Screwball Sunday: Reflections and Shadows in Gene Ahern’s “The Squirrel Cage”

Above: The Squirrel Cage by Gene Ahern – December 13, 1936

You can’t outrace yourself but you can sure try hard. This is shown in today’s Screwball Sunday, an eructation-producing episode of The Squirrel Cage by that irrepressible devotee of ridiculous folly: Gene Ahern.

Running as a topper to Ahern’s Room and Board from 1936 to sometime around the early 1950s (the last strip date has yet to be determined, even after years of searching), The Squirrel Cage represents perhaps the single best comic strip expression of the theatre of the absurd.

Today’s example offers a delicious central conceit in which Ches or Wal tries 80 times to beat his reflection by running into a room and closing the door behind him first. Of course, he doesn’t succeed. As an aside, the brothers’ names are mentioned in the opening panel of the antecedent strip with the same characters, The Nut Brothers (which Ahern produced from 1931 to 1936) as “Ches and Wal” but we never know which is which—a gag worthy of Samuel Beckett which is reminiscent of Rube Goldberg’s similar trick with his twins, Mike and Ike. Therefore, in writing about these characters, one is consigned to say “Ches or Wal,” or perhaps “the slightly smarter one in the top hat.”

In panel two, Ahern delivers a wonderful meta-joke in which a speech balloon is reflected in a mirror. What makes this gag so fresh and startling, even after almost 100 years, is the curious fact that speech balloons are usually unseen—or at least ignored—by comic strip characters much in the way we tend to not notice our shadows.

In fact, Ahern replayed the mirror-door gag with shadows ten years later in a 1946 episode of The Squirrel Cage (found on page 225 of Screwball! The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny). In this strip, a shadow gets separated from his “master” when a door closes too fast.

Buried within these clever gags is, of course, a grain of truth about the dissociation and alienation many people experienced living through the Great Depression and then World War Two. Ahern probably never considered these themes as he produced his comics. More likely, he allowed his unconscious to flow when creating The Squirrel Cage (one suspects aided by certain mind-opening substances – see the1941 Squirrel Cage about “dope” reprinted on page 152 of LOAC’s King of the Comics: One Hundred Years of King Features Syndicate) The result is a thrilling dreamscape that continues to reflect the shadows of life and the blessed refractions of lightness laughter affords. There is a curated section of twenty Squirrel Cage comic strips plus examples of The Nut Brothers and a chapter on Gene Ahern’s life and other comic strips in Screwball! The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny.

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