For most of us who grew up with it, Chic Young’s “Blondie” stands as an example of the unwavering comic strip institution: repetitious riffs on American idle class home and work life centered on the hapless family man and his lithe-limbed homemaker wife. But as Blondie: The Courtship and Wedding (IDW/Library of American Comics) illuminates, the eighty-year-old strip initially was a different concoction from what we now take for granted. A screwball continuity series more in tune with Bringing Up Baby than the B-pic domestic features starring Arthur Lake and Penny Singleton, the early “Blondie” focuses on young Dagwood Bumstead and his girlfriend Blondie Boopadoop as their romance is repeatedly thwarted by Dagwood’s class-bound parents.
Young, who previously had assayed a flapper strip entitled “Dumb Dora,” writes the title heroine as a spirited and ditsy young girl: a lot of the strip’s early punch lines feature her comically misunderstanding something while the rest of the cast fall over backwards or otherwise display an exclamatory overreaction. Her other-half-to-be, Dagwood, lacks the characteristic haircut that we associate with him today — he keeps his hair slicked down — and as a scion of wealth is a privileged layabout. At times, you can understand his parents’ reluctance to let him marry “beneath his station” and go out into the working world alone. The guy makes Bertie Wooster look like a model of manly competence.
The other two major cast members in the strip’s early years turn out to be Dagwood’s parents (while Blondie’s ma makes some token appearances, she barely registers as a character). Pa Bumstead is a hot-tempered railroad magnate — in some ways a precursor to Dagwood’s rageaholic boss Mister Dithers — and a control freak, while Mom proves to be a fat matriarch with social pretensions. (Reading her word balloons, I couldn’t help imagining Margaret Dumont delivering the lines.) Young slathers on the fat jokes and the class jokes in the first year, though the former thankfully lessen as the strip progresses.
Instead, we get storylines focused on our hero and heroine’s unsuccessful attempts to woo the rest of the stuck-up Bumstead clan (most memorably, Grandma Bumstead, an even more imposing dowager), then turning to our hero’s fumbling attempts to prove himself by holding down a job and going to college. There’s a curious sequence where Miss Boopadoop gets a job without ever finding out what her bosses do to make money and several storylines where one of the twosome temporarily breaks up with the other. Blondie, none too surprisingly, gets pursued by several eager young lads, though she always inexplicably returns to Dagwood.
Though the early strips are snappily told, “Blondie” struggled to find its audience in its early years, a fact that Brian Walker in the book’s intro largely attributes to Depression readers’ lack of interest in its upper class milieu. A big issue in these early strips lies in the character of Dagwood: as a rich kid, he’s a major wuss. It’s rather telling that when the boy finally does successfully stand up against his parents, it’s through that most passive act of civil disobedience, a hunger strike. While Gandhi might have approved, you’ve gotta wonder how well this played with its Depression battered American readership.
In the end, the couple’s upcoming transformation into beleaguered bourgeois couple-dom may have better suited them both. It certainly made Dagwood a more sympathetic comic figure. Still, reading Young’s early take on a comedy of manners can be fascinating for those of us who only know his strip’s more familiar incarnation — kind of like learning about all the dumb and wild-ass things your parents once did back in the day. As usual with IDW’s “Library of American Comics,” the hefty collection of three years’ worth of dailies is beautifully packaged with clean reproduction (though one strip appears to be printed out of order). If at times, the art seems stiffer than it’d be in the days of Dagwood/mailman collisions, the slightly stodgier drawing style is suited to its nouveau-riche world. In the end, the Bumsteads’ release into middle-class home life seems to have ultimately been liberating for the cartoonist as well.