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Book Review: The Epic Chronicles of Hagar the Horrible: The Dailies 1973-1974 by Dik Browne

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Hagar the Horrible is probably the most inappropriately named comic strip character around. The rotund but far from ruthless Viking has been marauding his way through newspapers for 37 years this month. In that time, though, he has never been shown to impale a single enemy or pillage one village (although the latter has been implied sometimes). His challenges have been domestic as often as they have been military because he has had to contend with a family as troublesome as any rival clan, dragon or troll.

Although Hagar inhabits a bygone age, he was "born" in the early 1970s when creator Dik Browne produced the first "Hagar the Horrible" comic strip. Hagar's first adventure appeared in print in February 1973. With this anniversary in mind, this seemed an appropriate time to review an anthology of the first two years of Haga' strips titled The Epic Chronicles of Hagar the Horrible: The Dailies 1973-1974. The book was issued late last year by British-based publisher Titan Books.

The Epic Chronicles starts with a preface written in 2009 by Dik Browne's children, Chris and Chance Browne. In their introduction, the pair describe how their father invented Hagar while recovering from a broken leg.

"The day the cast came off, he hobbled down the stairs to his basement studio in suburban Connecticut," they explain. "When he came back up hours later, he had the first month of Hagar gags all written and drawn."

More details on the events surrounding the mighty Hagar's birth are provided in the second chapter of The Epic Chronicles, by comic strip historian Brian Walker. Walker describes how the 56-year-old Browne dreamed up Hagar in his studio in the laundry room of his Connecticut home. The character's name was inspired by something one of Dik Browne's children would say when Dik berated them for waking him up from his afternoon nap.

"He would storm down the stairs yelling in mock anger, 'Stop that noise!'" Walker says. "His youngest son always fled in terror crying, 'Run, run, here comes Hagar the Horrible!'"

At the time he invented Hagar, Dik Browne had also been producing another comic strip called "Hi and Lois" for King Features Syndicate. The same company was to reap the benefit of Hagar. For Browne, the success Hagar enjoyed through their distribution was important for bringing more than just greater recognition. According to Walker, Dik Browne was also suffering from eye trouble and anticipating other medical problems on that day in 1973 when he put pencil to paper. With a family to raise, he would be grateful for any extra booty Hagar brought home.

Judging by his sons' description, Dik Browne was, himself, not dissimilar to his Norse creation. He drew Hagar as a large (some may say overweight) character with a bushy beard and what appeared to be a commanding but not dominating personality. Dik Browne was also a large man with a bushy beard and was seemingly not someone it would be easy to miss or ignore. Yet, accounts of his personality don't paint him as an overbearing man.

"In reality, Dik and [his wife] Joan Browne were a witty and loving couple more like Nik and Nora Charles than a couple of bronze age barbarians," say Chris and Chance Browne in their preface.

The appeal of "Hagar the Horrible" as a comic strip may be explained by a combination of factors. Dik Browne went for a bold but minimalist look that combined thick lines with little detail. His drawings also made extensive use of curves; rarely were there jagged lines and corners to be seen. These features together made "Hagar the Horrible" easy on the eye. Somehow Browne also made his characters expressive without needing to alter their appearance much. Hence they were easy to empathize with. The strips were short and snappy, too, with uncomplicated passages of dialogue. This made them a quick read. Despite that approach, though, Dik Browne always managed to be witty and inventive. Above all, perhaps, "Hagar the Horrible" has always had broad appeal. The title is a misnomer because Hagar can be enjoyed by adults and children alike.

Given the above qualities, it is no surprise that the strip took off like a motorized longboat. When it debuted 37 years ago, "Hagar the Horrible" was syndicated to 200 newspapers. By 1975 that had climbed to 600. By 1976 it was 800. In 1978 it exceeded 1,000 subscribers. Chris Browne took over the legacy of writing "Hagar" in 1989 after his father died from cancer. It is a testament to the work of Chris and his father that that the strip is still fondly regarded (despite the Omaha World-Herald's recent decision to drop it). In its lifetime "Hagar the Horrible" has been syndicated in 58 countries.

Titan Book's compilation has about 200 pages of Hagar strips and each page carries two strips in their original format. All of the strips are in black-and-white. The preface by Browne's children takes up a single page, while Walker's chapter on the early days of Hagar occupies five pages. Walker is the Chairman of the Connecticut Chapter of the National Cartoonists Society and is evidently steeped in comic strip history. His piece is informative and accessible but is not new. It was taken from The Best of Hagar the Horrible, which was published several years ago.

The only other content in the book besides the introductory chapters and the strips is Hagar's family tree. The great warrior’s companions include his not-so-bright sidekick Lucky Eddie (think Blackadder’s Baldrick), his long-suffering wife Helga, his bookworm son Hamlet, a daughter, Honi (who aspires to follow in his footsteps), his dog Snert and a bird named Kvack. These figures made frequent appearances in the Hagar strips. When the titular character was not making a fool of himself, they could be relied on to fill in (with the exception of Helga, who had to stoically endure her family’s escapades).

The Epic Chronicles of Hagar the Horrible is a hardback title that Titan has wrapped in a cheery, bright dust cover showing the expansive form of the central character in full color. The book is a delightful and affectionate tribute to the comic strip and its creator and should give pleasure to Hagar fans and anyone who relishes a chuckle.

Happy Birthday, Hagar!

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