"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 4 May 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Hooked On Crank


Last month, two of America's more accomplished cartoonists, B.C.'s Johnny Hart, and Dave Sim, creator of the Cerebus comic book, put themselves into the Hall of Fame of cartoonist cranks. Hart ran his annual mini-controversy, the B.C. Easter strip, which gets him dropped from papers around the country for one day a year. This year's shows Judaism symbolically subsumed by Christianity upon Jesus' (possible) Resurrection. And Sim took fifteen pages of his comic book, Cerebus #265, for a double-columned prose forced march on the subject of Feminism. And let's face it, women entirely. These tirades lifted Hart and Sim into a Hall of Fame that includes cartoon cranks of the ages: Robert Crumb, Dick Tracy's Chester Gould, Little Orphan Annie's Harold Gray, Spider-Man's Steve Ditko, Jack Chick, and Li'l Abner's Al Capp.

As any Suck reader knows, we cast claims to greatness rather lightly around here, but claims to true crankdom — our bread and butter — never. Cranks are people who get stuck on an issue and can't shut up about it. It always pops up, and always in the wrong place. You could be discussing the funny thing you just heard on the train and within seconds you're back to getting that damned marriage penalty tax cut — NOW. Cranks, they just can't let it go. The world irritates them so, what with its dimwitted Presidents, half-baked legal system, and all those noisy kids riding their damn bikes on your lawn.

Cartoonist cranks, to be sure, are nothing new. Daily comics were midwifed by one of America's great cranks, William Randolph Hearst, the media tycoon who started wars, baited commies, and held Hollywood hostage for decades with a gossip columnist to get his actress-girlfriend a job. Hearst, a Harvard Lampoon alum, had a taste for building whimsical castles and ranches full of odd relics and creatures. Hearst used cartoons for comic relief from the wars and flu epidemics that raged throughout his sensationalist papers. The argument that Hearst made up the world for his readers is valid, too, but it was more obvious in the comics.

And Cartooning, more than any other art form, is the crank's paradise. It's the art of perfecting our imperfect world. Filmmakers mold reality, taking what's actually here and making us see it their way. Novelists give impressions of reality, but impressions that we have to finish with our imaginations. Cartoonists get to create everything — people, houses, dogs, bottles, mud, God — and they get to do it their way. Or, as one titan of crankdom, Mr. Rush Limbaugh, might put it, "the way things ought to be."

In the Hearst papers, Winsor McCay's Little Nemo and George Herriman's Krazy Kat fascinated audiences with their nonsense visions of brick throwing rodents and anthropomorphic beds carrying children into the palace of Morpheus of Slumberland (no wonder Hearst, the lover of dream worlds, stayed with these guys long after their readers left). Even when realistic settings were used in comics, like Outcault's Hogan's Alley (fun in big city slum), it was more or less Little Rascals style gags about an upbeat poor kid — an active denial of reality. Actual ideas and issues were left to the political cartoonists on the op-ed page, where they belonged.

But by the 1930s, the novelty of the dreamworlds wore off. Perhaps it was the Depression, but audiences wanted actual stories and much more fully realized characters. And that's where the first of the true great cranks got cranky, when Chester Gould debuted Dick Tracy in October, 1931.

An Oklahoma plains kid born in 1900, Gould moved to the big city, Chicago, when he was about 19 or 20, and soon got scared stiff. Gangsterism then meant bloodbaths in broad daylight on city streets. Urban crooks like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Bugsy Siegel were front page news. But rube Gould wasn't from any sissy Little House on the Prarie Midwest. He was from the plains of Indian Wars, Bonnie and Clyde, lynchings, and later, the In Cold Blood killers, Dick and Perry. "It suddenly dawned on me," Gould once said, "that perhaps we ought to have a detective in this country that would hunt these fellows up and shoot'em down." Hearst liked hasty pudding whimsy, but right wing Chicago Tribune cartoon chief Joe Patterson dealt in reality and bought Gould's strip. Readers complained about the brutality of Tracy putting holes in thugs sans trial, but not Gould's number one fan, J. Edgar Hoover, who also had a taste for what Gould called "the hot lead route." "Why, say," Gould told folks, "If I were a cop I'd shoot them right down on the spot."

Dick Tracy is a hayseed nightmare, a petrified hick's vision of big city America. While Tracy and his gal Tess Trueheart are drawn taut and chalk white, the crooks are fat, greasy, beady-eyed, and beastly. Gould's city is full of physical mutants who look funny, who talk funny, have funny names — like Flattop, B.O. Plenty, The Brow, and the Blank. It's the kind of thing you see when Pat Robertson's 700 Club does an investigative report on raves or porn, hysteria boiled down to four panels a day and ten on Sunday. As street hoods turned into executive syndicates, "Dick Tracy" turned to 50s-60s sci-fi two-way wrist radios, moon girls, and Gould lecturing interviewers on how stupid NASA was with its clunky jet propulsion systems. If the aliens weren't on the city streets, Gould sent Tracy into space to find more.

"Take my advice and build a house in the country," Little Orphan Annie's Harold Gray once told the young Al Capp, "Build a wall around it. And get ready to protect yourself. The way things are going, people who earn their living someday are going to have to fight off the bums." Annie was the strip's star, but as Gray grew wealthier and the Depression wore on, billionaire Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks became the mouthpiece for Gray's credo of hard work and self reliance. For 44 years, Gray pitted Annie against all the things that plague orphan girls - FDR and the New Deal, big labor, commies, and people who got on Gray's nerves, like Robert Flask, a wartime ration board official who refused to allow Gray more gasoline and soon became a villainous gas ration official, Fred Flask, who tormented Annie for days. A brilliant, Dickensian storyteller whose art conveyed subtle and moody textures, Gray let his crankiness rise up time and again. Although he never did quite reconcile how a strip about self-reliance always relied on a billionaire to bail Annie out of trouble. But then, if cranks ever pondered the built-in ironies of their absolutism, they wouldn't be cranks.

Al Capp's problem was quite the opposite of Gould and Gray. Capp's Li'l Abner, a proto-type Simpsons, had hillbilly Abner and his family (like Homer and his today) voicing the concerns of, as Capp liked to put it, "millions of morons." It wasn't Capp's famous shift from liberal to conservative politics that made him a crank. It was his shift from funny to bitter. Capp had deftly evolved his strip from hillbilly hi-jinks into a pop-satire that allowed him the political scope that Gray got criticized for. But Capp got in trouble when he went from being a guy able to parody Gould's reactionary violence with his hilarious detective, Fearless Fosdick (with Gould himself portrayed as Lester Gooch), to being exactly the sort of angry, humorless crank he thought Gould and Gray were. He hated these baby boomer hippies, not because of their politics per se (well some), but because they were ALL spoiled ingrates who ALL had it better than he did growing up. Vietnam? Free speech? LBJ? Nope, it always shifted back to how dumb the kids were, not how wrong they were. You can get away with anything if you're funny, but Capp wasn't funny anymore.

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