Obscurity of the Day: Uncle Pike

The McClure Syndicate’s Sunday funnies section had a real taste for ‘rube’ strips. Here’s one of the longer-running ones, Uncle Pike.

A.D. Reed started the strip on May 25 1902 as Mr. and Mrs. Pike of Pike County, and soon reduced the title to the more manageable Uncle Pike. Reed stopped signing the strip in late 1903, but that doesn’t mean he stopped doing it — Reed seemed to have an aversion to signing his work. Ed Carey did substitute on the strip for at least a few 1903 episodes, and by the time the strip was winding down in 1905 the art was starting to look, to me at least, a lot like the work of J.R. Bray.

Uncle Pike went into retirement after October 29 1905.

News of Yore 1950: Short Items, All With a Mystery Angle

Cartoonist Pierotti Offers Collegiate Fun
(E&P, 8/26/50)
“Nutcracker U.”—a funny strip about an incredible college run by a wealthy man—is John Pierotti’s stepping-stone to a new phase of his career.

Explaining that his feature has been out for a month, beating the gun on the present rush to collegiate humor, Mr. Pierotti confided to this department: “I did it all myself. I am syndicating it, too. That means footing all the bills, and when a cartoonist does that, he either is crazier than most cartoonists, or he believes implicitly in his product. The latter part of that sentence applies to me.”

John broke into newspaper work as a copy boy on the New York Telegram in 1927. He took up illustrating for sports and news events, turned to drawing Old Gold contest cartoons, and then became a staff artist with United Feature Syndicate — all within 10 years. In 1938 he was drawing King’s comic strip, “Hippo & Hookie.” He started a sports cartoon, “Pier-Oddities,” for United in 1943, switched to McClure in 1949.

“Backgrounds’ Strips Make It Easy for Reader
(E&P 8/26/50)
Norman Meyers, noted artist, world traveler and current events commentator, has been retained by the Ledger Syndicate (Philadelphia) for a series of strips and captions which will help to clarify the international news for the average reader.

Called “Backgrounds,” the first subject is “Korea — Buffer State. ” The entire history of the war-stricken country is told in four-panel sequences with capsule commentary, running about 40 words to the panel. Each subject will be covered in four weeks.

Already scheduled for early release are “Formosa — Defense Link” and “MacArthur—Destiny’s Soldier.” The syndicate advises that schedules may be changed to keep the feature topical. Any new area threatened by aggression would be covered immediately.
[Although ‘Backgrounds’ was advertised in E&P 1951-56, the only series I’ve found is the first one about Korea. Has anyone seen other series? — Allan]

Dawn O’Day Goes Daily
(E&P 8/12/50)
“Dawn O’Day in Hollywood,” a Chicago Tribune-New York News comic strip initiated a year ago as a Sunday color feature, will go on a daily basis Sept. 18. Now syndicated in 15 newspapers, the strip is drawn by Val Heinz, 23, the youngest of the CT-NYN’s cartoonists. Mr. Heinz, a native of Streator, Ill., worked in Florida as an assistant to Frank King for four years before becoming a student at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.
[Another E&P article a month later says the daily will start on 9/11 — anyone know which date is correct? — Allan]

New Syndicate Formed
(E&P 9/9/50)
Newly formed Fun Features Syndicate, 1311 Widener Building, Philadelphia, will specialize in the one- and two-column humorous type of material, according to Editor F. H. Phillips. Original offering (Sept. 30 release) is a four-column gag cartoon strip, “Dizzy Daze,” by Mr. Phillips.
[Has anyone seen this feature? — Allan]

‘Tommy’ Hill Does Strip
(E&P 8/26/50)
Thomas Crawford Hill, newspaper artist and cartoonist for many years, will launch a weekly cartoon strip, “Sketches From Life in Glendale,” for the Glendale (Calif.) News-Press and also will serve as staff artist.

Mr. Hill, who now resides in Glendale, formerly was chief staff artist of the Cleveland (O.) Plain Dealer, executive art director for McNaught Syndicate and Central Press and for Toledo (O.) Blade. He also drew cartoons four years for late Arthur Brisbane’s column and George Matthew Adams Syndicate.
[Does anyone have samples of this local feature they can share? — Allan]

Curtis Offers Panel
(E&P 8/19/50)
A. S. Curtis Features Syndicate, Washington, D. C., offers “Sunny Sue,” column-wide cartoon-verse feature. Rhymes of the pigtailed youngster are written by Edna Markham of Hollywood. Calif., who has published verse in a Los Angeles daily. The cartoonist is Jack Fitch of Philadelphia who ran a similar feature “The Tenderloiner” in the Washington (D. C.) Daily News and other papers.
[Does anyone have examples of either of the features mentioned? — Allan]

Obscurity of the Day: Doctor Domehead

This is one of Walter Bradford’s earliest strips for the Philadelphia North American, the paper that would be his home for the next couple of decades. Bradford wasn’t much of an artist, but he made up for the deficiency by having an inspired sense of playfulness, and sometimes out and out lunacy, that can’t fail to induce chuckles. Amazingly enough, Bradford never seemed to wind down; his later work was just as fresh and high-spirited as his early stuff.

Doctor Domehead, usually subtitled Science Made Simple, is one of the many ‘nutty professor’ strips that were so popular in the early decades of the funnies. It ran from March 5 to June 25 1905.

Tip of the dome-warmer to Cole Johnson for the scan.

Obscurity of the Day: The Pingos

Clark Watson’s only known contribution to newspaper strip history is this rare item, The Pingos. It was a delightful fantasy romp in which a couple of kids, Willy and Winnie, get involved with two societies of weird buglike characters. The Pingos, the good guys, live up in the clouds in a land called Pingolia. The Smigs, their constant adversaries, live underground.

The beautifully designed two-tier daily strip originated in Bernarr MacFadden’s notorious New York Evening Graphic sometime in 1930, originally titled The Pingos and the Smigs. It was an attempt to make the Graphic more family-friendly by appealing to kids. Of course there was no way that any parent with an ounce of sense would let a kid get hold of a copy of the ‘porno-Graphic’. This was late in the life of the Graphic, and in 1931 all their remaining strips were sold off to the New York World‘s Press Publishing syndicate, which continued The Pingos.

Press Publishing had slightly better luck syndicating the strip, but it was still in very few papers. In 1932 they decided to revamp the strip in the standard daily format, which effectively eliminated the lovely design work that made the strip so appealing and failed to bring about the additional sales that were the object of the change. The strip apparently ended its run on August 6 1932 just as Willy was about to rescue the Pingo queen from those rotten Smigs. Has anyone seen any later strips?

Clark Watson apparently went into the animation business in the 1940s; I found a smattering of credits at some of the lesser studios.

Obscurity of the Day: Our Moving Pictures

The name T.E. Powers is often invoked with snickers these days; cartooning fans say his style was childish and I’ve even heard it said that he was the world’s worst cartoonist. I am a vigorous dissenter on that score. I think Powers was a fabulous stylist. Yes, one of his several styles was intentionally naive, and yes, he did use stick figures on occasion (on his famed Joys and Glooms characters). One of these days I’ve got to put together a post or two showing some of his gorgeous work from the 1900’s though — his clean-line style of that era will, I’m confident, stop his detractors in mid-derision.

Powers rarely invaded the Sunday color section of the Hearst papers, where he was employed doing a daily comic strip for two decades. Powers did, however, create filler strips for the Sunday section when called on to do it. Most of his Sunday contributions were not seen in New York. They were produced specifically to send out to client papers to fill in when a half-page ad ran in the New York American.

Our Moving Pictures is an exception to the rule — it ran in the New York American from April 10 to August 14 1910. In this series Powers riffs on silent films by doing pantomime strips. It is interesting to note that later “movie strips” like Minute Movies et al., even though they were in the days of silent films, talked up a storm. What’s with that? Powers is the only one who got it right! Hmmph.

Obscurity of the Day: Bugs

The early years of home radio, the days when pop and Junior would sit around endlessly rewiring and tuning their homebrew crystal sets in the evening, spawned a lot of features vying for a place on the newspaper’s radio pages. The radio page proved not to be as big a circulation builder as expected because few people really wanted the techie articles that were its staple. Those that were building radios preferred to buy magazines that covered the subject in depth. The features created especially for the newspaper radio pages thus came and went pretty quickly, too. Bugs is one of the longer-lived ones.

NEA offered this once-a-week strip under the initial direction of syndicate stalwart Roy Grove. Grove had a pleasing style and a pretty good sense of humor that was put to the test by coming up with endless variations on gags about building and tuning radios. The strip started on March 12 1924, and Grove signed off on November 5 1925. Irving S. Knickerbocker took up the gauntlet and continued the strip until April 7 1926, when he wriggled out of the assignment by starting a new strip, The Papers Say. Next up at the plate was Charles D. Small, whose Mudd Center Folks panel got the shaft so that he could take over Bugs. After a little less than a year, Small handed the assignment off to George “Swan” Swanson, whose first appearance was on February 16 1927. (Oddly enough, this is the same pair who did the opposite hand-off on the Salesman Sam strip.)

On June 22 1927 a mystery man by the name of Sefcik took over. NEA seemed awfully confused about the creator of Bugs at this point (who could blame them?) — during Sefcik’s short tenure the title bar on Bugs tried to credit, at least once each, every other cartoonist who had worked on the strip.

The credit conundrum just got worse as the strip finally wound down. On August 10 1927 Don Wootton took over, but his strips were credited to Sefcik for the first few weeks! Poor Sefcik finally got his due; all he had to do was quit. Finally someone at NEA decided they’d had enough of this foolishness and the feature was retired on September 7 1927.

By the way, all the dates given above are — hmm, what’s a good way to put this — ‘creative interpretations’. NEA distributed the Bugs strip once a week with their package, but it was up to the client newspaper when they were going to run the feature. Those with weekly radio pages would run it on whatever day that was, those without one pretty much threw it in as space permitted. The dates cited above are all Wednesdays. That doesn’t mean I found a paper that ran the strip consistently on Wednesdays, or any other day of the week for that matter. I just picked a good day of the week (Wednesday seems a fine day for a radio page don’t you think?) and ‘normalized’ all the divergent dates I had to use from a dozen or so different papers. Even in comic strips, sometimes you just have to massage the raw data a little.

Strip Teasers: Capsule Reviews

Looking for Calvin and Hobbes
by Nevin Martell
Continuum, 256 pages, hardcover, $24.95
ISBN 9780826429841

What can a comic strip fan do for light summer beach reading? You’re certainly not going to risk getting sand in your expensive reprint books, and reading a stack of old tearsheets out by the pool seems ill-advised. Nevin Martell offers the perfect solution in Looking for Calvin and Hobbes.

Martell writes about pop music for magazines, and he’s the author of some fluffy rock star bios, so this book is a bit of a departure for him. Seeing those credits I wondered what he could possibly bring to the table in a book about comic strips. The answer is that he brings very little in the way of comic strip expertise (no Nevin, Ignatz does not throw stones at Krazy Kat) but that turns out to be a good thing. If this had been 250 pages of navel-gazing analysis of the comic strip it would have been insufferable. Rather, Martell tells the story of his adventures trying to wheedle an interview out of the famously reclusive Watterson. It’s a Don Quixote story that is humorous, well-written and (if I may borrow that tired summer-reading platitude ) a real page-turner.

Martell skillfully interlaces the main narrative with bits of Watterson biography, musings about the comic strip, and interviews with Watterson’s fellow cartoonists. In true summer-reading style, no subject sticks around long enough to become tiresome. If you’re looking for a ‘serious’ Watterson bio, a la Schulz and Peanuts, you’re not going to get it — thank goodness. But Martell does a fine job of picking up the crumbs of Watterson’s public appearances and infrequent writings, doing a surprisingly thorough job of pulling Watterson out of that hermit crab shell of his.

I have only a few criticisms of the book. When Martell discusses comic strip history he shows himself to be a rank minor leaguer. The author should have shown the book to someone with the chops in that department to squash embarrassing little mistakes like the aforementioned Krazy Kat clunker. The other criticism may not be valid (I read an advance copy of the book) but I wondered why we don’t get a single illustration. I realize that the book could not reproduce any Calvin & Hobbes strips, but why no photo of Watterson, no example of his college or Cincinnati Post cartoons? Surely the publisher could have gotten permission to reproduce a few items that lay outside of Watterson’s control freak zone of influence.

The Complete New York World Comic Sections: 1905

Compiled by Jonathan Barli
Digital Funnies, 2 CDs or 1 DVD, $25
Available from Digitalfunnies.com

Jonathan Barli’s Digital Funnies image collections have been advertised on the web for quite a few years now, but it took me a long while to get on the bandwagon. I’m glad I finally did, though, because the first collection I tried, a complete set of images of the New York World‘s 1905 comics sections, is absolutely fabulous. What could be more pleasant for an old funnies lover than an afternoon clicking away on image after image of rare material by McManus, Kahles, Carr and Follett (a forgotten cartoonist, but one of my faves). Barli’s source material is a beautiful run of tearsheets. I saw only a few minor chipped corners and brown center creases. The scans are only at screen resolution (72 dpi) but the images are nice and large so that you can zoom in to see even the finest details. Barli wisely didn’t go overboard trying to tweak these images in Photoshop. It looks to me as if he probably upped the contrast and lightened just a tad, enough to take away that tan haze that scanners love to cast over old Sunday pages.

My only criticism of the collection is that the image names are simply 001.jpg, 002.jpg, and so on. Though this does gives us the correct order in which to view the sections, Barli could have made the package a lot more user friendly by including the date of the sections in the file names, or even better, the date plus the titles of the strips on that page. Then I could easily navigate through the files to find all of the Panhandle Pete or Terrible Twins strips in one fell swoop.

By the way, there’s no image viewer application included with these collections. That’s fine by me because that sort of thing often gets in the way of the user viewing the images in the app of their choice. However, if you are computer illiterate just be aware that you simply double-click on any file name and the image will automatically be displayed by your system’s default viewer application.

Big Funny
Cartoonist Conspiracy, broadsheet, 48 pages, $5
Available from cartoonistconspiracy.com/bigfunny/

Hoo boy. Someone’s going to have to explain to this clueless neophyte how you’re supposed to deal with items like this. Steven Stwalley, a friend of Stripper’s Guide, sent this item to me for a little blog-flogging. So I want to be positive, but my churlish need to be objective leads me down another path. So let’s start with the positive — this is one VERY cool format. I don’t know how this group managed to find a printer who would tackle the job, but what we have here is a giant newspaper broadsheet ‘comic section’, filled with (mostly) full page comic strips. How cool is that? When it arrived my heart skipped a few beats — I’m just not used to seeing any comics printed this large that aren’t yellowed and musty.

The idea is inspired. Offer a group of cartoonists the opportunity to draw a giant full page strip just like the fabled newspaper cartoonists of the good old days. The problem is that most of the creators represented here squandered what may be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to spread their wings, or are simply not up to the task. A few did rise to the bait, like Diane Nock who offers us a beautifully designed page that riffs on classic comic strip format and conventions. There is plenty of excellent cartooning in the book, but darn few pages that make any real use of the vast acreage of newsprint that they had to work with. Many, in fact, give the impression of being blown-up comic book pages.

What was really disappointing, though, was the writing. Most of these strips reminded me of the kind of narcissistic claptrap that I remember from the lesser underground comics of the 1970s. You know, the stuff that cartoonists drew after downing a couple hits of acid with a chaser of Wild Turkey. I’m sure the creators (then and now) think they’re producing amazing avant-garde works of art, but I have no patience with such self-absorbed gobbledegook. That’s not to say I can’t appreciate artsy comics. I’m not a troglodyte in these matters — I read all 300 issues of Cerebus and most everything Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman have ever produced — but most of this material is art for art’s sake, and not in a good way.

I do hope that the Cartoonist Conspiracy will try this experiment again. Perhaps after seeing the first issue, these cartoonists and others will better understand the potential inherent in this classic format and rise to the occasion.

News of Yore 1950: Radio Star Comes to Funnies Page

“Irma”, Radio-Movie Star, Goes Newspaper

(E&P, 7/29/50)

Flushed with success over Hopalong Cassidy’s newspaper fling following TV and radio build-up, Los Angeles Mirror Enterprises Syndicate will do more of the same. This time it’s “My Friend Irma” (Marie Wilson on CBS and in movies) who will be the subject of a comic strip.

The gag-a-day, without continuity, and due Sept. 11, is drawn by 33-year-old Jack Seidel, who sold his first cartoon at 18 and has been coached by Merrill (“Freckles and His Friends”) Blosser, Ed (“Mark Trail”) Dodd, Jimmy (“They’ll Do It Every Time”) Hatlo and others.

The contract was with Columbia Broadcasting, which owns character rights. Cy Howard created and directs the radio program.