by Andy Wolverton
I wasn’t there, so I can only imagine what newspaper readers in the 1930s thought of a comic strip that chronicled the adventures and antics of a caveman. This was, after all, the Great Depression, so maybe people read Alley Oop looking for a little escape and distraction from the harsh realities surrounding their daily lives. Maybe they wanted to be assured that even if things were bad right now, at least they weren’t cavemen. At least there was some semblance of civilization left in the world. Alley Oop certainly offered a sense of relief through humor, but it also gave readers the ability to look at the world through a slightly different lens, and just maybe discover something about themselves.
In the introduction to Alley Oop: The First Time Travel Adventure, recently released from IDW as part of their Library of American Comics series, we learn of creator V. T. Hamlin’s many influences: slapstick comedy, grand adventure, science fiction, and ancient history. The wonder of Alley Oop isn’t so much that all of these influences coalesce, but rather that Hamlin was able to combine them into a comic strip that reflected the sensibilities and attitudes of modern men and women, making us laugh all along the way.
Alley Oop himself is something of a hulking, ornery, yet friendly caveman who enjoys hunting dinosaurs and hanging out with Ooola, his curvaceous girlfriend. Oop is also surrounded by an entire supporting cast of characters in the midst of a Stone Age society that has its own social structure, rules, expectations, and shenanigans. We get the feeling that Oop and his friends really aren’t all that different from us, which is part of the fun.
Although the strip began in late 1932, Hamlin decided to stir things up a bit in 1939, leaving the Stone Age setting and propelling Oop into the modern era via time machine. Although this new volume begins in the Stone Age, the majority of the book features Oop’s adventures (and misadventures) as he travels to 1939 America as well as arriving smack-dab into the middle of the Trojan War.
It’s very easy for modern readers to become jaded to time travel stories. We’ve seen so many “people lost in time” tales that we usually know exactly how they’re going to play out. In fact, the point of most of those stories is getting the hero back to his own time and to right the any necessary wrongs that might affect history. Hamlin’s Alley Oop is more concerned with poking fun at history, our social conventions, inhibitions, superstitions, and more. But mostly, it’s just a lot of fun.
This particular narrative, which is actually one long story arc, has a certain innocence about it. Sure, we’ve seen this all before, but as Alley Oop experiences daily life in the twentieth century, such as trying to eat with a fork or figure out how trains, planes, and automobiles work, we can’t help but laugh.
Oop’s manner of speaking — a sort of twentieth-century slang that makes Oop sound as if he’s been around the block a few times — strikes us as odd, yet compelling, farcical, yet somehow filled with logic. After surviving a train wreck, Oop reflects, “Oh, well… Who am I to question th’ how of things an’ stuff?” In another scene, Oop is on a boat trying to attack a larger boat carrying the Greek hero Ulysses. Using a submachine gun he brought with him from the modern world, Oop defends his decision to fire upon Ulysses, saying “I’ll tell you why — it was because I couldn’t reach the big bum with my ax!”
Alley Oop still strikes a chord with readers because even in the twenty-first century, we still frequently see people out of their element, discovering worlds, cultures and ways of thinking they never knew existed.
One of the book’s endpapers states, “At a time when there was no Internet, no television, no video games, the world’s most thrilling entertainment was found in the spectacular daily and Sunday newspaper comics.” Maybe newspaper strips can’t compete with the Internet, television, and video games, but their artistry can still be enjoyed and appreciated. Yet The Library of American Comics series is not just an exercise in slogging through historical comics artifacts. These volumes also remind us that comic strips could convey simplicity, grace, and humor, and could be enjoyed by anyone who could read at a basic level. And they still can.
Get your copy of Alley Oop: The First Time Travel Adventure, as well as other Alley Oop volumes: