Words

Proto-Memes

Return to the lost world of Ogg

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Ancient Egyptians knew the storytelling power of words combined with pictures—their pictograms were the original memes. The capacity of a simple line drawing to project meaning has been around as long as the printed page itself, and the illuminated manuscripts of the woodcut and the Gutenberg printing press.

In an earthier marriage, cartoons have been bright on the black of newsprint. The best fuse cultural metaphors with scathing satire to release something deep in the human conscious—sometimes we call it laughter, or even a chuckle.

Testament to their importance, the funnies once took up entire sections in newspapers. Editorial cartoons compressed the chaotic headlines of the day into instant meaning: Doodles for the noodle.

Comics were so central to the newspaper id they often wrapped the outer pages of the Sunday edition in full color—like a Christmas gift. Perhaps it was a sly way for publishers to tell readers to take a day off from their troubles; perhaps it was an easy item to peel away and toss to the kids for a couple of hours of reading bliss.

But as the power of print media has faded in modern life, so too has the influence of that unique form of storytelling—the comic strip.

As page counts have sunk along with newspaper revenue, the comics were among the first life preservers to be jettisoned—along with the personal classifieds, love columns, word puzzles and other features of gleaming Americana. It sounds curmudgeonly, I know, but I don’t think online media has adequately replaced these fading forms, and thus we are culturally diminished by their loss.

When Bellingham cartoonist Doug Ogg first offered his quirky comic panels, I leapt at the chance to include them in the pages of the Weekly in its various incarnations over the years—here was a chance to support a local artist in a form I love. “Ogg’s World” is less the sharp bite of “Doonesbury” and “Bloom County” and more the loving licks of “The Far Side” and “Bizzaro”—and for that there is a timeless quality to the collection of his panels in book form.

“People forget Ed Meese, but Frankenstein is always Frankenstein,” Ogg reflects of his work. “I think they hold up well.”

Buried in the folds of funnies, Ogg sketches his story:

“I became the school artist,” he relates. “In junior high I was given an entire page in the school paper, and in high school I was the paper’s staff cartoonist, cover artist and illustrator. By then I had discovered Charles Addams, Gahan Wilson, and by my teens, B. Kliban—all of whom continue to inspire me.”

But the comics page was already in decline by the time Ogg pitched his first panel for syndication. The so-called “alternative weeklies” were on the rise—established in metro areas and popping up in smaller markets—carrying along with them the counterculture vibe of head comics.

The big three of the alt weekly scene at the time were “This Modern World” by the cosmopolitan Tom Tomorrow (aka, Dan Perkins), together with “Life In Hell” by Oregon’s Matt Groening and “Ernie Pook’s Comeek” by Seattle’s Lynda Barry—delivering a strong and weedy scent of the Pacific Northwest.

“Creatively and philosophically, I felt much more aligned with the ‘alts,’” Ogg confesses.

Yet given their dependence on paid advertising, the alt weeklies have been hit especially hard by waves of recessions and of competing forms online. Long before COVID, these were killers.

“Some papers folded, and a few canceled ‘superfluous’ content,” Ogg relates. “Several fell behind on payments. Almost overnight the balance between working on cartoons and administrative duties flipped. Things just weren’t fun anymore.” The nib of Ogg’s sharp pen was drying up.

You’d never know that hardship from the humor and love that’s gone into every delightful panel of “Ogg’s World.” There’s not a trace of melancholy in these funnies.

“Appearing in one’s hometown paper was a joy and and honor that I will always cherish,” Ogg wrote to me in the overleaf of his collected works.

I feel likewise honored. His story is in many ways my story, his passion is my passion, and his sense of loss in fading classic forms is no less my own.

View a short video about “Ogg’s World” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1vzBWHccno

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