When Charles Schulz first devised his running holiday gags involving an eager child’s confused blending of Halloween and Christmas in October 1959, he never dreamed that the myth of the Great Pumpkin would become one of the most beloved and amusing elements of the Fall holidays. Like so many landmark Peanuts routines, what began as a simple joke about a seemingly quaint misunderstanding would eventually grow to sizable proportions throughout the decades, producing a number of memorable antics as well as some particularly pointed commentary on the values and risks of personal perseverance and popular scorn.
Five of the first seven “Great Pumpkin” strips reveal Linus Van Pelt spreading the joyful gospel that will eventually leave him humiliated as “a victim of false doctrine.”
From then on, Schulz deftly milked the joke every season, focusing mainly on Linus’ unsinkable faith in his own personal legend of a charitable pumpkin-claus who brings toys and treats to good little kiddos awaiting his arrival in the truest, most earnest, and sincere pumpkin patch nestled somewhere in the Great American breadbasket. Playing harbinger to his Halloween hero, Linus’ tone could shift from zealous and prophetic to desperate and dejected, but still he spoke his truth and believed always in his misfit vision of the holiday. Now his legend is ours as well.
Of course the 1966 TV special, one of many award-winning adaptations that launched Schulz’s Peanuts gang to worldwide fame, would provide the most resonant and popular of all Great Pumpkin routines. Culled largely from the comic strips, and lovingly tweaked for television by Schulz himself and long-time producer, Bill Melendez, the CBS special, like its Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter counterparts, became a seminal element of American holiday media, and its yearly broadcast remains a beloved tradition shared by generations of viewers and fans. It’s safe to say that, ironically, much of the media-driven world now sits eagerly each year with Linus in his pumpkin patch.
Like Schulz’s tree-eating kite, Charlie Brown and Lucy’s perennial football foibles, and the poor Peanuts kids’ eternal inability to win baseball games – Linus’ yearly disappointment after the Great Pumpkin’s failure to appear makes grand, operatic comedy of frustration and regret. Linus’ agony over another year wasted, his sister’s disgust at her little brother’s unshakable delusion, Snoopy’s perpetual knack for appearing at just the right time to give the poor languishing martyr some hope, and especially smitten Sally’s endless threats of litigation and restitution for a night’s worth of lost candy all frame the Great Pumpkin as a fairly piquant allegory of the complexities of faith, fun, and friendship in America.
In an article that I wrote for the Mensa Bulletin back in 2006, I described a class of words and terms that have entered the English lexicon from cartoons that I call “cartoonyms.” Among those elite terms are “gerrymander,” “McCarthyism,” and “security blanket.” There are about thirty more cartoonyms that can be found in any number of dictionaries, and all of them have interesting etymologies. About that, H. L. Mencken once said, “Comic strip artists have been unsurpassed as diligent coiners of neologisms.” That may be an exaggeration, or maybe it was truer during the 1920s when Mencken was writing, but cartoonists have contributed their share of new words to English—some have stayed. Other terms like “23 skidoo” have effectively passed into oblivion. “Dagwood,” an adjective that has stayed in the English language and is used to describe a rather tall sandwich, laden with ingredients comes from Chic Young’s cartoon Blondie.
A Dagwood sandwich is one that is stacked high with various ingredients and is so tall that a normal person would not be able to take a whole vertical bite of it. Typically, Dagwood, the character, is depicted leaving the refrigerator with ingredients in his hands and balanced on both arms as he goes to the dining room table to begin constructing the sandwich. He is often shown with the tall sandwich in his hands and a big smile on his face as he gets ready to eat the thing, but he is never shown actually eating it. That construction, drawing the impossible, is an aspect of cartooning that is acceptable in sequential drawings like cartoon strips, but is less acceptable in other media like television and movies. Consumers expect information to be missing between panels of a strip, but there is an expectation that nothing is missing from motion pictures.
First of all, the method Dagwood uses to transfer the ingredients from the refrigerator to the table is pretty incredible. The cartoon reader is not privy to how Dagwood balances all of the ingredients on his arms and shoulders. The reader only sees him strut confidently to the table in preparation for the construction project. In the following cartoon, Cookie, Dagwood’s daughter asks her father about his tradition of making sandwiches. She stands with her hands behind her back as her father walks the ingredients to the table, unconcerned about a mishap or mess. She has obviously witnessed this process many times before.
Following the construction of the massive comestible, the reader is treated to a smiling Dagwood reveling in the prospect of consuming his creation. Again, the reader sees that the sandwich is taller than anything that a normal human, Dagwood included, can possibly bite from top to bottom–as sandwiches are normally eaten. He is relishing (pun intended) the prospect of eating that sandwich so much that he is leaning in so far that his chair is tipped forward. And, while this strip ends with him preparing to take his first bite, other Blondie strips depict Dagwood wiping his mouth after he has presumably finished eating the sandwich (the sandwich is no longer in the tableau, and there are crumbs on the plate). Again, the reader is not privy to the knowledge of how the character consumes the sandwich; the reader only knows that it is gone.
Ed Hall, a syndicated political cartoonist from Jacksonville, Florida who draws for the Baker County Press, theorizes that the best cartoons show what happens just before an action or just after an action but do not show the action itself. Therefore, Dagwood will always be depicted carrying the ingredients to the table, but will not be depicted putting the ingredients on his arms and shoulders. As well, he will be shown just before he eats the sandwich and when the sandwich is gone and he is wiping around his mouth, but he will never be shown actually eating it. How Dagwood eats the sandwich and disarms the ingredients are among the many mysteries of the cartoon strip world, mysteries that are best kept secret in order to maintain that child-like faith that everything will turn out—if not always well, always humorously.
M. Thomas Inge
The comics occupy less and less space in newspapers in the United States these days, and even when they have a page or two of their own, each strip is so reduced in size that old timers have to squint to read them. Why don’t we give them more respect? These features occupy a few seconds of our time, but when well done, they can put a smile on our faces for the day, and maybe something to stick on the refrigerator door for others to enjoy? We should treasure them.
For as long as we have been recording our history, people have been telling stories and jokes through the combination of words and pictures, and most nations have had a tradition of sequential or narrative art and caricature. It was not until a little more than a hundred years ago that American cartoonists began to produce in the newspapers their own version of this distinct art form, which came to be called the comic strip and which would entertain millions of readers the world over with the antics of the Katzenjammer Kids, Mutt and Jeff, and Buster Brown.
Although few have recognized the cultural and aesthetic values of the comic strip, and its partner the comic book, the time has come to acknowledge that these are no ephemeral forms of entertainment, although printed on cheap paper and designed to be thrown away. Rather they are a significant part of our heritage to be cherished for their enduring artistic and social importance. Several publishers have recently understood this and are issuing handsome, hardcover complete collections of such strips as Peanuts, Dennis the Menace, Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, and Gasoline Alley.
Comic art has much in common with other forms of literary and visual expression in the modern world. As in fiction, the elements of narrative, characterization, and setting are important, and as in poetry, ideas must be developed within a very short reading time through symbol and suggestion. As in drama, a story or incident must be staged before our eyes within a box-like frame and with sharp limitations on dialogue and compressed time. As in motion pictures, visual devices such as cutting, framing, close-ups, and montage are used by the comic artist, and settings can range from the realistic to the fantastic.