Originally created 04/28/97

Comic strokes

Flash back 100 years ago. Golf is a new game in the United States, and newspapers have just introduced a new feature, the comic strip.

One of the first comic strips, from 1897, shows a character called the Yellow Kid trying to learn this new game. In five of the strip's six panels, the Kid accidentally hits someone with a golf club.

Zip forward to the present, where much has changed, about both comics and golf. A 1995 Dilbert strip shows its title character sitting under a tree, reading a book. A boy asks what the book is about, and Dilbert says he's reading tips for his computer golf game.

"So ... you're reading a book ... about a computer simulation ... of an activity that's almost a sport," the boy says. "That's about as close as you can get to being a nonorganic life form."

Those two strips, in a nutshell show the differences between comics then and now. The early comics were built more on drawing and had a great deal more slapstick and physical comedy. The modern comic, best exemplified by Dilbert, has simple drawing and gets more of its humor from wit and ideas.

Golf in the Comic Strips, a new book compiled by Howard Ziehm, documents the history of golf in the funny pages. It's interesting as much for the way it shows the development of the comic strip as it is for what it has to say about the duffer's life.

Newspaper comics may seem trivial or disposable, but they are one of the most significant original elements of our country's culture, said Philip Morsberger, William S. Morris Eminent Professor of Art at Augusta State University.

"I would argue that, along with jazz, it's the great American contribution to the arts," said Mr. Morsberger, a student of the comics.

Golf in the Comic Strips includes samples from many of the top strips in the first half of the century and shows how in a relatively brief period of time, a group of artists developed an art form with its own language and vocabulary for showing motion and impact.

Much of the visual artistry has disappeared from today's strips, including Dilbert, Fox Trot and Cathy, and Mr. Morsberger points to Charles Schulz' Peanuts as the culprit. His massively popular strip had much simpler artwork than those that preceded it and influenced many that followed.

"There's a lot of drawing in those early strips," Mr. Morsberger said, but after Peanuts the artists drew as little as needed to indicate character and setting.

Besides its artistic interest, the book details golf's history as a sport and a social phenomenon. Common themes are the wives left behind by their golfing husbands, players who exaggerate and people who take the game too seriously.

Some notable moments include:

  • The first doctor swinging a club. It's 1912, and the doctor is the title character of Old Doc Yak. The doctor goes to the course to collect from a patient and finds himself with club in hand.
  • Bobby Jones visiting Joe Palooka. The golfing great and a planner and designer of the Augusta National Golf Club visited the boxer title character for a few panels in 1932 and taught him how to swing a club.
  • Golfing across the country. For three months, Gasoline Alley showed a character hitting a golf ball across the country. Such stunts were not uncommon in the 1920s, and someone actually tried the golf trick in the 1920s, making it only to Texas.
  • Snoopy gets hounded like Jack Nicklaus. A 1992 Peanuts strip shows Snoopy hitting a shot and a scream of "You the dog!" coming from the bushes. This parodies a fan who followed Mr. Nicklaus around and shouted "You the man!" after good shots.
  • And much, much more. The book has 176 pages and includes more than 200 works by more than 100 artists. A surprising number of the strips are in color.

    The "tedious hours" Mr. Ziehm says he has spent studying microfilm have resulted in what feels like a comprehensive work. When you see a 1961 Dick Tracy strip that shows a man at home, tortured by guilt, mangling his clubs after accidentally killing an old woman with a stray golf ball, you sense that Mr. Ziehm got it all.

    Few of the strips shown in this book are actually funny. Misunderstandings that result from people saying they "shot a birdie" aren't that humorous to begin with, and become less so as they are repeated through the years.

    Most of the older strips won't draw a laugh from a modern reader. In the last 50 pages the modern strips begin to show up, and then you have as good a shot at laughing as you ever do when you turn to the crap shoot that is the comics page.

    Mr. Ziehm ends the book nicely, with an amusing strip of B.C. A cave man is teaching a cave woman to play golf.

    "Let me get this straight," she asks. "The less I hit the ball, the better I am doing."

    "That's right," he says.

    "Then why do it at all?" she asks.

    The last panel shows nighttime with the cave man standing in the same spot, club in hand, wondering "Why ... do it ... at ... all ..."


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