The Early Years of Mutt & Jeff
Edited by Jeffrey Lindenblatt, introductory historical essay by Allan Holtz
$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.