Among the many missions of the U.S. Postal Service, aside from getting the mail delivered, is selling stamps _ some of them, ideally, to be bought but not used.
To this end, the post office has become something of an expert on creating stamps that will be, in its preferred phrase, "retained" by the customer. So far, pop culture stamps have been the hottest around (note those honoring Elvis and Marilyn).
Now, the Postal Service is offering a blend of humor, nostalgia and mayhem: a sheet of 20 stamps honoring color comic strips that originated between 1895 and 1945.
A committee advising the Postal Service suggested the subject. A consortium of comic-strip experts and museums narrowed the search to 25. Carl Herrman, one of five art directors for the Postal Service, took over and trimmed the list to 20.
"The problem with "Mutt and Jeff' is that people were always bopping each other over the head," he said of a strip that was left out. "I was trying to get away from domestic violence."
Herrman not only disposed, he also proposed, adding "Brenda Starr." "I felt we needed to put a woman in there," he said, referring not just to Brenda but to her creator, Dale Messick.
He also looked at more than 1,000 images before making his selections.
Purists will notice that in some cases he cheated. Although the back of the "Popeye" stamp discusses the cartoonist E.C. Segar, who died in 1938, the image on the stamp was drawn by Forrest C. "Bud" Sagendorf, who began drawing the strip in 1958.
Herrman found images drawn by Segar, but in those, Popeye "was always punching someone in the face, or he was with Olive Oyl and it looked like American Gothic," Herrman said.
With "Little Orphan Annie," Herrman came close to making one of those errors like the one in which an airplane was printed upside down on a 1918 U.S. airmail stamp. The panel Herrman used didn't have an "arf" in it, and he thought the stamp needed one.
"So I hand-drew "arf' in," he said. "And our expert said, "This is a false "arf.' So I had to find a real one and put it in."
To prevent such mistakes, experts like Rick Marschall, who wrote the Postal Service's new coffee-table book on comic-strip art, and Ron Goulart, author of The Funnies, checked each image.
Comics have always had a dangerous edge. "In 1903-04, you were getting people saying comics were corrupting people," Goulart said. And even if the stamps offered here no longer seem corrupting, many of the strips had violent story lines.
"Krazy Kat" (1913-1944) showed an endless war between Kat and mouse. Even the stamp honoring "Blondie" shows Dagwood in yet another dramatic collision with the letter carrier.
Given that, which ones might fit special needs?
"If you were courting someone, you would send "Li'l Abner,' " Goulart said. "And if you really don't like your parents, send "The Katzenjammers' _ they were always blowing up family members."
Herrman said: " "Krazy Kat' is great for your ex-wife. And I love "Popeye,' but I have to rip my way through the whole sheet to get to him."