Pop Culture Quiz: What Comic Strip Did John Steinbeck Take Seriously?

Image of Li'l Abner comic strip

A native Californian with a natural feel for pop culture, John Steinbeck was a serious fan of “Li’l Abner,” Al Capp’s long-running comic strip about life in Dogpatch, U.S.A. The comic strip ended in 1977. Steinbeck, who wrote the introduction to a collection of Al Capp cartoons, died two years before the first Comic Con in San Diego—short for Golden State Comic Book Convention—celebrated America’s love affair with comic strips, comic books, and action heroes in 1970. If he’d lived, Steinbeck would have applauded the idea behind the event: a let’s-party conclave of readers young and old, with a big-tent embrace of literature in all its forms. Luckily for Steinbeck lovers, the Salinas Valley Comic Con, sponsored by the National Steinbeck Center, Salinas Public Libraries, and Hartnell College, will take place December 16-18 on the Hartnell campus at 411 Central Avenue, not far from John Steinbeck’s childhood home and the National Steinbeck Center, in Salinas, California. “John Steinbeck was expansive in his notions about what literature is and can be,” explains Susan Shillinglaw, the Center’s director: “The National Steinbeck Center printed on its Comic Con mug another Steinbeck quote—‘Comic strips might be the real literature of our time.’” Check out “John Steinbeck Foresees Salinas Valley Comic Con” for event details and expert commentary on John Steinbeck’s connection to pop culture, then and now.

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  1. Love it! And we had our own comic book hero in Gus Arriola who introduced us to Senor Gordo and as Herb Cain in an article for Celestial Arts in 1989 put it, “We all need families, our own and at least one other. For more years than I care to think about, my other family has been the singular creation of Gus Arriola– Senor Gordo and his extended menagerie of diverting humans and spectacular animals….” His strip made its debut in October of 1941 beginning the education of the public via a comic strip anchored in the culture of the Mexican American. Dr. William Smith, Commissioner of Education said in a key note speech on Bi-culturalism in Colorado in 1978: “The comic strip ‘Gordo’ has done more to change the sterotypical (racist) attitudes of America toward the Mexican and the Mexican-American than any other medium. It is really unfortunate that some newspapers in many cities in America have refused to carry this portrayal of this truly brilliant art form done by Gus Arriola who is here at this forum.” And who can forget his famous cartoon in 1964 honoring Rachael Carson when she passed away. The original hangs in the Smithsonian Institute.

    Both Li’l Abner and Gordo ran in our daily newspaper when I was growing up and I loved both of them..

    • Steve Hauk says:

      Gus Arriola was an artistic and cultural treasure. It is too bad “Gordo” wasn’t more heavily syndicated, because it was brilliant and funny and, as you say, helped break down walls between Mexican-American and other communities. His Rachel Carson tribute remains moving to this day, and the Pacific Grove Public Library last year tied it in with a fine exhibition on Carson, “The Edge of the Sea.”

      I did an interview of Gus for the Monterey Herald in Arriola’s Carmel home years ago. His wife Frances was there. I got lucky and won Gus and Frances over quickly because I recognized a Mexican folk art ceramic in a display cabinet as being by Teodora Blanco. Gus was amazed. “You’re the first gringo I’ve met to know about Teodora,” he said, laughing. (I’d found a piece at a yard sale.)

      I got to know Gus and Frances better over the years at events at Ed Ricketts’ Lab on Monterey’s Cannery Row. Gus and his good friend Eldon Dedini, also a distinguished cartoonist, would stand behind the bar and fill drink requests. Gus’s hands shook by then, but he could feel comfortable behind the bar because you couldn’t see his hands until he handed you the drink, and he was steady for that. It allowed him to talk and socialize without feeling self-conscious.

      I suppose that is why he discontinued the Gordo strip – his hand shaking – and it was the world’s loss. The strip was a mix of brilliant art and master storytelling and quick, endearing characterizations.

      I wonder what Gus would think were he alive today. He spent his career breaking down barriers between Mexico and America. I think it would have broken his heart to see what has been going on now.

      Dedini died before Arriola. Dedini came up to me once in Carmel and was elated that Ohio State University, which I am told has an amazing cartoon archive, wanted to collect and keep his work. It was a huge relief to Dedini, as it would be to any artist. He knew, too, it lifted a burden from the shoulders of his wife, the artist Virginia Conroy, should he die first, and he did.

      Just a year or so after that, my wife Nancy and I ran into Gus and Frances at the Lab. Both were beaming. The University of California’s Bancroft Library had just said it wanted to hold and archive Gus’s work. So if you’re looking for Gordo and his friends, you know where to find them. The Rachel Carson strip, however, is at the Smithsonian.

      • Thank you so much Steve for the history of Gus and Eldon, two of the best. Eldon designed the jacket of Ed Larsh’s book, Doc’s Lab: Myths and Legends of Cannery Row.’ which is a masterpiece representing the folks of Cannery Row. It is interesting to fold that cover out and see how many of the Cannery Row characters you can identify. Ed Ricketts is easy. He is the angel flying over Cannery Row.

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