New Century, Old Value

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I was thinking about a Buster Brown comic in which Buster helps a tramp. In this strip, he allows the man into his home, providing him with his father’s bathroom and attire. The comedy begins when his mother, mistakes the man for her husband and embraces him from behind.

BusterBrown_HomelessGuy

As expected of his character, Buster is corporally punished off-panel and “resolves” his lesson:

That a tramp is not a victim of hard luck nor fate nor ill fortune. He is just a the effect of a cause. Selfishness and filth, disease, and poverty, the result. A bad effect never came from a good cause. If you do right you’ll be right, if you do wrong you’ll get the worst of it. No man ever got wheat who planted weeds. Laziness is a mental disease. All action must first be a thought. If you are 2 lazy to think, you can’t act. If you don’t excersize your brain, it will grow useless. Don’t let the doctor, the orator, the lawyer, the newspaper, do your thinking for you. You smile at the child who believes in Santa Claus while you believe worse piffle. God gave you the brains to think with.

Ouch. Dickensian, ain’t it?

The world at the time of this strip was only 3 years out of the Victorian era (despite being the Rooseveltian US), so the “bootstraps” mentality is not a huge surprise. To a 21st century reader, Buster’s heart was in the right place, especially since most modern employment requires decent hygiene unavailable to many homeless who are seeking work. His only mistake was allowing a stranger into his home who could have at worst murdered him and his mother.

Unfortunately, understanding such a danger is not a lesson he learns. In short, the Browns teach Buster that providing any kind of charitable resources to an impoverished person is bad. Sadly though, the series (as far as I’m aware), Mr. and Mrs. Brown have never been shown supporting charity events or donating to soup kitchens or orphanages. Buster is the closest of the Brown family to show any sense of egalitarianism by inviting working-class boys into his home occasionally, and he just wants to show off his Christmas tree.

BusterBrown_poorboys

The Browns are NOT looking forward to his teenage years.

What relieves me a bit is that R.F. Outcault, who created the more working-class sympathetic Yellow Kid series prior in his career, only created Buster Brown to appeal to the WASP elite readers of NYC at the time. Regardless of class differences, one expects to see reminders of how values have changed. What worries me are members of today’s affluent class in the US who, after learning about the Great Depression in their schools, would read Buster’s resolution and yet somehow fully agree. Funny how times never change.

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Buster and Bart: A Century Apart

In 1899, comic artist RF Outcault created The Yellow Kid, a working class ethnic child who pulled cons, for the Hearst papers. Not long after that series ended, Outcault followed up with a similarly ill-behaved rich WASP named Buster Brown.

There was no concrete evidence of Outcault’s intentions with the strip. The fact that he was forced to create the series due to reader backlash to his Yellow Kid series suggests otherwise. I’m certain under the humor directed to an upper class audience, there also lies a hidden mockery of said audiences’ values and behavior.

One strip comes to mind when, as the title says, Buster decides to throw himself a surprise party and Mrs. Brown is greeted at the door by gift-bearing tykes.

BusterBrown_surprisePartyCRPD

It’s natural to assume Mrs. Brown would just tell the children to go home, right? Wrong. Instead, she invites them in and quietly rushes her servants to order party refreshments as soon as possible without the guests noticing.

Let’s not be mistaken. Buster Brown has pulled some pretty bad pranks for a boy of his era: Cutting a girl’s hair. Tricking a strange man into walking in on his mother in a changing room on the beach. Faking his own death.

 

Yes, you heard the last one right.
BB_fakeDeath1 BBfakedeath2

However, the “surprise party” prank pisses his mother off so much that by the second to last panel she threatens to send him to a reform school, her most serious threat in the whole series.

Do you know what they would do to pretty faces like yours?

Now, from the modern perspective, only two trains of thought generate from this story: “Buster’s mother is an idiot” or maybe “priorities of the rich were different back then.” A nearly century old comic strip is bound to create values dissonance for 21st century readers, and does so often. This strip in particular, however, does not seem so foreign in time. Here’s why:

 

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MARGE: “Bart, are ALL these children friends of yours?

BART: “Friends and well-wishers. Yes”

 

It would take the passage of that very century for another similar situation on a 1994 episode of The Simpsons  where the eponymous family gets a pool. Every kid in town gets wind of the news and it’s not long before the Simpson’s house is flooded with swim-suited children. One scene that has always caught my attention (and funny bone) involves Marge questioning Bart about his unusually large circle of friends, including a trio of boys who look too old to be in high school walking by as they address Marge by another name and greeting another kid in the kitchen as Bart.

Back in real life, if your mother was anything like mine, she’d never let any kid I invited over into the house unless she knew that kid’s parents personally. To see Buster’s mother frantically accommodating a spontaneous children’s party may seem silly to our modern eyes, but to be honest not much has changed. The mediums are different, the socioeconomic statuses of the families are different. There’s no argument that Buster Brown’s family would have a much different set of values than the Simpsons (the latter family has a much more equal relationship with the ethnic whites and blacks than the former, after all). It seems however, that the mothers of both mediums remind us that regardless of class and time, there will always be that one dimwitted mother who goes against common sense when it comes to her children’s affairs. Timeless.

“I look like Buster Brown……whomever that is.”

Cartooning in Columbus (Ohio)

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courtesy of Watch Tom Draw

Last week my friend Tom of Watch Tom Draw had a chance to visit the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum during his trip to Columbus. Named for the city’s most famous newspaper cartoonist, it houses one of many cartoon archives in the US and housed right on the campus of Ohio State University. Among the original works archived includes panels by R.F. Outcault (Buster Brown) Windsor McKay (Little Nemo in Slumberland) and Will Eisner (The Spirit) among many other gems.

If you ever find yourself near the Ohio State area and looking for something to see, I wouldn’t overlook it.

Link:
http://cartoons.osu.edu/

Giving Props to Vintage Strips

I recall the day I was gifted a book of stamps commemorating classic comic strips, I became fascinated with vintage comic strips, specifically those pre-dating 1930:

Popeye, Krazy Kat, Little Orphan Annie, Toonerville Trolley, Little Nemo in Slumberland, Buster Brown, Katzenjammer Kids.

1995 US Commemorative Stamps_Comic Strip Classics

Yep, these were the stamps.

Like spiritual descendants Peanuts and Garfield, most of these series were available at the time in printed anthologies. Others I found scattered online.  I loved seeing how much the comics reflected the values of the times then as they do now. Of course, many of these strips show their age by the second page (hey, that rhymed!), Thankfully, required notes in the back of the books explain the jokes that get lost to a modern reader.

These being American comics, I anticipated that racial/ethnic jokes would rear their awkward head, but I accepted that. I couldn’t be angry at jokes made 70 to 100 years ago. (I prefer to reserve that energy for Family Guy episodes and lazy comedians). Aside from that, there were moments in the strips that reminded you to be thankful your great grandparents survived those times.

Buster Brown_Smallpox

We all had that friend with smallpox. Right?……..Right?

Once I get passed the values dissonance, I saw what great imagination these artists used when they essentially had very little foundation to work with. They didn’t limit themselves (only the paper editors did). Once you look across time and see the human experience, you began to enjoy them. These strips are important historical pieces as they are good entertainment.