The Air at the Top of the Bottle

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Moses Battles the Pterodactyls (6)

March 20th, 2009 · 4 Comments

[The serialization of my talk on Darwin’s odd cultural impact marches forward.  We take a break from the Scopes Trial to ponder the history of caveman cartoons — and the curiously tenacious popularity of the brontosaurus.]

Well, the legal news is always engrossing, but let’s turn for a moment to the funny pages.  It’s as good a place as any to savor some popular images of early man — which, curiously, often owed little to either Darwin or the Bible.

Coincidentally, the cartoon that many historians consider the first newspaper comic strip was a gag about evolution, by Richard Outcault, creator of “The Yellow Kid” and “Buster Brown.”  It appeared in 1894, under the grand title “Origin of a New Species, or The Evolution of the Crocodile Explained.”  A clown and his dog picnic in the woods, apparently oblivious to a huge snake a few feet away.  The snake eats the dog; and the clown then cleverly cuts holes in it for the dog’s legs, confecting a crocodile.

But the peculiar genre of the caveman cartoon had already begun a few years earlier in “Punch.”  Edward Tennyson Reed’s series, “Prehistoric Peeps,” already bore the earmarks: cavemen with clubs who co-existed with fanciful dinos, parodying modern life.

In the States, another pioneer cartoonist, Frederick Opper, launched “Our Antediluvian Ancestors” shortly afterward.  Note the Biblical title: cavemen were situated in a “stone age” sometime between Eden and the ark.  In this specimen, the poor brontosaurus is no match for that stock villain, the mother-in-law.

“Alley Oop” soon followed, with elegant draftsmanship, a Popeyesque caveman, and blissfully unreal dinosaurs.  Its creator, V. T. Hamlin, was a a great fan of both Christianity and Science; which meant that he seldom made a public statement without invoking God, and that he often drew sidebars about real dinos.

Among his imitators were Frank Engli’s “Looking Back,” with the Milestone family, and Mal Eaton’s “Peter Piltdown.”  Once Piltdown Man was exposed as a dastardly hoax, Peter had to be rechristened “Rocky Stoneaxe.”

Walt Kelly’s “Pogo,” which became so popular in the 1950s, was about swamp animals, not cavemen.  But he did team up with writer John Reilly for a playful children’s book about evolution, The Glob, which traced the development of glob to caveman.  A full-page illustration of the eponymous Glob meeting a brontosaurus was slated for the cover of “Life,” but had to be moved inside because Queen Elizabeth was coronated that week.  Poor Kelly was quite disappointed.  He must have enjoyed drawing dinosaurs, for he later sent the cast of “Pogo” to the land of Pandemonia, which was either part of Australia or Mars, and was crawling with both cavemen and dinos.

But the most enduring caveman cartoon has to be “The Flintstones.”  The formula was simplicity itself: “The Honeymooners” with dinosaurs.  And, of course, Fred’s favorite dish was a nice juicy Bronto Burger.

And we conclude by nodding to Johnny Hart’s “B.C.”  Again, there’s the familiar formula of cavefolk and giant prehistoric fauna — although it became even more anachronistic when Hart started loading in some Christian messages.

This survey wasn’t meant to be exhaustive — just a sample of the fossil record.  But it does show that, for over a century, a consistent, fictional image of prehistoric man has been dinned into us.  In it, groups of fur-wrapped Caucasians — never Chinese or Hispanic, for some reason — live in caves — never in huts or fishing villages.  They co-exist with dinosaurs, particularly that lovable oaf, the brontosaurus.  All in fun, of course, but still curiously consistent.  It’s what kids learn.

(Posted by Doug Skinner.  More next week…)

Tags: Ancient History · Belief Systems · Education · Politics

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 mamie // Mar 22, 2009 at 11:19 pm

    How did B.C,’s characters pursue their x-tian theme when their very identity is before christ?

  • 2 Doug // Mar 23, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    This puzzled many B.C. readers. When pressed, Hart explained that the title was the lead character’s name.

    Although Hart is no longer with us, his strip showing a menorah shedding branches to become a cross is still remembered with irritation by thousands.

  • 3 Lisa // Mar 25, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    Somehow, “Rocky Stoneaxe” just doesn’t have the élan of “Peter Piltdown.”

  • 4 Frank // Apr 15, 2009 at 1:19 am

    And neither are as dashing as “Cary Granite.”

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