Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Elements of Screwball Comics

Screwball comics share some or all of the following eight elements:

- Disruptive and eccentric behavior
- Corny jokes, puns, and wordplay
- Extreme reactions and frantic movements
- Exaggerated physical features of humans and animals
- Crazy inventions
- Nonsense and surrealism
- Self-referential (references to being a cartoon)
- Parodies various forms of popular entertainments

American screwball comics were heavily influenced by the work of Rube Goldberg who
introduced several key elements of the genre into newspaper cartoons

Sometimes straight comics (adventure, romance, western, superhero) use screwball characters to add a little pizzazz, such as  B.O. Plenty in Dick Tracy or Superman's goofy foe, Mr. Mxyzptlk .

In other cases, comic strip and comic book features  tend to more or less constantly play with these elements -- and can be classified as being of the  "screwball" genre. When you read a screwball comic, you feel a little like your brain has been put in a blender. The pace is frantic, the wit is both verbal and visual (or unique combinations of both), and the disruption to one's sense of reality is quite strong. For those of us who like this disruptive humor, it's addicting.

This Milt Gross page from November 30, 1930 displays all six elements of screwball comics

The most notable of these comics include (in alphabetical order):

- And Her Name Was Maud by Frederick Opper
- Babe by Boody Rogers
- Baron Bean by George Herriman
- Basil Wolverton's comics (various titles)
- Boob McNutt by Rube Goldberg
- Bobo Baxter by Rube Goldberg
- Count Screwloose of Tooloose by Milt Gross
- Death Patrol by Jack Cole, Dave Berg, Gill Fox
- Dave's Delicatessen by Milt Gross
- Dinky Dinkerton by Art Huhta
- Doc Syke by Ving Fuller
- Hawkshaw the Detective by Gus Mager
- Hey Look! by Harvey Kurtzman
- High Pressure Pete by George Swanson
- Jerry On The Job by Walter Hoban
- Jingle Jangle Tales and the Pie-Face Prince by George Carlson
- Jingling Johnson by W.R. Bradford
- Lalapalooza by Rube Goldberg
- Little Jimmy by James Swinnerton
- Mager's Monks by Gus Mager (including Sherlocko)
- Midnight by Jack Cole
- Needlenose Noonan by Walter Hoban
- Nize Baby by Milt Gross
- Our Boarding House by Gene Ahern
- Plastic Man by Jack Cole
- Powerhouse Pepper by Basil Wolverton
- Room and Board by Gene Ahern
- Rube Goldberg's various comic strips from 1910-1927
- $alesman $am by George Swanson, C.D. Small
- Sam and His Laugh by James Swinnerton
- Sappo by E.C. Segar
- Smokey Stover by Bill Holman
- Sparky Watts by Boody Rogers
- Spooky by Bill Holman
- Stumble Inn by George Herriman
- That's My Pop! by Milt Gross
- The Dingbat Family by George Herriman
- The Nut Brothers by Gene Ahern
- The Squirrel Cage by Gene Ahern
- Thimble Theater by E.C. Segar

This list is a work in progress. If you have any suggestions to add to it, please let me know!

I mentioned the dense quality of many screwball comics. In many cases, these comics have simultaneous multiple gags. In a single panel instead one event happening, there can be two or more events occurring. Often screwball comics have extra gags and jokes in the background. Also, the dialogue can be working on multiple levels, advancing the plot while also delivering jokes and puns. A great screwball comic is a virtuoso juggling act. "Background gags" could be seen as a seventh element, but it doesn't occur in enough screwball comics to be considered as a key element.

A genuine screwball comic is not something that is easily imitated successfully. Many have been influenced by Rube Goldberg, but no one ever tried to do exactly what he did. Few successors, if any, have managed to capture the magic of Jack Cole's Plastic Man. Segar's Popeye is still good stuff in the hands of Zaboly and Sagendorf, but no match for Segar's work. No one ever tried to carry on Count Screwloose, Powerhouse Pepper, The Squirrel Cage, or Sparky Watts once the original creators stopped generating stories. For this reason, it's better to study screwball comics through the masters of the genre.

These elements will be our guideline in exploring screwball comics in the months ahead. And now, for your entertainment, here is a Gene Ahern Room and Board from 1943 that plays with some of the elements of screwball comics. In this case, we see:

- Outlandish and eccentric behavior
- Crazy invention (the hair tonic)
- Exaggerated physical features
- Nonsense and surrealism

A screwball Room and Board by Gene Ahern - Oct 10, 1943 (from the collection of Paul Tumey)

That is all,
Screwball Paul

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