❉ Titan collects some of Hägar’s best moments from the comic strip’s first 10 years.
Newspaper comic strips occupy a strange place in American popular culture. Appearing on a daily schedule in a medium generally thought to be sharp decline, they walk a line between ubiquitous and easy to ignore. Even soap operas can’t match their frequency, and like soap-operas, they’re an art-form where the creator is rarely considered outside of a handful of icons like Garry Trudeau and Alex Raymond. Hägar the Horrible, created by cartoonist Dik Browne and currently produced by his son Chris, is obviously a very different creation than Doonesbury or Flash Gordon but still exemplifies the virtues of the comic-strip.
The strip, which started in 1973 and appears in over 1000 newspapers across dozens of countries, received renewed attention in connection with Democratic Party Presidential nominee Joe Biden and a framed cartoon from it on his desk. In that 1984 installment, the titular character finds himself stranded on a rock as his ship sinks in the distance. He cries out to the heavens, Why me?!” An unseen voice replies from on high, “Why not?”
The former Vice President had previously spoken about how this cartoon helped him deal with grief over the years by reminding him that other people may be experiencing something worse than he was. The strip and the story behind Biden’s appreciation for it got noticed again when it appeared in the background of pictures documenting calls with his presidential running mate, Senator Kamala Harris. It’s one of many reprinted in Titan Books’ compilation The Best of Hägar the Horrible, which encapsulates the first decade or so of its lengthy history.
While the comics themselves are the main attraction, the introductory pieces are also highlights. Chris Browne, who initially assisted Dik Browne with the strip then continued it after his father’s death, recalls with humor and affection how Hägar’s early years were very much a family project as well as some of the best years of their lives. Brian Walker, another second generation cartoonist whose father collaborated with Dik Browne on other comics, offers a less personal take on the strip’s history but nonetheless offers some worthwhile insight into its creator.
For all his work’s emphasis on gags, Dik Browne clearly took the medium he worked in seriously, as shown by this quote. “One of the things that has agitated art for the last 100 years is the struggle between literature and art. Literature is an idea function, and so is art. With cartooning, the two get in bed together as neatly as two lovers and there’s no squabbling. They suit each other well”
The cartoons that follow embody that conviction. One of Browne’s greatest gifts as a cartoonist was an understanding of the form’s ability to seamlessly meld verbal and visual puns, as in a strip centered around a warning sign for falling rocks.
Browne liked his more verbal puns as well, such as the following exchange between Hägar and his daughter Honi.
Honi: Why can’t I go with you to invade England, daddy?
Hagar: Because – nice girls don’t do that sort of thing!
Honi: Oh, daddy! This is A.D. CMLXXX not CMLXXX B.C.!
Like many of the strips across its run that put Hägar at odds with his wife Helga or one of his children, this installment makes it plain that Hägar the Horrible is effectively a sitcom about a Viking family in the Middle Ages. In some respects, it’s surprising that the only TV or movie adaptation to date is a single half-hour animated special but also probably for the best. Produced by Hanna-Barbera with a solid voice-cast, 1989’s Hägar Knows Best is a quality adaptation but also suggests that the concept would have quickly worn out its welcome as an ongoing long-form series.
Hägar the Horrible’s charm resides in the concision of the daily format and the low-key payoffs that accompany it. If that seems like damning with faint praise, it truly isn’t. Both the comic strip form and this particular example of it are quite capable of conveying universal thoughts and feelings in a deceptively simple package.
❉ Don Klees has spent many years in the video business. This continues to enrich his life in many ways, chief among them being able to tell people he watches television for a living. An avid consumer of pop – and sometimes not-so-popular – culture, Don is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.