|Do click on the strip to see it in a larger, clearer form.|
"Man is born to live, not to prepare for life." - Pasternak, from Dr Zhivago
We are always letting our rulers down, it seems. Never truly showing enough initiative, never really doing what we’re told, never whole-heartedly embracing the common good. Most of all, we never seem to be working hard enough for the nation's best interests. As the above strip from Maurice Dodd and Dennis Collins’s The Perishers No. 14 (1973) shows, this was as true in the incentive-stifling days of the planned economy as it is in our own age of callously unnecessary Austerity. Thank God - or at least, as The Perishers reveals, the Great Eyeballs In The Sky - that our masters are there to instruct us in the eternal and eternally changing ways in which tomorrow's ever-receding Shangri-la can be reached. Perhaps one day we’ll live up to our betters and sacrifice even more of our lives, as we so obviously should.
Though The Perishers was clearly synthesised in the late Fifties from the raw DNA of Charles Schulz's Peanuts, the two strips would swiftly become distinct from one another. Environment and individual creativity, if you like, had trumped genes. The megalomaniac Maisie was, for example, quite obviously inspired by Schulz's Lucy Van Pelt, and yet Maisie was far dimmer and far more given to the application of brute force than the psychologically pitiless Lucy. Beyond their mutual drive to dominate the world around them, the two ultimately had little in common.
As with the characters in The Perishers, so too with its themes and moods. The life of poor old Charlie Brown was a quietly desperate one marked by a tragic inability to communicate. But the adventures of his British counterpart Wellington resonate with a joyful sense of how simultaneously ludicrous and wonderful the world is. Clearly in tune with the UK's post-War boom in absurd and cunningly satirical humour, writer and layout artist Maurice Dodd locked his sights upon the idiocy of fixed and uninformed beliefs. Accordingly, Wellington and his youthful friends habitually perceive their world through the barely-grasped and often patently erroneous thinking of their elders. The consequences are consistently hilarious. Superimposing society's taken-for-granted assumptions onto the all-too-serious matters of cart racing, hole-digging and aimless wandering, Dodd wryly succeeded in highlighting how loose the fit is between everyday life and the ideologies which claim to explain it. In Wellington's temporary inability to grasp what W. H. Davies referred to as our need to "stand and stare" lies the truth of the strip's ethics as well as its irresistible charm. For Boot is quite right; human beings do, amongst their other myriad qualities, specialist in "idling, mooching and loafing about", and any world-view that doesn't recognise and celebrate that is at the very least idiotic, if not profoundly pernicious.
But The Perishers never falls prey to cynicism, let alone pessimism. Instead, the fundamental pleasures of everyday life always quietly trump the empathy-denuded designs of a variety of Cloud Cuckoo Landers. No matter how devious and even downright malicious are the motivations of Dodd and Collins's least salubrious characters, they always fall prey to their own ignorance and self-regard. In that, The Perishers reflects the historically recurring - if often disturbingly philistine and self-deluding - British distaste for over-thinking and creed-driven manifestos. Adolph Kilroy the Hitlerian tortoise may believe that he's acquired a "terrible weapon" that will help him "rule the world", but he's nothing more than a pathetically rapacious sociopath and the weapon he's sought is just a discarded ice-lolly stick. (It's hard not to see a love of Walt Kelly's pomposity-pricking Pogo in the scenes Dodd and Collins gave to their supporting cast of talking animals and insects.)
Similarly, the crabs who've woven deeply intolerant and senselessly antagonistic religions from the annual appearance of the sheepdog Boot's eyeballs above their sea-side rock-pool are portrayed as "myopic morons" and "credulous crackpots". As disrespectful of power-grabs based on religion as those rooted in politics, The Perishers was a gently subversive enterprise in the context of the Britain of the Sixties and Seventies, when the strip was at its creative height. Indeed, the crabs and their wars of faith could have been adapted sequence-by-sequence by Terry Gilliam for Monty Python's Life Of Brian and been entirely in keeping with the tone and content of the film's satire on organised religion.
Even the use of Wellington and old Boot to mock the "planned economy" was the mark of two independent-minded creators, for The Daily Mirror - which hosted the strip - had long been lined up behind the distinctly Statist policies of the then-moderately socialist Labour Party.
Though the view of childhood in The Perishers is anything but sentimental and nostalgic, there is an air of wistfulness and something close to loss that often ebbs out from its panels. Something of this comes from the sense that its cast seem at times to be refugees from earlier decades. Dennis Collins's brilliantly evocative backgrounds would show shabby under-passeses, council-concreted playgrounds, railway bridges and industrial yards familiar to the working and lower-middle class neighbourhoods of the period, and yet the pop culture of the age rarely reared its head. If the politics of the strip could on occasion seem bang up to date, its stars would drift in and out of the focus of the time. For all that the guileless Marlon would dress in his approximation of a Formula One driving suit, the likes of Wellington's deer-stalker hat seemed distinctly anachronistic. It's a blurring of the past and the present that's particularly obvious when the latter lucks into a food parcel packed with delectations - "Wiltshire Ham, Black Pudding, Haslett..." - far more likely to thrill a child of a previous era. Even the outmoded label of "Perisher" - or annoying if just-forgivable child - would have been far quicker to the lips of a grandparent than a prepubescent living in the years between Cliff Richards' Move It and the brief high summer of Adam Ant.
But then, Wellington would sometimes show an awareness that he and his friends and acquaintances had been children for far longer than they should have been, while his canine co-conspirator Boot could recall a previous existence as an all-too-human aristocrat. It's as if the Perishers had always been wandering around a stage set that was only partially being updated, as if they'd always been struggling to find their own way as individuals in a world that forever expected them to parrot their elders. With events in the strip following a strict annual routine, the kids were constantly looping back through the same situations, as if locked in a never-ending, year-long version of Groundhog Day. In its own fashion, their existence was as structured, constricted and potentially meaningless as that of any alienated factory worker, shop assistant or filing clerk. Yet, laughter was constantly breaking through the repetition of the commonplace. Just as in the great Kitchen Sink TV sit-coms of the period, from The Likely Lads to Porridge, from Steptoe And Son to Rising Damp, The Perishers featured individuals who were always threatening to emerge from the constraints of social structures, old and new. Perpetually striving to make sense of a world that often lacks anything of the sort, their struggles and their little victories represent the everyperson continuously locked into the cycle of bafflement and accommodation, rebellion and resignation and - with a fair wind - enlightenment.
At the head of this post was what's become a familiar quote from Pasternak's Dr Zhivago. The far-less repeated line which follows it in the book speaks of the savagery of systems which compel individuals to sacrifice the very hours that make up their brief existence for some hubristically Utopian future; "Life itself - the gift of life - is such a breathtakingly serious thing". The Perishers approached the same theme from the trenches of comedy rather than tragedy, of course, and from within the form of the daily newspaper strip rather than the epic historical novel. But Dodd and Collins's work also seems to me to have repeatedly insisted that such a "breathtaking serious thing" ought to be left to the individual to figure out for themselves, and to be enjoyed as much as it possibly can be.