Frozen Motion: Opper’s Machine Poetry

America was in motion, and the first decades of the comic strip were shaped by that culture and in turn interpreted it. Frederick Burr Opper was the chief poet of motion. When his signature characters Happy Hooligan and Maude the Mule did their blurred spin (with multiple iterations of a pie-eyed, panicked visage) he gave us an enduring visual trope. This was frantic motion expressed in a contained, comic, vital way.

“Happy Hooligan Looped the Loop: But He Didn’t Do It On Poipose!” (July 25, 1909) has been reprinted at least twice and for good reason. It best exemplifies Opper’s talent for containing and ordering chaotic motion with lyric, mechanical beauty. As always, Hap’s misfortune begins with a good deed, assisting a circus performer’s “Hoop Act.” As she descends the track in her roller coaster car, he is toppled and set into motion.

But Opper is all about cause and effect, not chaos. Most of his earlier Happy Hooligan slapstick starts with a small mishap, a dropped hat, a poorly timed turn, that starts a chain reaction of motion that Opper shapes into a series of comic frozen moments. Notice how he breaks down the Loop sequence into a series of causes and effects. There is the bump of the cart, the signature spin from the momentum, the thump to the bottom of the loop as gravity triumphs, the final launch into space. What otherwise might seem like explosive, chaotic motion is dissected into its parts, turned into a kind of ballet, visual poetry, but one with understandable structure.

Along with Outcault in Yellow Kid, Dirks in Katzenjammer Kids and McCay in Little Nemo, Opper visualized Some of the inchoate forces of modernizing America – motion, energy, mechanical action – in ways that expressed and contained anxiety around them. Opper’s focus on the physical mechanics of motion, of showing it as a series of causes and effects, is just one way of expressing the idea of motion. In another post, I try to explore this point with a sample of early comic artists and how they interpreted motion.

Bending the City – McCay’s Urban Dreams

The teeming, always moving, mechanized, bureaucratic, dwarfing city was the the most striking new reality pushing on American in just those very years the comic pages emerged in the late 19th and early 20th Century. Many of the leading artists of the day like Outcault, Opper and McCay were themselves midwestern rural transplants for whom the big city and its humbling scale must have been disorienting environments. Outcault was known to walk the streets of the city picking up inspiration and ambience for his Hogan’s Alley/Yellow Kid vision of tenement life. McCay lavished the city skyline with his obsessively detailed line work in both Dream of the Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo in Slumberland.

That is why I am fascinated by the ways in which these artists visually depicted this new reality in the first decades of the newspaper comics. In the two examples here, Windsor McCay and Jimmy Swinnerton use dream sequences to reimagine the landscape. In the first from the Rarebit Fiend series, McCay has his character master the scale of the modern city by becoming a giant himself and reducing the skyline to so many toys, some of which even can be bent. Swinnerton’s is the newcomer’s surreal nightmare of all the ways in which the city masters him.

The daunting urban world becomes malleable, subject to human reimagination in the comic pages, offering readers alternative ways of thinking about the disorienting spaces they occupy.

The Heart of the Heart of Juliet Jones

Taking a break from my stroll through earliest American comic strip history, I snatched up the first volume of Stan Drake’s soapy classic The Heart of Juliet Jones. It started its admirable run in 1953, under the artful pen of Stan Drake. The first week of the strip is added above, and it illustrates the melodrama of the this soapiest of soap operas.

The basic setup involves the Jones family – a widowed father “Pop Jones,” his 30-something unmarried daughter Juliet and teen wild-child other daughter Evie. Sibling rivalry and the tension between responsible Juliet and adventurous man-obsessed Evie form the basic dynamic. I am working from details in the excellent reprints of the early strips by Classic Comics Press (2008). The first volume has introductions by Leonard Starr (of Mary Perkins fame) and Armando Mendez.

A few things strike me about the strip. First, Drake was a well-regarded advertising cartoonist of the day before starting the strip, and he brings that precise idealized vision of 50s America to Juliet Jones. We are far removed from the moody brushwork of Caniff and lush outlines of Al Capp or Chester Gould here. This is very precise penwork that is aimed at a kind of idealized photo-realism. As Drake himself admitted about advertising art, the trick is to make the everyday and all people perfect and beautiful but to do so in a precise way. Fellow artists of the time like Starr and Alex Raymond (in Rip Kirby) had similar approaches. But Drake’s really looked like the advertiser’s vision of mid-century America come to life. And because of that, the mixed motives and emotional angst of the characters seemed to poke at, if not undermine, that idealized American self-image.

Drake also worked in a three-panel cadence, usually in medium close-up framing of two character dialog. There was a lot of space for reaction shots and close-up pay-off frames that highlighted Drake’s talent for facial expression. More than his peers of the 50s (Raymond in Rip Kirby, Caniff in Steve Canyon, or even Kelly in Pogo, Capp in Li’l Abner, or Johnson in Barnaby) Drake relied most on this demanding three-panel snippet of daily storytelling. It was demanding in that it forced Drake to move the story along and deliver some level of emotional impact and cliffhanger for the next day.

Drake did not credit himself with innovation or even tremendous talent. He was among the first owners of the instant Polaroid camera. He used photographs of friends and family and tracing tools to model and copy his characters. Still his gift was in the precision of his line, the way he staged each frame and the little inflections he gave each face to express inner attitudes.

Per Mssrs. Starr and Mendez in this intro I picked up a ton of great tidbits about Drake’s fascinating life and work.

  • His original ambition was to become an actor, with which he enjoyed some success. His father discouraged the insecurity of an actor’s life and had his good friend and actor Art Carney help talk young Stan out of an actor’s life. Yet, Drake seemed to bring to comics an actor’s appreciation for facial expressiveness.
  • The Heart of Juliet Jones storyline was loosely based on a soap opera proposal Drake’s editor had received int he 30s by Margaret “Gone with the Wind” Mitchell.” Indeed the contrast between sensible, responsible Juliet and adventurous, flirty Evie resembles GWTW’s Melanie and Scarlett.
  • While Drake handled the graphics end of the strip, it was scripted by Elliot Caplin, a prolific strip author (Abbie ‘n Slats, Big Ben Bolt) who was also brother to Al Capp.
  • Drake was involved in one of the great tragedies in comic strip history, the auto accident that killed friend and fellow artist Alex Raymond. Raymond was taking Drake’s new Corvette out with him for a test drive. Raymond accidentally drove at high speed into a tree. Raymond was killed instantly while Drake was thrown from the car.

The Heart of Juliet Jones is among a long but often overlooked history of strips (Mary Worth, Apartment 3-G, On Stage) that not only featured women but followed more the conventions of soap opera than adventure or cartoon comedy. Both Juliet Jones and Mary Perkins On Stage demonstrate how some of these strips really stand out and deserve attention. Some of these artists are exercising muscles of comic art that adventure and comedy just don’t touch. Gesture, emotion, social and class dynamics, tension among characters and even the ways they both idealize suburban, white, middle class mid-century America but in subtle ways poke at the fantasy.