Great Moments: The Rise of Dauntless Durham of the USA

Harry Hershfield’s Dauntless Durham of the U.S.A. only ran for about a year in 1913-14, but it was among the most fully bonkers American comic strips in its imaginative extravagance. Durham was among several sends of the familiar 19th century hero/damsel/villain melodrama. Our damsel is kidnapped relentlessly by the mustachioed, top-hatted Desperate Desmond and rescued in improbable ways from impossible peril.

It is hard to convey the weirdness of the situations and solutions Hershfield concocts. In one episode, Desmond caries damsel Katrina to the top of the Statue of Liberty, planning to “cremate” her on the torch. A puff of Desmond’s cigarette smoke coming through the Statue’s arm reveals his presence to the pursuing Durham, and the chase is on. In another, Desmond tries to distract Durham by tossing a toy dog onto the third rail of the New York subway, expecting him to rescue the pooch. It just gets weirder. 

As Bill Blackbeard points out in his intro to the 1977 Hyperion Press reprint, Dauntless Durham followed on C.W. Kahles’ Hairbreath Harry, originated by H.A. MacGill in the NY Journal in 1904. And as Blackbeard dwells on in his intro, these and other lampoons of the hero melodrama were picking at a long-obsolete form. American popular culture had long ago moved beyond these simple adventures, but satires of the form persisted in the comic pages. Like many early cartoonists, Hershfield was a sports illustrator who moved to strips. He preceded Durham with a villain-focused Desperate Desmond strip. Demond battles the heroic Claude Eclair in that series, where Hershfield honed his skills at crafting outlandish perils and rescues. Desmond reappears in Dauntless Durham several months into the series and remains the foil throughout. 

But in this strip, the focus is on the hero and the chase. Durham is right out of dime novel heroism. He is described in the opening strip as a yuthful fraternity brother who is privileged by merit, not just blood. He is described of Mayflower lineage but more importantly a rags to riches climber. Following the classic Horatio Alger mythology of American success, Durham brings his family and himself out of poverty through hard work and the generosity of a rich benefactor – “pluck and luck” as Alger described it in his stories of the late 19th Century. “He is the ideal of the young American. His future is more than bright. He will make the kind of citizen that will ‘do and dare.’” “Do and Dare” was in fact the title of a late Alger novel and denotes an American spirit of action and risk-taking. 

Indeed, the early Durham strips are baldly nativist cheerleading for what Hershfield draws as American character strengths. Many of the early Durhams are preoccupied with American egalitarianism. The first villain is Lord Havaglass, a monocled, obese aristocrat and defender of British classism. The early strips frequently distinguish Durham and America’s disdain from Old World privilege and class division.  Hershfield meant to underscore the “of the U.S.A.” of the strip’s full title.  

The early strips are steeped in politics. The heroes attend Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, Durham ventures to Mexico and battles Zapata. He brings damsel in distress Katrina to Ellis Island to show off American openness to emigrees. The strip demonstrates the ways that popular creations like Durham reconcile tensions in American culture. On the one hand, Durham’s own Mayflower lineage reinforces WASP hegemony. Many American leaders were at best ambivalent about the massive waves of immigrants pouring into the US at the time. The industrial engine depended on their labor, and their success validated certain American ideals of being an open, democratic society that rewarded merit over lineage. But at the same time, the WASP scions responded with evermore discussion of bloodlines and breeding, maintaining white hegemony as emigres began flexing political power. Durham is the kind of popular hero who splits the difference and holds the two myths in tension. While a Mayflower descendent, her is not a product of idle wealth but a scrappy striver.

Hershfield was a sports illustrator who derived Despertae Desmond from the earlier ones but focused on the villain Desmond vs. hero Claude Eclair. He had already developed this tendency to draw unbusual challenges and solutions, bizarre situations for his hero to solve.

Along with Hairbreath Harry, Dauntless Desmond of the U.S.A. introduced the rhythms of continuity adventure strips to the form. The adventure continuities and long story arcs wouldn’t flourish until the 20s and especially 30s, but here we see them germinating. In fact if Bill Blackbeeard is correct, these heroic melodramas in comic strips probably invented the cliffhanger structure that film serials would also adopt int he 1920s. 

Great Moments: Rube Goldberg’s Foolish Questions, 1909

In 1908, Rube Goldberg continued to look for a comic strip series that captured popular imagination. His first Foolish Questions panel that year caught on almost immediately and it became a series in the Sunday Chicago Tribune. Like many strips in the first 20 years of the form’s history, Foolish Questions hinged on a simple gag repeated in every strip. In this case, the surreal silliness of the come-back to the “foolish question” is what gives the strip its energy. But most striking here is how Goldberg’s cranky, abrasive tone could also move into some gritty, dark places. Witness making light of wife beating. This is chilling, even in historical context, to see domestic violence treated this casually in a family newspaper, let alone seen as a site for screwball comedy.

Foolish Question also exercises a common comic strip trope – grumpy rejoinders to little human quirks. From its earliest years, the comic strip form took a light satirical perspective on everyday human foibles and excesses, the tics and social types that rang familiar with readers. Making fun of braggarts, poseurs, women’s fashion, the latest catchphrases or the middle class vogue of treating house pets like children (imagine!) were among the trends early comics artists poked.

In various forms Goldberg continued to answer Foolish Questions as late as 1939. These are from Sunday Press’ excellent compilation.