The comics in the rural South

One topic touched on in the Stanford Freshman Seminar 63N (Linguistics in the Comics) was the representation of dialect, especially regional, rural, and non-standard varieties. We chose to look at Southern, especially Appalachian, varieties.

For the most part, the comics are a popular, rather than an elite or arty, medium, and dialect representation (especially Irish-influenced and German-influenced varieties) were well represented in American comics in the early days. (There were exceptions early on — the fantastical and often experimental Little Nemo in Slumberland, for example — and now graphic novels are a serious variety of fiction — but for the most part the comics were a form of broad popular entertainment.)

Given all this, it’s somewhat surprising that representations of Southern vernacular, often broad and exaggerated, didn’t appear in the comics until the 1930s.

It started with Li’l Abner in 1934, the first strip to be set in the South. From Wikipedia:

Li’l Abner is a satirical American comic strip that appeared in many newspapers in the United States, Canada and Europe, featuring a fictional clan of hillbillies in the impoverished mountain village of Dogpatch, Arkansas. Written and drawn by Al Capp (1909–1979), the strip ran for 43 years, from August 13, 1934 through November 13, 1977.

According to Capp, Yokum was a portmanteau of yokel and hokum. Li’l Abner himself was scarceness little (he was a strapping 6′3″). He was, however, charmingly clueless.

The main characters were Abner Yokum, his diminutive parents Mammy and Pappy Yokum, and Daisy Mae Scragg (ultimately Yokum). Here they all are together, in the midst of a flood:


Right on the heels of Li’l Abner, still in 1934, came Snuffy Smith. From Wikipedia:

Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, originally Barney Google, is an American comic strip created by cartoonist Billy DeBeck. Since its debut on June 17, 1919, the strip has gained a huge international readership, appearing in 900 newspapers in 21 countries. The initial appeal of the strip led to its adaptation to film, animation, popular song and television.

… In 1934, an even greater change took place when Barney [Google] and his horse [Spark Plug] visited the North Carolina mountains and met a volatile, equally diminutive moonshiner named Snuffy Smith. Hillbilly humor was extremely popular at the time (as Al Capp was proving with Li’l Abner ). The strip increasingly focused on the southern Appalachian hamlet of “Hootin’ Holler”, with Snuffy as the main character. The mountaineer locals are extremely suspicious of any outsiders, referred to as “flatlanders” or even worse, “revenooers” (Federal Revenue agents).

Eventually, the strip passed into the hands of Fred Lasswell:

Fred Lasswell started his career as a sports cartoonist for the Tampa Daily Times around 1928. His work attracted the attention of Billy DeBeck, creator of the newspaper strip ‘Barney Google and Snuffy Smith’, in 1933. Fred Lasswell became his assistant, aged 17, and took over the famous strip after DeBeck’s death in 1942 (link)

This Snuffy Smith (from Lasswell) was a discussion topic in the Stanford seminar on February 11th:


Next came Pogo, with a very different tone: a strip set in a real place, the Okefenokee Swamp of Georgia and Florida (or at least a fantasy of the place), but with mostly (eventually, entirely) animal characters. Typically pointed but sweet. (A number of Pogos are available on this blog.)

[Walt] Kelly created the characters of Pogo the possum and Albert the alligator in 1941 for issue #1 of Dell’s Animal Comics, in the story “Albert Takes the Cake.” (Wikipedia link)

Finally, in 1945 came a farcical version of the Southern strip, the Plenty family in the Dick Tracy strip. From Wikipedia:

The Plenty family was a group of goofy redneck yokels headed by the former villain, Bob Oscar (“B.O.”) [first appeared in 1945, along with the play on B.O. ‘body odor’], along with Gertrude (“Gravel Gertie”) Plenty [and B.O.’s brother Goodin, as in the licorice candy Good & Plenty; and the daughter of the family, Sparkle Plenty].

As I said in a 2012 posting on Dick Tracy:

So Gould dipped into hillbilly humor, in the spirit of Li’l Abner and the Snuffy Smith of Barney Google and Snuffy Smith.

On the linguistics here, from class handout #6 (February 11th):

Representations of dialect understood as non-standard varieties (in comics, fiction, etc.) may use features that are

(a) generally associated with vernacular (e.g. multiple negation), whether or not they are features of the specific dialect

(b) eye dialect (spelling words in nonstandard ways associated with speech, e.g. wanna, uv)

(c) specific local, dialect/region/social features [or stereotypes of these]

One Response to “The comics in the rural South”

  1. eric zwicky Says:

    al capp (caplin) from connecticut. walt kelly was from philadelphia. their version of “southern” is about as authentic as gershwin’s “porgy and bess”.

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