Friday, November 16, 2012

The Secret History of Screwball: A Squirrel's Progress

While Gene Ahern's world of Our Boarding House and Room and Board explores the archetypes of early 20th century small town America, his multi-year Foozland continuity in The Squirrel Cage vastly and mind-blowingly expands his canvas, offering an allegorical journey through an entire alternate universe.


Note: Georgian folksinger and comics scholar Carl Linich has posted 10 of the rare Paul Bunyan strips from Gene Ahern's The Squirrel Cage on his blog here.

Unique among American newspaper comic strips, The Squirrel Cage has a structure that allows broad philosophical and social commentary in the innocent guise of a goofy Sunday comic. Where strips like Pogo and Doonesbury offer sharp topical political commentary, The Squirrel Cage provides a more philosophical-poetical -- almost a Shakespearian perspective on social trends, morality, and government. One hesitates to say how much of the wisdom expressed in The Squirrel Cage is intended or deliberate.

To me, it feels like Ahern in the 1940s knew he was on the mainline connection to his subconscious, and somehow was able to make it flow for years, while at the same time meeting (just barely, and with decreasing sales) the demands of the American newspaper comic strip market. A remarkable feat. Contrast the dreamlike play of a Squirrel Cage comic with the pointed, pun-drenched satire of a Pogo Sunday, and you can see a profound difference between an artist offering superb craftsmanship and an artist revealing his subconscious. There's a very real link between Ahern, psychedelic Underground comics of the 1960s, and the free-flowing stream-of-consciousness social and spiritual commentaries of Steve Willis. While I love Walt Kelly's work, for my money, the surreal, screwball association of Ahern's comics are more valuable to me, because they offer a way to bypass the limitations of rational thinking and reveal something deeper, weirder.

Reading The Squirrel Cage is exciting because it's delightfully odd, and that oddness is rooted in a dreamlike exploration of reality itself. Humor at its best is always based on sharp insights about the world. Ahern's humor grew more sophisticated in this way with each passing year. Finding poetic-philosophical meditations in a forgotten old screwball newspaper comic strip is tantamount to discovering the profound philosophical-religious explorations of Philip K. Dick that were originally packaged as 1950s and 1960s pulp magazine and cheap paperback science fiction.

In the Foozland strips of The Squirrel Cage, Gene Ahern -- a cultured man who (according to his press) used his cartoonist's salary to collect paintings by European masters -- presents a kaleidoscopic view of a fantastic world. His landscapes shift from panel to panel. George Herriman's Krazy Kat is famous for its ever-morphing landscapes; Ahern's Squirrel Cage is virtually unknown but employs the same device with equal artistic success.  The multi-year aimless drift through Foozland offers hundreds of bizarre characters, odd plants and animals, and distorted physical laws that reveal, in a disguised and surreal way, underlying truths about our social systems and the subjective nature of reality.

Where Our Boarding House (1922-1936) and later Room and Board (1936-1953) are centered on the delightfully self-deluded world of Major Hoople/Judge Puffle, The Foozland strips of The Squirrel Cage (1936-1953) are subversively directed outward, with a constant focus on the environment instead of the interior world of a central character.

A typical Gene Ahern Our Boarding House episode, encased in the limited -- but comically rich -- world of
Major Hoople's delusions...

The Paul Bunyan Gnome

The closest thing we have to a central character in the Foozland strips of The Squirrel Cage is the red-yellow-black clad gnome (the same color scheme worn by Jack Cole's form-bending Plastic Man).

Attentive readers of The Squirrel Cage know the little gnome -- a doppleganger for the the Little Hitch-hiker (who also appears in the Foozland strips) -- is actually Paul Bunyan, the mythic logger giant from American tall tales!

The Squirrel Cage by Gene Ahern - March 10, 1943
One of the earliest of the 'Paul Bunyan" strips - note the Little Hitch-hiker appears in the last panel

This alone is a wonderful surreal gag, but Ahern dropped it after a couple of years. After Paul Bunyan tangles with an ill-tempered witch, he is reduced to a pint-sized lawn-ornament style gnome and banished to the mysterious country of Foozland, where the laws of humans and nature are radically different from our collective reality. After this transformation, the strip never again refers to the gnome as Paul Bunyan. He is essentially a cipher, with no name, no purpose, and no character -- the very opposite of the richly human Major Hoople and Judge Puffle.

The Bunyan-gnome initially wanders Foozland with a vague purpose of returning to his own world and form. This purpose becomes hazy, and finally forgotten as he is subsumed into the dreamworld of Foozland. Reading the Foozland strips in sequence reveals a "hidden" story of a character lost in a dream and unable to wake up.

Bunyan-gnome occasionally breaks through the borders of Foozland, but instead of returning to our universe, he finds himself in places like Goonia, which is merely another country in the un-named alternate universe. The strip is filled with a never-ending labyrinth of magic doors, caves, tunnels, and stairways that force the gnome (and the reader) to abandon all sense of direction and bearing. Ahern has created on paper a metaphor for what living itself feels like (at least living unconsciously), with its unexpected twists and turns that lead us through a daily parade of bewildering dead-ends in our search for security and reassuring (and non-existent) consistency.

The main visual symbol of travel in the Foozland strips is the ever-present Road, on which characters mostly travel left-to-right, in a mirror-image of the way English-speaking peoples read symbols and (most) sequential graphic narratives.

Minor masterpieces like The Squirrel Cage, because they have been ignored and forgotten, appear to spring up from nowhere, but this is far from the the truth. This lost comic strip actually continues a centuries-old tradition of allegorical storytelling, and traces to some surprising cultural cousins on the nut-laden screwball family tree.

The Origins of Foozland: Bunyan to Bunion

In considering the possible antecedents of Gene Ahern's Foozland, it helps to recognize the strip has an allegorical tone. In some cases, the strips may function as an allegory -- which is a story structure in which characters symbolize ideas and concepts -- and some cases, the strips only assume an allegorical tone, because at their heart, they are more surreal, eschewing any direct, one-to-one correlations between character and concept.This was, after all, first and foremost, entertainment for the masses.

The allegorical tone of Gene Ahern's Foozland strips can be traced back to A Pilgrim's Progress, a little-known series by Winsor McCay, one of the greatest artists of the medium.

Perhaps the first great allegorical comic - A Pilgrim's Progress by Winsor McCay

According to Allan Holtz's American Newspaper Comics: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide (2012), A Pilgrim's Progress ran on weekdays from June 26, 1905 to May 4, 1909.

In McCay's A Pilgrim's Progress, we see a tall, gaunt man clad in black carrying a suitcase called "Dull Care." As with the gnome-Paul-Bunyan in The Squirrel Cage, he seems to almost always journey from left to right, on an eternal Road. McCay's Pilgrim (who is sometimes referred to as "Mr. Bunion", a play on John Bunyan's name) ) encounters one tortured soul after another, and is unable to put his suitcase down to help. In the example shown above, we see a man driven crazy by his own outrage at  the world's injustices -- unable to see that his "truth-telling" is really a form of blindness. He's an allegorical figure representing mindless blaming. Other people our Pilgrim encounters represent greed, gluttony, lust, hypocrisy, and so on. The Pilgrim himself respresents Everyman, who is burdened with the weight of the world and "worries for the entire universe."

A Pilgrim's Progress by Winsor McCay
From Winsor McCay The Early Works Volume 2, page 174 (Checker)

Signing his series as "Silas," McCay reminds me of Hank Williams posing as "Luke the Drifter" -- both men adopting a new persona to deliver sermons in the form of entertainment.

In his lilting musical sermon, "I've Been Down That Road Before," Hank Williams recites:

"To bully folks and play mean tricks was once my pride and joy
Till one day I was toted home and mama didn't know her little boy
'My head was swelled up so doggone big I couldn't get it through my front door
Now I ain't just talkin' to hear myself, cause I been down that road before"  

The image of a man's head swollen so large seems oddly resonant with Winsor McCay's dream imagery, not to mention some scenes from the Foozland stories which explicitly feature swelled heads and other physical transformations. Compare William's "doggone big" head with McCay's giant hammer in the last panel of the Pilgrim's Progress example above.

Note also William's use of the allegory of the Road as spiritual path. This is the same road McCay's Pilgrim and Ahern's Paul Bunyan-gnome travel.

Williams adopted the alter-ego of Luke as a way to deliver sermons to 1950s America without lessening the marketability of his name, popularly associated with "honky tonk" country and western songs like "Your Cheatin' Heart."

You can here the entire Luke the Drifter sermon of "I've Been Down That Road Before," here:

The "Dull Care" suitcase Winsor McCay's pilgrim totes -- a burden he cannot share -- also resonates with another 20th century musical icon, the 1968 song The Weight. Composed and performed by The Band, and appearing as the centerpiece of their first album, Music From Big Pink,  the song was inspired by Luis Bunuel's symbolic films of spiritual quests through absurd situations. The Weight seeks to create an allegory of a burdened man wandering, very much like McCay's Pilgrim and William's Luke the Drifter. The wanderer carries a "bag" (which in 1968 America had a double meaning, since "bag" was a slang for "purpose" -- as in "what's your bag, man?") and encounters a dizzying variety of odd characters.

"I picked up my bag, and went looking for a place to hide
When I saw old Carmen and the Devil, walkin' side by side
I said "Hey Carmen, let's go downtown."
She said, "I gotta go, but my friend can stick around."
- The Weight, The Band

One of the characters in The Weight is named Luke, perhaps a tip of the cowboy hat to Hank.

The actual full title of McCay's strip is A Pilgrim's Progress by Mr. Bunion. The readers of 1905-1909 would have been more familiar with the comical, self-depreciating reference to John Bunyan, author of the 17th century bestseller, A Pilgrim's Progess.

John Bunyan - not a screwball artist, but pretty screwy

Bunyan, who began writing Pilgrim's Progress while in prison for preaching without a license, would have fit right in with the strange characters of The Weight, McCay's worlds, and Foozland. He spent much of his adult life seeking to redeem his wild youth in which he committed such immoral acts as dancing and bell-ringing. He was -- to give him credit -- legendary among his young peers for his ability to swear like a sailor. Bunyan apparently turned his wordsmithing talent to a higher purpose, and wrote one of the most famous books in the English language, A Pilgrim's Progress, a book that perhaps the younger Bunyan might have said was damned good and fucking weird.

Here's a small part of the Wiki summary of the book:

"On his way to the Wicket Gate, Christian is diverted by Mr. Worldly Wiseman into seeking deliverance from his burden through the Law, supposedly with the help of a Mr. Legality and his son Civility in the village of Morality, rather than through Christ, allegorically by way of the Wicket Gate." 
We can go back further than John Bunyan and the 17th century, to Dante's early 14th century Divine Comedy, an exploration of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, filled with surrealism and some of the best allegory money can buy. Modern day cartoonist-allegorist Gary Panter has recreated two of the books of The Divine Comedy, with Jimbo in Purgatory (2004) and Jimbo's Inferno (2006).

Milt Gross' Count Screwloose witnesses widespread insanity in a spectacular panel from April 5, 1931

The witnessing of humanity's suffering and unconscious insanity that McCay's Pilgrim provides is not that different from the adventures of Milt Gross' Count Screwloose, who regularly escapes from the looney bin (sometimes with a Rube Goldberg machine) only to see so much craziness in the outside world that he is happy, at strip's end, to return to the relatively sane world of the Nuttycrest asylum for the mentally disturbed.

When you look at it, there seems to be some sort ongoing discussion, first in strange books and then in strange comics, about journeys through screwball worlds.

Can it be mere co-incidence that Ahern shifted his wacky screwball strip about two inventors and a little hitch-hiker into an allegory by way of a character called Bunyan? Perhaps the DNA of the secret history of screwball comics looks something like this:

When we consider the dreamlike imagery found in The Squirrel Cage (and The Nut Brothers, an earlier Ahern surreal romp) it makes sense, then to look at the first page of the first publication of  John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress and see the word "dream" write large:

Title page for John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress

The Fun of Going Nowhere

When he created the Foozland continuity in The Squirrel Cage, Ahern built a serial dream that lasted years and went nowhere. The very title of the strip is a natural extension of the many squirrel and nut labels used in screwball comics, from Rube Goldberg's Boob McNutt to Ahern's own Squirrel Food and Nut Brothers. But there's another layer to the strip's title, since a squirrel cage is a confining environment in which a squirrel can run forever without ever getting anyplace -- just like the Buyan-gnome in Foozland.

With his invention of Foozland in The Squirrel Cage, Gene Ahern built one of the most elegant and incisive tools for social commentary in all of American comics. The strip below, from 1945, the first year of the Foozland continuity (at some point, something must be said about the meaning of Foozland's birth coinciding with the end of World War 2 and the arrival of The Bomb), provides an allegory on leadership with some dreamlike lampoons of government and social responsibility.

The Squirrel Cage by Gene Ahern - April 8, 1945
(from the collection of Paul C. Tumey)
Let's take a closer look. In the first panel, we begin with the Little Hitch-hiker and his classic existential nonsensical question: "Nov shmoz ka pop?" Ahern almost always drew an absurd object next to the Hitch-hiker, and here we see a giant block of ice, defying the laws of physics by not melting -- a visual gag Ahern used many times in The Squirrel Cage -- nevermind WHY the Little Hitch-Hiker has a block of ice with him. In the first moments of the strip, we are already confounded. As the Hitch-hiker hitchhikes, the King of Foozland walks The Road, left to right, declaring he is taking a day off. because he is king, the plants and animals must bow to him. His train is kept from touching the ground not by a servant, but by a little wheel.

The impulsive King of Foozland encounters the Bunyan-gnome, who is always on The Road, and makes him King. The crowned gnome, now bowed to, has no idea how to be a King. He stands on a path that has mysteriously developed a set of steps leading down - an allegorical symbol that he may be headed for a moral descent if he doesn't use his newly acquired power well.

Next, the King must sign a law -- the lawmaker acknowledges the power of the crown, whil ealso acknowledging that the gnome is not the real King. The law itself is comically huge, a giant scroll that is
so heavy (the Weight) he struggles to carry it.

The law is against beards, but as the lawmaker explains this, a long full beard appears on his face.

In the early 1990s, I lived in Leominster, Massachusetts, a small town filled with plastic factories and -- ironically -- famous as the birthplace and home town of Johnny Appleseed. One day, while walking home through the city cemetery, I came across a curious gravestone:

It seems that in the late 18th century, Leominster citizen Joseph Palmer was intolerantly attacked by his fellow townsmen for wearing a full beard. The book, Weird New England, tells us his clean-shaven peers thought Palmer's full beard was "antisocial and sinful." This resonantes with John Bunyan's self-persecution for dancing and bell-ringing. He was jailed for causing a disturbance of the peace and kept for a year. Palmer was finally released, refusing to cut his well-groomed beard. His jailers tied him to a chair and threw him from the jail.  The "no-beard" law in Gene Ahern's April 8, 1945 Squirrel Cage reminds me of Palmer. In effect, when the beard magically appears on the man who wants to outlaw beards, something is being said about human versus moral law. Realizing he has a beard (without ever questioning why or how that he could grow a long beard in a second), the lawmaker instant shifts his focus to outlawing people WITHOUT a beard -- thus he has become an allegorical figure for Intolerance. In the background a Herriman-esque tree appears to have a fuzzy hat, or perhaps a beard.

Realizing that he almost signed into law something that "put people in trouble," the gnome begins to question whether it is right for him to wear the crown. There's an old saying that the best leaders are those that do not wish to lead -- it seems the gnome has common sense, and perhaps even moral sense. The tree he touches is multi-colored and oddly shaped -- it seems to resonate with a meaning, but its unclear what that meaning may be.

In a small heroic gesture, the gnome divests himself of the power and responsibility of rulership, and bestows it upon a scarecrow -- a "fake" human.

In the last panel, the former King of Foozeland, now a mere subject, bows to the crowned scarecrow. It's almost as if there's no importance placed on who leads, but only that there is a leader -- even if it's only a scarecrow. Woody Guthrie once famously said, when asked of about his political affiliation, "right wing, left wing, chicken wing -- it's all the same to me."  Of course, this was nonsense, since Guthrie was a well-known radical activist of his time, but in this nonsense -- like the nonsense of The Squirrel Cage  -- is valuable -- and shocking -- wisdom.

Your Screwball Scribe,
Paul Tumey

All text copright 2012 Paul C. Tumey

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