An unusual success story, Roger Bean was one of the earliest family strips. Charles ‘Chic’ Jackson created the comic strip for the Indianapolis Star where it first appeared on April 22 1913. Unlike most comic strips of the day which depended on gimmickry of one sort or another, the Bean family were ‘jest plain folks’ and Jackson poked fun at their foibles and frailties with no mercy. He also introduced continuities, a rarity at that time.
Hoosiers like their homegrown cartoonists and quickly became devoted to the strip. Roger Bean became a must-read in Indianapolis, and Jackson began syndicating the strip in the Midwest through the Laura Leonard Newspaper Service. Just two years into the run Jackson further consolidated his franchise by adding reprint books to his repertoire. Legend has it that a brand of coffee was also named after the strip, but I’ve been keeping my eye peeled for proof of that for years and have never found any evidence.
Roger Bean‘s franchise took a serious hit in the 20s when other family strips became popular. The Nebbs, Doing of the Duffs and others all now plowed the same ground. The Gumps, particularly, seems to have been directly modeled on Roger Bean. Jackson’s creation couldn’t keep up with these more professionally produced strips. Jackson was, to be kind, a folk cartoonist. His drawings, full of tortured anatomy, inexpressive faces and blank backgrounds, were decidedly unpleasant to view, and amazingly, never improved one iota throughout the long run of the strip. His fascination with dialect made many of his strips an arduous exercise in deciphering the characters’ speech.
Jackson tried to improve his fortunes in 1925 when he signed on with the George Matthew Adams Service newspaper syndicate. The national syndication did help, miraculously getting his strip into some big city papers including the Chicago Daily News. But Roger Bean remained a limited success, still mostly appearing in Indiana and other Midwest papers.
Roger Bean ended after a twenty year run on September 23 1933, and Chic Jackson passed away the next year.
A couple of addendums on Roger Bean; first, it has been said on Lambiek.net that the family members aged in this strip, an innovation usually attributed to Frank King’s Gasoline Alley. Although I can’t claim to have read a huge number of Roger Bean strips I haven’t seen any indication that the characters aged. Perhaps the children grew up some over the years. Suffice to say I’m skeptical of the claim.
Second, regarding the racist stereotyping of the black character Jose as an utterly brainless idiot — in my (admittedly limited) reading of the strip I’ve come to the conclusion that Jackson may well have cleverly been subverting the stereotype and that Jose is anything but dumb. I think she’s actually brilliantly clever — she plays the part of a fool to drive the Beans crazy and to ensure that she’s never depended on or given any responsibilities. Am I giving Jackson too much credit?