A Mysterious One

A real quickie today folks. I’m going to be out canvassing for Obama all day and didn’t have the foresight to get a Halloween post ready ahead of time. So BOO already.

Anyhow, here’s a mystery item. Percy Crosby’s Skippy had a long-running Sunday topper strip titled Always Belittlin’, but I’d never encountered or even heard of the possibility that there was a daily panel until I stumbled across these two examples.

Both are from the pages of the New York American, Hearst’s flagship paper, and date from January and February 1933. If these were just some oddball item and not a continuing series I wouldn’t expect them to have dates and syndicate slugs.

Does anyone have any additional evidence that there was a daily panel series of Always Belittlin’, or perhaps even have running date info?

Obscurity of the Day: The Clownies

NEA Sundays seldom fit into our obscurity category, but The Clownies is a notable exception. This rare addition to the NEA list ran in very few papers — it almost seems as if it was an extra offering not included in the standard package. In fact, even the NEA archives at Ohio State University are missing this strip. I used to think that these Sundays might have been pilfered from the syndicate bound volumes, but as I’ve come to see just how rare these Sundays are I wonder if they were never bound in to begin with, much like other oddball items like the NEA Christmas strips and such.

The Clownies seems to have started sometime in 1931 (earliest I’ve found is October 11 but take that as a start date at your peril) as a sort of Sunday adjunct to the daily kiddie story feature The Tinymites. Both The Clownies and The Tinymites were being produced by writer Hal Cochran and cartoonist Joe King at the time. The Clownies started off as a full page feature without a topper, but gained a half-page companion called Animal Cracks sometime around mid-1932.

Joe King’s art was serviceable but The Clownies turned into a real graphic knockout in April 1933 when the fabulous George Scarbo took over the art chores. Scarbo was a real workhorse of the NEA bullpen, but he lavished great attention on The Clownies and Animal Cracks when he took over. I apologize that the only sample I had in reach for this essay was a Joe King production, so you’ll have to take my word for the quality of Scarbo’s work on the feature — it is definitely worth seeking out.

Scarbo also brought new life to the activity panel Comic Zoo that ran as a sub-sub-feature of Animal Cracks. Whereas Joe King usually produced uninspired panels like the one above, Scarbo’s version of the panel was so delightful that it survived the end of The Clownies page (my latest is June 25 1933) . Comic Zoo was brought back in 1936 as the topper to the Out Our Way Sunday, and Scarbo produced that delightful feature for almost thirty years more.

As you can tell by all the prevarication above, I’d be more than delighted to hear from anyone who can supply more definitive running dates for this feature and its topper.

Obscurity of the Day: Hubert

You wouldn’t think that any feature that ran for fifty years could be classified as an obscurity, but I think Dick Wingert’s Hubert may honestly fit the category.

Hubert first came to life in Stars & Stripes during World War II. He was the eternally confused little dope who doggedly tried to do his duty but constantly ran into trouble. It’s said that Wingert’s creation was almost as popular as Mauldin’s Willie and Joe with the GI audience.

After the war Wingert brought Hubert back home in a syndicated panel offered by King Features starting December 3 1945. Hubert made a painless transition from foxhole to suburbia with his dishy wife Trudy, and started out strong enough in sales that a Sunday page was added February 3 1946.

No one expected the panel to last long. Many wartime features tried to adapt themselves to a post-war world and lasted only as long as the nostalgia of returned GIs held out. Seldom did that sentimentality last beyond a decade. Although Hubert lasted much longer, I think his welcome was generally worn out by the end of the 1950s as it’s rare to find the feature after that. However, King Features continued to make the feature available to an increasingly tiny number of newspapers for decades more. King is notable for keeping features well beyond their profitable life, whether through inertia or affection for their veteran creators.

Even in the 50s the humor in Hubert was, to put it politely, low-key. The Sundays especially, as you’ll see in the samples above, barely even had gags. The panels and strips often seem to set up for a punchline that never really arrives, sort of a do-it-yourself feature where the reader does the heavy lifting. Wingert desperately needed a gag-writer, and if he did have one any pay they were getting was an overpayment. The only assistance that Wingert is known to have had was Tex Blaisdell, who says he assisted on the art in the 50s.

By the 1960s Wingert’s artwork was degrading, and by the 80s and 90s there’s just no nice way to describe the truly awful clumsiness of it. King Features finally put the feature out to pasture on January 16 1994.

News of Yore 1919: Bert Green on Animation

[from The Student’s Art Magazine, June-July 1919]

To begin with, if an animated cartoonist had any sense, he wouldn’t be an animated cartoonist. The art of animated cartoons is just a new form of manual labor which requires no sense, but untiring patience.

I have been asked a hundred times, “How is it done?”

The process involved is so complicated that it is difficult to explain intelligently because of the great number of parts to a “subject”; by this I mean the drawings, celluloid, tones, cut-outs, etc., and their relation to one another in order to complete a certain scene.

It must be borne in mind that film passes through the projector (of your pet theater) at one foot a second and that the cartoons you see on the end of a Pathé News run in length from fifty to one hundred and fifty feet. This means that if you should see a cartoon of one hundred and twenty-five feet it would be before your eyes just two minutes and five seconds; or in other words, you would have seen two thousand individual pictures, as there are sixteen pictures to every foot of film.

Now the fun begins. I have from two days to one week to draw that film if the editor wants that particular cartoon for a certain issue. This means that I have to “get over” an idea as elaborate as possible, as instructive or as funny as possible with as little technical work as possible, as the amount of tracing and camera work consumes all kinds of time. I have reached a point by experience that if I figure a cartoon to be finished under the camera by five o’clock, I am safe by just adding three more hours for luck.

For instance, a week ago I made a cartoon on “Prohibition,” in which I showed a street scene at night, and as you would look a block down the street you would see a man come around the corner, rush to the front of a saloon on which there was a sign, “Closed.” He then rushed across the street to the next, to find the sign, “Closed.” He did this all the way down the street, pausing and jumping before a half-dozen saloons, until he got to the foot of the street, or the foot of the screen, after which he went through several fool stunts before taking to the “water” that awaited him. I roughly figured I would have to make about one hundred and sixty drawings of the man as he came down the street, but before I had him up to the water faucet I had made about four hundred and fifteen drawings. The same thing happened in a “Zeppelin Raid” cartoon made recently. I had figured the aeroplane to catch up with the Zeppelin and bomb it from the top in about three hundred and fifty drawings, but before I was finished I had something like five hundred. So you see it’s no use making any engagements while in this business, as you might as well be serving a sentence in Joliet. I think that if an animated cartoonist had any time to himself he would go to pieces.

Cartoons like the “Katzenjammer Kids,” “Happy Hooligan,” “Mutt and Jeff,” etc., that run five hundred feet, require a staff of from fifteen to thirty people, men and women, to produce this amount of animated cartoon a week, with salaries ranging from ten to three
hundred dollars per week, so you can readily get some idea of the time and expense involved. Cartoons such as these contain from two thousand to three thousand drawings, and it takes two photographers one solid week working into the nights under pressure to photograph these drawings.

Since Winsor McCay invented the business and produced “Gertie,” which took him nearly three years, many short-cuts and inventions have been developed which save time, but I can truly say that there has never been a cartoon that could touch Winsor’s “Lusitania Disaster” for animation.

The most rapid animator in the game is Frank Moser. Moser literally shakes them out of a hat. I have seen Moser take a scenario of “Happy Hooligan” and in thirty days hand you a pile of between two and three thousand drawings that you couldn’t jump over and live through it. Yes, and catch the 5:15 for Hastings “nine times running.”

To explain the art, let us take, for example, one of the news reel cartoons like this: First we see a line gradually drawing itself across the screen to form the horizon line. This is done by drawing under the camera about a half-inch of line, then stopping and photographing, then another half-inch of line and photographing and so on until we have the line complete. Next we draw in a small part of Uncle Sam’s hat, then photograph, draw some more, etc., until we have Uncle Sam complete. Now we have Uncle Sam standing on the horizon line representing America. Immediately we start to draw the top of the Kaiser’s helmet, stop, photograph, etc., until we have Uncle Sam on one side of the water and the Kaiser on the other. Drawings are now made of Uncle Sam throwing a brick. The act of throwing the brick across the ocean may go into one hundred and fifty drawings, and when the brick strikes the Kaiser it changes to the Liberty Loan. In other words, the drawings are so made that the brick gradually changes into a huge block, which crushes him, and then the words “Liberty Loan” shape themselves.

This is a simple example, but when we go into scenes that contain two or more figures and which contain tones it requires endless tracing, and of my assistant, Miss Kelly, I cannot say too much, as she has the patience of Job. I think Miss Kelly has traced more legs, arms, hats, faces than there are fleas on a dog’s back, and believe me, that’s going some. And if it wasn’t for Miss Kelly I’d probably be selling canary bird swings at Forty-second street.

When a stack of drawings are finished we have a bunch of “paper actors,” and it is then a most difficult task to make them move at their proper speed. In short, you are the director. You take the “exposure,” for instance, of a man who walks across the room to sit down. These are all drawings of the man walking. Each drawing is from three thirty-seconds of an inch to three-fourths of an inch ahead of the last, and you then proceed to “expose” or direct his movements at your command. The drawings are then gone over carefully from one to a thousand, and the speed of each “paper actor” is listed on an “exposure sheet,” and the sheet, together with the drawings, are turned over to the camera-man to photograph.

An animated cartoon is photographed by “stop motion,” by which we mean one picture to one revolution of the crank instead of sixteen pictures, as is used exclusively in photoplay. This is one reason that makes it a time consumer.

Nearly all “trick photography” is done by “stop motion.” I took great delight once in watching two fellows making an advertising film in which the screen showed a knife come out of a drawer, the bread out of the box, the butter unwrap itself, the knife cut the bread, then spread the butter and a lot of other junk doing such tricks, all photographed by “stop motion.” These poor chaps had been working about two weeks, night and day, and at the time I saw them you couldn’t get near them. They had only about thirty-five feet photographed, and the sweet things they were calling each other, the knife, the bread, etc., was wonderful to me, as I could appreciate it. They were about ready for the “nut factory,” for they had to keep books on the movements of the knife, the bread, the butter, etc. For instance, they would move the paper on the butter one quarter of an inch, stop, photograph one picture, write down that, then move the bacon or bread another quarter of an inch and so on until the butter unwrapped, the knife cut a slice, etc. All this, mind you, was done in the “sky,” so the man moving the junk had to walk around in his socks for fear of soiling the “cloud.”

Unfortunately I am a glutton for hard work and long hours, but if somebody will only be good enough to induce the editor of the Pathé News to slip me the Croix de Guerre or the Legion of Honor for all the cartoons I made to kill the Kaiser and “Clown Prince” or “Crown Quince” I’ll buy him a drink before my contract runs out, because after the first of July we have to drink Jap-a-Lac.

In conclusion, an animated cartoonist must be able to talk English, Irish and Swedish, must know the Ten Commandments, the law of gravitation, locomotion and its uses, mind over matter, psychology and its action on cheese, the rules of the road, “cohesion” and its lifting capacity, navigation, a strong believer in Darwin, the art of tuning a
bass violin, the internal combustion engine and its use in the home, how to fry an egg, many innumerable things touched upon so lightly by our famous men and, above all, the animated cartoonist must have a one-track mind.

Obscurity of the Day: Ralph

For a long time now it’s been pretty much standard operating procedure for editorial cartoonists to attempt to supplement their incomes by moonlighting with a comic strip feature. Wayne Stayskal, editorial cartoonist for the Tampa Tribune, made his latest attempt with Ralph, a daily panel/Sunday strip feature syndicated by King Features.

Ralph is an everyman schlub who can’t catch a break. The feature was similar to many others in the same vein — Herman, Big George, Frank & Ernest and others all plowed much the same turf. Although Stayskal’s entry was well done, it didn’t sufficiently set itself apart from these other features and got lost in the crowd. The feature began on January 2 1995 and ended sometime in 2001.

Jim Ivey’s Sunday Comics

Jim Ivey’s new book, Graphic Shorthand, is available from Lulu.com for $19.95 plus shipping, or you can order direct from Ivey for $25 postpaid. Jim Ivey teaches the fundamentals of cartooning in his own inimitable style. The book is 128 pages, coil-bound. Send your order to:

Jim Ivey
5840 Dahlia Dr. #7
Orlando FL 32807

Also still available, Jim Ivey’s career retrospective Cartoons I Liked, available on Lulu.com or direct from Jim Ivey for $20 postpaid. When ordered from Ivey direct, either book will include an original Ivey sketch.

Death Match 2008: ProQuest vs. Crappy Scanner

I’ve finally had time to start analyzing a little of the material from the Amsterdam News that I scanned in Washington. The first thing I wanted to determine is how my scans compared to the ProQuest digitized version of the newspapers. I’d been told by several correspondents that I should look into using the ProQuest material rather than beating my head against a wall trying to use that terrible PlanOn wand scanner.

Well, the results are in, and although I’m still very unhappy with the scanner’s performance, it still compares favorably with the samples I printed from Proquest. This first example is an Ollie Harrington Dark Laughter panel. Here’s the ProQuest version (be sure to click on these samples to see them at a larger size):

And here’s the same panel in the raw scan using the PlanOn scanner. This raw scan is quite mottled, dark and the scanner put a curve into the panel that is unfortunate:

Now here’s the scanned panel cleaned up about as well as I can. If you compare the Proquest version with this retouched scan you can see the obvious difference in quality. Harrington’s lovely grease pencil tone work is reasonably well-preserved, at least by comparison. Since Proquest reduces their images to black and white (no grays at all) they end up with a rather pointillist interpretation of any tone used. The result is very harsh and, I’m sure you’ll agree, not a fair representation of Harrington’s work at all.

Keep in mind, of course, that you’re only seeing what I can show you at lo-res screen resolution. When the samples are compared printed from my laser printer at 600 dpi the difference is much more stark.

Unfortunately the quality of the scans tended to be all over the map. The Harrington example above, while not exactly terrific, came out pretty darn good in my opinion. Here’s another scan that didn’t come out as well. First the raw version:

Although at first blush it doesn’t look too bad, the resolution, supposedly 400 dpi according to PlanOn, is revealed on close-up inspection to be much less than that — I’m guess more like 200 dpi. Lo-res scans tend to turn everything blocky, squaring off edges and adding haloes around areas of high contrast. Here’s the scan after retouching; it’s quite dark and the lettering is blurry. I might be tempted to zap the existing lettering and re-letter it with an appropriate font:

Now here are the same two strips from ProQuest. The difference in quality isn’t as pronounced as on the Dark Laughter sample, but even here the scanned version is better. Note the shading on the wings of the plane in the first panel of Jive Gray. In my scan each line is visible, while in the ProQuest version a good portion of it has simply disappeared. Also note that Proquest’s version has cut off the bottom edge of the Jack Davis strip. I see this sort of thing happen quite a bit with ProQuest. On the other hand, ProQuest’s version has crisper lettering, a result of their extreme high-contrast scanning.

Am I any further on making a decision about how to proceed? Well, I’m still unhappy with the scans, but they certainly seem to be a better bet than ProQuest. Are they good enough for book reproduction? My opinion is no, but perhaps I should get off my high horse on the matter and see what a publisher thinks. Nancy Goldstein, if you’re reading this, I’d be very interested in hearing your opinion.

Jim Ivey’s Sunday Comics

Jim Ivey’s new book, Graphic Shorthand, is available from Lulu.com for $19.95 plus shipping, or you can order direct from Ivey for $25 postpaid. Jim Ivey teaches the fundamentals of cartooning in his own inimitable style. The book is 128 pages, coil-bound. Send your order to:

Jim Ivey
5840 Dahlia Dr. #7
Orlando FL 32807

Also still available, Jim Ivey’s career retrospective Cartoons I Liked, available on Lulu.com or direct from Jim Ivey for $20 postpaid. When ordered from Ivey direct, either book will include an original Ivey sketch.