ProTip: Click on any of the strips below for embiggening.
Where do comics go when they die? Well, it depends: if this question is asked when children are present, the comics go to a spacious farm located someplace upstate, where a lady with big arms comes by twice a week to exfoliate their withered halftone dots, and they have plenty of room to grow nice and yellowed in the sunshine. If the children have been bustled off to bed when this question is posed, the answer is that most are humanely culled and reconstituted into Bazooka bubble gum wrappers for developing nations. The management at the rendering plant tells me the comics don't feel a thing when it happens. The tales told by the haunted eyes of the plant's workers suggest it's best if we don't ask too many followups about how the strips featuring talking sausages are made. Residue from Cathy's final, bloodcurdling "Ack!" is still caked on the walls in there, the legend goes.
In the deepest reaches of our archives resides the "Classic and Retired" folder, where the poor unfortunates can cool their heels, still technically viable enough to keep around, but not so viable as to be wanted by anyone, anywhere, for any purpose ever again.
Not that the stuff in there is bad, by any means-- most of the comics in there ran for years and are perfectly respectable; they just outlived their relevance, usefulness, or in today's case, their entire audience's lifespan. We should all be so lucky.
Here's what I thought I knew about Mutt & Jeff, prior to peering into its depths: Uh, it's… it's the same thing as Pogo, right? The one about the lion who is also a dog and hangs around with Li'l Abner and a couple of crocodiles drawn so attractively I've had to intentionally force them from my mind so I don't have to confront the feelings they stir? Probably. I refuse to do any research!
Ladies and gentlemen, I was mistaken. Mutt & Jeff isn't Pogo, or even Li'l Abner, though at the time of writing, the results on whether it is Terry and the Pirates are inconclusive. As far as I can tell, Mutt & Jeff is about Mutt and Jeff, two fellows who frequently get into accidents involving "auto-gyros," cycle through dozens of menial jobs, enjoy fishing, employ delightfully old-world distain for their wives, halfheartedly run for public office and are as dumb or smart as needed, depending on the gag. Exactly what one hopes to find in the skeletal remains of one of the first comics to sprout legs, stomp onto dry land and immediately stub its toe in a mildly amusing manner.
(Y'know, Korea? Where they speak Chinese?)
Sure, plenty of the gags themselves are pretty creaky, but plenty aren't, and besides, it helps to keep in mind that during their original run, there were only a handful of jokes anywhere in American culture:
1) The "Hot Foot," where a lit match is wedged between the toes of a sleeping rube,
2) A ribald song about the Haymarket Square riot, told from the point of view of an anarchist's homemade bomb and
3) Vaudeville's signature "banana peel" bit, which bears little resemblance to the slapstick routine we think of today (back then they used horse droppings and locked theatre doors before each performance). The time was right for Mutt and/ or Jeff to drop their German surnames and take America by storm!
Included here are some highlights I came across-- there are plenty more through which I've yet to rummage, so if I find anything worth sharing, I'll let you know. The strip itself, when viewed in context, is just fine-- well illustrated, clearly arranged and paced. Presentationally, it helped usher the medium into the more standardized format still used today, much to the chagrin of George Herriman and his impressionistic, unmoored dialogue, floating over the mesa. Pack up your bricks and begone, hippie!
What's sort of sad about these is that we've come to them after they've been reused to the point of exhaustion not just of the gags, but even the artwork, which I've cleaned up a little to make slightly more presentable. Syndicate names have been affixed, removed, replaced and reaffixed over and over again, blotting out rectangular chunks of the expert crosshatching and mucking up the natural flow of the original work. Nearly all of the strips have been either photocopied, scanned or cropped so poorly that the last panel is rendered either cramped to the point of incomprehensibility or half-absent. This being Mutt & Jeff, it's not such a loss, but it's a shame when these things-- which regardless of your tastes, are still most certainly art-- are so manhandled. It should be emphasized that our company didn't come into possession of these until long after the damage was done-- if anything, we care too much around here (for further proof, see also: everything I've ever written for this blog, including this entry). Poor fellas. Hey, maybe time really is cyclical, and they'll come back into fashion after the erosion and reemergence of the continents! Something to shoot for, at least.
So let's pour one out for these two, and then take a long, lusty slug for ourselves, using our wrists to wipe away the tears that follow in order to clear our vision for next week, when we'll gaze further into the void of "Classic and Retired" comics, and see what we can make of them. I don't want to get your hopes up, but there's a Spanish language strip in there all about dinosaurs fighting each other. I haven't checked, but I have my suspicions about how that one ends.
Next week: Dinosaurs, maybe.