It’s the most surprising turn of events in comics since Charlie Brown hit a game-winning home run: the recession has become a major issue in strips that never dealt with major issues before. Dagwood Bumstead in Blondie has been working the same generic white collar job since the ’40s, but his boss, Mr. Dithers, just told him that “at the rate the economy is going this company might be out of business by next year.” Hi and Lois is a 55-year-old strip about a round-nosed suburban family where the wife is usually in the kitchen, the kids say cute things, and nobody knows what the dad does for a living. But a recent strip had Hi Flagston coming home and telling Lois that “there were a lot more layoffs at work today” and that he might lose his job, whatever that is. The cover of a recent Archie comics digest has Veronica telling Betty: “We’re not just shopping, we’re helping to stimulate the economy!” The army strip Beetle Bailey managed to ignore Vietnam, Iraq and all the wars in between, and yet it showed the General standing in front of an earnings chart asking for advice on “the grim picture.” If you want to know how the recession is affecting us, don’t look to political strips like Doonesbury; look at The Wizard of Id, where the King bailed out the failed “carriage industry” but refused any money to help a small businessman. The crisis is so big that no comic-strip character can pretend it doesn’t exist. Well, maybe Ziggy.
Greg Walker, one of the writers of Hi and Lois (created by his father, Mort Walker), told Maclean’s that “we try to avoid jokes that would offend people. We go more for a warm, fuzzy approach.” But in the last few months, he’s been throwing in a few jokes that are anything but warm and fuzzy. A March 24 strip informed us that Hi might get his hours cut back at work, and the punchline was simply that he wasn’t looking forward to the idea of spending more time at home. Other old comic-strip franchises are doing entire multi-week storylines based on the economic realities of our time. Cathy did a series of strips about the latest fad in recession-era fashion: cheap-looking dresses that allow the title character to show off how thrifty she is. Marvin, a 27-year-old strip about a cynical baby who looks and acts like a humanized version of Garfield, recently took time off from diaper jokes to address the recession in the most depressing way possible, with Marvin’s grandparents losing their retirement savings and their home in the stock market crash.
Drabble, a long-running strip focusing on the adventures of a bald, bumbling middle-aged father, usually sticks to jokes about how stupid his teenage son is. But now the hero, Ralph Drabble, has been so hard hit by the recession, he announced to his wife that he’d have to take a second job to make ends meet. Kevin Fagan, who created Drabble in 1979, told Maclean’s the timely references aren’t because of any outside pressure to get with the times: “I was not encouraged by my editors or my syndicate to do any recession-related material,” he explains. But the economy, he continues, is “such big news that I wondered how Ralph Drabble would be dealing with it. I decided to have him take on another job as a security guard at a retirement village.”
None of this is normal for these strips, which try to keep their humour as non-specific as possible. Even if cartoonists want to write about what’s happening right now, they usually can’t, because comic strips have to be finished long before any of us see them. “My lead time is six weeks, 10 for Sunday strips,” Fagan explains. “I don’t know if some things will still be interesting in six weeks.” Besides, except for the occasional openly political strip like Pogo or Doonesbury, most comic strips are supposed to avoid controversy; Walker says he’ll do a politics joke “as long as it doesn’t take a particular side.” So even when an event is in the news every day, these older strips tend to deal with it in the most generic way possible. Fagan says that after 9/11, he never referred to it in the strip, and acknowledged it only by drawing “some strips where I had some American flags on homes in the background of the strip. Flags were very prevalent in the months after. I didn’t specifically mention 9/11, the flags were just there.”
The recession has changed that, and created a weird dynamic: the old, un-hip strips have more to say about the issue than the politically aware strips. Doonesbury isn’t doing much recession-related material these days, focusing instead on things like the Internet and the opium trade in Afghanistan. The strips where the recession has hit the hardest are the ones that are about average, white-bread domestic suburbanites, like the Flagstons, the Drabbles and whatever Marvin’s family is named. And that makes a certain amount of sense. Domestic strips may not deal with political and social issues, but a recession is more than just an issue; it’s something that directly affects the way people live, the way they spend money, and their feelings about the future. It’s hard to make a joke about regular everyday life and not take the recession into account. “The currency of the comic strip is recognizability and familiarity,” Walker says. “In writing a comic strip, it’s all about finding subject matter the reader can relate to.”
What might make it even more important for these strips to do recession humour is that many of them are aimed at older readers. They’re the ones who are still reading newspapers, not to mention the ones who remember when Blondie was popular. Those readers are very conscious of the recession and its threat to their savings and retirement plans. So whereas Hi and Lois got some complaints when Walker worked in some environmental themes (“we did get several emails complaining about a recent strip that mentioned humanity as one cause of global warming,” he says), economic themes are just good business. Now that Marvin’s grandparents have been left destitute by the recession (“our nice retirement egg turned into Humpty Dumpty”), it actually helps the strip deal with the changing demographics of newspaper readers: what started as a child-friendly strip about a baby is now aimed not at kids but at their parents and grandparents.
Still, don’t expect to turn to the funny pages for biting observations on the recession and how we got into it. The closest Hi and Lois has come to social commentary is in a strip in which Hi contemplates borrowing against the value of the stocks he owns in order to buy some of the current, depressed stocks: “Isn’t that how we got into this mess?” his teenage son Chip says. An economist would probably disagree with that explanation of the crisis. But the purpose of a strip like that isn’t to teach readers about the issues; the purpose, Walker explains, is “to find some levity in a grim situation. Humour has always played the role of antidote for the ills of human existence.” Besides, it’s not just the readers of these strips who have the recession on their minds all the time. “With so many newspapers going out of business,” Fagan says, “these are scary times for cartoonists, too!”