Monday, May 23, 2016

Let Us Now Praise Dagwood

By Joel Marks

It is almost impossible to believe that the comic strip Blondie has been running continuously since 1930, because it is, to my taste, the best comic strip today. At least 50% of the time, seven days a week, it can be counted on to give a good laugh. Take the most recent daily episode. The first panel shows Blondie and Dagwood in bed with Dagwood looking concerned and Blondie peeved. She says, “The problem is … you never ask me how I’m feeling!” In the next panel Dagwood obligingly and earnestly asks, “How are you feeling?” In the final panel, Blondie replies, “Well if you have to ask, then we really have a problem!”

            This is not only funny. It is beautiful. Consider the perfect symmetry between “The problem is …” at the beginning and the “… have a problem” at the end. But there is also a special bang to the mirror-reply added by the word “really.” And of course topping it off is the hapless helpless husband looking straight at us from the page in a pictorial rendition of bada-bing.

            To be able to generate quality humor like that day after day for 86 years is a marvel to behold. And apparently it has been done by father and son: Chic Young, who died in 1973, and Dean Young. There have been, and are, other quality strips; Garfield gets my vote for Number Two, including nonpareil Sunday artwork and slapstick. But which can match that record? Some quit while they were ahead: Consider Calvin and Hobbes. Peanuts has just run repeats since the death of its creator. And some deteriorate, such as, alas, Beetle Bailey, although only recently.

            But record or not, Blondie today is an ongoing work of art. In my view – and I would be surprised to be contradicted – the comic strip is really about Dagwood, Blondie’s husband. Certainly Dagwood idolizes Blondie, who is a fine character in her own right, just the right combination of ditzy, level-headed, and knowing to continue to elicit old-time laughs that are acceptable to more modern sensibilities. But it is Dagwood whose personality generates most of the fun.

            What is so impressive about Dagwood is that he is both Everyman, or Every Suburban Middleclass Man, and utterly unique. This is the guy who kisses his wife goodbye and then goes to work in the office every morning. In the office he is always working on some contract or other, attending meetings, hanging out at the water cooler. He goes to lunch at the luncheonette or the diner. He comes home looking forward to a good dinner prepared by his wife and afterward parks himself in front of the TV. On weekends he just wants to rest, and he loves a long bath. Other times he would like to play golf or go bowling or watch a game on TV with his neighborhood buddy, Herb, but must often instead mow the lawn or fix something in the house.

            But this is also the man who wants nothing other than to sleep the day away in bed or on the couch or at his desk in the office. He is forever late getting up in the morning, keeps his carpool waiting, rushes out the front door like the whirlwind, and infuriates his boss, Mr. Dithers, with his inveterate tardiness, dozing off, goofing off, and, with all that, expectations of a raise. (One wonders why he is kept on at all, but Dithers’ affection for Blondie’s cooking may be the simple answer.) Perhaps most famously of all, this is the man who at any time of day or night is ready to eat, and eat prodigiously. He adores his wife’s cooking, but is himself adept at creating the ultimate culinary bomb, the Dagwood Sandwich. (My one personal dissatisfaction with the strip is Dagwood’s incorrigible carnivorism.) And of course this is the guy who has a single large button on his shirt, two giant cowlicks on his head, and the name “Dagwood Bumstead”!

            A close second to Dagwood’s own enduring personality is the hilarity generated by his interactions with an amazing array of characters (in both senses). Blondie is of course of first importance, but there is also a large contingent of wise guys. Neighbor Herb is forever “borrowing” Dagwood’s tools and otherwise stiffing him. The postman Mr. Beasley (and also any number of door-to-door salesmen) needles Dagwood at every opportunity. The plumber is more than happy to benefit from Dagwood’s dependence, as well as (understandably) be compensated for putting up with Dagwood’s kitchen quarterbacking. Department store clerks know their mark when they see him. Even his barber continually makes wise cracks at his expense.

            Then there are less snotty but still difficult denizens of Dagwood’s world, like Lou of Lou’s Diner, who caters to Dagwood’s catholic appetite but won’t hesitate to pull a fast one, and Elmo, the little boy neighbor who is up on all the latest but will never let Dagwood get some afternoon’s shuteye. Finally, there are entirely friendly but therefore bland characters who add the occasional mild laugh situation, chiefly Dagwood and Blondie’s own teen spinoffs, son Alexander and daughter Cookie, and of course dog Daisy, whose expressions serve as pictorial punctuation marks to whatever is going on.

Of course this bare description of the components of Blondie could only convey the genius of the strip to someone who was already acquainted with it. So if that is you, I hope you have enjoyed this opportunity for reverie. And if it is not you, then by all means give the strip a try! It might take time for you to be drawn into its world, naturally, but if you are, then, like me, you will reach a point where each of the endless recurrences of its stock situations fills you with joy … and perhaps amazement.