Speech balloons—which we tend to identify with comic strips, comic books, and their like—first appeared in Mayan inscriptions dating back to 600 A.D.
They began to feature widely in political cartoons in the United States during the 18th century. Benjamin Franklin made use of them.
The term itself ‘cartoon’ was originally used in fine arts to refer to studies made by artists in preparation for a painting, or for templates drawn and used to link the various parts of a fresco. The modern use of cartoon, to refer to a simplified, exaggerated, humorous drawing, originates with the satirical British magazine Punch in 1843. Punch applied the term ironically to one of its satirical drawings, as a way of poking fun at the pretentiousness of the characters it was satirizing.
After Punch, the irony entirely faded, and cartoon assumed its popular meaning. When you use the term today, only fine art specialists are likely to imagine Michelangelo rather than Charles Schultz or Garry Trudeau.
Cartoons, whether so-called, have been around for a long time. The human mind drifts naturally to abstraction. Language, for instance, is impossible without it, and music is almost entirely abstract. Comic art, as a kind of blend of abstract art and theatre, might be a natural development of our species.
But unlike music, for instance, comic art is fully human, requiring a human mind to decipher, and a cartoon is likely as abstruse and inexplicable to other species as the printed word. Would ape or dog or dolphin recognize either themselves or us in the quasi-logical abstraction of the comic page?
Still, cartoons as we experience them today are not precisely as they have always been. They grew into their current expression over time. Daily comic strips didn’t appear until early in the twentieth century. Until 1907, with Mutt and Jeff—the first syndicated comic strip—daily cartoons didn’t have much other than regional impact. Before then, humorous cartoon drawings tended to be single-panelled, less sophisticated and less economical than the form later became.
Among the earliest cartoon panels was Hogan’s Alley by Richard F. Outcault, featuring a number of low class kids, and most notably the Yellow Kid. The Yellow Kid was bald—suggesting that his head had been shaved to combat lice, a common fate for inner city children in New York at the close of nineteenth century America, which is when and where the Yellow Kid flourished.
The Kid made his newspaper debut in 1895 dressed in a long nightshirt. The nightshirt soon assumed its iconic yellow in the coloured Sunday funnies, which the Kid began to be featured in later in 1895. Unlike other characters in Hogan’s Alley, the Yellow Kid’s dialogue was always printed out on his shirt.
At one time there were versions of the Yellow Kid appearing simultaneously in two Big Apple newspapers, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal American. Because of this association, these newspapers became known as the Yellow Kid newspapers.
The papers were also known for practicing a particular kind journalism, a sensational style which initially was referenced as “yellow kid journalism”, and later, simply as yellow journalism. Yellow journalism still exists, the term long divorced from any reminders of inner city alleys, or kids with dialogue on their yellow nightshirts.
Yellow journalism never had anything to do with the Yellow Kid, anyway. It’s just that inner city kids aren’t always careful about who they allow into their social circles.
To return to 1907, and to Mutt and Jeff, the seminal newspaper comic strip. They were the creation of cartoonist Bud Fisher. Mutt was tall and gangly. Jeff was short and he dressed characteristically in top hat and tails, with trousers either checked or striped. Both characters possessed moustaches, which in the case of Jeff connected to his sideburns in a turn-of-the-century manner.
Mutt at first appeared without his iconic partner. The strip was called “A. Mutt,” and Mutt was a racetrack sport. He was joined by Jeff some five months later, and as “Mutt and Jeff” the strip remained in syndication until 1982, a respectable 75 year run.
I remember reading the strip as a kid, although no daily newspaper I had access to featured it more recently than the mid-1960s.
Mutt and Jeff established the daily comic strip. Barney Google followed somewhat later, in 1919, by which time the genre was already a newspaper institution.
Barney Google took his name from “The Goo-Goo Song” (1900), and from a children’s book called “The Google Book” (1913). But the character as drawn by Billy DeBeck bore a strong resemblance to Jeff of the Mutt and Jeff strip. Barney, too, was short, moustached, dressed in top hat and tails, and wore light-coloured checked trousers. Even the racetrack connection is there. Just like Mutt, Barney is the sporting type, fond of racetracks, and of boxing too.
Distinguishing Barney from Jeff, however, is his large eyes. These eyes—which look almost ordinary in a cartoon today, but which were rather more unusual in their time—were considered remarkable enough to form the subject matter of a popular song. Released in 1923 and sung by Billy Jones and Ernest Hare, the song had the refrain “Barney Google, with the goo-goo-googly eyes.” Part of the melody was much later featured in Rice-a-Roni commercials as the jingle, “Rice-a-Roni, the San Francisco treat.” If you know the jingle, simply exchange “Barney Google,” etc., for “Rice-a-Roni,” and sing it out, partner.
The Barney Google song appeared on an Edison cylinder, Thomas Edison’s cylindrical answer to the 78 rpm disc. Barney Google himself moved from newsprint to live action shorts (1920s) to animated cartoons (1930s) to feature films (1940s), and continued to feature in film until the 1960s, by which time he was sharing top-of-the-bill credits with another character, a hillbilly moonshiner from the Carolina mountains called Snuffy Smith.
Snuffy Smith wasn’t in the original strip, in fact was not introduced until 1934, but he became so popular that eventually he effectively edged out Barney. Snuffy Smith made use of hillbilly humour, a peculiarly American brand of humour (with cousins in other cultures) which flourishes today in a watered down style (and Snuffy Smith is still around.) Hillbilly humour—like its cousin blackface or minstrel humour—characteristically depended heavily on unflattering stereotypes.
Just as minstrel humour deals in stereotypes about African-Americans, the stereotypes in hillbilly humour concern rural backwoods Whites. You know. Real People.
Considering that sober fact, the hillbilly stereotypes presented in Barney Google (yes, even after accounting for comic exaggeration) begin to look crude. Stuffy Smith is a shiftless, chicken-stealing moonshiner, with characteristic hat and patched clothes, much of the time in trouble with the law, federal and local. This is crude by today’s standards, but it was mainstream to ridicule the rural poor in those days. And a lot of other folk as well.
Humour is like that, of course, poking and jabbing at people, existing much of the time on the borderline of aggression. When we see apes bare their teeth like humans do when they smile, this is a sign of appeasement, showing that the teeth are not open for biting. Similarly, when humans engage in humour, they bare their teeth to distinguish what might be barbed humour from a real aggression.
Honest, I didn’t really mean it.
And when we laugh out loud, the teeth parted, the humour no longer tempered by the primal locked-teeth gesture of appeasement, then another tactic applies. We don’t maintain eye contact when we belly laugh, because with parted teeth and aggressive humour, eye contact becomes an aggressive act.
You’ve heard the term, “laughing in your face.”
(I’m not laughing with you, Simple Sam. I’m laughing at you.)
Hillbilly humour in the Barney Google strip was of the laughing-at-you type.
Of course it wasn’t as if some of these rural folk didn’t take it all in good fun. Aficionados of old time rural American music might remember Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, a hillbilly string band if there ever was one, with a name denoting a good-humoured spirit of self-mockery. Then there’s Uncle Dave Macon & His Fruit Jar Drinkers (not to be confused with the Fruit Jar Guzzlers, another group.) Dave Macon was an early feature on the Grand Ole Opry when it was still just a radio show. The performers on that early show were marketed as hillbillies. An entertainer like Grandpa Jones (who was featured on the Opry starting in 1946) developed a hillbilly persona and used it his entire career. Some people might remember him as the cartoonish yokel from the television show Hee-Haw.
But while hardly central to the issues involved, laughing-at-you type of humour often accompanies real oppression.
Minstrel humour accompanied the oppression of African-Americans in social practice.
Anti-woman humour accompanied the oppression of women.
Anti-Jewish humour accompanied the oppression of Jews.
And hillbilly humour? In the 1930s, hundreds of poor rural whites were sterilized in the name of eugenics. People seriously believed that hillbillies were inferior.
Ouch. That’s not so harmless anymore.
There is a dark side to humour. Some people laugh. Others oppress. Sometimes the target of the jest becomes the target of the oppressor.
So when people laugh at you, remember their bared teeth.
But let’s stop neglecting Barney.
In the late 1930s, the American mathematician Edward Kasner was writing a book about mathematics. In order to make a simple point about infinity, he created a couple of really big numbers.
The first number was a one followed by a hundred zeroes. It was a number easily described mathematically (1 x 10100).
Written out longhand it looks like this:
But it didn’t have a name.
Kasner consulted his nephew Milton, then nine years old, who was a fan of Barney Google. Milton suggested Google as the name for the number. Kasner accepted this suggestion, but changed the spelling to googol.
Barney Google had entered a new level of abstraction.
We’ll return to the second of these two large numbers, and the point about infinity in part two.
 Speech balloons appear so obvious, but there was a lapse of more than a millennium before they were reinvented. They are related, of course, to thought balloons—and the latter are nothing if not comic page soliloquies, which, like theatrical asides, have long been such a convenient shortcut for getting into characters’ minds and moving the plot along.
And, over time, a large number of visual and conceptual resources have been developed in the language of the cartoon, resources which were hardly thought of when that first cartoonist roped his characters’ words with a line-drawn lariat.
Words have turned concrete, for instance. They explode and crumble. The ultra-camp Batman and Robin television series of the ‘60s hauled the BANG! and POW! into the comic book’s live action incarnation, accepting comic book sound effects as things in themselves, independent of the bang and pow they were allegedly intended to convey. And, for another example, a post-modern schlep on a comic page is mashed into the corner of his panel by a surfeit of his own dialogue. The way comic art communicates speech and sound is capable of being a sophisticated game and dance.
But at first there were just speech balloons, and—much of the time—speech balloons are still enough.
 Hogan’s Alley, to follow another twist and turn of association, is also the name given for the heart of Vancouver’s former African-Canadian neighbourhood. It was named after the comic strip I discuss above. The neighbourhood (which no longer exists as such) began slightly off Main Street, right where the Georgia Viaduct touches down on the Main Street side. The construction of this viaduct, and the intended construction of a freeway to downtown Vancouver (aborted eventually because of citizen’s protests) resulted in the destruction of Hogan’s Alley. In a personal note, the viaduct passes right through what would have been the room my father and I occupied in the winter of ’64-65. I lived hard by Hogan’s Alley (the actual alley must have been behind the very building I was living in) but, I confess, I didn’t even notice. Hogan’s Alley was where it was because it was both humble and near the railroad station. In Canada, just as south of the border, men of African descent were favoured as railway porters. When I lived down in that neighbourhood, my father was working for the railroad, but not as a porter.