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COMICS CRASH COURSE – EPISODE #5: “The Funnies Guys”


Hey, Crashers!
In this episode, we’ll do a brief overview of some of the most important
pioneers in newspaper comic strips. Episodes like this are the reason I decided
to do this series on YouTube instead of as a podcast. I’m excited for you to see
some of these fantastic old strips. This one might be a little longer than some
of the previous videos, so let’s get going.
Briefly mentioned in the last episode, Jimmy Swinnerton joined the SAN FRANCISCO
EXAMINER in 1892, where he produced several bear themed strips for the
children’s section. One of which, THE LITTLE BEARS, is likely the first
newspaper strip with recurring characters. He moved to New York in 1896
where he published sports cartoons, as well as more children’s cartoons, for
Hearst’s JOURNAL AMERICAN. His best-known series are MR. JACK, a funny animal strip
starring a philandering tiger that ran from 1903 to 1935; and LITTLE JIMMY, a
classic mischievous kid strip that ran on-and-off from 1904 to 1958. When
Rudolph Dirks was tasked with making a comic strip based on Wilhelm Bush’s
cautionary picture book series MAX AND MORTIZ, HE might not have imagined he’d
end up creating the longest-running comic strip of all time. But so it goes!
in 1897 has stripped THE KATZENJAMMER KIDS appeared in her Hearst’s JOURNAL. Like
HOGAN’S ALLEY, it became two strips due to copyright issues. In 1912, Dirks
wanted to take a break, but Hearst wouldn’t allow it. So he quit and Harold
Knerr took over the strip. After his break, Dirks turned to a Pulitzer
paper, and created a nearly identical strip called HANS UND FRITZ. Eventually
changing the name to THE CAPTAIN AND THE KIDS. Now, this name change has often been
attributed to anti-German sentiment during World War I, but those feelings
would have been at their peak in early 1917, when the US during the war the
JOURNAL never changed the very German name THE KATZENJAMMER KIDS; and Dirks
didn’t change HANS UND FRITZ until well into 1918. Anyway, it’s worth noting both
strips remained equally popular based on Knerr’s and Dirks’s very different
talents. And the Katzenjammer kids was published in syndication until 2006…
giving it a 109 year run! Making it, as I mentioned earlier, the
longest-running strip of all time. Frederick Burr Opper began his
professional illustration career in 1876 but joined Hearst’s JOURNAL in 1899. His
most famous strip, HAPPY HOOLIGAN, debuted in 1900 and would run until 1932. HAPPY
HOOLIGAN follows the adventures of a good-natured lovable tramp that wears a
tin can on his head. Like The Yellow Kid before him, Happy was a huge deal for
Opper and Hearst’s papers. There was merchandise, stage plays, and movies. HAPPY
HOOLIGAN was likely the first comic adapted to film. To give a sense of just
what a big deal this series was, look at his fans: in 1930, Opper threw a 30th
birthday party for Happy. It was attended by, among others, the sitting president
Herbert Hoover and the previous President Calvin Coolidge. Now earlier, I
mentioned Jimmy Swinnerton worked on sports cartoons. The sports section was
actually one of the main pages where comics appeared outside of comic
supplements. Cartoonists recounted and commented on famous athletes and big
events. Tad Dorgan was perhaps the best of the sports cartoonists, and was
especially known for his work on boxing. He began his career in San Francisco in
1902 but was working in New York by 1905. His best-known series was INDOOR SPORTS,
a tongue-in-cheek sports strip that describes social situations in terms of
sports spectacle. He was also well known as a writer and a humorist.
Among other phrases he’s responsible for adding slang like, “the cat’s meow,” “for
crying out loud,” and “hard-boiled” to our vocabulary. Winsor McCay began making
comic strips in 1903. He moved to New York, where he worked alongside Richard
Outcault at the HERALD and produced his first popular strip, LITTLE SAMMY SNEEZE,
and his longest running strip, DREAM OF THE RAREBIT FIEND. Both debuted in 1904.
RAREBIT was a sort of testing ground. The strip portrayed the crazy dreams of
people who had eaten Welsh rarebit, a kind of cheese and toast dish, for dinner.
In both SAMMY SNEEZE and RAREBIT, McCay experimented with comics; stretching
panel sizes and even breaking panel borders for effect.
All of this knowledge came together in his best-known work, LITTLE NEMO IN
SLUMBERLAND, which would run on and off from 1905 to 1926. The formula is simple:
in the beginning Nemo falls asleep; in the middle he dreams; and in the last
panel he wakes up. But, oh those dreams! McCay’s full-color, full-page Sunday
strips are simply jaw-dropping and I encourage you to find more to just spend
time looking at them. And in addition to his comics, McCay was also an early
animation pioneer. He completed ten animated films, the most famous of which
was GERTIE THE DINOSAUR, which debuted in 1914. Bud Fisher also began as a sports
cartoonist. His strip A. MUTT began in 1907 as a way to discuss the results of horse
racing. Mutt’s best friend, Jeff appeared in 1908, and MUTT AND JEFF were born. Mutt
was tall, skinny, and a bit dim and always coming up with harebrained schemes.
Jeff was short and round, a bit smarter, but always caught up in Mutt’s plans. The
strip was brought to Hearst’s SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINERr within a year of
Jeff’s arrival and became a huge hit in newspapers…and across media.
There were several vaudeville shows starring the duo, over fifty live-action
shorts produced between 1911 and 1913, and over 300 animated shorts produced
between 1916 and 1927. Fisher would write the strip until he retired in 1932.
George Herriman began illustrating as a teen in LA but moved to New York to
pursue his dream of becoming a newspaper cartoonist. Well-liked and respected by
his peers, he only had a string of minor successes until 1910. In June a cat and
mouse crawl along the bottom of one of his DINGBAT FAMILY strips. The mouse
picked up a rock and threw it at the head of the black cat. The cat-and-mouse
game became a running gag and eventually THEY became the stars of the strip. In
1912, the Dingbats went on vacation for a week, and the strip was renamed KRAZY KAT
AND I. MOUSE. Then, in October of 1913 KRAZY KAT became its own daily strip. To
this day, KRAZY KAT remains one of the most
influential and innovative newspaper comic strips ever produced. It was
popular for a brief period of time but never on the level of say, Opper, Outcault, or Fisher. However, it was one of the most critically acclaimed strips and Herriman
counted e.e. cummings, Frank Capra, P. G. Wodehouse, T.S. Eliot,
Willem de Kooning, and Carl Sandburg among his contemporary fans. Now look,
KRAZY KAT will probably get its own video someday, but I’m a little biased
I loved it enough to have it tattooed on me! George McManus worked as a comic
strip artist and illustrator at Pulitzer’s NEW YORK WORLD, but like many popular
comic strip artists was enticed to Hearst’s JOURNAL AMERICAN after achieving fame
with his 1904 strip THE NEWLYWEDS. His most famous strip is BRINGING UP FATHER,
which appeared in January of 1913. This follows an Irish immigrant named Jiggs,
who wins $1million in a sweepstakes. Most of the jokes contrast Jiggs’s
lower-class sensibilities with his upper-class context. This strip also
features Jiggs’s nagging wife, Maggie; his flapper daughter, Nora; and his layabout
son, Sonny. As with many other popular syndicates, BRINGING UP FATHER was
adapted into radio shows, animated specials, short serial films, stage shows
and in the case of BRINGING UP FATHER, even feature films. BRINGING UP FATHER even found international fame. For example it made a big splash in Turkey
and Japan at the time and still enjoys popularity in Norway. Frank King began working as a cartoonist
in 1905 in Chicago. He is best known for GASOLINE ALLEY, which debuted in 1918.
Originally only appearing on Sundays, by 1919 it was a daily strip. King’s great
innovation was introducing real-time continuity to his stories. For example,
Skeezix, who was introduced as a baby in 1921, grew up and proposed to his
girlfriend by 1941. They would eventually get married and have children in real
time. King retired from the strip in 1959,
handing it off to one of his longtime assistants, Dick Morris. The
strip now drawn by Jim Scancorelli, is still running today: the second
longest-running behind THE KATZENJAMMER KIDS. That was
the sort of first stage of the great newspaper cartoonists, who were followed
by an equally impressive set of cartoonists working in the 1920s and 30s.
In that era we see the first appearance of Marjorie Henderson Bule’s LITTLE LULU,
Ernie Bush Miller’s NANCY, E. G. Segar’s POPEYE, Otto Soglow’s THE LITTLE KING,
Harold Gray’s LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE, Chic Young’s BLONDIE, and Al Capp’s L’IL
ABNER, among many others. After the 30s and 40s, the prevalence of newspaper
comic strips begins to wane a bit but there are of course exceptions: Walt
Kelly’s excellent POGO, Charles Schulz’s world-changing PEANUTS, and Bill
Watterson’s CALVIN AND HOBBES stand out among the rest. Now you might notice that
all of the strip’s I’ve talked about are the so-called funnies. The funnies
weren’t the only kind of newspaper strips. The 1920s not only sees a new
guard of comic strip writers emerge, it sees a new genre and a new medium appear:
the adventure strip and the comic book/ We’ll talk about them and their
relatively profound effect on American popular culture next time. See you then.

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1 thought on “COMICS CRASH COURSE – EPISODE #5: “The Funnies Guys”

  1. A very concise summary of the early comic strips
    but again, nothing here looks like a comic book

    although the first attempts at creating "proto-comics"
    would use some of these strips c.1930.

    Winsor McCay -who is unsurpassed
    (Even Disney said this)
    was actually born in Canada in 1867
    near Woodstock Ontario.
    I tried to persuade CANADA 150 to set a plaque at his birthplace
    but there just wasn't enough support for this.
    Not even the mayor of his hometown (also named McKay)
    knew who he was.

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