‘Cartoonists,’ he says, ‘are the delinquent children of the arts’
Cartoonist Dik Browne is the first to admit he doesn’t have any personal fashion sense. But one day he outdid himself and, as he headed for the door in a horrendously clashing ensemble, his wife, Joan, eyed him incredulously. “I hope you get lost,” she chuckled, “so I can describe you to the police.”
It’s easier, in fact, to describe her husband than spell his name (he dropped the “c” in Dick as a headstrong teenager). Just turn to the funnies in almost any town and there Browne will be—thinly disguised as a victimized Viking named Hägar the Horrible. “You’d be surprised,” twinkles Hägar’s 61-year-old creator, “how many comic strip characters look like the cartoonists that draw them.”
Hägar is history’s average Viking: He loots, pillages, drinks and gets in trouble at home. He has no axes to grind other than the one he carries into battle. “I can’t give you wisdom,” reasons Browne, “so I settle for a giggle.” The cartoonist’s own smile comes from a six-figure income as author of the fastest-growing comic strip in history. After less than six years, Hägar last month joined Blondie, Peanuts and Beetle Bailey as the only comics now appearing in more than 1,000 newspapers. (The nine Hägar paperbacks have sold more than half a million.) In addition, Browne is the first artist to win two Reubens, the cartoonists’ Oscar, for different strips. (His first was for Hi & Lois, on which he still collaborates with Mort Walker.)
“Comedy is actually a second cousin to tragedy,” Browne says in explaining the birth of Hägar in 1973. He was then going through a traumatic year: His brother and father-in-law died, his sister and mother-in-law were seriously ill, and he suffered a detached retina that led to glaucoma. “I thought some Russian tragedian had taken over my life,” he recalls. His therapy was Hägar. The idea originated with his children, who used to yell, “Run, run, it’s Hägar the Horrible,” when he chased them around the house in mock rage. “Immediately, I thought Viking,” Dik remembers. “I mean, how many people walk around with horns on?” So there he was in the back of an ambulance with his son Chris, heading for an eye operation—and thinking up jokes that went from bad to Norse.
Of Irish lineage himself, Browne was raised in Manhattan and at 16 went to work as a newspaper copy boy. He wanted to be a reporter but, he admits, “I had absolutely no skill.” He was able to draw, however, and before long he found himself in the courtroom, sketching the Lucky Luciano trial, among others. After drawing maps and charts for the Army Corps of Engineers in World War II, Browne drifted into advertising where he redesigned the Campbell’s Soup kids and created Chiquita Banana. Then in 1954 he started drawing Hi & Lois.
Browne has lived in the same comfortable but unpretentious house in Wilton, Conn. since 1957 and is still married to his “Helga” after 36 years. Hägar has added a pool in the backyard and financed a winter home in Sarasota, “but I guess you could say my biggest luxury,” laughs the 260-pound artist, “is my stomach. If Danish pastries contained alcohol, I’d be in the gutter. I have no willpower.”