Muppetology 101: Jim Henson’s Muppets’ Comic Strip
Alex Guttridge – On the 21st of September 1981 a first happened, a comic strip premiered in 500 daily newspapers worldwide. Simultaneous publication of strips in different countries had never been done before, but if there was one property guaranteed to work throughout the entire planet it was Jim Henson’s Muppets.
It had been a long road finding the people to bring life to the concept of a Muppet Show comic strip, those daily doses of comedy found in newspapers. At the suggestion of Beetle Baily creator Mort Walker, a pair of brothers, Guy and Brad Gilchrist, were awarded the job.
Guy drew the strip, originally using videos and photos of the puppets and the drawings of Michael Frith for reference, and Brad wrote the strip. Before that Guy had been working for The Weekly Reader group and his brother had gone straight from high school to helping him with his work. Jim Henson said of the search for someone to create the strip,
“We worked for a long time. We spent a year and a half or two years working with different cartoon teams trying to find a good combination before we found Guy and Brad Gilchrist, and I’m very happy with the way they’re coming, and the strip is growing quite nicely”
And grow it did, Guy developed his own, very distinctive way of drawing the characters which gave a lot more clarity and focus to the images. It is a style that moves away from the more realistic representations of the characters but retains the essence of them, streamlining the strip in a very pleasing way. I can totally understand why people may prefer the more detailed, realistic look of the strip but I find it to be a little too cluttered for such a small medium. The best comic strips (Peanuts, Calvin & Hobbes etc…) have a simplicity about them that conveys all you need for the joke but doesn’t over-complicate it, something that the latter Muppet comic strips really do well. Fozzie, in particular, is a delight in the later strips, far and away my favourite, with a design that is reminiscent of the puppet but with a cuteness and vulnerability that works so well for the character.
Writing the comic had its fair share of constraints, Guy remembers,
“Brad and I became the first cartoonists in history to have to write every single joke for a worldwide audience. We had to work twice as far in advance as anyone else in our business at that time, because our strips had to be shipped via airmail and messenger (prior to the internet, of course) all around the world to be translated into every language of the 80 countries that read us each day. We had to be extremely aware of the global marketplace. We couldn’t, for instance, write any “puns” or English language wordplay. It couldn’t be translated, you see. We were taught, from day one… that the best jokes we could tell to the world would be well drawn, easy to understand, and have as few words as possible.”
The writing is, as you would expect from a medium where you require a setup and punchline every day of the year (for five years), a little bit inconsistent. At its absolute worst it’s still a generic comic strip with generic comic strip jokes, amusing but not spectacular. Swap out the Muppets for Garfield or Dilbert characters and there would be no real difference. At its greatest it feels like deleted scenes from the TV show, tiny snippets that could slot into any episode. Luckily the strip has more examples of good than bad and, for the most part, it is really well written, with a good handle on the kind of comedy that works for the Muppets.
Character is a much trickier thing, due to the nature of a comic strip the different personalities got stripped down somewhat from their more nuanced puppet counterparts. If you could boil down each Muppet to a one line descrpition, Kermit is in charge but struggles to maintain order, Piggy is a hungry diva in love with Kermit, Fozzie is a faliure, Gonzo is a weird daredevil, you have the basic drive of each character in the strip. It works perfectly well for the medium, there is the odd line that feels wrong coming from a certain character but the nature of space in the strip meant that sometimes sentences had to fit the panel rather than the character. Other characters fair less well, Robin is much more a generic child than the character was ever portrayed on the show and Rizzo is really unrecognisable due to the fact the puppet hadn’t established a distinct personality yet.
Whilst there are recurring scenarios, Kermit and Fozzie in a cafe talking, Miss Piggy writing an advice column, Gonzo as a fortune teller, Rowlf as Dr Bob, and the occasional story thread that runs over multiple strips, Miss Piggy running for President, Statler and Waldorf taking their theatre box for a drive, there’s not really a continuity to the series. Without wanting to sound pretentious, the most beloved comic strips have a sense of pathos about them and explore the human condition, something this strip vary rarely does. It fires on all cylinders for the comedy of the Muppets but doesn’t really reflect the moments when they’re not funny.
“Yeah, but I always figure that’s the writers fault.”
All right, when they’re not trying to be funny. I think this, along with the fact it would be looked upon as a tie-in to an existing franchise, may go some way to explaining why the comic strip has, really unfairly, been mostly forgotten and isn’t regarded as the classic it should be.
When the strip ended in 1986 (with a fantastic sign off) it also ended Brad’s association with the Muppets. Guy went on to do artwork for many Muppet products, including the only released merchandise for Little Muppet Monsters. He also submitted samples for a potential Muppet Babies comic strip, which looks like it would have been great fun and I think it’s a loss that it never got made. The Gilchrist-Muppet connection didn’t end there though, Guy had a son called Garrett who is, to Muppet fans, known better as Henson Rarities on youtube. (As a side note to that, he has restored the Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson special which includes Gonzo reccomending ‘Moving Right Along’, a collection of early strips. It’s got to be weird to hear your Dad’s name read out by Gonzo!)
There were six collections of the comic strip released between 1984 and 1986, five of them reprinted recent strips and the other reprinted strips from the first year or so. If you are at all interested in reading the strip for yourself they really are worth picking up. Most of them can be found for a very reasonable price online (apart from the early collection, I’ve never been able to find it at an affordable price). I really wish someone like Fantagraphics would release lovingly restored chronological collections of the strip like it has Peanuts and the Mickey Mouse comics, preferably with copious notes and commentary by Guy and Brad, the strip certainly deserves it.