Saturday, September 13, 2014

Tramp Stamps

Not that kind.
This kind.
And we get a comic strip today at The Imp of the Diverse. I love a good comic strip (the survival of the bad ones always amazes me[1]). This strip from the El Paso Herald on September 13, 1910 is from one of the great classics of the comic strip, Mutt and Jeff. When I read it as a child, I had no idea that it had been created before my grandparents were born. According to Wikipedia, the strip started (as A. Mutt) in 1907, with Jeff appearing in 1908. I’ve glanced at some of the other Mutt and Jeff strips from the period, and I’m still not quite sure why they’re being tracked. Or why the inspector is a dog. The obvious answer is “because.”

Though Inspector Stew may be skilled at tracking, it’s unclear why he’s tracking Mutt and Jeff. They do, however, seem to be tramps, engaging in schemes to get money and not above a little petty thievery (the September 7 strip seems to imply that they’re going to steal eggs), although Stew is tracking them before that. I did find the strip that shows that Inspector Stew is eventually successful.

But what does this have to do with Esperanto?[2]

In trailing Inspector Stew (of Scotland Yard) comes across a set of hobo signs. Fisher’s hobo signs don’t seem to be like any hobo signs I’ve managed to come across. Nevertheless, the hobo in the strip does explain what they are supposed to mean. What they aren’t is a mixture of “ancient Egyptian and modern Esperanto,” nor do they mean “Mutt and Jeff inside,” though why anyone on the lam would post their location on a fence is beyond me.

Here’s the strip:

Hobo signs had nothing to do with either ancient Egyptian or Esperanto, although Stew seems to be using them as a mixture of the incomprehensible with the incomprehensible (and it is incomprehensible to him, despite his claim that he knows what they mean.) The signs certainly aren’t Esperanto to him.

This strip does show how present Esperanto was in the public mind in 1910. I suspect a comic strip writer attempting to slip in an Esperanto joke today would be told by his or her editor that the reference was just too obscure. And, of course, when Fisher wrote this strip, the 1910 Universala Kongreso had been a news topic just a few weeks before.

  1. When the Los Angeles Times discontinued the perpetually unfunny and uninteresting strip Herman, they noted that they had been running reprints for years, as the last new strip had appeared in 1992. On that matter, Peanuts was a great strip, but let’s stop milking the thing and give new talent a chance.  ↩
  2. Of course it has something to do with Esperanto. Why else would I be talking about it?  ↩

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