Albert Carmichael: McManus Impersonator, Pupil, Muse

What can I tell you about Albert Carmichael? Of his life, essentially nothing. I know that he is rumored to have died in 1917, a victim of the great influenza epidemic. That is the breadth of my knowledge of his life.

Of his art I can tell you more, and it is, I think, an intriguing story, tantalizing in the possible answers to the mysteries involved. The bare facts are these; Albert Carmichael’s first known published work is a strip titled Why Be Discontented? that ran just a handful of times in August 1907 in the New York Evening World. The strip was nothing memorable, and Carmichael’s art was rough.

Carmichael may have been freelancing, because he continued to appear in the World on occasion but not nearly often enough to indicate that he had a steady job. Perhaps he did, though; often newspaper artists were kept busy with photo retouching, drawing maps, and the many other less glamorous art jobs that a newspaper affords. The interesting thing about Carmichael’s cartooning work at the World was that it began to look more and more like the style of George McManus. And since McManus was one of the star cartoonists at the World, that may very well mean that McManus had taken young Carmichael under his wing and was tutoring him.

As time went on, Carmichael’s art becomes almost indistinguishable from McManus’. By 1910 or so something amazing was happening – Carmichael, though still closely mirroring McManus’ style, began to surpass the master. McManus’ work at this time, though excellent in its own right, was still hampered by minor stylistic flaws, occasional questionable draftsmanship, and a certain cookie-cutter approach. Meanwhile Carmichael was honing the style, making his line more fluid, his characters move better, his draftsmanship becoming impeccable. McManus’ art, meanwhile, does not likewise progress.

In 1912 McManus finally responds to the siren call and wide open coffers of Hearst. Hearst, since the 1890’s, had made a habit of not nurturing talent from within his organization, but instead simply wooing away the best people from other papers. On McManus’ departure his flagship World strips The Newlyweds And Their Baby and Spareribs And Gravy are reassigned to the obvious choice – who else but Carmichael to be his successor? Carmichael takes over the strips, now a valued newspaper cartoonist of the first rank. However, he is not allowed a byline on these new strips, and rarely does his signature on them survive to be printed in the paper (but we do know he signed them from the original art that pops up from time to time). Laboring in virtual anonymity, Carmichael continues to enhance his cartooning skills, now producing a version of McManus’ style that clearly overshadows the originator.

Over at the Hearst camp, McManus gets off to a slow start but finally hits the bullseye in January 1913 when he creates Bringing Up Father. McManus continues trying out other strips for several years, but by 1918 Jiggs and company are firmly entrenched as his claim to fame.

In December 1916 Carmichael’s version of The Newlyweds And Their Baby comes to an abrupt halt at the World. Whether for lack of interest or because of the rumored impending death of Carmichael I simply don’t know. In any case, Carmichael’s work for the World ends, and he does not go anywhere else that anyone has been able to find.

The eerie conclusion to the story is that starting around 1918, a year after Carmichael’s presumed death, we start to see a change in McManus’ art style. It begins, ever so slowly, to take on the qualities of Carmichael’s art. Over the next half a decade or so, McManus hones his own skills in the same direction taken by his former impersonator. By 1925 or so McManus has shaken off all the rough edges and bloomed into his elegant yet superbly comedic mature style – a style that looks very much like Carmichael’s.

Is this simply the natural progression of a cartoonist? Or is it some sort of tribute to the fallen student who surpassed his master? Or, if we prefer a supernatural explanation, could Carmichael have been reaching beyond the grave to guide the hand of his mentor?

Any biographical information you can share about Albert Carmichael would be most enthusiastically and gratefully received.

Oops – almost forgot. The sample strip above was published in 1912, not long before Carmichael took over McManus’ strips.

Joe Kubert’s Tales of the Green Beret

As the Vietnam War began to heat up, author Robin Moore’s war novel Tales Of The Green Beret became a bestseller. In 1966 the book was used as a springboard for a comic strip of the same name. The strip, supposedly written by Moore (but actually written by yeoman comic strip ghost-writer Elliot Caplin) was introduced to newspaper readers on April 4, 1966. Sporting art by the master of hard-bitten war comic books, Joe Kubert, the strip was an instant success. Kubert’s art style was perfect for the strip – every bit as gritty, bloody and terrifying as the real thing being broadcast on the evening news.

As casualties quickly mounted in Vietnam and the anti-war movement gained traction, newspaper editors started to think twice about running a comic strip about the Vietnam war. Presumably it was lagging strip sales that caused Joe Kubert to jump ship after a little more than a year and a half (his last Sunday was 1/7/68, his last daily in mid-week on 1/10/68). John Celardo took over the art, and as good as he might be, he just couldn’t maintain the intense flavor of Kubert’s version. The strip limped along, losing papers fast, and was finally put out to pasture on July 21, 1968.

George Gately’s Hapless Harry

George Gately is well-known for his tremendously successful cat feature Heathcliff. Far more obscure is his first syndicated strip, Hapless Harry.

Hapless Harry ran 1/11/1965 through sometime in 1971 (my latest is 6/6/71 – can anyone verify a later date?). It was a strip about an everyman nebbish; the hook for the feature is that it was done mostly in pantomime. Pantomime is a hard form for the cartoonist, and Gately’s strip was always serviceable but seldom great. Newspaper editors tend to like pantomime strips because they can easily be dropped in favor of ads when necessary. Story strips, of course, can’t be dropped or the readers will miss a day’s action in the story. Gag-a-day strips are easier to drop, but the easiest are pantomimes. Why? Because they are such a quick ‘read’ that people tend not to miss them when they disappear for a day.

Anyway, Hapless Harry did not take off at all in syndication. The New York News ran it, and they are such a high paying venue that it kept the strip alive practically all by itself. If not for that paper I doubt that the strip would have lasted more than a year.

Mal Hancock’s Polly

Mal Hancock created quite a few syndicated comic strips, the first we know of being Nibbles that ran 1960-63. All of Hancock’s series from the 1960s were done for the George Matthew Adams Service (Washington Star Syndicate after they bought out GMA). This syndicate was always limping along, rarely getting any of their features in a lot of papers. So it must have been exciting for Mal when he sold Polly to the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate in 1972. Finally a chance at making some serious syndication money!

Unfortunately it was not to be. Polly ran from sometime in 1972 (anyone have a specific start date?) until 5/25/1974, never having caught on with newspaper editors. Perhaps Hancock’s naive style, which he used on all his features, just wasn’t what a lot of newspapers were looking for.

Hancock’s longest running, and presumably at least modestly successful, strip was The Fantastic Foster Fenwick, which ran 1968-1982.

Mal Hancock is often confused with Mal Eaton, the two of whom shared a signature of “Mal” and had styles that were a bit similar. Not immune, in researching this little essay I discovered a mistake in my Stripper’s Guide listing where I assigned one of Hancock’s features to Eaton. Oops!

Obscurity of the Day: Scary William

First of all I have to explain (in case you haven’t read the sample yet) that Scary William is not a kid who scares people. He’s a scaredy-cat of the nth magnitude – he’s scared of everything. So we have a bad title for starters. The stories – well, in pretty much every strip William gets scared of something all out of proportion. Good for a few laughs? You bet. Problem is the strip ran for 13 years. So on the story front we also come up empty. Ah, but the art!

Harold Knerr’s Scary William debuted on 11/26/1905 and ran until 6/2/1918. He did this strip in addition to his (incrementally) more well-known Philadelphia Inquirer strips, The Fineheimer Twins and Mister George And Wifey. Of course, Knerr left all his Inquirer strips behind when in 1914 he got the call from New York that Hearst wanted him to take over Katzenjammer Kids, replacing the now out of favor Rudolph Dirks. Little must Knerr have known that he’d been audtioning for the job for the last decade with his Katzies ripoff, the Fineheimers!

The Inquirer ran reprints of Scary William and Knerr’s other strips for awhile after he left, then apparently assigned a new cartoonist to the job. Or did they? While it is true that Knerr’s signature disappears from all three of his strips, the art style hardly fluctuates. Perhaps it looks a little bit more rough … or could it be rushed? I’ve wondered for years whether Knerr kept this as a moonlighting job even after being promoted to the bigtime. Suppose I’ll never know…

Obscurity of the Day: When Dreams Come True

Clare Victor Dwiggins, better known simply as Dwig, was one of the most prolific and talented cartoonists of all time. Today he’s best remembered for his Tom Sawyer/School Days strip, and his Ophelia character.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Dwig created dozens of different series, some of them short-lived like our obscurity of the day, When Dreams Come True. This series ran in the New York Evening World (syndicated by Press Publishing Company) from 10/21 to 12/24/1912.

(Sorta) Obscurity of the Day: Captain And The Kids

What’s obscure about The Captain And The Kids? Nothing about the Sunday, which ran for 55 mostly successful years. What is obscure is the daily version which not many have ever seen. The daily Captain And The Kids debuted on October 1, 1934 and ran until sometime in 1939 (can anyone supply a definite end date?). It is likely to have been ghosted by Bernard Dibble for Rudolph Dirks.

For some reason, even though the Sunday version of the strip was very popular during the 1930s, the daily never took off. It ran in a very short list of papers.

Pat Sullivan

Pat Sullivan is well-known as the creator of Felix The Cat. However, because of his bad treatment of Otto Messmer, who actually drew the Felix comic strip, a popular legend has grown that Pat Sullivan could not draw at all – that he just used his sharp business skills to co-opt Messmer’s considerable talents. His lack of cartooning ability is not true, as the above sample of his work proves.

I won’t rehash Sullivan’s bio at length here (you can read a very well-researched account of his life in John Canemaker’s Felix – The Twisted Tale Of The World’s Most Famous Cat). Sullivan got his start in American comic strips by effectively duplicating William F. Marriner’s cartooning style on Marriner’s Sambo And His Funny Noises, a long-running McClure Sunday section feature. Sullivan also did several strips on his own, all done in the Marriner style – a few for McClure and some additional daily-style features for the New York Evening World. Great-Idea Jerry, seen here, ran 7/17/1912 to 4/5/1913.

Obscurity of the Day: O. Heeza Boob

Don’t get excited over that signature. We don’t have an undiscovered George Herriman strip here. The signature is Herrmann, and one glance at the art tells us that we’re dealing with a different fella here. O. Heeza Boob ran in the New York Evening World, and was syndicated by Press Publishing, from 9/21/1912 until 4/1/1913. Herrmann did one other strip for the World, called No Wonder! after this strip ended.

Herrmann’s only other known credit is for a strip titled Ben, which was probably syndicated by World Color Printing though I’ve never seen an example that had a copyright notice on it. The strip pre-dates Herrmann’s New York World work, first appearing in 1911, but the strip appeared, presumably in reprints for a long time.