On Strips: The Headstone Trope

By | Friday, January 06, 2017 1 comment
Yesterday's Close to Home by John McPherson...
My first reaction was confusion. There have been 10 actors to professionally voice Porky Pig. Joe Dougherty died in '78, Mel Blanc in '89, Greg Burson in '08, and Joe Alaskey early last year. The rest are all still alive. And creator Friz Freleng passed away back in '95. The character himself continues to appear in Wabbit and seems to be scheduled for shows that haven't even aired yet. So, to borrow another catchphrase, what's up, Doc?

I'm not the only one who expressed confusion either. If you read the comments left on the GoComics site, most of them express similar sentiments. The few that don't seem to be unaware that Blanc died over a quarter century ago.

As near as I can tell, the joke McPherson is going for is just that if the character of Porky were to die, it would be amusing/clever if his famous catchphrase that ended so many Warner Brothers cartoons over the years would be carved on his gravestone. It's made somewhat less funny by the fact that Blanc, who voiced the character longer than anyone, literally has THAT'S ALL FOLKS on his actual headstone.

As I thought about it, though, there's something fascinating about the sense of confusion readers have over the joke. See, the gag here is entirely in the gravestone itself. It works in much the same way the stones at Disney Haunted Mansion ride do -- the phrasing itself is mostly only interesting in that it appears in this morbid context. "I. Trudy Departed" isn't particularly amusing by itself, but if it's the name on a tomb, next to "I.L. Beback" and "I.M. Ready" then it takes on a new, humorous context.

But the fact that readers are so used to seeing the symbolism of a famous character standing in for a real, recently deceased person that it's automatically assumed that any cartoon featuring a moment like this is another one of those metaphors. Sonya Hobbs' gravestone in Momma represented creator Mell Lazarus, Willy Wonka meeting St. Peter stood in for Gene Wilder, Mork from Ork flying his egg to Heaven was for Robin Williams... Think about how many comics you've seen featuring Princess Leia in the past couple weeks. And how many of those also featured Kathy Selden, Debbie Reynolds' character from Singin' in the Rain?

Having the characters stand in for the people who made them famous is understandable. Readers have spent infinitely more time with Charlie Brown and Snoopy than they did with Charles Schulz himself. And while it's these creators who bring their audiences joy, it was most often through those characters. While I know many people who knew and mourn the loss of their good friend Richard Thompson, those who never met him were entertained by Pete and Alice Otterloop. Those characters were avatars for Thompson in the eyes of many of his readers already, so representing Thompson through them makes complete sense.

But that dead-character-as-departed-creator/actor metaphor has been used so much by so many cartoonists over the years that readers can't NOT see the symbolism even when it isn't there! So a grave for Porky Pig must be representative for someone closely tied to the character, probably Mel Blanc. Not only do we so identify Porky with the actor who supplied his voice for decades, but we even more strongly identify the headstone motif with a specific message conveying the passing of the person most closely associated with whoever has been buried in the comic. We so strongly believe in that metaphor that we question the character/real person association more immediately than whether it's even intended to be a metaphor in the first place! "But Mel Blanc died years ago. Did something happen to Billy West?"

That headstone makes for some powerful, powerful imagery there, once you start to think about it.
Newer Post Older Post Home


Matt K said...

These are some fine observations, here, sir.

I didn't get the cartoon, either, upon seeing it here. Maybe the years contribute to that. Perhaps the intended general, cute joke might work better if the tombstone didn't have very specific years.