Of Women Warriors, Dancing Frogs and Schmoos: Researching the funnies for The Sisters Sputnik
Updated: Feb 6, 2022
One of the particular pleasures of writing The Sisters Sputnik was doing a deep-dive into the golden age of comic strips, comic books, and their animated cousin, cartoons.
I love comics. I grew up in a world where four-panel strips filled two full-page spreads of the newspaper, every single day. Weekend papers included a thick colour supplement devoted to funnies.
Not that all the strips were funny. Many were yarns of adventure, romance and magic, like Rip Kirby, Mandrake the Magician and Brenda Starr, Reporter (a strip that tricked me into believing that the life of a freelance writer was one long jet-setting adventure, complete with penthouses, designer clothes and dashing playboy billionaire boyfriends – kind of like Sex and the City).
Some strips leaned heavily on gags – think Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey or Dik Browne’s Hagar the Horrible. Others captured the gonzo zeitgeist of the sixties and seventies, including Walt Kelly’s Pogo and Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury. Eventually these satirical strips would evolve into the ludicrous office politics of Scott Adams’ Dilbert and the manic adventures of a small boy and his preternaturally philosophical stuffed tiger in Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, a strip that hearkens back to the early 20th-century rarebit-fuelled nightmares of Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland.
A few older strips, like Blondie, Barney Google, Bringing Up Father and Gasoline Alley, were long past their best-before date by the time I was reading the funnies but continued to show up every week, thanks to the miracle of syndication and dead cartoonists passing on their legacy to new hands.
The weirdly blank-eyed characters of Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie –– a strip I usually skipped over –– spouted anti-communist rhetoric in densely lettered word bubbles with story lines lifted directly from the Great Depression. On the other hand, another ‘golden age’ strip with a right-wing slant, Al Capp’s Li’l Abner , was well drawn, satirical and (often) funny – especially when the stories were set in Lower Slobbovia (a thinly disguised Soviet Union), or featured the ridiculously self-sacrificing Schmoos, Silly Putty-like creatures who threatened capitalism by giving humans anything they wanted. (The Schmoos would even fling themselves into frying pans to offer themselves up for dinner.)
But mostly, the funnies focused their comic lenses on families: Family Circus by Canadian cartoonist Bil Keane used an elaborate tracking technique to show the trajectory of kids running wild in suburban neighbourhoods. And while baby Trixie of Hi and Lois never got out of diapers after 67 years in syndication, the kids in Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse grew up with their readership, falling in love, coming out of the closet, and mourning the death of pets.
And then there was Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts, in a class all its own. The strip was entirely peopled by kids (Snoopy and Woodstock notwithstanding): adults, like Linus’ beloved teacher Miss Othmar, were spoken to but never shown. (In the animated Peanuts TV specials of the 1960s, teachers’ voices sounded like the honking of an enraged goose –– perfect!) Peanuts captured the self-obsessed spirit of a TV generation that was better-educated and more worldly wise than the overstretched moms who shooed them out the door each morning. The strip’s success, IMO, was due to characters who were as quirky and emotionally complex as any real child, from Linus’ security blanket obsession to Charlie Brown’s inferiority complex to Lucy’s narcissism. I knew plenty of Pig Pens and Schroeders, too.
While comic strips stayed family-friendly, comic books and satirical magazines like MAD and National Lampoon offered off-the-wall parodies, obscene language, violence, and what used to be called ‘adult situations’. We laughed at MAD’s send-ups of hit movies, caricatured by genius Mort Drucker (“The Poop-Side-Down Adventure” was a particular favourite of mine, having seen “The Poseidon Adventure” three times). We followed the ongoing adventures of Superman, Batman, Spider Man, Iron Man and the rest of the overmuscled D.C. and Marvel superhero universe. Counterculture comix like Marvel’s Howard the Duck and Robert Crumb’s Mr. Natural gleefully introduced us to the obscene and graphic possibilities of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. For good, clean fun, we turned to Archie where the most controversial storyline was whether the titular character would ask Betty or Veronica to the dance.
Bonus: the inside back covers of comics hawked X-Ray Specs, Sea Monkeys, bodybuilding courses, and mail order art instruction from the Famous Artists School featuring a drawing of Norman Rockwell under the immortal headline: “We’re Looking For People Who Like to Draw.”
When I wrote Sputnik’s Children –– the first novel in the Sputnik Chick universe –– I knew that comic books and strips would form a big part of the backdrop to a story set in the late sixties, seventies and eighties. For children of the Cold War, comics were a way to mythologize what increasingly felt like a science fiction world of space exploration, Strontium 90 in baby teeth, brainwashed double-agents and the ever-present possibility of nuclear Armageddon.
In making my protagonist, Debbie Reynolds Biondi, the creator of an underground comic book called “Sputnik Chick: Girl With No Past” (and also a mail-order graduate of the Famous Artists School), I wasn’t just inventing a female, alternate-universe-travelling version of Stan Lee, but a Cold War superhero in her own right. Debbie had survived a nuclear war in an alternate world, saved her people by sacrificing her Past, and channeled her trauma into a comic book. “Sputnik Chick: Girl With No Past” was inspired by a number of comic book heroes and antiheroes: Wonder Woman; the sexy, ass-kicking ‘female James Bond’, Modesty Blaise; the post-nuclear mutant kangaroo-loving badass Tank Girl; and the long-suffering intergalactic saviour of Planet Earth, Silver Surfer.
Now Debbie/Sputnik Chick returns in The Sisters Sputnik -- a few years older and a little more world weary (but no wiser). She now has a millennial sidekick named Unicorn Girl who brings her own mad skills in virtual reality game design to the partnership, along with a pop cult-spouting AI named Cassandra™.
Debbie is desperate for new stories, this time for a Sputnik Chick streaming series with spinoff possibilities on Blockchain. She and Unicorn Girl turn to the comic strip and comic book archives of the Toronto Reference Library:
While Unicorn Girl returns to the archives, searching for the funny pages of defunct American newspapers, underground comix distributed from stolen supermarket buggies and rare first issues of long-forgotten superheroes, I page through the ultimate abandonment story of Astro Boy, a robot child relegated to fighting other robots in a circus sideshow. I’ve already read the complete adventures of Tank Girl and her mutant kangaroo lover, and the many, many Wonder Woman reboots: Amazon princess, Greek goddess, boutique shop girl and back to Amazon princess. Even the earliest version of Superman — before he could fly and kryptonite turned out to be his ... well, his kryptonite — nothing could kill Superman until the age of the atomic bomb, when the creators decided that if humanity could be wiped out of existence by radioactive rock, so could Superman.
What can I steal from this treasure trove of mutants in tunics and tights with elaborate hairdos, goatees and cowlicks, with ink-black hair and lipstick that doesn’t come off even while battling intergalactic monsters?
Like Debbie, I often turn to archival material for ideas. Below are just a few of the books in my personal library that inspired me and made me fall in love with the funnies all over again.
1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die: The Ultimate Guide to Comic Books, Graphic Novels, and Manga edited by Paul Gravett (2011). This book is my answer to the question, “What one book would you want to have with you on a desert island?” A massive, immersive overview of comic strips, graphic novels and comic books from a variety of countries and cultures, it’s like a thousand books in one, starting in 1837 with Rodolphe Topfler’s The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, a Swiss comic book which, in the days before copyright, was widely pirated, and ending with cutting-edge graphic novels of the 2010s, including Chester Brown’s edgy Paying For It: A Comic Book Memoir About Being A John.
America’s Great Comic-Strip Artists: From The Yellow Kid to Peanuts by Richard Marschall (1997). This is one of those wonderful “curl up and read it on a rainy Saturday afternoon” books – lots of gorgeous reproductions of decades of comic strips including Rudolph Dirks’ Katzenjammer Kids –– a turn-of-the-last century strip that helped me develop a fictional 1950s strip for The Sisters Sputnik.
Wild Minds: The Artists and Rivalries That Inspired the Golden Age of Animation by Reid Mitenbuler (2020). Who wouldn’t want to learn that Warner Bros. star animator Chuck Jones’ visual style was driven in part by a childhood spent peeking through the fence of a back lot where silent films were being made? (Watch the wordless – and brilliant – cartoon short One Froggy Evening and you’ll see the impact of the visual comedy pioneered by silent film greats like Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel.) Another revelation: Fort Lee, New Jersey was once the home of Pathé studio, centre of animation in the US, long before the film world decamped for sunny California. I’d already used Fort Lee as the location of the fictional Psychics of Fortune magazine in Sputnik’s Children. In The Sisters Sputnik, Fort Lee becomes the largest single settlement town for time-travelling, shape-shifting mutants known as Exceptionals. (I love you, New Jersey!)
The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore (2015). The ever-changing persona of Wonder Woman was one of the inspirations for Sputnik Chick, but little did I know that her creator was also the inventor of the first lie detector machine – a factoid that becomes important in a particular scene of Sputnik’s Children when a 12-year-old Debbie is given a lie detector test by a bunch of baddies employed by my favourite example of the military-industrial complex of the Cold War at its most insidious, the ShipCo Corporation of the Military-Industrial Region of Canusa (the Niagara Peninsula to you).
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2000). The quintessential novel about the creators of classic American superhero comics, and how the stories and characters they invented reflected the trauma of the Holocaust and World War II.
Those are just a few of my favourites in my personal pantheon of books about comic strips/books/animation – and just a glimpse of some of the inspiration behind the characters in The Sisters Sputnik.
Hey kids, be the first on your block to read a copy! Preorder The Sisters Sputnik today.