Zinsser on Friday
Blondie and DilbertPrint
By William Zinsser
January 7, 2011
The New Year begins with a journalistic bombshell. As of January 2, 2011, Brenda Starr, Reporter, will do no more reporting; her syndicate announced that it is canceling the comic strip after 70 years. Seventy years! That’s one of the great American streaks, no less impressive than Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.
As a literary form the comic strip is a textbook for any writer seeking the grail of simplicity. Every day, in four tiny squares, it tells a story that also embodies a truth we recognize from our own lives. In my case Blondie was that ideal narrative, the amiable companion of my childhood and middle years.
I first focused on its durability in the late 1960s, when I happened to read that Chic Young had written and drawn 14,500 daily and Sunday strips since the early 1930s. It was then running in 1,638 newspapers—500 more than its nearest rival—and reaching 60 million readers in 17 languages, including Urdu, so saturating the globe that it could hardly be sold anywhere else. The Dagwood sandwich was known in the heart of Africa.
But who was Chic Young? At that time I was writing for Life, and I decided to try to interview him. I began by looking him up in the magazine’s files. Nothing! Not one article. I only found two small items stating that he had won a cartoonists’ award. I managed to get his mailing address in Clearwater Beach, Florida, and wrote what I thought was a persuasive letter asking if I could visit him. He wrote back and said he’d rather not do an interview. I wrote again and asked if I could call him and furtherintroduce myself. He sent me his telephone number and we talked for a while.
“Oh, Bill, it’s just a comic strip,” he said. But he finally agreed.
A large and gentle man in his late 60sgreeted me at his Florida beachfront house. Before we did anything else he wanted me to meet his wife of 42 years, Athel, a former concert harpist from Rock Island, Illinois, and hear her play. As Chic Young and I sat peaceably on a sofa, enjoying the ripples of music, it struck me that my host was a man totally at home with the idea of home. Home was listening to Athel play the harp.
I asked him why Blondie was so durable. “Because it’s simple,” he said. “I keep Dagwood in a world that people are used to. He never does anything as special as playing golf, and the people who come to the door are just the people an average family has to deal with. The only regular neighbors are Herb and Tootsie Woodley. If a new neighbor came over with his problem, nobody would be interested.”
He pointed out that Blondie is built on only four elements. “Two are things that everybody does—eat and sleep. The third is sex, which I can’t use, so I substitute raising a family, and the fourth is trying to get money.” The comic variants on those four themes have been as endless in the strip as they are in life. Dagwood’s efforts to extract more money from Mr. Dithers find their perpetual counterweight in Blondie’s efforts to spend it. “My real favorite, of all my strips,” Young said, “is one that’s beautifully simple.” For example:
BLONDIE: Dagwood, what’s that bulge in your suit?
DAGWOOD: It’s my wallet.
BLONDIE: Well, it looks very bad. (Takes some bills out.) There, now it won’t bulge so much.
“Someone might say, ‘You’re not going to dump that out in all those newspapers!’” Young told me. “But it’s easy to read and easy to look at, and the philosophy is so basic.” In only 22 words the strip compresses two fundamental truths: that a wife never thinks her husband looks quite right when he leaves the house, and that she never thinks she has enough money to run the house he is leaving.
Another Young favorite shows Blondie sorting the contents of her purse. Dagwood says, “Why do you keep all that junk? You don’t use half of it.” She says, “I know—but I never know which half I’m not going to use.” A nice joke, but not such a scream that it pulls the strip out of shape. “I think up a lot of funny ideas that I reject,” Young told me, “because they just wouldn’t be something Blondie or Dagwood would say. Boy, you stick to your characters! You don’t monkey!”
Chic Young died in 1973 at the age of 72. His son, Dean, who helped with the strip in his father’s frail final years, took over the writing of Blondie and is still at it today. Speaking of great streaks.
I would hear from Chic Young one more time. On February 13, 1972, reading the color comics in my Sunday newspaper, I found Dagwood trying to give away two tickets to the new hit musical Hello Henrietta, which he won in an office raffle. Blondie can’t make it (“My club is having elections tonight and I’m up for president”). Neither can Herb Woodley (“Sorry, Dagwood—the O’Neils are coming to play bridge”), or Otis Finney (“My mother-in-law is coming over—I’d get killed if I went with you”). Another neighbor says, “Not a chance, Dagwood. This is our square dance night.” Finally Dagwood says, “I’ll try Bill Zinsser.” The door is opened by a none-too-bright-looking fellow leaning on a crutch, his foot elaborately bandaged. “I can’t go out with my sprained ankle, Dagwood,” he explains. I took that as a high honor. Afterward, Dagwood runs into the kid Elmo. The final panel shows Dagwood and Elmo walking down the aisle of the theater. “Some date!” Dagwood says.
The world of Blondie perfectly reflected the simpler America of a simpler time. That world is long gone, but Chic Young’s formula is as old as Adam and Eve, and his strip has found its perfect successor in Dilbert, created in 1989 by Scott Adams, which now appears in 2,000 newspapers in 65 countries and 25 languages. Where in earlier decades the center of American life was the home, a closed universe with a familiar cast of characters facing familiar situations, today’s American home is the office, an equally closed domicile where both Dad and Mom work until 8 p.m. with a family of men and women whose capabilities and crotchets they intimately know. Dilbert is Dagwood reincarnated in a hive of computer geeks micromanaged by the inevitably stupid Pointy-Haired Boss. Some things never change.
William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.
Blondie Gets Married! Comic Strip Drawings by Chic Young
Chic Young's Blondie
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Chic Young's Blondie
by Sara W. Duke
Everyone knows Blondie. More than 2,000 newspapers publish the comic strip in fifty-five countries and thirty-five languages. The “Dagwood Sandwich” has made its way into Webster's New World Dictionary. The antics of the Bumsteads have been featured in movies, novels, and comic books. Blondie graces a United States postage stamp issued to commemorate the 1995 centennial of the American newspaper comic strip.
First appearing at the outset of the Great Depression, Blondie celebrates its seventieth anniversary in the year 2000. Now written by Dean Young, Chic Young's son, and syndicated worldwide by King Features Syndicate, it retains its status as one of the most widely read comic strips in the history of the genre.
Blondie Gets Married! presents twenty-seven drawings, classic examples of Chic Young's much-loved creative wit, selected from one hundred and fifty original works given to the Library of Congress by Jeanne Young O'Neil, the artist's daughter. “I know my father would be as proud as I am,” states Jeanne, “to have his work housed and preserved in the Library of Congress as part of one of the finest, most extensive, and distinguished collections of American cartoon art in the world. I believe my father's comic strip, Blondie, exemplifies middle-class family life in America (and many times in the world), and I know the greatest opportunity for his work to live on into generations to come is in the Library.” The Library, now in the midst of its Bicentennial year, recognizes this major acquisition as a “Gift to the Nation,” preserving the legacy of one of America's most talented cartoon creators.
Blondie Boopadoop entered the world nearly seventy years ago, on September 8, 1930, the featured character of a new comic strip by Murat Bernard “Chic” Young (1901–1973). A flighty flapper, at first she dated playboy Dagwood Bumstead, son of the millionaire, J. Bolling Bumstead, a railroad magnate, along with several other boyfriends. The comic strip floundered, however, until Young decided to have the couple fall deeply in love. Desperate to wed Blondie, in spite of his father's objections to her lowly social status, Dagwood went on a hunger strike until the elder Bumstead grudgingly acknowledged their relationship but refused to continue to support his son. The couple married on Friday, February 17, 1933, and Dagwood, now disinherited, stripped of his wealth and family connections, was nonetheless blissfully happy with his sparkling, vivacious, yet unfailingly practical new bride. Americans, caught up in the woes of the Great Depression, immediately took to Chic Young's humorous daily reminders that love, not money, conquers all.
As a family strip Blondie was an instant success because it dealt with universal themes: love, marriage, parenthood, work, relaxation, eating, and sleeping. Like many American families, the Bumsteads lived in a rented house, Dagwood caught a bus to work, and they rarely went out for entertainment. Chic Young shied away from mentioning seasons or making consumer goods specific in order to reach an audience that might not own a car, the latest stove or refrigerator, or eat out regularly in restaurants. Fans all over the world identified with the Bumsteads. In fact, international readers were often surprised when they found out that the comic strip did not originate in their own country.
While the Bumsteads could have been anyone living anywhere, Blondie has been different from other comic strips from the start. Once she had married, Blondie ceased to be flighty; she had barely left the altar before asking Dagwood to help out with the housework, using flattery and gentle trickery to bend him to her will. Since 1933 he has done dishes, helped care for the children, cleaned the attic, and cooked an occasional meal. Shortly after their marriage, in fact, Blondie organized local housewives and lobbied for an eight-hour day. She led Dagwood to the sink full of dirty dishes with a wink to newspaper readers, many of whom might have felt overburdened by long days of managing a household. Blondie is the center of the Bumstead family household, capable of stopping Dagwood's tirades with a single look.
Yet it is Dagwood's zany antics and constantly foiled pursuit of personal pleasure that people remember: the huge sandwich made of apparently incompatible foods, the nearly missed bus, running into the mailman, Mr. Beasley, and the interrupted baths and naps. Dagwood is the perfect foil to Blondie's steady ways.
Chic Young made sure that family life in Blondie reflected real life. Blondie and Dagwood have slept in a double-bed from the day they were married, something it took television couples decades to achieve. Baby Dumpling (Alexander) arrived on April 15, 1934, followed by Cookie on April 11, 1941. Both children grew up, a rarity for gag-a-day comic strips, until the 1960s when Chic Young realized that to retain the character of a family strip they would need to remain teenagers.
Born in Chicago, Murat Bernard Young grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, with a dream of becoming a cartoonist. His 1919 William McKinley High School yearbook documents his early ambition and talent with several humorous drawings, citing his nickname as “Chicken,” from which he certainly derived his unusual pen name. Over the course of his celebrated career, he achieved his dream in spectacular fashion, producing Blondie seven days a week from 1930 until his death in 1973, with the exception of a year's hiatus following the death of his first son in 1937, when he found drawing Baby Dumpling too painful to contemplate. He produced more than 15,000 Blondie strips during his lifetime, creating a legacy of inventiveness, humor, and creativity that stands the test of time and keeps us coming back for more.
All of the objects are the gift of Chic Young's daughter, Jeanne Young O'Neil. The comic strips were originally published by King Features Syndicate, Inc., on the date provided in the captions. Titles given below for daily strips from 1930 to 1954 have been transcribed from Chic Young's identifying inscriptions on the back of the drawings. Titles of other strips are transcribed from the first line. The exhibition and checklist were prepared with funds provided by the Caroline and Erwin Swann Memorial Fund for Caricature and Cartoon. The Swann Fund supports an ongoing program at the Library of Congress of preservation, publication, exhibition, acquisition, and scholarly research in the related fields of cartoon, caricature, and illustration.
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