The Funny Pages

Other blogs may claim higher lineage, but this particular blog owes its existence, basically, to the funny pages.  Had it not been for the fact that the funny pages created a Darwinian struggle for the morning newspaper amongst the four of us children that was already well-developed by the time I, third in line, became aware of it, I might never have become interested in the world around me, particularly as it is represented in the press.  It was a happy accident, I guess, that my mother only had time to toss some Cream of Wheat on the coppertone “Flair” range and slap the paper on the table before retreating to her bathroom to tease her hair and draw on her eyebrows each day; in the process, driven by nothing but necessity, she inadvertently created a fifth column of four little news junkie/political activists, in admittedly varying degrees, by getting us hooked, initially, on “Snoopy.”

My older siblings, having had the dual advantages of my mother, who had previously (and for many years later) taught children to read, not working, and the sometimes brutally rigorous Catholic school education that was no longer affordable by the time I came along, plowed through the newspaper with conspicuous relish and aplomb each day, an act I couldn’t help but find both astonishing and enviably grown-up, which understandably made me long to jump onboard.   As soon as I could read even a few words. they’d charitably toss me the comics and tell me which ones were the funniest that day, leading me to dig deeper and deeper, to the point where I read everything but the non-funny, soap opera ones, probably only due to their lack of daily laughs.  Slowly though, egged on by my sister pointing out an unusually exciting or sexy plot, I got hooked on those, too.  Judge Parker.  Mary Worth.  Winnie Winkle.  I even got hooked on Gasoline Alley when Clovia married that fat guy.

Soon, a day without the funnies was like, as Anita Bryant used to say in those days, “A day without sunshine.”  How, indeed, would Mary Worth fix up this new nutcase’s life?  Was Winnie’s new marketing guru genius or charlatan?  (Honestly, the “Winnie Weiner?)   Could Sam Driver solve this case before his girlfriend Abby got too jealous and whiny?  I still laughed at “Ziggy” and “Grin and Bear It ,” (the latter mostly for the curlered harridans, admittedly…), but what made me greet the paper each day with eager anticipation was the soaps.

Of course, this shared obsession led my sister and I to have many arguments and discussions over the direction of the current plots; I was thunderstruck the day she flatly proclaimed that Sam ought to dump Abby because she was such a troublemaker, and worse, had pink hair.  (her hair, described in the comic as “Strawberry Blond,” did, with the printing technology of the early 70′s, look not unlike something from “Beauty School Dropout” on Sundays, but admitting such heresy, much less denouncing the storied Abby Spencer of Spencer Farms for it, seemed as subversive as denying the existence of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, put together.)  We both could see the handwriting on the wall for Mary Worth, when instead of being a freelance busybody, she was made the manager of an apartment complex so she could go pro, which she did, of course.  And, after the unfortunate “Winnie Weiner” incident, when Winnie Winkle unloaded the snake-oil salesman, Dieter Tippe, and a new artist rescued her from her dowdy suburban factory and moved her now more fashionable and svelte self to the Manhattan skyscraper where she belonged, Stacy and I rejoiced.

Through it all, though, a pattern developed; reading the morning newspaper was no frill, it was a necessity, and there simply weren’t enough funny pages to go around, so we all read the news, too.  Either that or cereal boxes, which aside from having evocative words like “guar gum,” “carageenan,” and “partially (never totally) hydrogenated” stuff, still weren’t very interesting.  Back in those days, Art Buchwald, Mike Royko, and others offered even funnier things to read on the editorial page, and as Watergate unfolded, all of us followed it avidly; some of the mechanically inclined like myself even developed our own taping systems, and soon the news itself became at least as interesting as, say, “Judge Parker,” and the plots certainly moved a little faster.  During the thick of this era, my little brother, far from being unprepared when questioned by one of our many (recorded, natch…) crank call recipients, deftly and immediately identified himself as “Bozo Rebebe.”

It used to be that the commercial forces who elbowed their way into newspapers, back when they were still wealthy and powerful, argued that the funnies were a money-wasting trivialization of the news.  Older hands argued in return that the funnies were a necessary investment in future readers.  I can’t speak for everybody, but in my experience, anyway, the older hands were right.  How many nine-year olds today could come up with, under stress, a name like “Ham Remanuel.”  Not many, I’m guessing.  And how many forty and fifty-somethings still read the paper, compared to those who followed?

Too bad Mary Worth, who could still probably save us all today from our current troubles with her formidable talents, seems to have decamped to greener pastures.  She’d definitely be up for the job, since as my mother pointed out, “She’s gotten younger over the years,” but sadly she’s a distant memory. Just like Abby’s pink hair.  And we’re a dumber country for it.


  1. Karen M says:

    A wonderful story, CH! I remember devouring the print (metaphorically speaking) on cereal boxes, but for some reason, my parents never had a daily paper. Of course, on an Air Force Base, there might not have been much selection, but still… bottom line, my mother was not much of a reader. In fact, I’ve had occasion to think about that recently, and I don’t really remember her ever reading anything. Fortunately, I learned early and well. And her parents always had something to read that interested me.

    My siblings and I used to use the cereal boxes like fortresses. In my case, fortresses you could read.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Thankfully, Joan knew that cereal boxes weren’t enough. She introduced us to both Fairy Tales and Greek Mythology, planning to build our vocabularies, but only ended up making more little atheists. She gave us the newspaper, and created four little Democrats in our Republican household. The best laid plans, and all. Of course, by the time of her death, (can you believe it will be two years in March?) she was somewhat to the left of Cindy Sheehan, so she probably had no regrets.

      • Karen M says:

        My grandparents had similar types of books: Oz, Lambs’ guide to Shakespeare, and lots of fairy tales. And I remember a lot of Dr. Seuss, too. My grandfather’s family were all book people, and my grandmother, and her mother, too, were terribly particular about language, and would always note (with humor) a mistaken pronoun…

        It is, I’m thinking now, entirely possible that my mother had some kind of learning disability. I don’t know that she had any politics, though her parents were of the old-variety of Republicans, the northeastern type, although they lived in Florida when I knew them. Her sister was a great reader, and wrote poetry, and probably lots of letters, too.

        It must have been very frustrating for her to try and deal with so many smart children, for whom school work was not that hard.

      • rmp says:

        Time does have a way of moving ever faster. Knowing what I do about Joan from you, it may have not been a nonchalant toss of the paper, but by design to her bright kids. Learning can be so much more fun when it is the kids’ idea.

        When I was working with youth in Chicago, Pokemon became all the rage and our kids from 4-13 were obsessed with him. That obsession emerged because it was the kid’s thing and no adult told them to “do” Pokemon and no adult knew anything about Pokemon or cared to learn.

        For you, starting with the genius of Peanuts didn’t hurt either. Who couldn’t emerge a liberal with those values. I wonder what comics the crazies read or if they read Peanuts, what they learned. It must have been far different from what I and my sons learned form Peanuts.

        • cocktailhag says:

          I think kids today, few of whom have newspapers at home, are missing out on the freedom to read what interests them and skip the rest, which you can only do with a newspaper. I think political apathy is a product of the absurdity, breathlessness, and embarrassing shallowness of TV News. It looks dumb, and it is. And it also forces you to watch six minutes of celebrity garbage for every one minute of consequential news. A newspaper might stash a story on A-18, but it’s still there. On TV, it’s down the memory hole.

  2. timothy3 says:

    And don’t forget, CH, about Apartment 3G and Rex Morgan, M.D. They, along with those you mentioned, were the funny page’s soap operas, weren’t they?
    Just today, I think it was, I saw that yet another long-time soap was being cancelled. Apparently, “reality TV” has stolen their thunder. However, I never watched soaps nor do I watch reality television–I’ve enough reasons already for committing suicide without help from those venues.
    And about cereal boxes, when I’d exhausted those as a source of material, I’d turn to condiment bottles. Learned a lot about pepper, ketchup/catsup (the latter being an example of my learning), French’s mustard, and so on.
    And to think this was before Trivial Pursuit!

    • cocktailhag says:

      Apt. 3-G and Rex Morgan were in the afternoon paper, the Journal, so I never got hooked on them. We didn’t take the Journal, and when the papers merged, we got another whole page of comics, but I was past the stage of picking up any more comic habits, and anyway there were too many to read them all.

  3. retzilian says:

    Off the top of my head, I remember reading Hi and Lois, BC, Hagar the Horrible, Wizard of Id, occasionally Mary Worth, Beatle Bailey, Ziggy (from a fellow Ohioan), Funky Winkerbean, and the comics in my brother’s Boys’ Life and Highlights for Children.

    I didn’t much read the news, but did the crosswords.

    We were raised on MAD magazine, which passed from sibling to sibling when my dad brought it home. I was so inspired by it, I have made a cottage industry of spoofs (as an homage to “The Lighter Side…” and song parodies.

    Ahhh, the great literature of our youth!

    • cocktailhag says:

      What about B.C.? I loved the Fat Broad and her club. I was devoted to MAD, too… Some of the movie spoofs were hilarious; the “Airport” series somehow standing out in my mind. I also liked Don Martin; probably because he had a lot of curlered harridans, too.