A FUNNY THING HAPPENED (CONCLUSION)

Although I didn’t realize it at the start, the 1933 magazine article on which I based my previous 3-part series (FUNNY ON PAPER) was the midpoint between the beginnings of the American comic strip in the early 1890s, and the end (mid 1970s) of the period covered by THE SMITHSONIAN COLLECTION OF NEWSPAPER COMICS. This post will summarize the second half of that period and conclude this Smithsonian-based series.

1934 saw the debut of three of the most successful strips in history: Al Capp’s L”il Abner, Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon and Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates.

1935 is notable if for no other reason than the brief run (in the Hearst chain’s Sunday funnies section) of a comic fantasy strip titled Hejji by Dr. Seuss, Theodor Geisel. Seuss had previously done magazine cartoons and advertising drawings, and later, of course, became famous for his children’s books (Cat in the Hat, Horton Hears a Hoo, etc.).

1936 marks the debut of The Phantom, the first newspaper strip to introduce a secret-identity,  masked crime-fighter to a wide audience; according to comic strip historian Maurice Horn, it’s “the granddaddy of all costumed superheroes” (Superman debuted in 1938 in Action Comics, Batman in 1939 in Detective Comics).

In 1937, Al Capp started a second strip called Abbie ‘n’ Slats, and though it ran until 1971, it never attained the wide popularity of L’il Abner. To me, the year holds more trivia interest for a Jan. 17, 1937 comics page I own of THE SUNDAY OREGONIAN. On one side, beneath Dick Tracy and Winnie Winkle, is an advertisement strip for Super Suds titled DISHPAN HANDS HAUNTED HER in big red letters. Below the first panel, which depicts “Alice” wiping her brow over a dishpan full of dirty dishes, it states “IT WASN’T ONLY THAT DISHWASHING WAS TEDIOUS AND TIRESOME —  BUT EVEN BOB HAD NOTICED HOW RED AND ROUGH IT MADE ALICE’S HANDS. THEN…”  The next two panels have a woman telling Alice how she uses SUPER SUDS, and it saves hands, leaves no soap film and “washes so clean that you can just rinse and let dishes drain dry without wiping.” The next panel, “6 weeks later,” has Alice telling hubby Bob, “This big red box of SUPER SUDS costs only 10 cents, and look how much cleaner and brighter my dishes are!” To which Bob replies, “Since you’ve been using SUPER SUDS, your hands are as soft and white as the day we were married!” You gotta love it!

For the next strip of more than passing interest, we skip to 1948 and Walt Kelly’s Pogo, which began as a minor character in Animal Classics in 1943 before moving to newspaper format in the New York Star. Quoting Smithsonian, “In Pogo, humanized animals daily dramatized the idiosyncrasies of their human counterparts. The political spoofs for which the strip probably became best known in the mid-1950s had actually been implicit somewhat earlier.”

1950 drafted into service Beetle Bailey, the first of the strip successes of Mort Walker, and introduced Peanuts, the super-successful strip which creator Charles Schulz originally wanted to call L’il Folks. On a personal note, this is my oldest daughter’s favorite; she is a collector of all things Peanuts.

The 1960s ushered in, among others, The Wizard of Id (1964), and Doonesbury in Yale publications in 1968-69 before moving into national newspaper syndication in late 1970.

Enough!

 

 

 

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A FUNNY THING HAPPENED…. (PART TWO)

Part One of this Smithsonian Collection-based series on newspaper comics noted that weekday comic strips began in Hearst newspapers in the early 1900s. These strips, however — unlike Sunday strips — were not in color, appeared irregularly (up to 2 or 3 days a week) and were aimed more at adult readers than at children. The nation’s first full daily comic page appeared in Hearst’s New York Evening Journal on Jan. 31, 1912.

The Sunday comics in those days featured demon children, clownish buffoons or humanized animals. On the other hand, the order of the day in weekday strips after 1907, according to Smithsonian, was satire, cheerful cynicism and subdued slapstick, centered on helpless husbands, burlesque detectives and inept scoundrels.  Quoting from “The Real Mission of the Funny Paper” in Century Magazine, March 1924: “The funny paper has …. become not only a faithful reflection of the tastes and ethical principles of the country at large; it is also manifestly an extremely powerful organ of social satire.”

The 1920s to mid 1930s saw a proliferation of new strips; a dozen or more syndicates were by then supplying an insatiable newspaper market, while the old and established strips retained their audiences. This was the period in which Sunday comic sections went from 4 to 8 to 16 to as many as 32 pages, and it brings us to the list of 1933 cartoon characters in my May 9th post FUNNY ON PAPER (PART THREE). This marked the last great period of full Sunday pages for each strip. By the 1940s, half pages or less for major strips became common, and “The galaxy of the comic strip never again was to glow so brightly as during these last marvelous years of its springtide.” Here’s the scoop on some of those strips:

MUTT & JEFF  http://scoop.diamondgalleries.com/Home/4/1/73/1016?articleID=46633
BARNEY GOOGLE  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=StkJTSAq0dE
DICK TRACY  http://dicktracymuseum.com/chester-gould/timeline/
GASOLINE ALLEY  http://www.tcj.com/growing-old-in-gasoline-alley-ninety-four-years-and-counting/
POPEYE  http://popeye.com/history/

TO BE CONCLUDED

 

 

 

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE SMITHSONIAN

….and that thing was in all the papers (almost all, anyway — there were a few party poopers in those days, most notably the New York Times). But by then (as noted in my three-part series, FUNNY ON PAPER), the “funnies” had grown from its late-1800s beginnings to 1930s newspaper staple/big business; few papers could afford not to carry a comics section.

In FUNNY ON PAPER,  we saw the “state of the art” in 1933. To put that snapshot in perspective, we need the history of the comics both before and after that moment in time. For the broader picture, let us turn to a book published in the 1970s especially for that purpose, THE SMITHSONIAN COLLECTION OF NEWSPAPER COMICS, from which I quote the following:

The elements of the American comic strip were already there. A succession of drawings expressing a continuous action, an anecdotal event, a narrative — they are as old as cave paintings. “Talk balloons” were fairly common in 18th century caricature, and graphic caricature was fairly commonplace by the mid-19th century. British “comic papers” were captioned cartoon narratives, usually in broad burlesque, largely derived from the conventions of circus clowning and the music hall-vaudeville sketch.
It remained for the United States, then entering fully into its own era of mass communications, to put all these elements together and make something new of them, something new and compelling and so irresistible that it spread (along with our movies and music) around the world. 

So, what and when was the first U.S. comic strip? The Little Bears is generally considered to be the first American strip with recurring characters (in Wm. Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner); it ran only four years (1892-96). The first to attain definitve form on a weekly page was Richard Outcault’s Yellow Kid for Hearst’s Sunday comic supplement to the New York Journal on October 18, 1896. Weekday comic strips began in Hearst morning and afternoon newspapers across the country in the early 1900s.

But the first hugely popular strip was The Katzenjammer Kids (“The Hangover Kids” in German slang of the time) created by German immigrant Rudolph Dirks for the same Hearst New York Journal supplement; it has turned out to be the longest-running comic strip in history (1897 to present). It was also the first to combine comic strip continuity and talk baloons, and the first to use now-familiar iconography such as stars for pain.

TO BE CONTINUED

 

FUNNY ON PAPER (PART THREE)

Comic strip

 The first two installments in this series were devoted primarily to statistics/the funnies’ business side (Part One) and profiles of two “colorful characters” (Part Two) of the 1933 comic strip world, based on a 1933 magazine article. Part Three will wrap up this article by asking you to imagine you’ve just awakened to find that you’re becoming a 1933 cartoon character, and you need to find out fast who your comics cohorts are, and what they’re up to.

So you’re looking to be filled in, but drawing a blank.
You wonder, “Am I still dreaming? Is this a prank?”
Relax, my good man/gal, you have nothing to fear —
You are among friends, as you can see here:

MUTT & JEFF
BARNEY GOOGLE
DICK TRACY
HAIRBREADTH HARRY
LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE

BOOB McNUTT
THE GUMPS
MOON MULLINS
GASOLINE ALLEY
WINNIE WINKLE

TARZAN
POLLY & HER PALS
KATZENJAMMER KIDS
KRAZY KAT
SKIPPY
BLONDIE

TOONERVILLE FOLKS
THE BUNGLE FAMILY
POPEYE
MAJOR HOOPLE (OUR BOARDING HOUSE)
MICKEY MOUSE

COUNT SCREWLOOSE
BUNKY
BUCK ROGERS
MAGGIE & JIGGS (BRINGING UP FATHER)
JOE PALOOKA

Alas, the 1933 magazine article assumes that its readers know all about these characters, and so we will have to turn elsewhere to find out what they’re up to. As it happens, your faithful correspondent owns exactly the elsewhere to turn to: a book titled THE SMITHSONIAN COLLECTION OF NEWSPAPER COMICS. That’s next.

 

FUNNY ON PAPER (PART TWO)

Comic strip
There were some colorful characters in the comic strips of the 1930s (see above) — but they were no more so than some of the “characters” who created the strips.

One such cartoonist was the man whose fame has far outlived the characters he created, such as Mike and Ike (They Look Alike), Boob McNutt and Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts. I refer to the inventor, engineer, sculptor, writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, Reuben “Rube” Goldberg.

Goldberg was born, patriotically, on July 4, 1883 in San Francisco. His father (the City Police and Fire Commissioner) wanted Rube to pursue a career in engineering, but after six months with the city as an engineer, he resigned to join the San Francisco Chronicle as a sports cartoonist. In 1907 he moved to New York and drew cartoons for five newspapers.

The 1933 article The Funny Papers  explains how Goldberg became a comic strip artist. It seems that a sports cartoon he was drawing for the New York Evening Mail didn’t fill the space alloted. A co-worker suggested filling the space with a “Foolish Question” drawing of a man (who had fallen off the Flatiron Building) being asked if he’d been hurt….after which Rube turned to comedy, became syndicated in 1915 and gained nationwide popularity. He was so prolific that he simultaneously produced several cartoon series, one of which involved comical inventions that accomplished something simple by highly complicated means, and the rest is history. To this day, they are called “Rube Goldberg” inventions, and he is the namesake of the Reuben Award for Cartoonist of the Year, and the inspiration for international competitions known as Rube Goldberg Machine Contests. Three Stooges fans may be interested to know that Goldberg wrote a 1930  Stooges film called Soup to Nuts, featuring his devices and sculptures.

Another San Francisco native, Harry “Bud” Fisher, created the first daily comic strip (Mutt and Jeff) in 1907 and was the first cartoonist to copyright his own strip. Among his eccentricities was an obsession for excelling in trivia by devouring the World Almanac and other books in order to know more odd facts and statistics than anyone. Between cartooning, writing, making silent movie shorts, vaudeville tours and indulging his passion for horse racing by buying a racing stable (one of his horses won the Preakness), he found time to spend time in Europe, where he met a Countess and married her on the high seas; they separated shortly thereafter, as must you and I at this point….

TO BE, OR NOT TO BE,  CONTINUED  (THAT BE THE QUESTION).

 

FUNNY ON PAPER

 

Comic strip

Yesterday was Free Comic Book Day, which I didn’t know about until I heard it on the late news last night — not that I would’ve gone out of my way to take advantage of the occasion. It’s a distributor-coordinated promotional event started in 2002 to cash in on the hoopla surrounding the Spider Man and X-Men movies. Participating comic book retailers give away free copies on the first Saturday in May annually, hoping to make regular customers out of new or occasional ones.

I haven’t been a comic book fan since I was a teenager (my boyhood collection would be worth a lot more than a few laughs today if I’d saved it), but I still regularly follow about a half dozen comic strips in the daily newspaper. Recently I came into possession of a very long and interesting magazine article from 1933 titled The Funny Papers. For those who may be curious about the early years of comic strips, I thought I’d pass along some of that 80+ year old history.

First of all, a few statistics. In 1933, there were almost 230 comic strips appearing in U. S. newspapers. Of 2,300 daily papers, only two of any importance (the New York Times and Boston Transcript) didn’t include comic strips. Of the approximately 200 funnies’ artists, less than 100 were widely read; the top 20 or so, including Bud Fisher (Mutt & Jeff) and Harold Gray (Little Orphan Annie), grossed from $1,000 to $3,000 a week (big money in those depression days). It was estimated that 70 to 75 per cent of newspaper readers followed the comic sections regularly.

The business end of the funny business was handled by features syndicates (features included columns such as those of Walter Winchell and Will Rogers, as well as the funnies), which sold their features to as many papers as they could amass. There were two kinds of syndicates: one with a key paper or string of papers behind it, such as the Hearst-owned King Features; and second, the independent syndicate which survived on the strength of its major stars such as cartoonist/inventor/author Rube Goldberg (of whom more later).

Most of the cartoon characters popular in 1933 (a cross-section of which appears above the text of this post) have faded from memory, like slow-acting invisible ink. Of the characters depicted, few are remembered today. Note another anachronism — the “blank” character representing balloon-speaking manikins through which advertisers could market their wares via their proximity to Barney Google, Maggie & Jiggs and other syndicated headliners.

It is inevitable that the humor in most of those almost-century old cartoons had a limited lifespan and, looked at today, is laughably dated. But some have stood the test of time and remain popular, if perhaps quaint. We will take a closer look at some of these creations and their creators in another post.

TO BE CONTINUED