One of the longest lasting marriages in comic strip history began on March 27, 1908 when Bud Fisher’s wildly popular A. Mutt comic strip anti-hero meets a character who soon became his companion until the strip finally sputtered to an end in 1983.
As told by Jeffrey Lindenblatt in the NBM reprint of early strips, A.Mutt had a whirlwind start in the five months from its brilliant inception to the introduction of Jeff. Bud Fisher was a self-taught artist who talked his way onto the the San Francisco Chronicle in 1906. He worked his way up from layouts in the art department to spot illustrations around news stories to regular caricatures in the sports section. Here is where Fisher sold editors on an idea for a daily strip that would top the sports section with betting neophyte A. (Augustus) Mutt’s uninformed picks to win one of that day’s horse races. The next day’s strip would include Mutt’s winnings, losings and mood after the real world results.
A.Mutt was an instant hit, but its Chronicle run lasted only 26 days. The strip attracted the attention of no less than notorious newspaper staff raider William Randolph Hearst, whose rival San Francisco Examiner battled the Chronicle for circulation. As he had done so many times in his “Yellow” newspaper war with Joseph Pulitzer in New York a decade before, Hearst drowned Fisher in cash and the promise of national syndication to lure him to the Examiner less than a month after A.Mutt launched. Eventually Fisher would leave Hearst too for a much more lucrative syndication deal that became a model for decades of lavishly paid cartoonists.
Fisher’s final A.Mutt for the Chronicle appeared on Dec. 10, 1907, but that last iteration had one very important (and lucrative) addition – “Copyright 1907 by H.C. Fisher.” In Lindenblatt’s telling, Fisher accompanied the artwork to the printing department that day and before the printing plate was struck added that copyright note that led to his being one of the wealthiest cartoonists of his and subsequent decades. Until his death in 1953, Fisher benefited from gushers of revenue from licensing, theatrical and syndication deals that saw Mutt and Jeff on just about anything willing to pay Fisher royalties. There were a number comic strip millionaires during the golden era of newspaper circ wars, but few were as showy and press savvy about that’s wealth than Fisher.
It is under Hearst’s banner that A.Mutt moved quickly away from racing track picks, added Jeff and because a buddy strip that also introduced extended continuities. Alas, the sad anachronistic later decades of Mutt and Jeff strips obscured its earlier, genuinely witty, edgy slapstick years.
But in its early years the strip was indeed gritty. In fact, Mutt meets Jeff in an asylum, one of many incarcerations for him. This time he meets up with multiple cases of delusional inmates, including a diminutive fellow who fancies himself boxer Jeff Jeffries.
While the strip soon evolved beyond its origin as a sports cartoon, it carried with it to mainstream comics pages the sharp-tongued banter, slang, and snide irreverence that typified much of sport page cartooning. Mutt and Jeff took on politics, lampooned public figures, poked at social pomposity, and even ventured down to Mexico in the 1910s to engage with Pancho Villa.
Mutt was also among the first of a staple for the comics pages – the hapless schemer. Always looking for a buck, failing at the serial jobs he tries, the early Mutt conspires with Jeff (who is usually more flush) just to score a much-needed meal. Well evolved from the early simpletons of comics like F.O. Opper’s Happy Hooligan’ and Ed Carey’s Simon Simple, Mutt was like Harriman’s Baron Bean and Goldberg’s Boob, the American always on the make but falling short, working the angles unsuccessfully at the margins of America’s booming modern economy. The rising middle classes at whom 20th Century newspapers generally were aimed seemed to delight in the misfired ambitions of characters like Baron and Mutt, later Moon Mullins, Bobo Baxter and to some degree Andy Gump. It is a figure that extends into Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Chester Riley and Ralph Kramden. Failed ambition is often leavened ironically with empty bravado and inflated self-confidence. It is light satire of America’s core tropes: social and economic ambition, masculinity, mobility, looking for the main chance.
The candor of Mutt and Jeff is in full display in 1918 when the duo scheme to dodge the draft.