Meet Dan Namsky, a comic strip character created more than 50 years ago by longtime friends Hugh Aaron and Len Gallant.
Namsky would appear to have a pretty charmed life. He’s a daring astronaut whose job is to probe other planets. And with his dark, wavy hair, Namsky looks a lot like Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent — sort of dashing, despite his thick-framed, black eyeglasses.
But Namsky has a problem.
In the plot of Cushing resident Aaron and Maine native Gallant’s comic strip “ZooFky,” astronaut Namsky, it seems, became mixed up while conducting one of his planet probes. Instead of landing on his home planet of Earth, he wound up on the planet ZooFnik.
It’s a strange place, where the animals talk, politicians campaign for their opponents, and the government pays taxes to its citizens.
The wonder with which Namsky beholds life on this planet — the Earthling is guided by a ZooFian resident named ZooFky, the titular character of the strip — and how ZooFnik reflects on our own culture are the focuses of Aaron and Gallant’s work, which they have intended to be social satire.
The creators’ own story, while not as outlandish as that of Namsky, is certainly as colorful.
High school classmates in Worcester, Mass. — Gallant was born in Lewiston, lived for a time in Rumford and decades later now resides in Manchester, N.H., — the two remained friends after their graduation. More than 10 years after both served in World War II, they decided to start a comic strip.
After realizing, however, a comic-strip startup would take longer than they thought, the duo put down their work and parted ways.
But it wasn’t the end of Namsky, ZooFky and the other residents and characters of ZooFnik.
More than 50 years later, Aaron and Gallant, now both 85, have reconnected and are again creating ZooFky strips. There have been changes to their process (Aaron and Gallant communicate primarily through e-mail), the publication method (the strips appear online rather than in traditional comic-strip media, such as newspa-pers), and even the strip’s name (from “FooFky” in 1959 to “ZooFky” in 2010) but the strip’s message is the same.
Through the comic, Aaron and Gallant hope, we can be our own critics and learn not to take ourselves too seriously.
“We really tend not to look at ourselves,” Aaron said recently. “We have to have someone hold up a mirror to ourselves to see the way we are.”
The land of ZooFnik
Gallant and Aaron hadn’t spoken in nearly five decades until one day last year when Aaron opened his mailbox in Cushing to find a package from Gallant.
Inside the package were copies of some of the comic strips the two had worked on in 1959, when they decided they would develop the strip as a vehicle to express their artistic and social commentary impulses.
Paging through the strips took Aaron back to a time when he loved comics and couldn’t wait for the Sunday funnies.
“‘Gasoline Alley,’ ‘Dick Tracy,’ ‘Little Orphan Annie.’ I could go on and on,” Aaron said. “Comics were a world in itself. It had storylines. And you got to know the characters. You related to them.”
Gallant enjoyed comics, too, and even had drawn some during his service with the U.S. Navy. Aaron served with the Seabees.
The duo was still in touch in the 1950s, and by 1959, with President Eisenhower in office and the space race and Cold War raging, they formulated plans for a comic strip with a social-satire bent. Aaron would write the text and Gallant would do the artwork for their creation, which they originally called “FooFky” (the strip later was changed to “ZooFky” after they discovered someone else had registered “FooFky”).
“I had a message, and I felt this was a good way to do it,” Aaron said. “And it turns out, [comic strips such as] ‘Peanuts’ and ‘Pogo,’ they were really successful. They were doing the same thing. They really showed us the way we are and how ridiculous we are sometimes.”
That attitude is evident from the start of “FooFky,” when Namsky lands on a planet shaped like a hot-air balloon without the basket. There, he meets the residents of FooFnik. The FooFians, it seems, have never heard of Earth and consult with FooFleo — their greatest astronomer and winner of the FooFbel Prize, naturally — but are unable to find it on a map or through a telescope.
“No such place as Earth! Not even charted!” FooFleo tells Namsky.
“It has to be! It’s a very important planet!” an indignant Namsky replies.
“Look for yourself,” the astronomer says, inviting Namsky to step to the telescope. “Must be a very minor place.”
Namsky is frustrated — how can anyone not have heard of his home planet? — and the reader gets a sense of what the cartoonists are getting at. What’s an important place to some is just as insignificant to others.
Aaron and Gallant invented a world of characters to populate their strip. There was FooFlind, the planet’s “eminent biologist,” who determines that Namsky must be some sort of bacterium, despite the astronaut’s insistence of his human origin.
The planet’s “greatest authority on FooFish,” which is the language spoken on FooFnik, is named, of course, FooFpeare. FooFnik has a resident expert for everything, by the way, and many issues are debated in conferences with experts. Sounds kind of like our own planet.
In later strips, Namsky visits the capital city of ZooFington, where the planet’s ruler, known as its ZooFident, resides in a building known as the ZooFHouse.
Gallant and Aaron worked on the strip for about a year, but when they realized it would take a long time to realize any profits — and facing the pressures that come with supporting young families — they abandoned “FooFky.”
Gallant continued to work for several advertising agencies and eventually for the Manchester Union Leader newspaper. Aaron became a successful businessman and an author on the side, writing books, plays and penning essays about business management for The Wall Street Journal.
The two friends lost touch, and Aaron, who had relocated to Rhode Island, lost his interest in comics as his business took off.
“I stopped looking at them,” he said. “I just changed. I became very serious, and my life took a different turn.”
After unearthing the old “FooFky” strips from a forgotten file recently, Gallant scanned them into a computer. He then turned to the Internet in order to search for Aaron — Gallant said he had tried over the years to find him — and was finally successful thanks to Aaron’s publisher’s website.
“When I couldn’t contact him, I got worried that something had happened to him,” Gallant said. “I was glad to [eventually] find him alive and well.”
Armed with his old friend’s mailing address, Gallant sent Aaron copies of the 50-year-old strips. After Aaron got over the initial shock of seeing “FooFky” again, he was pleasantly surprised.
“When I looked at them I thought, my God, these aren’t dated, even though they’re very retro in design,” Aaron said. “But that’s stylish now. I thought, these still would apply! It’s still making fun of the way we are. We haven’t changed.”
Aaron called Gallant and they spoke for an hour, catching up on each other’s lives. Finally, Gallant proposed they pick up where they left off with Namsky and life on FooFnik, which they renamed to ZooFnik. Aaron agreed, although they decided their goal would be just to post the strips online rather than get the comics into a newspaper.
“This is just for our mutual satisfaction,” Gallant said. “We’re not really looking to get anything else out of it.”
The website, www.zoofky.com, is now up and running, and new strips are posted weekly. Other than a slightly more polished look to them, little has changed. Aaron and Gallant still take sly jabs at society — in a contemporary strip, Namsky and ZooFky encounter a politician addressing a crowd — possibly running for ZooFenate, ZooFky tells Namsky — and praising his opponent during a speech.
Namsky is incredulous that a politician would support an opponent.
“Of course!” ZooFky said. “ZooFpols know no one believes them.”
Namsky’s confusion with all things alien to him still resonates today. We know more about outer space now than we did in 1959, but we still don’t know whether a place like ZooFnik exists. Not many of us even know the workings of a neighboring culture or government on our own planet.
“Hugh has a good way of writing satire,” Gallant said. “These things are still happening today, in a sense.”
For information, go to www.zoofky.com.