The results of our latest comics survey are in, and they weren’t good for “Snuffy Smith,” the long-running strip about an Appalachian hillbilly and his clan.
Starting Monday, Snuffy will be gone from the comics pages along with four other strips: “Dustin,” “Monty,” “Curtis” and “Rose is Rose.” They’ll be replaced by four new comics: “Big Nate,” “Deflocked,” “The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee” and “Knight Life.” By popular demand, we also are bringing back “Baldo,” which we cancelled last year.
I expect Snuffy to be the most controversial of the changes, because the comic has been around so long and because it has a regional theme. My Sunday column, which follows as an extended entry, reflects on the history of the old hillbilly.
Once upon a time, Google was a comics character, not a search engine.
Barney Google was created in 1919 by Chicago artist Billy DeBeck. He was a short, henpecked ne’er-to-well with a passion horse-racing. He even owned a racehorse, an oddly shaped nag named Spark Plug.
The strip was a huge success, and Barney Google became an icon. In 1923, he inspired the hit song “Barney Google (with the Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes)” written by Billy Rose, the Ziegfeld impresario who married funny girl Fanny Brice. When the National Cartoonists Society started giving awards, they were the Barneys until, years later, they were renamed the Reubens, in honor of Rube Goldberg.
Charles Schulz, creator of “Peanuts,” took his lifelong nickname, “Sparky,” from Google’s horse.
With success, DeBeck moved to New York, then St. Petersburg, where he took on a teenage assistant, Fred Lassell.
In 1934, hillbilly humor was popular. Al Capp launched “Li’l Abner,” and DeBeck decided to send Google to Appalachia, where he encountered an equally shiftless character named Snuffy Smith. In time, the ornery, moonshining chicken thief earned equal billing, and the strip became “Barney Google and Snuffy Smith.”
DeBeck died in 1942, and Lasswell took over, eventually phasing out Google and placing emphasis to Snuffy and his clan in “Hootin’ Holler.” The adjustment breathed new life into the comic, and Lasswell continued to draw it until his death in 2001, when his assistant, John Rose, picked up the pen.
Barney and Snuffy are credited with popularizing such phrases as “heebie-jeebies,” “horsefeathers,” “times a-wastin'” and “great balls o’ fire.” The strip isn’t the source of the search engine’s name, however. That came from the word “googolplex,” an unimaginably large number — though the mathematician who originated that concept was prompted by his 9-year-old nephew’s suggestion of the word “googol” in 1938, during the first Google’s heyday. So maybe Barney was at the root of the inspiration after all.
The strip has survived the era of political correctness, though ridicule of poor, white Southerners has raised some concern. Megan Fox, the “Transformers” star from Roane County, took heat for her remark that the evil alien MegaTron should “just take out all of the white trash, hillbilly, anti-gay, super bible-beating people” instead of the entire planet.
Still, hillbilly jokes haven’t been generally condemned.
“The reason they are acceptable is that they’re about white people and not seen as racist and derogatory,” said Anthony Harkins, history professor at Western Kentucky University, in an interview with ABC News.
Whatever the reason, I’ve never received a complaint about “Snuffy Smith.” If anything, I think people around here have felt a bit of cultural pride in the fiercely independent spirit and fundamental good nature of the mountain folk portrayed in the comic If there was a problem with Snuffy in recent years, it was simply that he wasn’t very funny any more. His results in comics surveys have been trending down for years, and in our most recent one, he didn’t rank as a favorite with any group.
So Snuffy’s retiring. The old hillbilly has finally gone over the hill.
As always, I welcome your feedback at 342-6195 or firstname.lastname@example.org..