Oh, of course there are some comic strips today that are funny. We can also remember some, like Walt Kelly’s Pogo, that were funny while they lasted and are now gone. But to find really comic comic strips you have to go back to the old days, when the art work was rougher and scratchier, and the world hadn’t had the zaniness drained out of it by a world war nastier than the first one.
And of course even back in the old days there were “adventure strips” that weren’t funny, like Don Winslow. What was Don Winslow, you ask? Well, that tells you how memorable they were.
Kids who grew up in middle-class families during the Depression had a Sunday morning ritual: they lay on their stomachs on the living room floor reading the brightly colored funny papers, as they were called, while their fathers read the sports and financial sections of the newspaper and their mothers read the women’s pages. Weekdays, when they came home from school, they looked for the black-and-white comics page.
The oldest of the comic strips was The Katzenjammer Kids, originated by Rudolph Dirks, a German immigrant, in 1897 in the New York Journal, a Hearst paper.
But if the parents of our hypothetical kid of the thirties subscribed to two papers, or if they subscribed to a paper that didn’t use comics from Hearst’s King Features Syndicate, the kid might be reading also or instead The Captain and the Kids. In 1912 Dirks left the Hearst organization, which wouldn’t let him take the strip with him. So he commenced the rival strip, and Hearst hired Harold H. Knerr to carry on the original, which still appears in newspapers. Both Katzenjammer and The Captain were Sundays-only strips.
In both versions a ship had been wrecked on a tropical island, populated by blacks ruled by King Bongo. Survivors included Mama; her incorrigible twin sons, Hans and Fritz; the black-bearded Captain of the vessel, not the boys’ father; and the white-bearded Inspector, a school system official who tried in vain to get the twins educated. These persons spoke in a heavy German accent. Also on the island were a troop of pirates, led by John Silver. During the thirties new castaways appeared in the Knerr strip: Miss Twiddle, a pedantic schoolmarm; her smarty niece Lena; and her even smarter former pupil, Rollo Rhubarb, a perfect foil to the twins. Dirks also introduced new characters: Ginga Dun, a slick trader who spoke only in rhyme, and Captain Bloodshot, a pint-sized pirate.
The appeal of both strips to a child is obvious: here are two mischief-makers, performing outlandish pranks every week. Although usually they are spanked for their misdemeanors, their rebellion against adult authority resonated with juvenile wish-fulfillment fantasies. After Lena and Rollo appeared in Katzenjammer, the appeal was intensified: here are two boys who defy every effort to get them schooled but regularly outsmart teacher’s pet.
Of course another of the strips the thirties kid read was Mutt and Jeff, which had been started as “A. Mutt” by Bud Fisher in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1907. Jeff was added the following year. It appeared six days a week and was the first successful daily comic strip. Fisher copyrighted it in his own name, so when it became popular he could move it out of the Chronicle to syndication in 1915. Three years later Fisher added a Sunday strip.
Augustus Mutt was tall, with a long nose, mustache, and receding chin. Originally he had barely survived by betting on horse races (his initial appearance in the Chronicle was on the sports page); by the 1930s he was engaged in one hare-brained scheme after another. He was married to Mrs. Mutt, who was often angry with him and whom he always called “M’love”; they had a son, Cicero. Cicero owned a cat, Desdemona, who starred in her own strip, Cicero’s Cat. Jeff – that may have been his first or last name; it was the only name Fisher ever gave him – was short, bald, and sideburned. Characteristically Jeff wore a top hat.
So popular was the strip that during the Depression when anybody wanted to stop somebody else from doing something, the stopper would say to the stoppee, “Nix!” To which the stoppee might reply, “For the love of Mike!” Both expressions came from Mutt and Jeff. Any pair of persons, whether two men or two women or one of each, if one was decidedly taller than the other, was referred to as “Mutt and Jeff.”
Almost as old was Toonerville Folks, by Fontaine Fox, which began in the Chicago Post in 1908 and went into syndication five years later. It began as a single panel daily cartoon and became a Sunday strip in 1918. Fox’s brainchild featured the Toonerville Trolley, piloted by The Skipper, which met the trains when they came in. Residents of Toonerville included such wonderfully memorable characters as the Powerful Katrinka, a hefty lady who could hoist incredible weights; Mickey (Himself) McGuire, the town bully; and the Terrible Tempered Mr. Bang.
Another favorite was Krazy Kat, by George Herriman, which first appeared daily in the New York Evening Journal in 1913 and expanded to Sundays five years later.
The basic story line, played out in infinite variations, was that Krazy Kat was in love with Ignatz Mouse, who hated the cat and was always throwing bricks at him/her (the cat was referred to by either pronoun from time to time). Krazy Kat misinterpreted these assaults as an expression of the mouse’s love. Since the mouse was breaking the law by throwing bricks, it was relentlessly pursued by Offissa Pupp, a dog, who sought to incarcerate it. The locale was Coconino County, Arizona, with cacti and mesas in the background. The characters spoke in an orthographically tortuous language which added to the comedy.
Bringing Up Father, by George McManus, also debuted in 1913. The strip became daily in 1916 and added a Sunday version two years later. It was the story of an Irish immigrant bricklayer, Jiggs, who had won a fortune in a sweepstakes, and his social-climbing wife, Maggie, who continually but unsuccessfully tried to raise him above his origins. Their daughter, Nora, whose beauty mocked genetics, sided with her mother. A ne’er-do-well son, Sonny, also appeared sporadically. Jiggs was happier eating corned beef and cabbage at Dinty Moore’s than at any of the soirees Maggie dragged him to. (Dinty Moore, of course,.became the brand name for a variety of corned beef.) During the strip’s years of popularity, it was common to refer to any couple, married or not, where the woman was dominating or attempting to dominate the man, especially if she was the taller of the two, as Maggie and Jiggs.
Rube Goldberg, who gave his name to the language to describe mechanical inventions which used extraordinarily elaborate methods to achieve ridiculously trivial results, began publishing the cartoons for which he became famous in 1914. Goldberg actually had an engineering degree from the University of California and had worked in that profession, but left it to draw comic strips, among them Boob McNutt. The inventions were not utilized in strips but occupied one large panel. Though Goldberg died in 1970, his influence lives on in various contests bearing his name.
One of the older comic strips still running is Gasoline Alley, created by Frank King in 1918. It began as a Sunday strip in which four characters – Walt, Doc, Avery, and Bill – talked about cars. It went daily the following year. Not many women were interested in automotive conversations, so in 1921 Walt Wallet, a bachelor, discovered a baby left on his doorstep. Walt called the little boy Skeezix, cowboy slang for a motherless calf. King never went for the big laugh; his forte was the amused chuckle at the foibles of human nature. Over the years the characters aged in real time. The strip is now drawn by Jim Scancarelli; Walt is 111 years old, and Skeezix is a great-grandfather in his eighties.
Barney Google – no relation to the search engine of the same name – was drawn by Billy DeBeck and began in 1919 in the Chicago Herald and Examiner. Like Mutt, Barney was addicted to horse racing. In 1922 he acquired a refugee from the glue factory named Spark Plug, which added to the strip’s popularity so much that it inspired Billy Rose to write a song about Barney and his horse. In 1934, perhaps inspired by Li’l Abner, which began that year, Barney and Spark Plug visited the Southern mountains and met a moonshiner named Snuffy Smith. Snuffy was such a hit that he shared the title with Barney for a while and eventually took over the strip entirely. As Snuffy Smith the strip still appears today. Barney contributed such expressions as “sweet mama,” “heebie-jeebies,” and “hotsy-totsy” to the language, while Snuffy was responsible for “time’s a-wastin’” and for giving Jerry Lee Lewis “great balls o’ fire.”
Younger children often passed over Our Boarding House, by Gene Ahern, because there was so much to read in the balloons. It opened as a daily strip in 1921 and expanded to Sundays in 1924. The focus was on the foibles of Major Amos Hoople, a big-bellied blowhard who always wore a fez and spent his evenings with fellow members of the Owls Club. The boarding house was operated by his wife, Martha, who used a rolling pin to keep her husband in line. Cynical comments on the major’s exaggerations by the three boarders provided much of the comedy. In 1936 Ahern left the NEA syndicate and started Room and Board, a similar strip which competed with his original creation. The central character of the new strip looked like Major Hoople but was named Judge Puffle.
Another daily strip which expanded was Out Our Way, by J.R. Williams, which first appeared as single panels in 1922. This was actually a blanket title for a number of strips, such as “The Bull of the Woods,” about the foreman of a machine shop; “Why Mothers Get Gray,” about the problems of raising children; “The Worry Wart,:” about an eight-year-old boy; and “Born Thirty Years Too Soon,” about life in nineteenth-century America. All these were set in small towns. A series called “Heroes Are Made, Not Born,” took place on a cattle ranch and starred a cowboy named Curly. Williams was aiming for reminiscent smiles, not big laughs.
Children got an education about life from Jimmy Hatlo’s They’ll Do It Every Time, which first appeared in 1929 in the San Francisco Call-Bulletin. The title entered the language as a common way of describing some customary behavior. The cartoon was hardly a strip, because it was usually a single panel; sometimes the panel would be divided into two parts, the first showing how people pretended to some virtue and the second revealing the reality the people would prefer kept secret.
Blondie, which is still going strong, was created by Chic Young in 1930. The eponymous heroine was Blondie Boopadoop, a beautiful chorus girl, targeted by Dagwood Bumstead, playboy son of a billionaire. Feeling that his original story line was inappropriate for the Depression, Young had the two lovers get married; as a result Dagwood was disinherited for marrying a gold-digging flapper.
Dagwood went to work for the tyrannical J.C. Dithers and began to support a family, which eventually comprised a son, Alexander; a daughter, Cookie; and a dog, Daisy. Other members of the dramatis personae include Dithers’s wife, Cora; neighbors Herb and Tootsie Woodley; Elmo, a neighbor boy; and Mr. Beasley, the postman, who is usually bowled over when Dagwood comes rushing out of the house to get to work on time.
When Li’l Abner, by Al Capp, appeared in 1934, it marked a departure. There had been earlier strips that carried a story on from day to day and week to week, but they had all been serious, like Tarzan, Prince Valiant, Terry and the Pirates, Buck Rogers, Captain Easy, Alley Oop, Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, and Little Orphan Annie. But the comic comic strips had confined their stories to the panels of one day or, on Sundays, to those of as much of the page as they were allotted. But Li’l Abner was funny as well as having a continued story.
Capp was narrating the adventures of the Yokum family of Dogpatch, Kentucky. Pater familias was Lucifer “Pappy” Yokum, who was completely dominated by his wife, Pansy “Mammy” Yokum. Neither one would have come up to the belt buckle of their broad-shouldered 19-year-old offspring, Li’l Abner, if he had been wearing a belt; characteristically he wore overalls, held up by only one strap. Abner was physically powerful but mentally a shade below average; and he was shy around girls.
Girls, however, were attracted to him, especially a lovely blonde named Daisy Mae Scragg, kin to the family that comprised the criminal element of Dogpatch. Her only hope was the annual Sadie Hawkins Day race, when all the unmarried females of the community had the opportunity to chase all the unmarried males. Any bachelor who was captured was wed to the girl who caught him by Marryin’ Sam. At the height of the strip’s popularity, it was a rare college or high school that did not commemorate Sadie Hawkins Day with some festivity.
The fecundity of Capp’s imagination in inventing comic characters and giving them appropriate names was astounding. Among many may be mentioned Moonbeam McSwine, a glamorous brunette who preferred the association of hogs to people; Hairless Joe and Lonesome Polecat, purveyors of an alcoholic beverage called Kickapoo Joy Juice; Joe Btfsplk, who went through life with a dripping cloud over his head, causing bad luck to all he encountered; Available Jones, who would do anything for a price; Earthquake McGoon, a dirty wrestler in more ways than one; Ole Man Mose, a cave-dwelling seer; and Evil Eye Fleegle, whose eyes were capable of transfixing people with a “whammy.” “Whammy” was one of Capp’s contributions to the American language. Others included “irregardless” and “druthers” (as in “If I had my drushers”).
In addition to the denizens of Dogpatch, Capp also invented Fearless Fosdick, a parody of Dick Tracy, the hero of Abner’s favorite comic strip; Lower Slobbovia, a land of continual waist-deep snow; the Shmoos, ham-shaped creatures who willingly provided everything humans need, and more other funny beings and things than can be listed in a short essay.
Not many comic strips were zanier than Smokey Stover, by Bill Holman, which began in 1935. Smokey was a fireman married to a wife named Cookie; their son’s name was Earl. The fire chief was Cash U. Nutt. Smokey’s fire truck had only two wheels, one on each side. The panels featured signs that said things like “Notary Sojac,” “1506 Nix Nix,” and “Scramgravy Ain’t Wavy.” It was never clear whether that last was referring to a sauce called “scramgravy” or should be read as “Scram! Gravy ain’t wavy.” Smokey gave a word to the language: “Foo!” as an expression of disappointment, disgust, dismay, or other emotions beginning with dis-. The use of this expression was widespread throughout the US, but short-lived. Smokey, indeed, never called himself a firefighter; he said he was a foofighter. His motto was “Where there’s foo, there’s fire.”
Sure, there are still funny strips in the funny papers, and in fact some of those mentioned here still survive, drawn by assistants or replacements after the original creators died. But to someone who remembers how the comics used to be, somehow things aren’t the same.
(c) Sam Sackett, 2012
Sam Sackett is a reformed English professor old enough to remember radio. He left teaching for journalism, then advertising, then public relations; then, having become an expert on career change, he spent 15 years in career management. He’s back in the US after having spent six years retired in Thailand, which he spent writing novels and short stories.