Goofus and Gallant in typical contrast. Artist: Anni Matsick.

GOOFUS AND GALLANT

Original medium: Magazine cartoons
Published in: Highlights for Children magazine
First Appeared: 1948
Creator: Anni Matsick
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Cartoon parodies have been a staple of popular culture ever since there have been cartoons in popular culture. Even the pioneering British humor magazine Punch had a parody in Judy, where Ally Sloper started. More familiar to modern …

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… toon fanciers, Duck Dodgers started as a parody of Buck Rogers; and even today, bizarre villains are reminiscent of Dick Tracy, the comic strip where bizarre villainy reached what is perhaps its apotheosis. But the most-parodied cartoon feature of all time is probably Goofus & Gallant, which generations of American children were exposed to in Highlights for Children magazine, a fixture in pediatricians' waiting rooms since 1946.

The feature wasn't a comic strip, where a sequence of pictures tells a story. It was created by commercial artist Anni Matsick, whose other credits include a host of children's book and magazine illustrations, but no comics. Matsick did the feature in Highlights starting in 1948, and it became familiar to America's youth during all the decades since. It consisted of a pair of illustrations of two boys, Goofus and Gallant, responding to the same situation in contrasting ways, designed to convey "proper" versus "improper" behavior by offering them up as positive and negative role models.

Goofus was the jerk, as the young reader could easily see from his sour facial expressions and his messy hair. His behavior was always rude, selfish and counter-productive. Gallant, always smiling and perfectly groomed, was the one kids were supposed to emulate. He was polite and considerate at all times. Their little episodes didn't rise to the level of morality plays, because that would require a story with a minimum, at least, of complexity — but it was clear who was the good guy and who the kids weren't supposed to act like.

That clarity, the sharp contrast between the two, is what made the feature so ripe for parody. Children could easily see they were being manipulated. They read "Goofus & Gallant" not because it was capable of holding their interest and keeping them entertained for an appreciable amount of time, but because it was so short, and its lesson so obvious, that they could instantly absorb it and get on to stuff that was more fun. Their feature became a metaphor for preachy adults telling them what to do. But it did so in tiny snippets, and if it was barely even sugar-coated, that was okay because it didn't last long.

But those tiny episodes continued relentlessly, issue after issue, while their readers grew up and introduced their own children and grandchildren to its minimal but easily-experienced charms. In 1996, the black and white feature switched to colored pencils. Since 2005, it's been done as full-color computer graphics. But Goofus and Gallant themselves haven't changed a bit

They haven't been collected in book form, produced as animation, or spun off in any other way. Nor have they generated enough interest for merchandised products based on them to be viable. But they've become a familiar element of American culture, to the point where Beavis & Butt-head can say they admire Goofus, not Gallant, and get a laugh without any other description. Parodies range from depicting them as adults or in exotic situations, to describing how Gallant eventually snaps and murders Goofus with his bare hands.

But their message, such as it is, is timeless. So the feature will probably continue, in its unobtrusive but penetrating way, for a long time to come. And so will its endless parodies.

— DDM

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Text ©2008 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Highlights for Children.