2009.11.04 Bad comics survive death of pop culture leader

Written by David Green.

By RICH FOLEY

Ray Browne died last month at age 87, but don’t feel too bad if that name doesn’t ring a bell. Browne, a long-time professor at Bowling Green State University, was given credit for introducing the phrase “popular culture.” I find it ironic that he’s relatively unknown today while dozens of undeserving “celebrities” are often referred to as “pop culture icons.”

An Associated Press obit said that Browne “worked for decades to convince academics that much could be learned from studying seemingly insignificant elements of our lives.” These elements included items such as bumper stickers, cartoons, gum wrappers, movies and, yes, even wallpaper.

“The covering of walls has been one of the most important items in housing since the beginning, “ Browne once said. “But nobody ever wrote a book on it.” I’m not sure if he was including himself in that statement as he wrote and edited over 70 books on various areas of pop culture.

Browne taught at Purdue and the University of Maryland, then moved to Bowling Green where he started a popular culture department in 1973.  Now, dozens of colleges offer classes in the subject. In fact, I took one myself back in the day...

While I was going to Adrian College, they tried an experiment in which classes lasting only three weeks would be held between semesters. Professors were encouraged to develop a class based on their personal interests, which would meet every weekday for the three-week period. Students took only one course each year, which enabled you to get really seriously into your chosen subject.

Or not, depending on the class you chose. One year, I ended up in a course called something like “Comic Strips as an Index of American Culture” or some similar momentous-sounding name. So sue me for not remembering the exact title. It was more than 30 years ago.

Amazingly, it took three professors to teach this class. I suspect the idea of creating a class outside their academic specialties was more than they wanted to handle alone so the three of them teamed up to teach the first idea that came to mind. Since there were only about 15 students in the class, we ended up with lots of personal attention.

I don’t remember a whole lot about the class except for the fact that the daughter of one of the professors was in it and whenever we would be having a discussion about the real meaning of Little Orphan Annie, Gasoline Alley or some other strip, she would wait until her father offered an opinion, then immediately say, “Well, I agree with Daddy!” This happened day after day, as if discussion should stop as soon as “Daddy” rendered his judgment.  

Then there was the trip to Bowling Green. Already famous for its collection of comic strips, comic books and other pop culture material, Bowling Green State University was chosen for a field trip with each professor driving some of the students. 

It turned out that one of the professors had a driving style that bordered on reckless, and after several flirtations with disaster on the trip to Bowling Green, two students refused to ride back with him. They spent the time at BG not so much checking out the pop culture department, but trying to convince other students to change cars with them for the trip back. Eventually, deals were made and everyone returned to Adrian safely.

While I don’t remember that much about the class itself, sometimes I still look at the comics with a serious scrutiny. For instance, I wonder how the creator of “For Better or For Worse” gets away with being such a poor cartoonist. Sometimes, the characters look different from one day to the next, and none of them have teeth. Why can’t she hire someone to do the drawing? Lots of strips share the writing and artwork.

And is it just me, or does the “Cathy” strip consist of the same 10 or 15 ideas repeated over and over with extremely minor revisions? If Cathy Guisewite has run out of material, maybe a new person should be brought in to help. Other comics have done this. I used to hate the “Nancy” strip, but the people doing it now have made it one of my favorites.

Geez, listen to me talking about comics strips like they were important. I hope that the late Ray Browne is looking down from pop culture heaven and smiling.

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