Obscurity of the Day: He’s Talking to a Stranger

One of Billy DeBeck’s earliest features is this one, which used several different titles sort of in the Briggs-Webster mode. The series began on February 24 1916 in the Chicago Herald, and was distributed by the J. Keeley Syndicate (Keeley was editor of the Herald).

At first only two titles alternated — He’s Talking to a Stranger, an entertaining bit featuring blowhards who expound on subjects about which they may not have quite the grasp they think, and Victim Number …, a series that was sort of a snarky adult version of Briggs’ When a Feller Needs a Friend. Each episode gave the victim a more-or-less random number.

In June of 1917 DeBeck tired of the Victim title and began a series titled Feeding the Jinx, but this title in turn disappeared after July of that year and the Victim series was resurrected. In early 1918 two more series titles were added, Brother Bulls and Ain’t Bothered.

DeBeck didn’t get much time to explore the possibilities of his new series, because when Hearst bought the Herald in May the feature was dropped, on May 4 to be exact. DeBeck’s other series, Married Life, did continue under the new Hearst regime.

Obscurity of the Day: Flivvers

Etymologically speaking, Flivvers by Jack Callahan is interesting. My understanding, and most dictionaries back me up on this, is that a flivver is a cheap and unreliable automobile. However, if I go to the Oxford English Dictionary they list a second definition, saying that it can also refer to “a person who has a damaging or deleterious influence.” However, the examples they cite refer to “human flivvers”, obviously an attempt to evoke the idea of a person who is like a rattletrap car. Not so much a secondary definition as a simile, methinks.

Seems to me that Jack Callahan in this series is making a concerted attempt at expanding the definition to include people who are basically well-rounded but have a blind spot. Jack’s attempt at contributing to the English language didn’t take hold but he gets points for trying.

Flivvers was one of Callahan’s weekday strips for the New York Evening World. It ran from September 21 1916 to February 2 1917.

Herriman Saturday

Sunday, November 17 1907 — Lucky Baldwin came to California in the 1850s and took the smart route of providing services to gold miners rather than prospecting himself. He ran a hotel and stable in San Francisco. In payment for a debt he took shares in the Ophir Mine, essentially worthless at the time. In 1859, though, when the Comstock Lode was discovered, he became a wealthy man as Ophir operated a mine adjacent to that major find.

Baldwin used his wealth to indulge an interest in horse-racing, and was quite successful at it. In 1907, as seen in the cartoon, he opened Santa Anita Park, a racetrack with all the most modern amenities, including electric lit stables and a parking lot for automobiles.

Lucky died in 1909 and eventually his racetrack was closed. However, the facility was later upgraded and re-opened in 1934 to become the Santa Anita Park we know today, one of the most famous tracks in the world.

Obscurities of the Day: The Good-To-Eat Children / The Good-To-Eat Alphabet

Paul West, who we’ve seen before with his features Father Goose and Dr. Birch’s School, did this odd pair of features in 1900 for the New York World.These are our first features by him that show off his penchant for drawing anthropomorphic inanimate objects, a motif that he used often in non-series appearances in the comics pages.

The Good-To-Eat Children came first, debuting on July 15. After a few installments he switched over  temporarily to The Good-To-Eat Alphabet for a pair of episodes on August 12 and 19, then reprised the original series title until September 2.

A bow to Cole Johnson who supplied both the samples and the correct running dates for these series.

Obscurity of the Day: Uncle George Washington Bings, the Village Storyteller

Although it certainly qualifies as an obscurity today, Uncle George Washington Bings was one of the headliner acts in the C.J. Hirt version of the McClure Sunday comic section for almost three and a half years. H.C. Greening produced this well-drawn and entertaining strip from September 25 1904 to January 12 1908. As with all the C.J. Hirt strips, in which the creators were rarely allowed to sign their work, Greening’s name only appeared on the strip on a handful of occasions.

The star of the show was that staple of small-town life, the old-timer who loved to tell tall tales to anyone who would listen. This sort of character was a regular in prose humor of the day, but curiously enough few of these leg-pullers were employed on the comics pages. 

Although the series ended in 1908, McClure occasionally used a reprint of the strip to fill a hole in later sections, and Uncle George can be seen every once in a while popping up as late as 1912.

Obscurity of the Day: Best Seller Showcase

Adapting popular novels to comic strip form has rarely been a recipe for success (see Book-of-the-Month for one example) and Best Seller Showcase ran true to form. As with previous attempts, newspaper editors seemed to take an initial interest, then after the first few adaptations the feature lost clients at a steady clip.

Universal Press Syndicate, no stranger in the 70s to throwing features against the wall to see what might stick, distributed Best Seller Showcase with a considerable marketing push before its debut. Part of the supposed attraction was that the adaptations would only be eight weeks long,  which of course did no favors to the book being adapted nor to the quality or depth of the strip. Notice above in the samples from The Chancellor Manuscript adaptation that artist Frank Bolle desperately tries to maximize his paltry space by sometimes shoehorning two scenes into one panel. You’ve got to hand it to Frank for doing his best to show a cohesive narrative despite the restrictions.

Elliot Caplin, that comic strip ghost writer with a list of credits as long as your arm, is said to have written all the adaptations for the series. The ever-capable Frank Bolle and Gray Morrow took turns at the adaptations (with one possible exception). The adapted stories are as follows:

Raise the Titanic by Clive Cussler, art by Frank Bolle, 8/15 – 10/9/77
Storm Warning by Jack Higgins, art by Gray Morrow, 10/10 – 12/4/77*
The Chancellor Manuscript by Robert Ludlum, art by Frank Bolle, 12/5/77 – 2/12/78 (10 weeks)
The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, art by Gray Morrow, 2/13 – 4/9/78
The Second Deadly Sin by Lawrence Sanders, art by Frank Bolle, 4/10 – 6/18/78 (10 weeks)
Illusions by Richard Bach, art by Gray Morrow, 6/19 – 8/13/78

* The art on Storm Warning is unsigned, and I’ve heard it being credited to Winslow Mortimer or Jack Sparling, but it looks like Morrow to me.

Some sources claim that this Sunday and daily strip ran until 1979, but I’ve never seen any further adaptations after Illusions, and it took me years to find a paper that even ran the feature that long. Would love to hear from you if you know of a later run of the strip.

Booksteve’s Library has reprinted The Sword of Shannara storyline. Here’s a link to the first post.

Obscurity of the Day: Rice and Tapioca, the Famous Pudding Brothers

Today we have one of the most beautifully drawn series you’ll ever see, and not only is it incredibly obscure, but it is mysterious on several counts.

Rice and Tapioca, the Famous Pudding Brothers ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer from April 24 to July 3 1898. It was one of several features the Inky ran that were ‘syndicated’. I put the quotes around that term because there’s no evidence that these strips (the two others are The Country School and The Barnyard Club) were sold to any papers other than the Inky. Pudding Brothers is different than the other two — the others might have been sold directly to the Inquirer by Outcault, whereas this one includes a copyright by the New York Herald on some episodes. Does this represent the very earliest syndication attempt?

The Herald did not run this feature (or have a proper Sunday comic section at all until 1900)*, so if it was producing it solely for the Inquirer in my opinion it’s not a case of syndication unless we’re prepared to take serious liberties with the term.Cole Johnson tells me that several episodes refer directly to Philadelphia, so it would seem the series was produced with the Inky in mind.

The other part of the mystery, just as intriguing, is the question of who drew these gorgeous strips. The verses are credited to Roy L. McCardell, whose prose and poetry were fixtures at Puck and various New York newspapers starting in the 1890s, but the art is unsigned. Who would take such care on the drawing of a feature yet not sign it? The most likely answer, it seems to me, is that some cartoonist from another paper was moonlighting (Archie Gunn maybe?). Or maybe it was one of McCardell’s buddies at Puck who felt newspaper cartooning was beneath him. Or maybe it’s Charles De Yongh, the only cartoonist I know of who did a series for the Herald in 1898. What do you think?

Much thanks to Cole Johnson who supplied these lovely samples of a great strip.

* Taking a second look at Cole’s notes on this feature, I think he is saying that the top sample DID appear in the Herald, on January 10 1897, over a year before the Inquirer run.  I didn’t index the Herald before 1898 (there seemed no reason to) so I can’t say if they ran just the single example or the whole series.

EDIT: I have now indexed the New York Herald for 1897, and this series DID in fact run there over a year before the Philadelphia Inquirer printed it. In that appearance the first few installments are uncredited (but I’m getting pretty firm about the first installment only being the work of Archie Gunn). Most of the series, though, is signed and credited to someone whose signature looks to be L.M. Pillet.