The Comics that Time Forgot

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Around a hundred years ago, Sunday newspapers were home to the likes of Brainy Bowers, Simon Simple, Hugo Hercules, and Billy Bounce — hardly pillars in the pantheon of comic art. These and dozens of other characters were part of an era that has essentially been passed over by the numerous comics retrospectives of the last few decades. True, most are not as impressive as Little Nemo or the Kin-Der-Kids, nor as lasting as the Katzenjammers, but there exists some astounding and important work from this period. Much of it is unknown by comic lovers and students of popular culture, yet has a beauty and influence that arguably rivals the better-known comics of the early 20th century. I am pleased to present a small sampling of Sunday strips that have been ignored, or perhaps just never seen ; in fact, it took me nearly thirty years to find them.

In the mid-1970s I found the proverbial treasure trove, one man’s life-long collection that I was able to save from the landfill. Here was an attic filled with fifty years of Sunday mornings that introduced me to a new world of words and images. I was immediately struck with much more than nostalgia ; adulthood had given me a new appreciation, a new vocabulary with which to comprehend the artwork, literature, and societal reflection contained within the yellowed newsprint. I became immersed in the great works of the Golden Age comic strip masters : Raymond, Foster, Crane, Segar, Sterrett, Herriman, and so many others. But this collection began around 1920, and only recently did I realize that I was missing out on a large and vital piece of the history of this American art form.

Over the years, my interests remained focused on comics from the 1920s to the 1960s. As information about comic history became more available, I started to expand my education, but it remained limited to the acknowledged milestones of comics. There was the pre-history of Töpffer ; the revolution started by Outcault’s Yellow Kid ; the expansion of the medium by Hearst and his big three, Opper, Dirks, and Swinnnerton ; and the brilliance of McCay and Feininger. After this came what seemed the spontaneous generation of the multitudinous comics of the 1920s and 1930s. And although I was aware that there was a little-discussed evolution that led to more modern Sunday pages, I would often disregard the missing links of comics — those between the Yellow Kid and Krazy Kat — as crude and trivial, minor experiments of the burgeoning art form. Until I took a closer look. Inspired by the writings of Richard Marschall and the impressive research on the subject by Italian author and historian Alfredo Castelli, I began to seek out the Sunday newspapers that came along just after the New York World’s Yellow Kid. In addition to the World and other New York papers, fascinating pieces were appearing in limited syndication and in single papers in Chicago, Boston, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and elsewhere, even before the breakthrough work of McCay and Feininger in 1905 and 1906.

This was a time when there were no formulas, when only a handful of these new “funny pages” had come before. New technologies in colors and printing allowed for experiments in sequential storytelling on a grand scale, and an audience in the millions was ready to absorb it on a weekly, and soon daily basis. There was, of course, no television or radio at the time ; sheet music and comic strips were the means for popular culture to enter the home. Just as the sheet music business was a boon for popular composers, comics expanded the need for artists who could relate to and create entertainment for the masses.

Some of the talent came from newspaper staff artists, many of whom had been doing single-panel cartoons since the 1880s. These were most often political or social commentary, and much of that was carried through to their new work in the Sunday funnies. Thus, despite the success of the ongoing characters of the Yellow and Katzenjammer Kids, many of the comic strips in the earliest years were one-shots, strips driven by theme rather than character. Many of the new characters that did appear came from illustrators of books and magazine stories, particularly books for children (itself a relatively recent, Victorian concept). These artists brought along with them tales of fantasy and wonder, which made for some of the best of these earliest comics.

Going through these Sunday supplements from the beginning of the 20th century, I found many comics, both strips and single panels, by artists who went on to take their places among the greatest comics creators : McManus, Herriman, King, Goldberg and others. But the most interesting pages were done by artists who left the comics after a short stay to return to their work as illustrators, move on to fine art, or become pioneers in the emerging field of animated cartoons.

What follows are brief, mostly subjective comments on the pages selected for this magazine, along with whatever background information I could locate. There were many to choose from, but I hope these selections will give the reader a taste of the breadth of wonderful material born of this forgotten period.

Hy Mayer, The Acrobats Escape (1899)

Mayer was a prolific illustrator for numerous magazines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the newspaper pages I have found, Mayer drew mostly full-page illustrations, single-panel cartoons, and illustrative collages depicting current events and social themes. As was most often the case at this time, these were one-shots without recurring characters. This is one of a handful of his sequential pieces, and it’s a shame he didn’t do more, for it is exquisite. The use of long panels, steadily filling as the acrobats leave the building, was certainly unique in 1899 (this varied panel layout employed to fit the action of the strip was used later by McCay and others). In the last top panel, the figures on both ends break out of the borders as their tower tips–if this was not the first use of this technique, it was certainly the most effective to that point. The strip ends with the wonderfully flowing movement of the long, single bottom panel as the figures unwind from a curl to a strut, right down to the dog ! While continuing to illustrate for another twenty years, Mayer moved on to animation and then live-action movies as writer, animator, director, and/or producer in over one hundred films from 1913 to 1926.

Frank Ladendorf, Feline Destroyer (1901)

Ladendorf moved to New York City in 1893 and began working for Pulitzer’s World. Can you imagine any editor allowing Garfield, Spooky, Heathcliff, or even Get Fuzzy’s Bucky to go around blowing up other cats ?

W.H.D. Koerner, Hugo Hercules (1902)

I always felt that the first superhero of the comics was Billy Bounce, who would do good deeds by inflating and then bouncing (offensively or defensively) to victory. Although Billy appeared a few months before Hugo, the overall look and feel of the strip seen here is much more in tune with the superhero comics that followed. So I would have to agree with Bill Blackbeard and Alfredo Castelli who bestow the honor of “first superhero strip” to the Chicago Tribune‘s Hugo Hercules. Koerner started his art career as a staff illustrator at the Tribune when he was only fifteen. Being unable to sense the potential in movie and licensing deals for superheroes, he left the paper to study fine art under Howard Pyle, alongside N.C. Wyeth and Franck Schoonover, and became an accomplished and prolific painter.

A.D. Reed, The Dictionary Illustrated (1902)

Reed’s wacky style instantly stood out in a crowd of comics. He worked on a number of strip series, the most popular being Mr. Bowser. This early Dictionary strip is a favorite because it shows his odd-shaped characters in their most extreme, with a bizarrely dotted texture that could have inspired Basil Wolverton. After his comic strip work, Reed became a director in the J.R. Bray animation studios with the likes of Max Fleischer, Milt Gross, Paul Terry, Pat Sullivan, Johnny Gruelle, Walter Lantz, and a host of other cartoon superstars.

Dan Smith, The Jungle Folk (1903)

There was an explosion of anthropomorphism in the early strips, many of which involved exotic animals from faraway jungles. Monkeys and ostriches (as seen in this strip) were the most popular, along with elephants. Dan Smith was a successful illustrator and one of several artists to bring jungle characters to the comics. Others included Jack “GAL” Gallagher, Clarence Rigby, and Gus Maeger ; Winsor McCay’s first full-fledged comic strip, Tales of the Jungle Imp, also illustrated jungle lore. After his brief foray into comic strips, Smith returned to illustration, doing detailed renderings (many including wild animals) for adventure and romance stories.

Foster Morse Follett, Tidy Teddy (1903) and Skeezicks (1911)

These short-lived comics were among dozens of titles created by Foster Morse Follet to appear in New York’s Herald and World. An American-born, European-educated artist, Follet’s first work was primarily political cartoons and magazine illustrations. His most popular strip, The Kid, didn’t excite me much, but these two efforts blew me away. Looking at the beautifully subtle sense of movement in these examples, it is not surprising that he later moved on to work in animated cartoons.

A.L. Jansson, The Battle of Bunker Hill (1904)

One of the most unusual strips of the period, this was part of a series of stories on the American Revolution, told in the unique illustrative style of A.L. Jansson. Lucky for Jansson, at the time there were no set guidelines for comic strips–I don’t believe his playing-card-style figures would have made it into the comic sections in later years. Jansson’s artwork also appeared in greeting cards and advertising from 1900 to 1910, all with similarly designed characters.

Gustav Verbeek, The Upside Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo (1904)

This Sunday strip, which ran from 1903 to 1905, is perhaps the best known of the “unknown” comics presented here, but I could not help including it, as those not familiar with the strip will be fascinated (and those who are will enjoy seeing another beautiful example). The story is half told in the standard reading, then finished by turning the page around and reading the panels upside down and in reverse. This page is of particular interest as it includes a word balloon that at first glance appears nonsensical and can only be read when one turns the page upside down. Gustav Verbeek was a truly international artist : born in Japan of Dutch parents and educated in Paris, he moved to the United States in 1890 where he illustrated magazine and newspaper articles. Some say his upside-down idea was borrowed from a similar technique used in a book by Peter Newell (whose Polly Sleepyhead is presented here). Verbeek’s other strips where the short-lived Loony Lyrics of Lulu and The Terrors of the Tiny Tads, which had a dark yet charming view of young children’s adventures and which influenced later artists, such as the modern illustrator Maurice Sendak.

T.E. Powers, How to Win a Husband (1904)

When I first viewed T.E. Powers’s comics I immediately drew a connection with Charles Forbell’s Naughty Pete. This is certainly not to suggest that Powers’s art is on par with Forbell, but both styles seem more akin to the later New Yorker cartoons of the 1920s and ’30s than to their comic contemporaries. Powers’s drawings became more “primitive” in the later strips, simplifying into stick figures, but always with a smooth sense of motion–a style that served him well as he transferred his skills into animation. Powers, like George Herriman who came later, was a favorite of William Randolph Hearst. In 1915, Hearst wanted to bring Powers’s characters to life as animated cartoons, and thus he created an animation studio for his International Film Service, pulling Powers and other cartoonists of his stable on board.

Peter Newell, The Naps of Polly Sleepyhead (1906)

At first this strip seems to follow the theme of Little Nemo–the main character living a fantasy and awakening at the end–but Polly’s daytime reveries were simpler, gentler, and more connected to her daily reality, which was reflected in the clean, simple style of the artwork. Peter Newell was a successful writer and illustrator of children’s books, often using a clever gimmick in design and/or wordplay. The best known of these is perhaps the Rocket Book, wherein a physical hole through the center of the book follows, from page to page, the story of a rocket being fired from the basement to the roof of a building. Newell’s roots in the storybook tradition are evident in the static panels and lack of word balloons.

William Stenigens, The Bad Dream That Made Bill a Better Boy (1907)

This strip is yet another take on the Little Nemo theme, but with a message attached : these nasty nightmares happen to boys who do not behave ! Stenigens created approximately a dozen different titles in five years, mostly for the New York World. This was by far the most interesting, sometimes appearing as a full page with wonderfully detailed graphics. His longest-running comic strip was probably the least interesting–a cute talking-dogs tale called Pups.

Walt Kuhn, Whisk (1909)

A charming fantasy drawn in a free-form style with great sense of color. The justifiably acclaimed Mr. Tweedeedle came one year later, but as fairy comics go, I prefer Walt Kuhn’s stylized artwork to Johnny Gruelle’s meticulously drawn fables. As with most of his contemporaries, Kuhn drew cartoons for magazines and newspapers before working on a regular comic strip. As is also the case with others who created beautiful strips in this first decade of comics, he moved on to painting, achieving great acclaim for his portraits, notably of clowns and other costumed performers. Unlike other early fantasy comics, a single storyline about this adventurous fairy was often spread out over many weeks during the nearly two years that the strip appeared.

W.O. Wilson, Madge the Magician’s Daughter (1907)

This strip appeared for about a year from mid-1906 to 1907. Wilson had drawn many single-panel comics in the late 1800s and had two other continuing-character comics before Madge : The Riche Family and The Wish Twins and Aladdin’s Lamp, also stories from a child’s point of view. Madge was the first to appear as a full page and is the most accomplished ; it was another of a number of fantasy strips that followed the success of Little Nemo and was often similar to McCay’s work in design and theme, but with a quiet beauty all its own.

William L. Wells, Bill and Budd the Bird Boys (1909)

This is one of those wonderful “only-in-Chicago” comics from the first decade of the Tribune’s strips, which owes as much to L. Frank Baum as it does to McCay. Artist Wells did very few comics and later became an illustrator of the American West.

Charles Forbell, Naughty Pete (1913)

Although better known (and more highly praised) than most of the comic strips presented here, only a few examples of Naughty Pete have been reprinted. Originally appearing in a handful of papers for the last five months of 1913, it stands out as the most unique strip of the period in design, layout, and drawing style. The panels were used not just to separate the images, but as an integral part of the storytelling, functioning to define the timing and flow of the action. Each week saw a unique logo in a different place on the page — a concept later adopted to some extent by Frank King in Gasoline Alley. The superb graphics of this strip continue to influence modern comic artists.

This text was written ten years before the publication of Society is Nix and appeared in Comic Art no. 7 (2005). With thanks to Todd Hignite.

Dossier de in March 2016