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Close Strip Reading of Ola and Per Episodes
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Ola and Per strips

Close Strip Reading

After delighting in a comic strip, such as Ola and Per by Peter Rosendahl, we may like to learn something more, such as how to go below the strip's surface in rewarding or professional ways. The reward of learning to read strips carefully, skilfully, may be wisdom, and in some cases understanding that helps handling. Basic, close reading of strip episodes may lead into that. It is a good way to get into the terrain, so to speak. In this case it may be helped by a strip which is one of the cultural treasures or Norwegian Americans. In its slapstick ways Rosendahl's strip serves as a good reminder of difficult times coupled with Norwegian-American history and footing in the Midwest in particular.

For strip reading the difficulties may even be many times greater than for close reading of literature, for in strips, drawings and texts combine in one narrative function. Repetitive images and recognisable symbols are used very commonly and form a pictorial vocabulary that may be variously interpreted. The understanding gleaned from a study depends on skills in reading texts; the context; conventions of the genre, if any; skills in observing drawings; in recall of the material, in cognitive appraisal to be built up; and on cultural and individual perspectives. Associations go into subjective interpretations. "To interpret an art, we need to know its essence, its defining qualities; and with the art of comics, that requires understanding its origin," David Carrier puts it. An integrative way of putting such factors together is what we need, and a combination of Erwin Panofsky's method and that of Jungian dream analysis is appropriate, along with other elements as required. [288]

The following material is adjusted from chapter 5 in a major thesis in "American Civilization: Norwegian Immigrant History" at the University of Trondheim.


By paying close attention to how panels and episodes in a series of strips unfold, we open a window to several problems and underlying conditions of prairie farmers and Norwegian-Americans in particular, but also some that are related to the New Continent and accommodating to it around World War I and a long way towards World War II. In particular, Rosendahl's strip documents Norwegian-American farm life in its special ways, although sounder sides to farmers may be underscored in it. We are to read and interpret the comic strip as entertainment which shows lots of problems.

There are many more caveats when it comes to the cultural situatedness of Norwegian Americans. One is that anyone is free to call himself Norwegian American after 2000, out of subjective affiliation, as a matter of personal choice and not inheritance. Further, it was Norwegian American immigrant farmers of former times that were typified by Ola and Per. As for immigrants, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1918-2008), originator of several universities, says,

In the past, the mixing of cultures has been a drag on progress. People from one land, when they live in another's always miss their old habits and surroundings . . . The fact is that each land has a different culture according to its geographic and climatic conditions . . . When a person moves to another land, his nervous system tries to adapt and often does succeed to a large extent. But even if the person fails to adapt to just one small factor, that will become a drag for him and for the host culture . . . This mixing destroys cultures and hampers cultural integrity. [287]

Some parts of Maharishi's quotation well describe major predicaments in Ola and Per. Equally significant, in line with Maharishi's take the aborigines of Tasmania could have escaped the drag on their progress, and those of Australia too, and Native Americans, if people from far away had not settled and taken over. The "host-cultures" of aborigines of the U.S.A., Australia and almost all other places in the world have suffered outrages, and many are done in the name of God even as we speak, in South America, for example. The tactful phrases of Jerome Bruner about "cultural situatedness" and how to gain competence in a culture may be elaborated on in far crasser ways that I have chosen here. Bruner explores the issue of achieving an individual competence that equips individuals to participate in the culture on which life and livelihood depend. Such quite disturbing observations may come to the fore from close strip reading, as a matter of fact. It may remove some blinkers from our eyes, at least for some time. Much depends on our main adaptations, which tend to be selfishly selective.

What is called sensible knowledge may be of many sorts, and may be had in a variety of ways. One is by counting. For example, a count shows there are thirty-six instances of voluntarily violent conduct in the corpus: the selection of strips to consider. A list:

  • Lars throwing chimney bricks at his family (485),
  • Lortesubba Slurkerud shooing off Per and Ola with a broom (441),
  • Mari kicking Ola out of the house literally (160),
  • Mari kicking Værmor out of the house (556),
  • Ola blowing up Blacks who are eager for a meal, using dynamite (328),
  • Ola hitting a robber in the head with a horse-shoe (440),
  • Ola resorting to violence against three other fellows and scaring off seven others (269),
  • Ola throwing Værmor out of his house when Værmor prepares to wallop his wife (186),
  • Ola walloping Per when Per laughs at Per's misfortune (231),
  • Per and Ola kicking two bandits (534),
  • Per hitting Ola in the head (140),
  • Per hitting Ola in the head with an ax blow (70),
  • Per shooting his mother-in-law, mistaking her legs for a rooster's legs (167),
  • Per striking at others blindly (113),
  • Per throwing a chiropractor out of the window (127),
  • Per's farm dog driving the sheriff high up in a tree (586),
  • Polla cutting the nose-tip of Lars without any indications of remorse (135),
  • Polla hitting Per with her umbrella (114),
  • Polla raging with jealousy (121, 123),
  • Polla shooting Lars (129),
  • Værmor boxing Lars straight in the face after a cow licked her face (183),
  • Værmor breaking a board over Per's head from behind (406),
  • Værmor breaking an ax by wilfully hitting Lars on the head with it (250),
  • Værmor felling a tree with kidnappers in the branches, and shooting at them, having a gun in each hand in hot pursuit (523),
  • Værmor hitting Lars in the head with a large microphone (468),
  • Værmor hitting Per with a rolling pin so that it breaks and he is thrown out of a window for telling a joke she did not need (181),
  • Værmor putting Lars head down into a barrel of fodder for hogs, singing "Oh, tra la la" afterward (492),
  • Værmor smashing a bottle in the face of Lars (249),
  • Værmor smashing her portrait over the head of the artist Lars (497),
  • Værmor smashing the jug of Lars in his face (219),
  • Værmor threatening Lars with a gun in his face (263),
  • Værmor throwing a hatchet into the face of Per (431),
  • Værmor throwing a pot of hot porridge over the head of Per (175),
  • Værmor throwing a rolling pin at the farm owner, and shooing him off (585),
  • Værmor throwing an electric implementation at the back of Lars' head (506),
  • Værmor throwing pans and other things at hen-pecked Lars (273),

The list above is close to being conclusive, and reveals that 6.5 percent of the corpus contains dangerous, willed violence. In 23 of these 36 instances (64%) women are the violators. The question is "What do these counts mean?" Answers may be had by pondering: reflecting and thinking deeply. For example, some of the violence of Rosendahl's strip may be ascribed to the slapstick genre, where moral and roles may be reversed for comical effects, as Birgit Hertzberg Kaare tells, based on the so-called Norwegian humor investigation. Humorous situations may occur in situations where roles are reversed or changed or limits are stretched also. Thus, humorous reversals and humorous stretching of limits for entertainment could at least partially be a reason why Norwegian Americans in the strip are aggressive and violent, and that the women in Rosendahl's strip are more violent than the men in it. Other suggestive explanations are possible too. [288a]

One more and somewhat related point is that it is a very typical feature of the strip that men grapple with machinery and deal with animals in reckless ways and an aggressive vein too. Such instances of aggressiveness are not captured by the count above; it shows only human-human interactions.

At the onset of his career as strip maker, Rosendahl was under to pressure to draw violent happenings. He chose so himself. One of his early, topical sketches show a farmer drowning a mouse in his "good soup," Buckley observes and documents. Rosendahl's private motives for making a strip filled with accidents and violence is of no concern in this thesis. Yet, one may suggest and assess how the strip effects readers: I think it is normal that peaceful, reasonable persons feel apalled by the uncouth and gross conduct, including the stereotyped violence, as a "solution" or resolution over and over, in one episode after another. A book about the history of humor, edited by Jan Bremmer, shows that what people laugh at changes in time, and one may quite suspect that brutish and coarse humor appeals mostly to brutish and course persons. Very sensitive, caring persons may not appreciate Rosendahl's strip altogether. [289]

A. Drawing on Elements from New Criticism

What is important in the game of interpretation is not the answer you come up with . . . What's important is how you get there, what you do with the details of the text in relating them to your answer. - Jonathan Culler [285]

We may benefit from learning how to evaluate fairly. Misjudging stems from such as bias; not being well informed and trained in a thing - maybe conform attitudes too. Close strip reading offers help, although skills in offering criticism may not be easily won.

Close strip reading derives in part from procedures and strategies in the New Criticism, and presuppositions of phenomenology, linguistics, psychoanalysis, structuralism, and deconstruction may serve as well "for reflecting on literature and other cultural products." In the New Criticism, practical criticism involves the close reading of individual texts with particular attention to their intrinsic verbal texture and structure. In Practical Criticism I. A. Richards analyzes the responses of his students to poems unfamiliar to them in order to point out characteristic errors in interpretation: mnemonic irrelevances, stock responses, doctrinal adhesions, technical presuppositions, general critical presuppositions, and so forth. To counteract such "clowning" one may profit from combining background knowledge with the essential features of strips in general, and the applied Jungian schematization and Panofsky's method. [286]

B. Panofsky's Method

Erwin Panofsky's (1892-1968) searching and interpretive method from the history of art can be applied to Ola and Per. Panofsky divides the interpretation of a work of art into three phases:

  1. In the pre-iconographic phase descriptions are quite sketchy and focus preferably on what appears most essential
  2. In the iconographic phase one aims to identify and analyze what the displayed motif signifies its images, stories, and allegories.
  3. In the iconological phase one aims to interpret the possible, inner, deeper, and subtler meanings involved, for example a somewhat disguised symbolism.

Knowledge of the work's genre and cultural period and an artist's development are useful in Panofsky's composite method. A thorough and comprehensive cultural-historical orientation could be needed. Accordingly, background information about ethnic farmer families in the Midwest are much useful for getting to grips with Rosendahl's strip so as to discern what it is about. Panofsky's all-round method ranges data from up to three levels in an attempt to weave the main threads together to the end of understanding sides to a work more thoroughly. This last stage is related to Dvorak's Kunstgeschicthe als Geistesgeschichte. Panofsky explicitly links up to the philosophy of Ernst Cassirer. [290]

In Ola and Per Rosendahl uses features one also finds in artwork of the Catholic Church, including emblems or "insignia." He also uses a design of panels where one scene leads to another, as in Catholic wallpainting in Churches, on altars and around altars. But in contrast to church scenes for illiterates he uses words in speech bubbles, a cartoon feature. He comes close to painted and woven scenes of saints and episodes of saints in the Church, with its painted "folk heroes" saints and further - for centuries. However, Rosendahl seems far more inspired by contemporary cartoon drawings than the Church, and "It is noticeable that the Church plays a far less vital role in the comic strip than in the real life of immigrant Norwegians. Church is barely mentioned (38, 182)," says Einar Haugen. Now the obvious parallellism allows one to draw on thinking, methods and philosophy parts from the history of art, which is a rich field. And so is the much American genre og strips, "one of the liveliest cultural offshoots of our slam-bang civilization," in the words of William Laas. The wedding of pictures and text goes back to antiquity, with quite fine wallpainting examples from ancient Egypt, while the modern comic strip and its Americanized form and conventions igo back to the 1890s. [291]

Panofsky's method leads to a selection of artistically viewed insignificant items which serves as tokens and cues to the background, or era, or conventions of the time the strip was made, for Panofsky presupposes there is some causal connection between the idea-historical background and the strip episode under study. With Panofsky's method, the form of the episode is not the main object of study; analysis of form is serves the description of the episode. His approach is to try to find mental images and ideas that conform to the athmosphere of the work in question. In this case it is the atmosphere of uncouth farmland manners and conventionalized heroes of Norwegian Americans. [292]

Panofsky's approach supposes that some paintings can be carriers of disguised symbolism, and John Bengtson goes into such aspects of Ola and Per when he characteriszes and interprets characters, Per included. To Bengtson Per represents a soul and "noble folly", one whose initial, cigar-puffing optimism comes to a sorry end and who "is nervous and excitable. His hat symbolically holds the nervous energy in, while his cigar smoking suggests a thermal output of that energy." [293]

A hat does not have to represent something like that, and there is ample reason to hold that in some cases a hat is just a hat as well, as when the inveterate cigar-smoker Freud said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. The example above serves to point out that interpretative activities at large can yield findings that are interesting, but not very much documented. As in physics the fit response seems to be, "That is interesting, my good man. Now prove it."[FN30] As for what is good enough substantiation, opinions differ, even widely, and interpreters differ. Interpretations rest on activities that tend to make many of them partial, not unqualified, and with somewhat limited validity. In such a process one needs to reckon with that some forms of symbols are what some persons take to be symbols, and that opinions differ. That is where Panofsky's method comes in to ensure a deep and broad coverage of a work, in our case a strip or a strip episode. Interpreters uses symbols and other representational elements to arrive at deeper meanings, if that can be. [294]

Panofsky's approach can be used for discerning main parts of a strip episode. His three-layered method also depends on background knowledge, and more than a smattering of knowledge from the psychology of perception. His basic method is easily integrated in a close strip reading, which is phenomenological. Also, the ability to perceive and recognize shapes and designs can be trained, Tony Buzan and others document. [295]

Panofsky's Method May be Complemented with that of Heinrich Wölfflin

Not every art critic agrees with Panofsky. Sir Ernst Gombrich, for example, debates the role of convention in representation. Perspective, he argues against Panofsky, shows how things really appear - it is not merely a form of symbolic representation. Gombrich allows that there are conventional elements in representation though. And in comics almost everyone agrees that the speech balloon (but not the narrative sequence) is purely conventional, informs David Carrier. The concept of convention is elusive and subtle, he adds. Panofsky often seems to presuppose a causal connection between the idea-historical background and the making of a piece of art, such as an episode. Presuppositions need to be taken into account too, not just considerations of how far paintings as carriers of a disguised symbolism. [296]

Culler observes, "Variations in narration and focalization do much to determine the overall effect." It may also serve to ponder, "Who speaks what language? . . . Who speaks with what authority?" Further, the perspective a reader puts on an episode may influence the result of it: "One should strive to achieve something original and innovative," assert Amigoni and Sanders. Thus, reader's intentions easily influence the result of reading into the strip. That is a factor to reckon with; that the outcome of reading Ola and Per differs, not only with one's background and closeness of experiences, but also with one's deep attitudes, expectations, intentions, strivings, and interests, just as the Robert Rosenthal effect of "self-fulfilling prophesies" predicts: that for example teacher expectations and stereotypes, once activated, can quite automatically influence the behavior and grades of students, and sometimes outside the awareness of the teachers. Self-fulfilling prophesies influence both overt behavior and self-views. Stereotypes held about a group can also be self-confirming or self-fulfilling and are realized as prejudices. There is also something to ponder in "To the shallow all seems shallow, as if by necessity." [297]

To revert to Cullers words about focalization: What is brought to a focus in the strip, how that is accomplished and by what means, can also be interesting to some. It shows up, for example, that Han Ola og han Per is much closer to Florentine Renaissance art than baroque art when it comes to style of presentation. The Swiss Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945) studied formal components of style in paintings. Elements he scrutinized were the handling of drawing, composition, light, color, subject matter, and other pictorial elements of a particular painter, historical period or national school. Wölfflin developed a set of concepts to apply on works of art from different schools or genres or periods. His constructs allow us to judge to what degree Rosendahl's strip drawings are similar to the postulated (Florentine) Renaissance parameters or to hallmarks of Baroque paintings. The use of contrasting parameters in pairs helps some clarification. [298]

Two Styles of Painting, from Wöllflin

Florentine Renaissance Baroque
1. Linearity Painterly
2. The use of planes (gradient lines)Focus on depth
3. A quite closed form Open form
4. Multiplicity (many objects in a panel etc.)Unity
5. Presentational clarity Obscurity

Source: Larsson 24-28

In applying Wölfflin's five parameters to Ola and Per, we may conclude something about the strip as a whole, or about single episodes, for example.

1. Episode 30, A Quaint Way of Catching Rats, is characterized by contour drawings and with only meager use of shadows. Hence, the episode is far more marked by linearity than by painterly depictions.

2. As for the second parameter, Rosendahl uses central perspective in his panels - his use of planes and gradient lines are part of that way of drawing, much as they did in the early Renaissance when people had rediscovered or discovered it. Lise Gotfredsen talks of various mental effects the use of various perspectives can have on viewers. However, such assessment may be somewhat speculative.

3. In judging whether the form of an episode is closed or open, one has to conclude on the basis of the separate panels in it. If the episode as a whole seems to tell all that is interesting in the scene, it tends toward a closed form, which is more like an overview than a close-up. We have something in between closed and open form here. Many modern strips may contain more of the Baroque "cut off" style of uncompleted figures and the like, with more focus on details, including faces.

4. As for the fourth parameter, there tends to be more than one object in an episode. A question is to what degree they combine to form a unity. I would say the episode tends toward a Baroque-looking style in this respect.

5. The episode is not obscure at all. It may in part be ascribed to the medium, the printing-press and its technical limitations at the time the strip was designed.

IN SUM. On the basis of the five parameters we have found that Rosendahl's output tends more toward Renaissance design than Baroque design, although there are many baroque elements: it tends towards violence and at times something quite grotesque. [299]

Knowledge of Panofsky's three stages or levels in the appropriation of paintings and other works of art first observe, next interpret, and finally draw in background knowledge that includes the elements maker, genres, eras and world views, allows one to integrate perceptions and ideas about a single episode with the wider context to the end of arriving at deeper outlooks. It this case it is themes of Rosendahl's strip what it is about above and below the surface of first appearance. Thus, by focusing on assorted elements in an episode it is possible to arrive at deeper understanding of the episode and Rosendahl's whole strip. That is the idea. Complementing Panofsky's method with Heinrich Wölfflin's postulates about styles is at times enlightening, because style is of form and is another side to the work as a whole, and it is the work as a whole that influences the reader.

Now follows a few examples of Panofsky's method applied to the strip. [300]

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Three Examples

1. Example 1: "Lars is inventive" (Episode 376)

Weekly strips usually consist of four horisontal panels, as in Lars is Inventive. - Ola, Per, and Lars are the persons that appear in the strip. They seem to be on a farm: they are so too, as shown by related strips. The landscape is quite flat, but not completely. Gradient lines mark sloven hills. Clouds are in the background of each panel. The ground is marked by convential images of grass in all four panels.

Pre-iconographic level: Description


In the first panel the three men are discussing a pie that lies on a chopping block. They signal they are having difficulties with dividing the pie: Ola has spoiled his axe on it, so Lars wants to take the pie to a blacksmith's shop, assumedly a smithy on the farm.


In the second panel Ola and Per talk among themselves about the pie and Lars, and wait for him to return.


In the third panel Ola and Per stand outside the smithy where they converse with Lars through the open window. It was no use cutting it up, he tells.


In the fourth panel Lars surprises Ola and Per by coming out with a "dandy milking stool" made out of the pie.

Iconographic Level: Analysis

The stances of the men seem to express they are puzzled. Their activities show they want to find a way to divide an abnormally hard pie, but in the end that project is given up, so that the uneatable pie becomes a milking stool. Lars seems satisfied with his work, while Ola and Per are surprised, as shown by the conventional strip sign ?.

The drawings show quite large sections of a landscape with little in it but the bare farm elements, and a few details of a farm smithy.

The strip anecdote is about how impossible food is put to some other use, but it is slapstick.

The setting is farm life, where almost all things are utilized. Assumedly, part of the humor stems from this aspect of pioneer living.

Iconological Level Depth analysis

The objects of this one strip include the axe of bare-headed Ola; the very long ovenpipe hat of Lars, the derby of Per, and also the chopping block. These objects stand out among what is represented. A farmland horizon is seen too, and there is a pie that is turned into a stool by human dexterity, by Lars. Such handiness comes as a little surprise to Ola and Per.

If something deeper is to be read into the strip, the core element to me is the uneatable pie that is made into a milking stool, not by necessity, and not as a result of demands from a feared Værmor who made the pie. Lars plays a prank on her, his wife, someone that others fear because she frequently resorts to ruthless violence. The pie suggests an uneatable demand at first. It is converted by ingenuity into something that looks useful in a humorous and outré way.The milking stool might represent better conditions (provided there are milk cows).

Now most of the amusement evolves along such lines. In the background of such a scenario lies the fact that settling farmers had to be resourceful. But in its context, at least on the surface it serves to make fun of Værmor, the one who baked the inedible pie and offered it to Ola and Per.

Example 2: "Lars Can't Hoodwink Værmor So Easily" (219)

Pre-iconographic Level of Surface Descriptions

In episode 219 there are four strip panels. The characters that are shown in the first panel are Per's mother-in-law,Værmor, Lars, Per, and Ola. Værmor welcomes Per's brother Lars. Ola and Per are standing nearby, a yard or so away from Lars. The landscape is flat and grassy (by cartoon conventions, at least).


All the four of them meet near a porch or platform, most likely the farm porch of Per. All seem polite, all are smiling. Lars lifts his tall hat and bows courteously while holding a jug in his left hand. She greets by "hee, hee," and he by "heh heh."


Now she points to the jug that Lars carries, and asks as if suddenly changing her mood, if ill-tempered, "What do you have in that jug?" Lars seems taken aback, puts the jug behind his back and "sweats" (conventional cartoon sign of astonishment, great surprise etc), standing right in front of her, at about a meter's distance.


She has gotten hold of the jug, holds it in front of her face, looking into it. Lars has still a defensive posture while she bends a bit over the jug. He says it is just black molasses in it.


She does not believe him; the ill-tempered woman hits him in the head with the jug so that it breaks, saying, "You can't fool me!" Lars is knocked off his feet and his hat falls off him.

Iconographic Level of Analysis and Identifications

"Old folks meet again" sums up parts of the episode on this level. Features that stand out in it are the attraction between the old couple, her nosy suspicions, violence and ill-temper, his jug, and that she hits him, an academic doctor. As the strip often depicts otherwise as well, coarse, brutish violence is often her reaction or "solution" to problems. No wonder the survivor Lars in time exchanges her for a peanut roaster after many ignominies. Having heard that Congress has passed a "wife exchange" law, Lars seizes the opportunity (578). [301]

The anecdote (episode 219) is about old acquaintances meeting again. In episode 164 the mother of Per's wife Polla comes to visit them, and remains. And Lars, who returned to the area from New York after graduating as a chiropractor there (171), met her in episode 179, when she throws out some slop water through the door and inadvertently hits him with it. In that episode he starts out nicely dressed, using a cane and wearing a silk hat, and thinking his brother has a pretty miserable home. gave him a wet reception inadvertently. Then, in 183 he and Værmor site on a bench together. A cow comes up to Værmor from behind and licks her face. She thinks it is Lars and hits him violently in the face. And in episode 188 they work together with Ola and Per to rescue a bull.

And now, in episode 219 they meet again. Lars has survived a miserable expedition with his brother Per and Ola (197 ff); Lars is the outstanding survivor, really (211 ff). He gets back to his brother by sending himself C.O.D. express (218), and when he gets out of the box, he meets Værmor again, presumably near the porch on Per's farm yard.

What is implied in the episode is that doctor Lars lies about what is in the jug, and that his jug contains alcohol. He says the jug contains molasses, but is never believed till one of the very last episodes (588), where he actually pours molasses from his jug on some pancakes and says he has never had anything else on the jug. Still, previous episodes allude to him as a drinker. The first suspicion is roused in episode 76. Later, in episode 137 he seems to drink in abject loneliness. The title goes far in saying he has gone boozing for Christmas. In episode 148 he carries a jug of mooonshine, but as it happens, it is not his own jug! Yet the strip's title says he is on a spree again - Then, in episode 149 Lars lies sleeping heavily with a jug by his side and we suspect he is drunk from how deeply he sleeps while Ola takes his pants off Lars.

In episode 151 he is standing in a car while drinking glug, glug from a jug. But viscous black molasses hardly gives rise to such sounds. It is during this span of episodes (137-151) that Lars comes to be associated with a jug, after great deprivations. He does not carry one before.

And then he meets the old woman (179, 183) that he later marries and next tries to trade away for a peanut roaster, falls from a plane into Lake Superior (197), makes a spooky return when he comes out of a whole in the ice, (211), gets captured and tied to a tree by Native Americans that dance in a circle around him whyle carrying hatchets. He throws his jug at them (212). Then he is ready to meet Værmor again, after sending himself C.O.D. express, because of lack of money.

In such a wider scenario it stands out that Per's mother-in-law and Lars are meeting each other once again, and that there is something between them, as suggested by their laughs. She and Doctor Lars do fall in love and get unhappily married (228, 249, 250, 273, etc.). A philosopher may say many a relationship shows what must pass in time, that what is decreed to become something of the past. [302] If so, terrible things are bound to become something of the past for Lars as he survives blow after blow.

From what later takes place between them this little will do: He is in the middle of proposing to her when the two of them get attacked by wasps (228). Later he is distractedly dreaming of wedding bells (234). And then, somewhere between episode 234 and 246, probably, they get married, for in episode 246 Værmor says Lars drank himself right to death, just a moment before he surprisingly arrives from Canada as a "party crasher", and in episode 250 he speaks of the hag as his wife: "My wife will have nothing to do with me any more," he says. He then tries to read a poem to her to mellow her, but when the poem comes to "your nose is most like a rake", she hits him on the head with an axe. It is such a terrible blow that the axe breaks and he gets a headache that it "spills over" into the next episode - where she causes a little rockslide, and a stone that is larger than his head, hits his bandaged head fatally and unexpectedly from behind.

In episode 258 she is as crabby as ever when he sings her a ballad and plays his guitar beneath her window. From the lyrics we learn they got married and went to Canada. Rosendahl's strip does not actually show the wedding; episode 258 exposes that loose end.

Wherever I wander, south or north,

Your equal I'll never find on earth.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

my path through life is lonely and long.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

remember we married last year,

And fared out on Canada's plains, my dear.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I promised I'd always be faithful to you.

She rewards his efforts by dropping a flower-pot on his head from the first floor.

Lovoll documents that intermarriages in the Norwegian-American ethnic group were common. Rosendahl suggests the price to pay in such a case, against the Swedish proverb that says secret things are to be kept silent and not shown up. Lönnliga ting ska man lönnligen bära, in Swedish. One can also interpret the episode in the light that he who has got into trouble, is often scorned on top of it: Spott och skada följeas gärna åt. [303]

The "secret content" of the jug was not her business before they were wed. Her nosy and suspicion-ridden behavior serves to take Lars aback, and seem somewhat suspect. Soon she calls him a liar and hits him severely, which is a criminal act, a great offence, and a humiliation of Lars.

Even though many episodes (219, 148, 149, 378-80, 588) lead readers into thinking that the jug of Lars contains alcohol, and shows his "penchant for liquor", as Haugen puts it. He also says, "He claims that he has never had anything in it but malassi 'molasses', but his inebriated actions belie the claim. In strip 148 he falls on one side of the fence and his jug on the other, and as the contents trickle out, he moans: "I hear your voice, but I can't help you". However, it was not his own jug he was carrying in it, but some moonshine they had come across in the woods, and that he was taking to the sheriff's office. Bengtson also says, "In one of the last strips of the series doubt is even cast on Lars' alcoholism." [304]

From the wider scenario we see such things "condensed", as it were, in episode 210. and that the characters in it have their emblems. "Lars' emblems are his long scraggly beard, a hat that grows longer with the years, and a jug of moonshine," says Bengtson. (14]. And the woman, "is usually carrying her emblems, implements of work such as a rolling pin, chore pail or pitchfork, which can double as weapons." [305]

Iconological Level of Interpretation

The two main characters of episode 219 are an older woman and an older man, greeting one another in a farm yard. Their interactions start very courteously and end in gruff brutality. The old man with the tall hat and long beard becomes the victim of uncivic ways. The ill-tempered woman's politeness is skin deep only.

Both speak Norwegian, except for three broken English words. They are fule, fool, juggen, the jug, and malasi, molasses. Another word, madam, might possibly be French. It could be English as well. Compare a saying, "A fool could be a gentleman if he could speak French." The rest of the conversation is in Norwegian dialect and Dano-Norwegian.

The two elderly persons later marry, so the man does not know what is all right for himself. A battering wife is bad, just as the Bible is into: "A wife of noble character is her husband's crown, but a disgraceful wife is like decay in his bones." As it is, statistics give evidence of a high degree of intragroup marriage for Norwegian Americans. Lovoll writes that almost two-thirds of the emigrants in the final mass exodus from Norway were between fifteen and twenty-five years old, mainly ordinary workers. But as Norway modernized and became more urban, engineers, artists, and other professionally trained people emigrated too. Lars is of the latter kind. In the 1920s emigration was curtailed by quota laws. Also, the war years produced a long break in migration. Thus the influx of fresh blood receded. [306]

They meet near a farm porch, reflecting in "a hazy way" that "Norwegians became the most rural of any immigrant group in the nineteenth century, as Lovoll writes . Lars strives to accommodate to life in the countryside in his way too, but his "long hat that grows longer with the years" comes in the way. The hat may serve as a symbol of the highest, theoretical education, at least theology. "From the start Lars is depicted as a well-schooled but unproductive individual, who 'has gone to school both in Oslo and Berlin, and not only that but he studied seven years for confirmation." "Doubt is thrown on his intellectual eminence by . . . that it took him seven years before the minister would admit him to confirmation, a process normally taking only one year," explains Haugen. If the height of the hat goes along with his seven years of religious training, the weight of the symbolism lies perhaps there. However, Lars often fails through inadequacy in practical handling, and his later wife fails in civic manners to such a degree that kidnappers offer her a thousand dollars to get rid of her (521-23). [307]

Now to the degree the hat of Lars symbolizes his high and narrow education in theology, he is supposedly good at theoretical knowledge, although he seldom finds practical outlets for it. That is a problem for him. What was needed among Midwestern farmers at the time was perhaps years of hard work, rather. All four Norwegian Americans strive to settle as farmers, more or less. The ending of the strip find all of them heading for Norway on vacation, all but Lars, who misses the plane. If interpreted as the final verdict in the stream of happenings that led to the strip, and the closing of it, Lars, the old, educated in theology, a chiropractor and reducing specialist (462), becomes the survivor in the end. And as a matter of fact, the young American nation went for colleges and universities and other schools of education on an unprecedented scale. It was in part out of the great need to accommodate to the new land, in part out of the need to do well too. And the market for "redoosing specialists" has grown exceedingly great. Lars, who often vacillates (436) between settling and moving away to New York for chiropractor schooling to Los Angeles for pretty women to Canada for escape, alcohol and his woman Lizzie he is the one who remains, as his "high hat" of education could foster better control in time. He is not steady, he also went quite mad for a while (479-88), and he is fit for America, despite all appearances. That is quite a subsumed message. I guess there is room for alternative interpretations.

It is possible to read a strip episode in the light of the whole strip and interpret the characters as focal figures - within reasonable bounds. The general conditions and trends of the ethnic group of Rosendahl are reflected in his strip in artistic, grotesque and somewhat idiosyncratic ways.

Example 3: "Polla Tries Her Hand in the Barn" (102)

Pre-iconographic Level of Surface Descriptions

In episode 102 there are four strip panels from left to right. The characters through the episode are Per, Ola, Per's wife Polla, and a cow in her stall. The action takes place on a farm. The landscape is quite flat grassland; the ground is marked by conventional signs of grass or grass tufts. Gradient lines mark sloven hills. A few clouds are hovering over the horizon in the first two panels. The two final panels show the inside of a barn.


In the first panel the husband Per asks his plump city wife to milk the cow.


In the second panel Ola and Per leave the farm yard, and the wife carries a bucket to the barn. The scene is set.


In the third panel the wife is in the barn, wondering how to get milk out of the cow.


In the fourth panel she has put her pail beneath the cow's udder and climbed the milking stool and started to crank the cow's tail like a T Ford of the times. Einar Haugen's comment: "Polla reveals that she is a city girl, probably born in America . . . she is ignorant of the techniques of farming: when asked to milk a cow, she tries to start it by cranking its tail as if it were a model T Ford." [308]

Iconographic Level of Analysis and Identifications

A farmer, Per, has married a city girl, and asks her to milk their cow. It is obvious she has not done it before, and that things take time with inexperienced people.

The setting is farm life, and show that some things do not work out as expected. To me, the anecdote is about how inexperience leads to funny results at times, and also how inexperience and adaptations to machines maddens farm work. A mechanical cow that yields milk has not been made yet. But Per once did - he thought (386, 387).

Iconological Level of Interpretation

The city-bred wife goes with a bucket to the barn to milk and fails out of ineptitude. The episode seems to pokes fun of city women who are inexperienced with farm life. City folks "out of their waters" in the country may be made fun of; that is a recurrent theme in other places too, and vice versa for hicks in town. The woman fails, but shows rapport with the technological strides of the times by trying to crank the cow. The fun lies in just that.

The cranking foolishness may be taken to suggest family living or farm living endangered by adapting unwisely to machines. Admittedly, that theme emerges from the background and many other strips. Very deep themes may not be clearly discernible at first look, some may first be discerned after pondering many episodes while considering the context and the times they were produced in and reflect or serve as antidotes or comments on, as the case may be. Buckley holds largely the same views on the strip as a comment on family adaptations and threats to the family. Polla's behavior was of the times, as evidenced by T. Hughes in American Genesis. In the book we are told of such men as the inventor Nikola Tesla, a Serbian-American inventor and researcher, first employed by Thomas A. Edison, and later establishing his own laboratory. Among very many other things he found that the Earth could be used as a conductor and would be as responsive as a tuning fork to electrical vibrations of a certain frequency, and claimed he had invented a death ray capable of destroying 10,000 airplanes at a distance of 400 kilometres. This genius in the field of high-voltage electricity once offered the Westinghouse Company a patent on a technique for artificially raising chickens with a feed he named Factor Auctus (Creator of Growth). "You will be grateful to me," he wrote, "when you get the delicious eggs and meat obtained by this revolutionary process." So when Polla's inventor-husband Per starts to force-feed pigs (16, see appendix), it does reflect the times times when inventors such as Edison took out more than one thousand patents, Elmer Sperry over 300 patents, Elihu Thomson took out 696 patents, and so on. [309]

Adding to Perspectives: Freud and Jung

A Freudian may interpret the bucket as a token of the vagina: Many hollow things are interpreted that way in Freudianism. And milk - the flow of sustenance - is not got this time, due to inexperience. However, Freudian analysis suggests reductionism and thereby oversimplifications are possible too. A Jungian might instead hold that the city wife had not been taught or given time to find out how to differentiate the cow's functions: "Fusion with the irrelevant precludes direction; only a differentiated function is capable of being directed," claims Carl G. Jung. He also finds that an "undifferentiated function is characterized by ambivalence," basically. Ambivalence could make some of us pity the wife, and make others laugh at her, or make us both pity her and laugh at her." [310]

Jung also says that "The flow of energy has a definite direction (goal) in that it follows the gradient of potential in a way that cannot be reversed." This woman's libido appears to be left behind as to the differentiations needed for successful functioning as a farmer's wife, at least in this incident." [311]

A Jungian would also say that Polla exhibits "too much libido" for cranking the cow, and he would search for a "hidden place where the libido dwells" instead of making regression a topic. As for getting milk by cranking the cow's tail a Jung quotation out of context may do: "Naturally this aim is pathological." [312]

Hence, a Jungian outlook would be that the strip indicates a city-bred woman who is inexperienced and therefore unable to differentiate well enough what to do and how to go ahead as the wife on a farm. Her libido is channeled differently from all that is needed to keep a farm running. We can now form two hypotheses: a libido-related Jungian one, and a machine-related one that pertains to farm living.

Rosendahl's Whole Work is Expressive

Rosendahl's strip is "expressive" in the sense that features are simplified and stereotyped to make the action and its points stand out, partly by simple schemes, schemata. Thus he is able to express much with few words. The use of simple and at times uncouth drawings and the use of schemata for building episodes assist that very much. What is drawn in his panels almost never contains lavish detail. The focus is on expressing points. [313]

That the strip expresses "feeling" may be taken to mean it is expressive of human feeling. When Rosendahl's strip was young, the "new expression" (Cubism etc.) that Picasso, Braque, and other brave artists had achieved in the Old World became a springboard for many different developments in international art and design. This goes to say that when saying that a certain strip or work is expressive, there is a need to clarify that concept and determine whether or to what degree it is so, and also what it expresses. Humor and having fun with hardships and setbacks is one fronted aim of the strip. [314]

To top

Anecdotal Handling of Difficulties

In the strip, anecdotal episodes and stories reveal conditions and attitudes of Norwegian Americans three generations ago to the extent the author of the strip mirrors these well. An anecdote usually is a short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident, Merriam-Webster says. The content of the anecdote, which is a popular and versatile literary genre, may be related to the local culture. We may discern with Heinz Grothe between gossip anecdotes, anecdotes of social differences, historical anecdotes, anecdotes of being fellows, and wandering anecdotes. And through anecdotal stories country people remember funny incidents and persons, village originals, remarkable occurrences, buildings and things, says Ann Helene Skjelbred. [315]

People are entertained by and laugh at embarrassing social events and witty remarks and retorts "from a safe distance"; in present sitcoms it is used wholesale. The anecdote is understood as a story that tells something unusual about a person or persons, a happening, or a thing. It may quote a quick-witted remark or portray an unusual happening, writes Birgit H. Johnsen. Through the anecdotal form and its frames very many embarrassing incidents, social and other blunders, and faux pas may be very entertaining in time. Yet an anecdote will be a product of a recounter or author that people laugh at in such and most other cases of planned humor, much as the Finnish Olli Alho observes. [316]

Fanciful comic strips can suggest serious topics that are played on. Cartoons are a part of the daily lives of millions of people. Cartoons can be humorous or serious, realistic or fanciful, purely entertaining or bitingly satiric or a blend of some of these features. Today, the two main forms of cartoons are either in printed periodicals (newspapers, magazines, and comic books), or the animated. Common forms of print cartoons include comic strips. The comics pages of daily newspapers feature comic strips. A comic strip consists of two or more panels that tell a joke or present an episode in a continuing story. [317]

An abundance of violence may work as good entertainment. Rosendahl's strip has an anecdotal framework that is rooted in both Norwegian and American rural life. The anecdotes are about familiar characters, and typically end in a jocular disaster its resolution. "While there is an abundance of violence in the strip, no one dies and no one becomes seriously ill," Einar Haugen points out. Many folkloric anecdote types are well represented in Rosendahl's work, he says further, furnishes many examples, and sums it up: "Han Ola og han Per" afforded its readers entertainment . . . for its anecdotal form, ridiculing human folly." [318]

In such ways as those mentioned above and still more ways the anecdote may be a little piece of human experience transformed into art, just as Heinz Grothe observes. [319]


Close Strip Reading of Han Ola og Han Per Episodes, Literature  

Main source: Tormod Kinnes. The Humor of Han Ola og han Per Taken Seriously. Major Thesis in American Civilization. The English Section at the Department of Foreign Modern Languages. NTNU, Trondheim, Spring 2007 - See chapter 5, "Close Strip Reading" in it.

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Rosendahl, Peter Julius. More han Ola og han Per. A Norwegian-American Comic Strip. En norsk-amerikansk tegneserie, edited by Joan N. Buckley and Einar Haugen. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1988, xxi-xxii, 1-167. (Original printed in the Decorah-Posten).

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End Notes

[285] Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 127-28, 65.

[286] Culler 124; Abrams 108-10.

[287] From "Enlightenment and Invincibility", p. 141, quoted in Paul Mason, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi: The Biography of the Man Who Gave Transcendental Meditation to the World. (Online edition, 2004), Ch. 22, "Superpowers".

[288] Saraceni 25; Barker 51; Carrier 1-7; Rudolf Steiner, 1985.

[288a] Johnsen 21, 48

[289] Buckley 1988, xviii-ixx, xxii; Bremmer and Rodenburg, 7, 21-22.

[290] Panofsky 51-82; Lars Olof Larsson, Metodelære i kunsthistorie (Method Tenets in the History of Arts) . New ed (Oslo: Cappelen, 1997), 34-36.

[291] Haugen 1988, xi; Larsson 34-36; Laas in Bengtson 1; Janson and Janson 1997, 71.

[292] Panofsky 79; Larsson 35, 36.

[293] Bengtson 11, 13.

[294] Fadiman; Larsson 36; Panofsky.

[295] Buzan 1988a, Oddbjørn Evenshaug and Dag Hallen. Barne- og ungdomspsykologi (Oslo: Fabritius 1973), 1973, 47-48, 50-51; Buzan and Buzan.

[296] Gombrich 41-42; Carrier 1-7, passim; Larsson 35, 36.

[297] Culler 91, 88-89; David Amigoni and Julie Sanders, Get Set for English Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003), 42; Panofsky; Carolyn D. Smith, ed, et al. Hilgard's Introduction to Psychology, 14th ed (Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth, 2003), 651-53; Eliot R. Smith and Diane M. Mackie, Social Psychology. 2nd ed (Hove: Psychology Press, 2000), 94-95.

[298] in Larsson 24-28.

[299] Gotfredsen 105-7.

[300] Larsson 24-28.

[301] Haugen 1988, xi.

[302] Rudolf Steiner, 1988; Rudolf Steiner, 1919-20, Dec-Jan. Lecture 11.

[303] Holm 222, 310.

[304] Bengtson 15.

[305] Bengtson 15.

[306] Lovoll 1998, 188, 11; Book of Proverbs 12:4.

[307] Bengtson 14; Haugen 1984, 38; Lovoll 1998, 14.

[308] Haugen 1984, 28.

[309] Buckley 1984, 22; Hughes 67-69, 86.

[310] Carl G. Jung, Collected Works (New York: Pantheon (Bollingen Series, Vols 1-20), 1957-1979): "Definitions," Vol. 6, par. 705.

[311] Jung, Collected Works, "On Psychic Energy," ibid., pars. 2f.

[312] Jung, Collected Works, "Definitions," CW 6, par. 761 yet in another context.

[313] "Do not say a little in many words but a great deal in a few." Pythagoras, attributed.

[314] Norbert Lynton, The Story of Modern Art. 2nd ed (London: Phaidon, 1989), 61; Carsten-Peter Warnke. Pablo Picasso 1881- 1973. Vol 1, edited by Ingo Walther (Köln: Benedikt Taschen, 1995), 165 ff.

[315] Johnsen 1997, 39, 40, 41, 176

[316] Johnsen 1997, 39, 48, 49, 55, 56ff

[317] Britannica Student Encyclopedia. 2004, s.v. "cartoons." Britannica Online. 28 Oct. 2004. On-line

[318] Haugen 1988, ix, xii

[319] In Johnsen 1997, 39. Cf. Freud 1960.

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