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75 years of Bumstead bliss

As Dagwood and Blondie near a special anniversary, millions still love the comic strip's time-honored appeal: family life that we all can identify with.

By COLETTE BANCROFT
Published August 16, 2005


[Times photo: Kinfay Moroti]
Dean Young, whose father, Chic Young, originated Blondie in 1930, lives in Clearwater and has been working on the comic strip since 1963.

CLEARWATER - Not many couples get to throw themselves a 75th anniversary party. Even fewer can boast that three-quarters of a century after they got together, she still has a bombshell figure and he still has twin cowlicks.

Blondie and Dagwood Bumstead have been living in the funny papers since 1930. In an age when comic strips routinely tackle politics, racism, sexuality and war, the resolutely domestic Blondie still revolves around a family that at first glance looks to be living in a time warp, some vague, cozy past where a big issue is how much Blondie spends on a new frock.

But if Blondie is just a historical artifact, what explains its longevity and popularity? It consistently ranks among the top five comic strips in reader polls and runs in 2,300 newspapers in 55 countries, translated into 33 languages and read by about 280-million people each day.

It can't just be Dagwood crashing into the mailman.

Cartoonist Dean Young, who inherited the strip from his father, Chic, says its appeal is simple: "Eating, sleeping, raising children and making money: It's the human experience. Everybody can identify with it."

Millions have over the years; not only is Blondie one of the longest-running comic strips, it has also inspired more than two dozen films, several TV and radio shows, novels, pinball games and comic books, including one devoted solely to the Bumsteads' dog, Daisy. Not to mention that it's probably the original source for the endless stream of TV sitcoms about dorky, not-too-bright guys improbably married to beautiful, smart women.

Even other cartoonists love Blondie. To celebrate the strip's 75th anniversary, Young decided to invite a few other cartoon characters to the Bumsteads' party and ended up with dozens.

The party scene will appear in Blondie on Sept. 4, a Sunday, as the culmination of a couple of months of strips about the preparations for Blondie and Dagwood's big do (already under way) and a couple of weeks of crossover visits from comic characters ranging from Dick Tracy to Dilbert, starting Aug. 22.

Blondie is created in a two-story house at the north end of Clearwater Beach that holds Young's studio and offices. He lives across the street: "My commute is about a minute and 20 seconds, in a strong wind."

The offices have plenty of big, nappable sofas Dagwood would feel at home on, as well as a wall of magazine covers using images of the strip's characters for an amazing range of articles, from an issue of Collector's Showcase with Blondie and Dagwood as the couple in American Gothic (complete with a sandwich speared on the pitchfork) to an issue of Trial magazine about labor law with Mr. Dithers kicking Dagwood in the fanny. The Bumsteads and their crew are everywhere, as dolls, on mugs, in framed posters.

Young, 65, doesn't look much like Dagwood. His black Oxford cloth Ralph Lauren shirt has a full complement of buttons, and his sleekly styled silver hair shows no trace of cowlicks.

But, he says, "I am pretty much Dagwood's alter ego, with a little more finesse.

"Especially in the eating department. I have a black belt in buffet. And I like sandwiches. I like them a lot."

Of course, Dagwood has been around longer than Young has. The Blondie strip was created in 1930 by Young's father, Chic.

In the beginning, Dagwood Bumstead was the bumbling playboy son of railroad magnate J. Bolling Bumstead. Blondie Boopadoop was a flirty flapper with lots of boyfriends; when she and Dagwood fell in love, his snobby family pitched a fit.

"Then the Depression came along, and rich playboys and flappers weren't funny anymore," Dean Young says.

Chic Young's inspiration was to have them marry, even though Dagwood's father disinherited them and Dagwood had to take a job. It shifted them from the upper-crust party scene to middle-class domestic almost-bliss.

But Blondie brought her flapper spirit with her; although flappers may seem quaint now, they were, in their own time, the symbol of women's growing freedom and independence.

In the 1933 panel that showed Dag and Blondie leaving their wedding, she asked him, sweetly but firmly, whether he would be helping her with the housework.

Soon after, Blondie organized the other homemakers in the neighborhood to lobby their husbands for an eight-hour workday. Through the decades, Dagwood has washed a lot of dishes and pitched in on child care - and, of course, made thousands of sandwiches.

Some of Dagwood's ahead-of-the-cultural-curve helpfulness may have come from Chic Young himself, who worked at home and spent much more time with his family than the typical working dad of the mid 20th century.

The Young family moved from California to Clearwater when Dean was in high school. After college, he worked in advertising for a few years; in 1963, his father invited him to work with him on Blondie. They did the strip together for 10 years, along with artist Jim Raymond.

When Chic Young died of emphysema in 1973, the strip was so strongly identified with his name that 600 newspapers dropped it.

"It was devastating," Young says. "I'm pretty sad anyway, what with losing my dad, and then that happens."

Young says he struggled and even thought about quitting. "Then I started writing for myself, writing what I thought was funny."

Young's creative team for the strip now includes artist Denis Lebrun, as well as a third generation of the Young family. Dean's daughter Diane Coston, 38, has been writing with him for about eight years. (He has two other daughters, lawyer Lisa Rogers and graphic artist Dionne Erwin.)

Young's wife of 18 years, Charlotte, is "my editor in chief. She edits all the gags and strips. She was a schoolteacher for 16 years, so she's good at it."

Young's tidy studio is very different from his father's. "For the longest time Dad didn't even have a phone in the studio," he says.

"We draw everything on computer," from the pencil sketch stage to the final ink.

Updating hasn't been limited to the studio. The strip has changed with the times as well, Young says, "except for Dagwood's hair."

Props like cell phones and computers appear, and Dagwood carpools to work. The children, Alexander (originally known as Baby Dumpling) and Cookie, have grown, albeit very slowly, into teenagers. "I don't see the kids growing up in my lifetime," Young says.

One of the biggest changes was longtime homemaker Blondie starting her own catering business in 1991.

"Blondie's business was a big deal. It got a lot of press. But we were just keeping up with what was going on in the world."

Blondie's transition to working woman was not without its bumps. In 1995, when she decided to expand from a home business to a downtown location, Dag freaked out so badly they ended up in marriage counseling.

One news article quoted a real-life marriage counselor intoning solemnly that Dagwood's eating and sleeping habits were "classic signs of depression."

Despite its adjustments to changing times, Blondie has remained a domestic humor strip, with little that could be construed as controversial content. "Once in a while we get mail from someone who doesn't like the way we portray plump ladies or bald men."

Young says he enjoys some cartoons with political edge, such as those by his friend Paul Szep, the St. Petersburg Times contributor who won two Pulitzer Prizes at the Boston Globe, and the Shoe strip while it was done by its originator, the late Jeff MacNelly.

But he says he doesn't pay much attention to such overtly political strips as Doonesbury or Boondocks. "I'm basically a humor guy myself."

Like his dad before him, Young has made a career out of finding the funny stuff in everyday life.

In the strip that appeared on July 19, Dagwood and Blondie are going over the guest list for their party. He says, "How about . . ."

She says, "Oh no, not them!"

He says, "Well, we could ask the . . ."

And she says, "Never! Not in a million years!"

If Blondie keeps on finishing its readers' sentences, offering the punch lines for crabby bosses and marital spats, pesky neighbors and sassy kids, it may be around for another 75 years, Young says. "People seem to like seeing them in the funny papers."

-- Colette Bancroft can be reached at 727 893-8435 or bancroft@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 16, 2005, 05:10:04]


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