If These Are the Funnies, Why Am I Crying?

Illustration by Steve Durbin for The Louisville Times

The Psychology of the Comics

Little Susie was admitted to the hospital. Her case was serious, and as the day of the operation approached, tensions began to rise. Tensions rose all over the country, because of the drama of little Susie played out in the Apartment 3-G comic strip. Nick Dallis, the strip’s writer, began to receive mail as soon as the girl’s condition worsened. He got 90 letters within a few days, all begging him to let the girl survive.

Dallis, who allowed Susie to live, thought the letters were interesting. Dallis is Dr. Nicholas P. Dallis, a psychiatrist. “The intensity of the response is what gets me,” he said. “With all the worries over the environment and the newspaper headlines, people hope that in the comic strips, at least, things will turn out all right. It’s their escape, and it’s a healthy kind of escape, psychologically speaking.”

The soap-opera narratives found in the strips Nick Dallis writes—Apartment 3-G and Rex Morgan, M.D.—and Allen Saunders’ Mary Worth continue to entertain and perhaps edify. So do Al Capp’s Li’l Abner and Stan Lee’s The Amazing Spider-man. What can people learn from the funnies? The basic stuff of life, according to Dallis. Strips grow from the ancient, communal love of storytelling. They reflect and comment on social roles and responsibilities, fears and needs.

For example, it’s striking—often literally—how women dominate men in the story strips. The austere Mary Worth is the classic example of female authority, full of advice, insight, and quiet wisdom. Some readers wish she would keep her wisdom a little quieter. “We try not to let her be a meddlesome person,” said Saunders, a former French teacher and newspaper drama critic who took over the strip in 1940. “But as far as the general public is concerned, I guess she’s pretty nosy.”

She also ages slowly, like a lot of people in the funnies. “When I started doing Mary Worth, Mary seemed like an old, old lady,” said Saunders, who is 78. “Now she’s starting to look good to me.”

In Li’l Abner, the principal male characters tend to be buffoons. Mammy Yokum towers over the men by the force of her vigor, cunning, and fearlessness. “Women do dominate in my work,” said Capp, who started the strip in 1934, “and they dominate without my planning it at all. Most of the women I knew were domineering, my mother and all my aunts.”

Capp thinks this was a product of the Jewish immigrant experience. “The men often seemed quite stunned by America, but the women seemed determined to see their kids through. They held the family together.” Capp’s mother never left the old apartment. “We kids would send her money. When she died, not a dime was left. We found out she had imported four more kids and was supporting them.”

The most fascinating woman in Capp’s work is Moonbeam McSwine, the voluptuous brunette who’s usually drawn smoking a corncob pipe and lolling with hogs. To get close to Moonbeam, a man has to crawl through mud and pig litter.

On one level, it’s a joke. On a deeper level, it’s clear that sex with this woman—and perhaps all women—is dirty, staining, and demeaning. The character recalls the demon lovers of mythology. The most famous is Circe, the enchantress whose kiss turns men into swine. “I don’t think Moonbeam means anything,” said Capp. “Good God! She doesn’t remind me of anyone I ever knew. All the girls I grew up with were very neat and clean.”

The authority figures in the comics have flaws, which ironically increase their power. Mary Worth, for example, has a son named Slim, a wheeler-dealer who squandered her money. Slim suggests a parental failing, but he ends up making Mary more human and sympathetic.

In the same way, Spider-man draws sympathy by agonizing over his frustrations and self-doubt, even as he battles villains. “It’s possible for a person to have super power,” said Stan Lee, who created Spidey. “He may climb walls, have the strength of twenty men, be able to swing from buildings—and still be subject all the problems flesh is heir to.”

Lee’s hero also suffers because he has abilities that others lack. “There’s a balancing principle that seems to work in life,” said Lee. “You pay for everything you have or get. You dream of buying your wife a diamond. Everything will be perfect when you do that, and then you do and you have to worry about someone stealing it. You have to worry about insurance and everything else.

“It’s the same with Spider-Man. He knows he’s the only one who can stop a crime, but he doesn’t want to go. He’d rather be home spending a normal evening with his girlfriend.”

—The Louisville Times

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Prison Drama

Miguel Piñero in New York — Photograph by Ira Simmons

“I was born in a barrel of butcher knives, raised between two forty-fives.”

—Miguel Piñero, playwright and ex-convict, author of Short Eyes

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Exit, Right

Because of his performances on television, William Buckley’s mannerisms have been well known and caricatured since the mid-1960s, but he claims not to be concerned with his media persona.

“The people who’ve known me the longest say I haven’t changed since I was 15.” He smiled. “Now, I’m perfectly willing to concede that is largely bad. I’ve always been . . . opinionated.”

But writing novels required something more than strong opinions and fearsome debating skills. Buckley had to deal with more human ambiguity than most politicians and pundits dare to admit exists.

In See you Later, Alligator (1985) Buckley created an empathetic portrait of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. “My Che is the way he was. I read a lot about him, and I tried to understand why he could be so appealing to so many people.”

In Mongoose RIP (1988) he entered the mind of President John F. Kennedy. “People who knew Kennedy know that’s the way he was. I’m pleased that no child of any Kennedy or Acheson or Dulles—and I know a lot of them—has said I’ve done an injustice to those men.

“The task of understanding people whose views are very different from your own is a moral and artistic challenge. If you don’t accept that challenge, and to some extent prevail, then life becomes terribly wooden.”

—The Courier-Journal

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A Franciscan Sculptor and his Visions in Bronze

David Kocka

Kocka’s latest sculpture, a five-foot bronze weighing five hundred pounds, is called the “The Yoke of Compassion.” It depicts a man carrying another man on his shoulders. The carrier and the carried fuse until it’s hard to tell which is which, and the piece begins to look like a slightly melted cross.

The sculpture is headed for the St. Charles Medical Center in Bend, Oregon.

Sister Kathryn Hellman, who directs the center, said it seems to express the institution’s philosophy. “The people I care for have enriched me so much, they end up caring for me. The sick person teaches us and heals us, as we try to heal him.” The two sides of the relationship are interchangeable, she added; the healer inevitably becomes one in need.

The sculptor, though, didn’t have a lot to say about the work. The night before it was shipped to Oregon, Kocka hosted a cookout by his studio at Mount St. Francis, the retreat in Floyd County, Indiana. He wanted to thank all the people who had helped him with the work. He sat by the fire, the light playing across his intense face, the dark eyes and beard. “When I finish something,” he said, “I always go through post-natal depression.”

The art of sculpture is hard to produce in isolation. At every stage of creation, friends surround Kocka, buddies from the sacred and profane worlds. Phil Fortwenger, a pipe fitter, met Kocka two years ago at a retreat. Since then, he has come back to help at the studio. “I just got into what David was doing.” In August, he spent his vacation welding the sculpture together.

“My friends,” Kocka said, “don’t treat me differently because I’m a priest and a sculptor, and I don’t see myself as different.” Kocka sees no division between the spiritual life and the everyday life of chores and hassles. “We’re surrounded by the divine presence, but we can’t perceive it. We’re like dogs. Dogs lie in the midst of human speech and don’t understand it.”

Reconciling things assumed to be opposites is part of the Franciscan tradition. The discipline of sculpture attempts something similar in its reconciliation of inspiration with technology. The casting of bronze is like a ritual, Kocka said, a ceremony thousands of years old.

Last month he was in the foundry when Jep Bright and David Lind cast the eighth and last fragment of his sculpture.

The small furnace roared like a jet about to take off. Inside the furnace was a crucible filled with ingots of bronze melting at 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit. Suddenly the noise stopped. Jep and David lifted the crucible from the furnace. The molten bronze swirled inside, glowed magically.

They carried it to a ceramic mold packed in sand. They tilted the crucible and carefully poured in the bronze. The top of the mold was like a large cup set in the sand. The bronze trembled at the brim of the cup. Then it began to darken, the bright orange slowly deepening to gold.

Kocha stared at the cooling bronze. It glowed dark red, like wine in a chalice.

—The Courier-Journal

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Charles Percy Snow

-Drawing by Ira Simmons

“When Americans boast, they never say, ‘My country does ninety percent of the pure scientific research in the world.’ One never hears that. They talk about their democracy, but I’m struck by the deference they pay to money, how one can buy his way into power and influence—and get an ambassadorship, for example. You shouldn’t send those awful rich people to London. It’s a great mistake.”

— C.P. Snow, novelist/scientist/civil servant, Lord Snow of Leicester

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  • Selected Journalism

    For seventeen years I wrote for The Louisville Times and The Courier-Journal, long considered the nation's best morning-evening combination published by the same owner. I covered medicine and the environment and wrote extensively about education, alternative energy, and the arts.

    Journalism made me into a fast writer who holds deadlines sacred. More important, it made me go places I wouldn't have willingly gone and caused me grapple with the essence of reporting, which I came to feel was the art of explaining without over-simplifying. The good reporter researches a subject to death and makes it understandable, while doing justice to its complexity.

    Maybe I absorbed too much religion as a child, but I came to see the conscientious reporter as an instrument of truth, bearing witness in a world dominated by the loud, the distracted, and the willfully ignorant. That’s the ideal; I don’t claim to have been an exemplar.

    My newspaper career, though, was bookended by two major scoops. Both involved getting into restricted places. When I was a green reporter, my editors put me on a small plane to Eastern Kentucky to cover a coal-mine explosion that had trapped a dozen miners under a mountain. I got past police lines and company security and was the only reporter to see what was happening at the site. I waited with the families and listened to the worry and anger the company didn’t want the public to hear, and I was with them when they learned no one had survived.

    One of the last stories I covered was the appearance of General Norman Schwarzkopf at the Kentucky Derby right after the first Gulf war. I went to the clubhouse early and found the section of “Millionaire’s Row” where the General and his family would be ensconced. This area was strictly off-limits to the press and heavily guarded because of fears of terrorist reprisals, but I got there before the Secret Service detail arrived to set up security.

    To my amazement, the agents assumed I was just another millionaire. They never bothered to ask for my credentials or frisk me. I spent most of the afternoon standing near the General. Had I been an evil-doer, I could've pushed him over the rail. Instead I witnessed his bombardment by fawning smiles, unctuous praise, and endless small talk. I also learned the White House was trying to get the media hero of Desert Storm to run for the Senate.

    So, you know, maybe I wasn’t much of a reporter, but I had the power to cloud men’s minds.