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.