Just Kids – A Bridge to Peanuts

The suburban kid gang strip Just Kids by August Daniel “Ad” Carter ran 1923-1956, initially as a knock-off of Gene Byrnes’ Reg’lar Fellers. But it evolved into a more contemplative, nuanced projection of adult sensibilities into child characters that anticipated Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. Preceded by earlier iterations, Our Friend Mush, Mush Stebbins, and Just Kids in the teens, it was picked up by Hearst in the 1920s and it remained a bit of a beloved back bencher through much of its run.

Born in Baltimore, the maker of this long-lived strip that depicted kids as thoughtful, precocious adults was himself a victim of childhood trauma. He not only lost his mother at a young age, but was present when she was struck and killed by a streetcar. As a reporter at the Brooklyn Reporter he met Clare Briggs, who encouraged him to submit a strip proposal to a syndicate. Carter finally caught their attention in 1916.

The kid trio centered on Mush Stebbins, Fatso Dolan and Pat Chan represented and interesting multicultural group situated in the new city-suburban setting. It was a direct copy of Gene Byrnes Reg’lar Fellers, which focused on a gang of kids who like much of America migrated outside of urban centers during these post-war years but retained their inner city dialect. These strips were capturing a cultural moment, the growth of city suburbs in the first half of the 20th Century. The migration of city-kid toughness and ethnic diversity to the more sprawling neighborhoods of standalone homes, parks and relative affluence was one of the signal social trends of the modern era and helped reshape ideas of childhood. Interestingly and uniquely, the Pat Chan member of the gang is stereotyped in cartoonish Chinese garb but given a voice that is pure city street.

Nostalgia for a simpler, more innocent era of childhood was a longstanding American trope that found a welcome home in the modern mass medium of comic strips almost from its beginning. Clare Briggs’ countless iterations of one-panel childhood nostalgic sentiment in The Days of Real Sport and When a Feller Needs a Friend in the teens helped establish the light, observational tone of the comic strip genre.

Reg’lar Fellers was more of a gag a day strip with little character development and often cruder art.

But at least in the limited strips I have seen, Carter’s iteration of the suburban kid gang theme was both more story-driven and more introspective and thoughtful than most. In the Nostalgia Press reprint of a 1935 story arc (scanned below), several weeks of cartoons follow the implications of the truant officer breaking his leg. The ramifications and unintended consequences take several turns and the kids come to regret what they started by celebrating.

Not quite as adult-like and philosophical as Peanuts, the Just Kids gang had sparks of disarming maturity and complex feeling, insight and woe. One strip ends with the trio sitting on a log surrounded by inflated exclamation marks, Mush saying, “Let’s just sit here and worry.” In the next strip his mother asks him what he seems so worried about and he replies in a voice that clearly foreshadows Charlie Brown himself by more than a decade, “I guess I’m jes’ worried about LIFE IN GENERAL!”

Not a widely or prominently distributed strip, you can see in Ad Carter’s Just Kids a tone and insight about childhood that bridged the toughs of early comics with the gentle suburban Peanuts after the war. He used short story arcs in the way Schulz did and moved his kid characters towards more adult voices. Schulz, of course, had the brilliantly understood that eliminating adults entirely was key to depicting the maturity of his kid characters, but Carter seems to be on a similar path.

Just Kids had an engaging visual voice. It was more precise than big foot comic style, and had some of the deco stylings of 20s illustration. It looks a bit like Cliff Sterritt (Polly and Her Pals) and Chic Young (Blondie) as if done with straighter lines. He gives his characters an angularity, stooped posture that is established in just a few thin lines. Visually, it feels more refined and light than many of the comics that would have surrounded it on the page. In that sense Carter was moving in the opposite direction from Schulz. He used visual sophistication to suggest the seriousness of child consciousness by removing it from big-foot slapstick stylings. Schulz used a less stylized palette of basic shapes and deliberate minimalism to enhance the contemplative seriousness of Peanuts.

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