Obscurity of the Day: Toyland

Here’s Toyland by lady cartoonist Myrtle Held. This is one of the first daily-style strips ever produced as a special offering for the Christmas season. The closed-end Christmas strip would later become a syndicate staple, with King Features, NEA, AP and others offering one every year.

Toyland ran in the Christmas season in 1913 and 1914. In its home paper, the New York Evening World, the running dates were December 3 1913 to January 28 1914 (obviously they had some leftovers that had to run late), and December 5 to 17 1914.

The above sample is the first strip in the 1913 series, and has a rather un-Christmasy subject, a woman who didn’t wait for her sailor beau to return from sea. This first strip has pretty awkward art, and the gag has nothing to do with the characters being toys, but Held improved quite a bit in her later offerings.

Obscurity of the Day: How Would You Like To Be John?

How Would You Like To Be John ran in one of the McClure Syndicate Sunday sections (the one I’ve always termed ‘section A’, not that that means anything to anyone but me) from August 23 1903 to April 9 1905. The cartoonist was John A. Lemon, a fellow whose gags and style are serviceable if not particularly exciting. Lemon’s claim to fame, if he has one at all, is that crazy signature of his. It took a lot of digging to finally figure out his name, though I’m afraid I don’t recall exactly where or from whom the breakthrough came. To make the search even tougher, his weird squiggle looks a bit like George H. Blair’s, another cartoonist of the era.

Lemon’s only known newspaper comic strip work was in these early McClure sections.

Obscurity of the Day: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe

Luckily for us comic strip readers, toys tend to go in and out of style fast enough that cross-marketing seldom reaches the newspaper comic page. However, the inexplicable phenomenon of the Masters of the Universe craze was one bullet we didn’t manage to dodge.

McNaught Syndicate, close to the end of its existence, distributed this daily and Sunday strip for just less than a year. The Sunday ran from July 20 1986 to June 7 1987, the daily dates are unknown but presumably coincide.

The Sunday strip was written by James Shull for the first three months, then it was taken over by Chris Weber. Art was supplied by Gerald Forton. Credits were often missing entirely or too murky on the Sundays (they were often lettered in an area of dark purple – brilliant!) , so others may have been involved. For reasons unknown, the strip’s colorist, Connie Schurr, who should not have wanted the limelight for this hackwork, received a credit line on the Sundays.

Not knowing anything about the back-story of He-Man I don’t know how the strip compares to the turd blossom-like marketing of these dolls in animated cartoons and comic books. For more information than you could possibly want to know about the subject jump on over to the Wiki page. Oddly enough, though the toys have a large fan base and many websites are devoted to Masters of the Universe lore, I couldn’t Google a single site that seemed to acknowledge the newspaper comic strip series.

Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: All Over Coffee

All Over Coffee
by Paul Madonna
City Lights Books, 2007
ISBN 0-87286-456-1
175 pages, hardcover, $24.95

If your taste in comic strips runs to the more literate, introspective and subdued side, the pickings are pretty slim. There’s Krazy Kat, of course, and Mutts, and perhaps Pogo. Beyond that you’re pretty much out of luck.

One feature that takes that genre to a whole different level, in fact that pretty much defines its own genre by going so far beyond those other strips, is Paul Madonna’s All Over Coffee. Madonna’s strip (well, he calls it a strip but it’s almost always a single panel) runs only in the San Francisco Chronicle. The feature combines beautiful freehand watercolor drawings of San Francisco cityscapes with little snippets of conversation, short narratives and haiku-like declarations.

Madonna’s texts are often quietly funny, sometimes bittersweet, occasionally forlorn. Some of the most successful are those that read like conversations overheard in a coffee shop (and thus lending some logic to the name of the feature). And while the texts celebrate humanity, our foibles, passions and prejudices, the drawings, at least on the surface, reject humanity completely. Madonna’s dramatic portraits of the city are drawn without human figures — his San Francisco is populated only with the works of man, not the builders themselves.

Madonna in the afterword to this collection explains that a great deal of thought goes into marrying the text and the images. Occasionally the connection is reasonably obvious, many times it is a match of moods that is only manifest to the author. Whatever the connection, the images are hauntingly beautiful. Madonna draws architecture without a straightedge, and the seemingly monochromatic drawings are often warmed with a subdued, almost hidden, use of color, lending the cityscapes a warmth that amply makes up for the lack of humanity.

All Over Coffee is, unfortunately, not a candidate for syndication, nor is it a likely model for other features that widen the bounds of the newspaper comic strip. Which is too bad, because it would be interesting to see what sort of public reaction there would be if a few such strips showed up on the nation’s funny pages. Is there room next to Cathy and Garfield for such things?

Following are a few representative samples from the book.

Obscurities of the Day: Two by F.E. Davidson

Two for one Monday here at the ol’ Stripper’s Guide blog. Both these panel series, which appeared in the Boston Post, ran on Sundays in their magazine section. The first, Miss Rose Lily’s Vacation Days at Shady Hook, ran from August 3 to October 26 1913. The second, The Courtship of Eunice and Eric, replaced it on November 2 and ran until sometime in 1914 (I’m still indexing this paper).

Frank E. Davidson’s only cartooning work that I know of ran in the Boston Post exclusively. These two are his first features for that paper, the last appeared in 1921. He had a severely angular and spare style, an odd choice for these panels that often ran at a pretty large size, up to a quarter page sometimes. He seems to have had little interest in drawing backgrounds, and his figures are positively architectural, constructed mostly of straight lines. It’s the sort of style that is interesting if not necessarily appealing.

Herriman Saturday

This week’s Herriman cartoons are from September 29 and 30, 1906, two from each date.

Our first cartoon today, a commemoration of the Angels losing 3-1 to Oakland, is a pretty funny cartoon though a bit slapdash artwise (helped not one bit by a too light photocopy). The only player mentioned that I can find information about online is Eli Cates, who had one year in the majors with the Washington Senators in 1908. Despite racking up a very impressive 2.5 ERA, Cates went 4-8 for the lowly Sens.

Herriman’s editorial cartoon on the 29th is far more accomplished art-wise, and continues hammering on the Southern Pacific’s role in California government. Note the design on the skirt of the GOP cage – this sort of design detail would become a Herriman trademark in later years.

On the 30th we have a caricature of Henry Huntington, a real estate and trolley baron in the LA area. You can read about him on this Wiki page.

Finally a story illustration, this one from the ongoing column “Confessions of a Grafter”. As I’ve mentioned before, Herriman was producing these on a regular basis, but most, unlike this one, are small spot cartoons.

Obscurity of the Day: Sunday Punk

The 80s and 90s saw a bumper crop of new features penned by editorial cartoonists. Although there’s been a long history of comic strip cartoonists starting out in the political cartoon genre, in the old days if they made the leap they typically did it early in their careers and dropped their editorial work if they met with any success.

In the past score of years though, a lot of well-known editorial cartoonists have tried their hands at strips while retaining their editorial cartoon posts. Tom Toles, Jim Borgman, Bill Schorr, Mike Peters, Bruce Beattie, and many others all tried strips with widely varying degrees of success. One of the very least successful, though, was one of the biggest names in editorial cartooning, Patrick Oliphant.

Sunday Punk starred Oliphant’s trademark penguin character from his daily editorial cartoons, and the character was pretty much used in the same way in the Sunday-only comic strip — making wry comments on politics and current events. The strip debuted on March 18 1984, and the latest I’ve been able to find is from September 16 of the same year, a run of just a little more than six months.

The strip was reasonably good, so it’s unclear why it had such a short run. Perhaps Oliphant lost interest in the project, perhaps the sales weren’t good, I dunno. I like to think it’s just desserts for Oliphant’s earlier attitude toward comic strips. He was the guy who yelled foul the longest and loudest when Doonesbury won a Pulitzer in 1975. Oliphant belittled the feature and the form of being unworthy for such recognition. Now less than a decade later he was drawing a comic strip with political content. What goes around comes around?

Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: The Early Years of Mutt & Jeff

The Early Years of Mutt & Jeff
Edited by Jeffrey Lindenblatt, introductory historical essay by Allan Holtz
NBM, 2007
ISBN 1-56163-502-2
$24.95, hardcover, 192 pages

Don’t expect a completely dispassionate review of this book. As you can see above, I wrote the introduction for it and I’m frankly pleased as punch to have my scribblings appear in hardcover for the first time. So if you’re on the fence about buying the book, jump on across if only as an appreciation for this blog, which I hope has given you many hours of ad-free, fee-free comic strip enjoyment over the years.

Okay, end of begging. On with the review.

Mutt and Jeff wasn’t a very good comic strip for much of its existence. Let’s get that straight from the outset. If you read M&J from the 1930s onward you were seeing a strip that ran on autopilot. Not to take anything away from Al Smith, the fellow who churned it out year after year, but the strip was obviously out of step with the times, and relied on slapstick humor that went out with vaudeville.

But, oh, those early years! With Bud Fisher, that flawed, lazy, money-grubbing genius, at the helm, this strip was a firecracker. Topical, acerbic and witty, it was a strip written for and read by adults. Sure there was slapstick humor, but Fisher, unencumbered in these early years with newspaper editors who expected kid-friendly material, had his anti-hero duo in the thick of current events. He had them gambling, he had them stealing, he even had them taking drugs!

The selection of strips, a generously huge melange of material from 1909 through 1913, tends toward the non-topical. Probably a good thing for most readers if a little disappointing to me. Editor Lindenblatt does give us some excellent sequences, including Mutt and Jeff going to Mexico to fight in the revolution, and a hilarious run lampooning patent medicines. There’s also a good selection of strips covering Mutt’s occasional forays as a pro baseball player on real New York teams.

The reproduction, all obviously from excellent source material, is crisp and perfectly legible, a small miracle considering the scarcity of source material from these early years, and the huge size in which these strips originally ran. Nothing in the book, save a few real rarities I supplied in my introduction, had to be retrieved from microfilm, thank goodness. My only nitpick is that the retoucher failed to remove the inevitable flyspecks from the strips. It’s not something the typical reader is likely to even notice, but it’s a pet peeve with me, and it mars an otherwise gorgeous presentation.

My introduction, which runs twelve pages, tells the amazing story of Fisher’s rise in the comic strip biz, including anecdotes and material from hitherto unplumbed or long-forgotten sources. I also discuss the whole A. Piker Clerk issue, coming to some conclusions at variance with the accepted wisdom about that fabled strip. The introduction is illustrated with a goodly number of rare items never before reprinted, including Fisher’s very first published cartoon in the San Francisco Chronicle and the final strip of the ersatz Mutt and Jeff version done by Russ Westover.

Some reviewers have complained that the strips in the book are undated. For the record, Jeffrey Lindenblatt is a real stickler for such things, but he had a problem with this book. These early dailies, after Fisher went to New York and the strip was syndicated, were printed at widely varying times in different papers, so there really were no hard and fast release dates to offer, especially when the source material was culled from a number of different sources. On the other hand, the year of issuance certainly could have been given, and if there are further volumes of Mutt & Jeff published (and they will be if the sales on this book merit it) Lindenblatt assures me that the strips will be dated with the release dates from the New York American, the strip’s home paper from 1908-1915.

Obscurity of the Day: Eve’s Epigrams

For many years I saw this feature as I was paging through old papers, but looking at the tiny panels one at a time like that I thought the art was boilerplate. The Stripper’s Guide index doesn’t truck with features that have unchanging art, of course, so I ignored it. It wasn’t until I saw a bunch of these run together in a weekly paper that I finally realized that the cartoons do in fact change every day.

Eve’s Epigrams featured endless variations on the above portrait along with pithy little sayings. The feature was by Agnes Hucke, who very rarely signed the feature, and it was distributed by Ledger Syndicate. The earliest I’ve found is from 1923, the likely starting year. The panel was advertised in E&P until 1933, but then, as with many Ledger properties, it seems to have been sold off to cheapo reprint syndicates, because I have samples as late as 1937.