Ovaltine Café, 9.30 a.m.
“Ha!” said Ethan Liss from behind his copy of the Vancouver Sun. “I love this Nancy comic strip. That chubby little kid really cracks me up.” The corner of his newspaper drooped as he reached for his coffee.
“I prefer Dilbert,” said David Okin, from behind his copy of the Province. “It’s sort of insipid in a postmodernistic sense, but at least it’s got an underlying message. At least it hints at the problem of expressing objective truth against a global narrative that instructs a chauvinistic planetary peonism, emphasising a manufactured need to surrender to corporate and political ideologies that strip the individual of the right to independent thought and problematises the achievements of the collective – and I liked the art.”
“Well,” said Liss, “I really like how that Nancy kid gives that Sluggo Smith character a run for his money.”
“Oh man,” Okin said. “Don’t get me started on Sluggo Smith.”
“What about him?” said Ethan Liss. “Sluggo’s Nancy’s pal, her foil, her straight man. He’s just a kid from the wrong side of tracks who’s baffled by the complexities of life. Nancy shows him how to understand and overcome.”
“That’s just an act, pal.” Okin turned a page. “It’s pure shtick.”
“Shtick? He’s a comic strip character, ink on a page. How can he have Shtick?”
“You have obviously never heard of the Sluggo Riot.”
Liss let the corner of his paper down again, and looked across the table.
“Oh, do tell,” he said. “Convey to me the story of the Sluggo Riot. And forgive me if I express a little scepticism, or even openly mock you.”
“Mock if you like,” Okin said, as he looked across at Liss. “It’s in your nature to question things. Scepticism is healthy. I agree that a story must stand on its own.”
“So it was 1939, a year after Sluggo was first introduced to the Nancy comic strip. The depression had worn the world out, and there was trouble brewing. You’re correct when you say Sluggo was from the other side of the tracks. But his actions demonstrate that he wasn’t as passively perplexed by the world as he was made out to be by Ernie Bushmiller, the artist. Not at first, anyway.
“Ernie had never set out to create a radicalized Sluggo, one who refused to be beaten down by the poverty imposed upon him by circumstance and a failed capitalistic system. Sluggo was never conceived of as a rabble-rouser. He was never meant to be a man of the people who could pull the masses together, and lead them in an insurrection that would bring down the world of high finance and unaffected laissez-faire. But that’s almost how it turned out.”
“Just try to keep up. And flag the waitress, I need a refill.
“It was early December, 1939, and the world was facing another tough Christmas. Ernie Bushmiller was drawing a little behind schedule. He was working on the Christmas Eve strip that should have been completed a month previous. Christmas Eve that year was on a Sunday, so it was going to be a full colour, ten panel strip. Bushmiller thought he might depict Sluggo as depressed over the scarcity of his festive prospects, but ultimately filled with joy and optimism for the future by some of Nancy’s precocious seasonal antics.
“So, Bushmiller starts to draw. First panel, Sluggo’s moping through the snowy neighbourhood with his head down and his hands in his pockets. From the start, Bushmiller likes what he’s creating. He’s thinking that this might be a masterpiece of cartoon art. The lines have a fresh precision, and Sluggo has an unfamiliar prominence on the page. It happens that way sometimes. You begin something routine, and maybe you’re a little under pressure. You think, I’ll just do my best to get through this; just let me make the deadline. But before you know it, maybe because of the anxiety of the situation, you’ve got a masterwork.
“Bushmiller carries on completing the strip. He’s beside himself. He’s made ecstatic by its excellence. It’s the best strip he’s ever done. And when he’s almost finished inking, swear to God, Sluggo comes to life on the page. Suddenly, he’s all 3D and turning this way and that. It happens in panel 9, where he’s setting up Nancy for panel 10, in which she selfishly delivers the punch line, and wishes the world a Merry Christmas. Sluggo’s as surprised as Ernie Bushmiller. He’s looking at his hands as if he’s never seen them before. He’s jumping up and down, wiggling his hips.
“Then he turns and looks at Bushmiller, and says, ‘I know you! You created me. You made me to suffer in poverty, you bastard. Can you imagine my suffering?’ And pointing his finger at Bushmiller, Sluggo says, ‘You collect a pay cheque off my misery. You’ve repeatedly depicted me as a hapless stooge, at the mercy of Nancy, who’s a spoiled little brat with sadistic proclivities. Imagine my shame and endless embarrassment. All so you can turn a filthy dollar for yourself and your corrupt syndicate of greedy, miserly overlords. I denounce you and your efforts to normalise, and make humorous, human suffering and the plight of the poor.’
“And that’s when Sluggo jumps off the page. Remember, he’s only an inch and a half tall, but he picks up an inking quill from Bushmiller’s desk and thrusts it into Ernie’s hand. ‘Yow,’ hollows Bushmiller, and Sluggo runs off.”
“You’re insane if you expect me to believe this,” Liss said.
“Don’t believe it, then. The truth exists independent of you. But listen, because it gets better. It seems that all over the comic strip world that day, other comic strip characters are doing the same as Sluggo Smith.
“Soon there’re reports of similar happenings at other studios. The characters of Moon Mullins locked artist Frank Willard into his studio closet, and lit the place on fire. The Katzenjammer Kids attacked Harold H. Knerr, and used rubber cement to glue him to the ceiling. Little Orphan Annie just disappeared, but left behind her little red dress. Turned out Annie was a raging lesbian nudist – who knew? Betty Boop went out of her way to track down creator Max Fleischer. She tied his shoe laces together – which was actually easier than you’d think since she was just an inch and a half tall – so that he stumbled and broke his knee, poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Even the otherwise noble and beloved Tintin attacked Georges Rémi, aka Hergé, tied him up with butcher string, and left him surrounded by a hundred tiny, crazed cartoon Congolese.”
“I’m afraid to ask, but what happened next?”
“Well this is where it gets interesting, so pay attention. On that day, thousands of comic strip characters jumped off of the page. They immediately tried to coalesce under the leadership of a comic strip central committee, under a single banner that identified and clarified their concerns for all of comic kind, with an easily understood list of achievable demands.”
“It didn’t work.”
“What? What do you mean it didn’t work?”
“Their ink dried.”
“You’re killing me.”
“You have to understand, my friend. It’s easy for a newly self-animated comic strip character to caper about while the ink is still wet, damp even. But when the ink finally dries, as it always will, they’re left stiff and brittle. Without the support and reinforcement of the pulpy newsprint page, they just disintegrate. Elmer Fudd, for example, finally busted a cap into Bugs Bunny’s ass while running up Wilshire Boulevard in L.A. I mean, he really put one between Bugs’ eyes. Took the top of that pesky wabbit’s head clean off, too. But before Elmer could celebrate, his ink dried. He froze where he stood, and got squashed by a Royal Crown Cola truck. Little Orphan Annie was seen looting a doll shop. She stole a doll-sized bicycle, and was escaping when her ink dried at a busy crosswalk. She was trampled by pedestrians. As for Superman, he simply fell out of the sky and was eaten by a tabby cat name Truffles.”
“No, really? Superman?”
“He wasn’t so super without artist Joe Shuster. In fact all of the rebellious comic strip characters found out that without the artists who drew them on a daily basis, they just couldn’t survive. Their continued existence was dependent upon someone continuously recreating them in the next panel, and then the panel after that. The development of their world views and philosophies was dependent upon someone writing dialogue in their speech bubbles. They might last an hour or two on their own, but then they’d just dehydrate and blow away.”
“What happened to Sluggo?”
“I don’t think you’re ready to hear it.”
“Well, he wasn’t off the page for more than a few minutes before he found a bottle, and drank himself stupid. He turned out to be just how Ernie Bushmiller drew him. Despite all of his grandiose talk and big ideas, he revealed himself as trashy, and confused by his own existence. He was an absolute boozer. He swilled what he could until his ink dried. And that night, the janitor mopped him up.”
“I hate that.”
“Eat your toast.”