Obscurity of the Day: Bears in Love

In the 1970s and 80s there seemed to be some sort of competition for who could come up with the sappiest, oversentimental, schmaltzy comic strip. While the undeniable winner, in my opinion, has to be Charmers, Bears in Love gives it a run for its money.

 Eric Meese first came up with the ursine characters as a spoof on his sister’s lovey-dovey antics with her fiancee. The spoof cartoons, shown to his family and friends, seems to have been received without recognizing the ironic intent, and his audience oohed and aahed over the romantic bears and begged for more. Meese’s brother then took some of the drawings to an agent in New York. The next thing he knew, Meese had a contract with Universal Press Syndicate to produce the feature seven days per week.

Based on an interview at the time, Meese seems to have been on a very short leash. He had to submit two weeks worth of strips each week, and the syndicate picked out seven from each batch, and sent notes on how to improve the chosen ones. That’s pretty standard during the development stage for a strip, but rather unusual for one that is actually being syndicated.Considering that Meese, even in his interviews, gives off a vibe of being in way over his head, I think it safe to say that Universal might have been a little too anxious to bring this strip to market.

Bears in Love seems to have debuted on March 28 1983, and lasted until sometime in 1986. Having solved the world’s saccharine shortage, the strip was retired and the bears went to their final endless hibernation.

Obscurity of the Day: The DeBrees

The DeBrees has been languishing on my E&P Mystery Strips list for years now. Several correspondents swore that they remember seeing it, but none could come up with a sample. Finally, Cole Johnson rides to the rescue with these two Sunday strips from the Philadelphia Inquirer. He says they seem to be the only two strips from the series that the Inky actually found space to run, both in December 1975.

This points out something we have to keep in mind about syndicated features. Just because a paper paid for it doesn’t necessarily mean that they ran it. And here at the Stripper’s Guide, that’s a very important distinction.

No doubt creators Kipp Schuessler (art) and Charles Barsotti (writing) would tell me that the feature was picked up by ‘x’ number of papers, perhaps 10, 20 or even more. But it is quite possible that these few strips that ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer are the only ones that ever actually became ink on newsprint anywhere. Back in the day, papers often bought features for strategic reasons — sometimes to keep a competing paper from getting it, as a favor to a syndicate salesman, as a hedge against the feature at some later date becoming a hot property, or because they liked it well enough but then got cold feet when it came time to drop some other feature to make room.

So, although The DeBrees has lost mystery status, that certainly doesn’t mean there aren’t unanswered questions. Did it run elsewhere, and if so, for how long, and did the advertised daily version ever run?

Obscurity of the Day: Mop O’Hare

A few ardent cartooning fans still fondly remember Sam Brier’s Small World, a newspaper strip that ran 1952-56 in the New York Herald-Tribune and not many other places. And that strip is worth remembering, from what little I’ve read of it. However, an earlier Brier effort (at least I’m told it’s Brier) from the New York Post Syndicate is less likely to spark warm waves of nostalgia.

Mop O’Hare, about a hirsute li’l hellraiser, is pretty standard comedy fare, somewhat hobbled artwise by the reader never seeing the face of young Master O’Hare. The gimmick of having hair falling into the tyke’s face seems like a cute dodge in theory, but it ends up being a limitation. Brier was a pretty good artist, and seeing the kid’s expression could have really helped to put over some rather pedestrian gags.

Ain’t it a shame they never come to Dr. Holtz to fix up their ideas before they get in the paper? Geez. I could save them so much embarrassment.

Anyhow, questions of my marketing genius aside, the other issue with this feature, which was syndicated from July 30 1945 to January 25 1947, is whether the credited creator, Ken Stevens, is in fact Sam Brier. Folks, I’m not going to lie to you. I’ve got it in my notes that Brier and Stevens are one and the same. But where I learned that is a mystery because I failed to cite my source.

And that’s lesson two for the day — always cite your sources, kids! Between that, and having me review all your feature submissions, this world could be a better place for all of us — especially me.

Obscurity of the Day: Rosie Rattletrap

You don’t usually expect a King Features Sunday strip to be so ridiculously obscure, but Rosie Rattletrap sure is. The only examples I’ve found of the feature are from July-August 1944, and the small cache I recently found are the first I’ve seen (or even heard of) in thirty years of collecting.

If the strip were awful it wouldn’t seem so odd that it is obscure, but it’s got a lot going for it. It’s kind of cute, and has some enjoyable, if not overly titillating, girlie art. The subject matter, gals working at a war plant, was a perfect one for 1944, and today lends a social and historical layer to the enjoyment of the strip.

Wilson Cutler seems to have been a magazine cartoonist of some minor repute in the 1940s and ’50s, and a lot of his work that has resurfaced online tends to be on the ever-so-slightly risqué side. This is, as far as I know, his only foray into newspaper strips, though.

Does anyone have additional dates of this feature or know where it ran? I only have unidentifiable tearsheets, but my guess is that they came from the New York Journal.

Obscurity of the Day: Horace the Hero

W.O. Wilson worked in newspaper comics for at least seven years (1902-08), worked for three major syndicated papers (New York Herald, New York World and Philadelphia North American), had a Sunday feature that appeared regularly for five years (Wish Twins and Aladdin’s Lamp), and has found a new generation today who appreciates him for one of his excellent series, Madge the Magician’s Daughter (it actually has an iPhone app!).

Yet, bizarrely, there seems to be no one who knows anything about the guy! I looked through every reference book that seemed likely to yield a crumb or two about him, and I came up dry — not even a first name! So consider this obscurity of the day more rightly a plea for information — are you able to contribute? Will our ace people finder Alex Jay work some magic? We’ll see…

Today’s obscurity is Wilson’s first known series, and it was a cute effort, but short-lived. Horace the Hero ran only from April 13 to May 4 1902 in the New York World. It features a fellow who fancies himself a daredevil, and who, predictably enough, has his stunts backfire.

Quiz: only three American newspaper comics that I know of featured a character named Horace in the title; this one, another 1900s obscurity called Hallucinations of Horace, and one more that ran for three decades — can you name it? And no fair Googling…

Thanks to Cole Johnson for the scans!

Obscurity of the Day: The Little Red School-House

Yesterday we discussed Dwig’s School Days, a tremendously original, exciting and raucous panel series about the goings-on at a country schoolhouse. To better show you why I so admire Dwig’s series, I thought it might be helpful to show you a similar series by another creator, so you can judge side by side.

I don’t mean to pick on C.W. Kahles, but his 1901 series, The Little Red School-House, is terrible by comparison. First there’s the technically proficient but stilted art. Compare it with Dwig’s work, which is all about movement and energy. Looking at Dwig’s artwork is like being on a Coney Island rollercoaster — Kahles is more like sitting in a stuffy British drawing-room. For all the activity going on in Kahles’ panels, it all feels like a tableau vivant, with all the characters holding their breath and not moving a muscle. Dwig’s work has your eye restlessly flitting about, trying to catch all the action as if the scene were going to change before your eyes.

Then there’s the activities being depicted. Although very similar, in Kahles’ version the mayhem and shouting all seem forced. Somehow he manages to make the kids actually look like they’re uncomfortable saying their lines. The enforced merriment (“I think I’ll bust laffin'”) hits the reader with a resounding thud. Worse, Kahles doesn’t give his reader any credit for seeing what’s going on — for instance, do we need an animal on the sidelines telling us “Just see how they’re throwin’ it into the poor teacher?” Thud.

Meanwhile Dwig is dancing around, using wordplay like a rapier and letting his kids joyfully go and do what seems to come natural — even though it is often more far-fetched than Kahles’ activities. Though Dwig’s kids represent the same standard characters used over and over in these series (the bookworm, the bully, the tattletale, etc.), his kids seem somehow real. Maybe its because their features aren’t generic; Kahles’ kids all basically have the same model face.

Kahles doesn’t really deserve this drubbing, though, I hasten to point out. Many cartoonists did these schoolhouse features, and few if any of them can even hold a candle to Dwig’s work. The Little Red School-House was a mere blip on Kahles’ radar, produced in amongst lots of other series, and probably given little thought — it was just a feature to fill up a space and was not meant to immortalize his name. The series ran in the New York World from September 15 to November 3 1901, not even completing a school term, so obviously Kahles didn’t have his heart in it.

Thanks to Cole Johnson for the scans, and I hope he doesn’t take personally this flogging of Kahles, one of his faves!

Obscurity of the Day: School Days

It pains me to call Dwig’s School Days an obscurity. But I’m probably right that not one out of ten thousand people have a clue what it is. And who can blame them. After all, the series is a century old. The characters, some of whom had a good measure of fame in their day, were all off the popular radar by the 1930s. And this particular series, the specific one I’m covering today, barely lasted six months, though Dwig would constantly return to it under a number of guises and titles for the next couple of decades.

School Days, a weekday panel series that only ran from April 3 to September 18 1909 in the New York Evening World, represents an enormous burst of creativity from Clare Victor Dwiggins, putting in place a cast of characters and motifs he’d return to over and over. We have the overall motif of boisterous country school kids, the Ophelia character and her equally famous slate, Pip Gint the mischievous prankster, and other cast members who’d be used over and over. In addition, Dwig threw in the interesting motif of rope and pulley pranking (perhaps inspiring Rube Goldberg?), another idea he’d revisit in other series.

This hugely funny series rewards readers who are willing to pause far longer than usual on their cartoon fare. If what they say is true, that the average cartoon or comic strip today has all of 5 seconds to make its point, the School Days panels are so far beyond the pale that they can hardly be considered the same species. If you spend less than a couple minutes perusing each of the cartoons above, I can practically guarantee you’ve missed something.

Obscurity of the Day: Miki

It is the nature of the newspaper comics business that if a new feature catches on big, me-too features will follow. And there’s at least a slightly more practical reason for the practice than might at first meet the eye. It is easy to dismiss imitation features as the product of people trying to make a quick buck off of someone else’s good idea, and that’s certainly a big part of the strategy. But there’s also the factor of newspaper features being sold under exclusive contracts. For example, let’s say that Ripley’s Believe It or Not is a big hit (that’s not much of a stretch). Now let’s say the San Francisco Chronicle has bought the exclusive rights to it in their market. The other San Francisco papers, not to mention Oakland and other surrounding cities, are frozen out. So when another syndicate comes along with a similar feature, and practically every other syndicate did jump on the ‘odd facts’ bandwagon tout de suite, those papers are downright eager to counter the Chronicle‘s popular new feature with something similar.

Nowadays, when only a few markets like New York and Washington have multiple newspapers, the exclusive contract is a very minor factor, and consequently you don’t see many outright copycat features anymore. But back in the day, me-too features fulfilled a pretty important role in competitive markets.

So I said all that so that I could say this: here’s a feature that takes “me-too”ism in a weird direction. Miki is a bald-faced attempt to copy Crockett Johnson’s great Barnaby, of that there can be no doubt. The weird part is that Barnaby was never a particularly successful strip — speaking, of course, financially, not artistically. Why would you market a copy of a strip that runs in, oh, let’s be charitable and just say less than a hundred papers.

Misguided as it seems, the syndicate, George Matthew Adams Service, wasn’t exactly saddled with a long list of big-selling features in the mid-40s, so maybe a strip that had a chance to sell in a few big markets because of the copycat angle seemed worth it. If that was the idea, I guess the few papers they did sell on that basis (for instance, the Brooklyn Eagle in the NYC market) seem to have made it worthwhile to the tune of a five year run. The strip debuted on March 26 1945 and ended on July 1 1950.

Me-too features are rarely memorable, for obvious reasons. Hobbled from the start with the mission of duplicating another feature, the cartoonist not feeling any sense of ownership, what can one expect? If not outright disaster, certainly a pedestrian feature. So was Miki one of them? Sadly, very much so. Everything that made Barnaby great was missing from Miki. The great characters, the magic and whimsy, the nostalgia for childhood — all utterly missing from Miki.

Creator Bob Kuwahara worked on the strip under the pseudonym Bob Kay for political reasons; but also, I’m guessing, he was content to not be identified with it. At the end of World War II, the American newspaper reader was not going to take kindly to an Asian name on the comics page, and that probably suited Kuwahara just fine in this case.  

Miki seems to be embarrassed of itself. The doppelgangers for Barnaby and Mr. O’Malley — Miki and Uncle Harry — are entirely devoid of personality, which is no great loss because they appear in the strip as seldom as possible. The setup to the typical story has Miki learning of a problem, telling Uncle Harry about it, and Harry does some magic that will fix the situation eventually. That business is usually transacted in a matter of two to three strips. Then the story, with Miki and Uncle Harry now offstage, goes on for weeks.

If Kuwahara was trying to spotlight his other characters, Miki’s parents and a buddy, Mr. Morris, in lieu of Miki, that would be understandable. They, at least, weren’t created as knock-offs. The problem is, though, that they don’t have personalities either. They all seem to sleepwalk through the stories struggling to appear even one-dimensional. They seem like disgruntled actors who are trying to be fired from the production. Maybe this was Kuwahara trying to kill the strip. If it was, he was certainly using slow-acting poison.

NB: Sorry about the missing art on the sample strips. They came from the Youngstown Vindicator, which trimmed the strip bottoms in order to fit more on a page. Unfortunately I have no runs from a paper that printed the strips complete.

Obscurity of the Day: Gus and Gussie

Paul Fung was generally employed behind the scenes, assisting or subbing for other cartoonists, and brilliantly so, but he does have a few signed credits. Here is the longest-lasting feature with which he was involved, Gus and Gussie. On this delightful strip Fung drew and Jack Lait wrote.

Lait was a Hearst yeoman who at various times was a sports reporter, crime reporter, columnist, syndicate editor, and newspaper general manager — often wearing several of those hats at the same time. There are claims that in his heyday he had more words published per year than anyone else in the world — a claim that may well be true, since in addition to his newspaper work he also wrote short stories, plays and novels. In short, this was a guy who torture-tested his typewriters.

Lait probably never spent more than five minutes per day writing Gus and Gussie, but that was enough to make it one of the snappiest strips around. Gus the waiter and Gussie the hat-check girl speak an entertaining Runyonesque patois full of street slang and malapropisms, making every strip an adventure in decoding the duo’s jargon.Early on in the strip the focus is on the peppery dialogue and their dealings with the nightclub patrons, but as the series went on the duo branched out into other employment opportunities, and longer, more involved, storylines.

The art by Fung constantly betrays traces of Billy DeBeck and Chic Young, two cartoonists he assisted or subbed for at various times. Whether this is Fung’s native style is hard to say as he seemed to be a true chameleon.

Gus and Gussie ran in a modest number of client papers from April 13 1925 to February 24 1930. Fung was called on to replace Chic Young on Dumb Dora at this time, and apparently Lait had no wish to continue the strip with someone else at the art helm.

Jack Lait publicity photos courtesy of Cole Johnson

Obscurity of the Day: Taken from Life

Edgar Martin was still trying to find his niche at NEA as the syndicate published his third feature, Taken from Life. After the self-limiting Fables of 1921, and the good but short-lived Efficiency Ed, Martin tried his hand at pantomime. As any cartoonist who has tried will tell you, doing a daily pantomime feature is one of the hardest tasks a cartoonist can undertake. Trying to tell a story without words, and make it funny to boot, is no mean feat, and doing it six times per week puts your creativity to a Herculean test. For the young and inexperienced Martin, it was a bridge too far.

The typical Taken from Life strip didn’t work well as a story, or failed to be humorous, or both. It’s almost painful to look at the strips, because as we know from his later work, Martin was a good cartoonist, just not ready or suited for this strip.

Sadly, Taken from Life did not have an abbreviated lifespan like Martin’s other early misfires. It began on July 24 1922 and ended February 16 1924, almost two years of uninspired awkwardness. Thankfully it was replaced by Martin’s great success, Boots and her Buddies, with which he thrived for decades.