Little Nemo," then Broadway's most expensive production.

Arthur Lake played Harold Teen in a silent film and when talkies came along was Dagwood in dozens of Blondie films.

Mickey Mouse first appeared in the 1928 animated short "Steamboat Willie," became a newspaper strip three years later and went on to foster a Fortune 500 worldwide empire of movies, theme parks, toys and novelties.

Radio, TV series and specials and an endless flow of musicals and movies cashed in on the popularity of Krazy Kat, Red Ryder, Jungle Jim, Batman, Superman, Popeye, L'il Abner, Dick Tracy, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, Peanuts and so many others down to last season's box-office hit "Dennis the Menace."

Comic books, first introduced in 1905 as bound reprints of Sunday strips, hit their stride in the late 1930s when two Cleveland high school students, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, sold their "Superman" creation to Action Comics after failing to interest any syndicates.

Before long, critics led by child psychologist Frederick Wertham, author of "Seduction of the Innocent," were blaming the rise of juvenile delinquency on comic book sex and violence.

A number of educators, however, argued that comic books encouraged children to learn to read. "Kids like me," admits Dick Hodgins Jr., who draws the Henry strip. "Teachers were all over me for using exclamation points in every sentence, but that's how they wrote in my comic books."

As the comics centennial approaches, cartoon art has experienced spectacular growth in historical, cultural and market value. Art Spiegelman's "Maus," telling in stark cartoon style the harrowing story of his parents surviving the Holocaust, became the world's best-selling graphic novel and drew long lines at museum exhibitions, breaking records at New York's Museum of Modern Art, as well winning a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992.