Tuesday, April 07, 2009
News of Yore 1980: Hagar Creator Interviewed
An Interview With Dik Browne
by Charlie Huisking (Sarasota Herald Tribune, May 11 1980)
Relaxing in the cool breeze on his porch, Browne speculated about the popularity of the not-so-noble viking he created: "Well, first of all, people are in a hurry today, so you need a strong character, someone who's easily identifiable. Now what catches the eye more quickly than a guy with horns? That's a quick-frozen viking. Drop him in hot water and there he is.
"Also, I'm a great believer in simplicity. I feel the most important part of our business is to communicate, so the simpler you can keep the strip the better. I have no complex messages to give in my strip. I don't want to change the world or launch the fourth crusade. I just want to amuse people now and then."
Those are the nuts-and-bolts reasons behind "Hagar's" success, but another that Browne didn't list is his own philosophy of humor, his keen understanding of what makes people laugh.
"My idol in comedy is Charlie Chaplin," Browne said. "What he did was universal. There was nothing 'in' about it. Don't you hate it when you're at a party and you have to know six of the people and three languages to understand the joke? Well, Chaplin never had that problem. He knew how to appeal to basic emotions, and that's why his films will last forever."
Another of Browne's favorites is Mark Twain, and he likes to quote Twain's line, "Everything human is pathetic; the secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow."
"Humor has always been a release for the hopeless and the oppressed," Browne said. "I don't think it's a coincidence that the comic strip, a uniquely American invention, started at the turn of the century during the great wave of immigration. Many of those immigrants had to endure great hardship, and in a nation of many languages the comic pages became a source of comfort as well as a means of communication. Many immigrants learned to read English through the comics. I think the strips simply grew out of what made people laugh and what made them cry."
Browne feels the American sense of humor is a "superior product." "We've always had a feel for the popular in America; we're not an elitist country. And I think that is wonderful because I believe in people and the tastes of people," he said.
He is careful to draw a distinction between humor and wit. "Humor is eternal," he says. "It's full of warmth and compasssion. Wit, by contrast, is more pointed, more aggressive. Oscar Wilde, for example, is a witty man, and I like him, but he's hard to warm up to on a cold night. Twain, on the other hand, is comfortable. He's like an old coat or a pair of good shoes. I guess you could say I'm in that mold. I try to bring a benign humor to my work."
The 63-year-old Browne, a kind and gentle bear of a man, certainly falls in the "good shoes" category. Soft-spoken, relaxed and always casually dressed, he wears his greying hair long and, like Hagar, he sports a beard that looks like a Brillo pad gone haywire.
The similarities between Browne and Hagar aren't just physical, either. "I suppose every comic strip is in some way autobiographical," Browne said. "Certainly you can only put in a strip what you yourself have. You're influenced by your own experiences, by your own assets and liabilities. For example, I try to stay away from violence in the strip, because that's not my nature. If it's there it is implied. And I can't make Hagar too mean or too much of a rascal, because I can't see myself acting that way."
A product of New York City, Browne attended Cooper Union Art School and had ambitions of becoming a sculptor. But his first job was as a copy boy on the old New York Journal, a Hearst paper. "What an exciting, colorful place that newsroom was," Browne said. "I still get nostalgic about it. It was right out of the movies, you know. The noise was incredible, and there was always a commotion. I remember that right in the center of the room there was a man of Mediterranean descent in his undershirt selling hot dogs. Many of the rewrite men had served in World War I and then lived in Paris for a while. There was a patina of glamour surrounding them. Now who wouldn't fall in love with a scene like that?"
Browne hoped for a career in journalism, but unfortunately, he says, "I had no talent. I'd get lost on the streets of New York, I couldn't spell, I had a short attention span, and I was too shy to ask people questions."
He served in the Army for four years, then became a highly regarded Madison Avenue advertising artist, creating, among other symbols, the Chiquita banana. In 1954 he teamed with Mort Walker and began drawing the "Hi and Lois" strip.
The motivation for starting "Hagar" in 1973 was a detached retina and other eye problems which, today, have left Browne almost legally blind. "I had made good money, but I wasn't prepared for any medical disaster, and I was concerned about my family's security," he said. "Hagar was the first idea I tried, and I got lucky."
Family has always been uppermost in Dik Browne's mind. He and Joan, married for 38 years, have two sons and an adopted Chinese daughter named Sally, who was recently married and is now living in Germany. "I'll show you the wedding picture," said Browne, returning with a framed photo of his daughter and his tuxedoed self. "We all have great times together. I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have a family that was good company. I'd go nuts, I think."
The cartoon business keeps the family close. Browne's sons, Chris and Bob, help with the drawing of "Hi and Lois," and both supply gags for "Hagar the Horrible." In addition, Chris is a frequent contributor to Playboy, National Lampoon and other magazines. Bob is also pursuing a career as a blues musician.
Both sons still live in Connecticut and mail their suggestions and "Hagar" gags to Florida regularly. They were in Sarasota for a visit at the time of our interview, and joined Browne on the porch for a chat.
Their relationship is a warm and kidding one. As the newspaper
photographer focused her camera on the trio, Browne urged his sons to "adopt a somewhat fawning pose. Kneeling at my feet would be nice."
"I've always wanted to have a 'cottage industry,' and I'm thrilled that it has worked out that way," Browne said. "We make a good team, and I think we learn from each other. Early on I had Hagar running off with maidens over his shoulder, and Chris made me realize that was a dumb cliche. It was old-fashioned and it wasn't funny."
Browne does rough sketches of his cartoons on tracing paper and turns them over to his wife and sons for rating. "They rate them from 1 to infinity. The closer to 1 the better. I caught my wife in a bad mood once and she gave me a 47, but when she really likes them she draws hearts and flowers on the corner of the paper," Browne said. "Their advice is invaluable to me. I think that's another big reason for the strip's success, that I'm blessed with good critics. You have to have a large ego to be a cartoonist, but you also need to have the common sense to put the ego aside when you have to."
Chris Browne says the success of "Hagar" changed his father in a positive way. "I think his whole personality opened up. After collaborating with Mort Walker for so long, he was finally free to cut loose. He let more of himself come to the surface.
"When he did that, dad became a hippy. He let his hair grow, and as Hagar's popularity grew, so did dad's beard. It kept pace neck and neck, or rather chin and chin."
Bob Browne said he has a great deal of admiration for his father's devotion to his work. "For him, work and life are all together, and without that devotion the permanancy and security that we have as a family wouldn't be there."
And yet, Browne says he's never been an ambitious man. "I'm not motivated by money. This will sound like St. Francis of Assisi, but I'm really not," he said. "I always wanted to be secure, and to leave something for my family. I guess that's been such a strong motivation because I came from a split family and I grew up in the Depression. That has colored my life. But I never wanted to play any power games. I like things simple."
Joan Browne is camera-shy and was busy in another part of the apartment during most of the interview, but just when Browne was asked about his views of the women's movement, she walked past carrying a load of laundry. "Oh my God, what timing," Browne laughed. "There's the vice-president and treasurer of our corporation, carrying the wash." "I also do windows," Mrs. Browne quipped.
Browne said he, like most men, has had his consciousness raised in the past decade. "You can't bring up a daughter and not become aware of women's problems," he said. "I don't think 'Hagar' is a chauvinistic strip. It deals with the battle of the sexes, but Helga (Hagar's long-suffering wife) more than holds her own.
"And I've tried to move away from the traditional husband-and-wife yelling scenes. I felt the characters weren't smiling enough. I try to show them having more fun, even when they're disagreeing."
Before concluding the interview, we walked into the small studio where Browne works on "Hagar" every morning. "I used to be an early riser, but now I'm enjoying staying in bed longer," he said. "Today I didn't get up until 9:30. But the work is going much better here than up north. I think it's because I've never lived in a place that's as comfortable as this.
"Notice how neat the studio is. Why, up north I work in a cellar that looks like the Black Hole of Calcutta. I apologize for the lack of clutter here. I know it doesn't make for good photographs.
Taped to the wall of the studio are crayon drawings done by neighborhood children. "There's quite a group that comes over to visit," Browne said. "We have great fun together."
Lying on his drawing table was a papier-mache viking helmet complete with horns that Bob Browne made for his father several years ago. "Bob is always impoverished, you know, so he's always making these fantastic presents. Now, this helmet doesn't fit as well as it used to. Either it has become warped, or my head has."
There are other presents in the room, too, including two small stained-glass Hagar figures hanging by the window. "Those are from a reader. He does wonderful work. Another fan sent me a Hagar strip she'd done in needlepoint, and someone else made a bas-relief belt. That people would take the time to do things like this, well that just overwhelms me. We get about 40 letters a week, and answer them all. The communication with readers is a wonderful sidelight to all of this."
Still, Browne couldn't resist a joke about his generous admirers. "I wonder where all these people were 40 years ago when I was starving," he grinned.
"When I was slaving away nobody would give me a nickel. Now I'm old and obese and everybody wants to take me out to dinner!"
Labels: News of Yore