Maggie’s World 040: Great Power
Obviously, that exclamation was in wide circulation long before Charles Schulz used it as an expression of dismay and exasperation in Peanuts. Although it seems forever bound to Charlie Brown, it was Patty who first uttered the phrase in the strip—on July 15, 1952. (Thanks, Fantagraphics indexer!) Nevertheless, “Good grief!” is just one instance of what seems to be an endless cycle of catch phrases that travel from the rest of the world to comics—and from comics to the rest of the world.
Comics have embedded memorable terms in pop-culture conversations for years—sometimes entering conversation for decades, sometimes being eventually discarded. And some just remain as recurring references for families and friends who recall a favorite.
On a Personal Level: Walt Kelly
Memorable quotes from comics may simply be those that touch a personal nerve. Mom and Dad named their fanzine The Cricket (June 1949, circulation 36) from a Pogo story by Walt Kelly (1913-1973) in Animal Comics #27 (June-July 1947), in which an English sparrow reproved Albert and Pogo: “Yo’ should improve yo’ manners—play cricket—drink tea—lif’ de pinky when yo’ holds de cup.” Don and I titled our CAPA-alpha contribution Rainy Days from Kelly’s Four Color #148 (May 1947), “Rainy days is fust rate fo’ visitin’ yo’ friends!”
It was, after all, Kelly who led Mom, Dad, and the rest of my family to collect comic books in the first place, and we followed his tales over the decades, first in comic books and then in newspapers. To this day, when I look in the mirror, I often refer mentally to a sequence in The Pogo Peek-A-Book (1955), in which Albert (as Mother Goose) asked Pogo (as a wandering musician), “Is you wonderin’ why me, Mother Goose, is wored out an’ frazzy lookin’?” Pogo said, “ ‘Wored out,’ yes—‘Frazzy lookin’,’ no.” “Dear boy,” Albert responded, “you thinks I isn’t frazzy lookin’?” And Pogo said, “No, I jes’ don’t wonder why you is.” That’s the sort of quote that can come to mind unbidden. Just saying.
But, while his gags enriched my personal life, Kelly also came up with a saying that resonated with many voters across the country in 1952: “I go Pogo!” It was in response to that year’s presidential choices (Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson)—and, no doubt, to the “I like Ike” of that year’s election slogans. Although Pogo had not agreed to run, P.T. Bridgeport ordered a bag of “I go Pogo!” buttons, which were delivered to him in the strip for May 14. Kelly used those buttons as a promotional tool for months, making them available to those who asked. While the first collection of the daily strip (1951) was titled Pogo, the second was I Go Pogo—and that might have been his most famous catch phrase.
Except for another one.
Though the internet tends to ascribe the origin of one of the most famous comics quotes to his strip for Earth Day 1971, Kelly had initiated the sentiment nearly two decades earlier, referring (as he so often did) to politics. He went on to simplify it and used it in the daily strip referring to pollution even before that Earth Day strip. On July 11, 1970, Pogo looked at the Fort Mudge Memorial Dump and said, “Look at all that clutter of junk—dumped there by guess who …” Porky responded, “By every dogblag one of us … The root of all pollution is the public dump.” To which Pogo said, “Or even the private dump … Yep, we have met the enemy and he is us…”
From private favorites to national parlance, then, comic strips have provided notable words and phrases.
Thomas (“Tad”) Dorgan (1877-1929) provided many of the best known. Wikipedia is cautious in its credits, saying that he is “generally credited with either creating or popularizing” terms. And he did not apparently invent the term “hot dog” for, um, hot dogs. But he still gets a tip of the hat for the likes of “dumbbell,” “cat’s pajamas,” “cheaters,” “hard-boiled,” and “yes—we have no bananas.”
Other credits come to mind, one after another. H.T. Webster (1885-1952) maintained ongoing panel series with titles that resonated, including “The Thrill That Comes Once in a Lifetime,” “Life’s Darkest Moment,” and “The Timid Soul.”
Elzie Segar (1894-1938) came up with a meme in Thimble Theatre that began in 1932 with Wimpy saying, “Cook me up a hamburger. I’ll pay you Thursday.” (Yes, Thursday. That, too, evolved, eventually ending up as Tuesday. But I digress.)
And so on. Many sayings that were once part of the language have faded from use. Though Stephen Becker opined in Comic Art in America (1959) that “Notary Sojac” and “1506 nix nix” from Smokey Stover by Bill Holman (1903-1987) were “headed for immortality,” few today will have even heard the terms.
On the other hand, sometimes the immortality is conferred by catch phrases’ spreading to other media.
Shazam! That word first hit newsstands in Whiz Comics #2 (February 1940)—and was quickly followed by another expression. Initially, Billy Batson used a variety of exclamations (including “Holy smoke!” [twice] in Whiz Comics #10, November 1940). But it was in “Capt. Marvel and Sivana the Weather Wizard” in Special Edition Comics #1 (1940) that scripter Bill Parker had Billy Batson first exclaim, when Billy was caught in a cyclone on Venus: “Holy moley, what a breeze!”
Though Wikipedia (Thanks, Straight Dope—which came up with the 1892 book Running It Off!) provides scattered earlier references, it was Billy’s use that popularized the exclamation “Holy moley!” And it was TV that kept the expression “Shazam!” in public parlance, thanks to Gomer Pyle’s use, first on The Andy Griffith Show in 1962 (less than a decade after the end of the Fawcett series) and later on Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.
(Interestingly, “Shazam”—coined for comics—has been adopted for other applications on the internet, but you knew that, right? Moving on, then …)
The cover of the comics-racked Mad #21 (March 1955) featured a tiny picture on the cover that was E.C.’s first use of an image it eventually adopted as its symbol. Two issues later, when the publication changed format to that of a black-and-white magazine, the yet-to-be-named Alfred E. Neuman appeared at the top of Harvey Kurtzman’s ornate cover frame, captioned “What? Me Worry?”
When comic books entered the Silver Age, a generation of Marvel readers adopted a new vocabulary.
For example, the caption in Spider-Man’s debut in Amazing Fantasy #15 (September 1962) wasn’t quite “With great power comes great responsibility!” But it wasn’t long before that expression defined the Web-Slinger—and the obligations of the super-powerful.
“It’s clobbering time!”
“Face front, true believers!”
You know you can come up with many more—from years and years of amazing tales.
While comic strips and comic books have enriched public parlance for decades, the tradition continues in other forms of comics. David Malki’s internet series Wondermark #1062: “The Terrible Sea Lion” resulted in the 2014 term “sea lioning” for a specific obnoxious social behavior.
So it continues, with other pop-culture media adopting comics terms. After all, who before 2014 would have said, “I am Groot,” although the character said that (and more) in Marvel’s Tales to Astonish #13 (November 1960)?
It’s all about trending hashtags, right?
Who knows what might be next?
You know, it just might be “Shazam!” again.
Maggie’s World by Maggie Thompson appears the first Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!