City Visions: The Hurry Up New Yorker

The modern (circa 1910s) middle-class New Yorker pushing arrogantly through family, workers, pedestrians, crowds, even his or her own children – is the simple trope driving Maurice Ketten’s 1906 month-long run of Hurry Up New Yorker in the New York World. Ketten projects this trait onto a range of characters, male and female, across the brief run, but reiterates a core hypocrisy as the central gag. The final panel sees the harried and busy urbanite suddenly finding the time to watch a street fight, monitor a football score, gossip with a friend, watch a fire.

The basic insight about Hurryupism is as relevant today as it was then – the pomposity (and hypocrisy) of the urban striver and using the appearance of busyness as a bit of ambition-signaling. It is the kind of personality tic that comics have always been especially good at satirizing.

But it is Ketten’s visual style that makes this series so entrancing. His rubber-legged characters, his even, thin art nouveau line, the forward bends and slopes of his figures all embody the motion, momentum, sleek modernity of the city itself. The visual style is so expressive of a certain modern sensibility itself.

The kinetic energy of his style and its urban expressiveness is clear in the way it courses across the half-page layout. What a lovely use of arcs across forward-moving figures. check out the way he uses a clutter of bent legs to depict a clot of humans at the train car door. Or the way the arcs of the rushing businessman is echoed in the two men he bumps during his heedless rush. And I love the elastic legs of the startled horse in the following panel. Ketten typifies what I consider one of the core appeals of the comic strip in its first two decades; so many of its artists caricatured the new city experience in ways that helped map out that unfamiliar experience for many Americans. They offered ways of seeing and making sense of that environment.

It is not surprising then that Maurice Ketten was a pseudonym for Florentine emigre Propser Fiorini who was more than familiar with the modernist art styles he echoes here. Fiorini studied art at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, France. Coming to the U.S. around 1906, according to Lambiek’s index of comic arts, he started experimenting with a range of comic ideas for Pulitzer’s New York World and would eventually become better known for the long running Can You Beat It? (1907-1934).

And Ketten/Fiorini’s understanding of modern art styles was made clear in a clever one-panel he did during the 1910s lampooning European art movements.

The Hurry Up New Yorker is one of the many fleeting experiments in comic arts in this first decade of the form, but it brings some fresh perspectives on the urban and personality tropes that characterized so much of early comics. Like many strips in this second decade of the form, it is a single joke repeated regularly. The most popular strips of the day riffed on a weekly or daily basis on a single gag: the Katzenjammers’ prankishness, Happy Hooligan’s well-meaning haplessness, Mr. Jack’s infidelity, Buster Brown’s impishness, Sammy’s sneeze.

In this case, however, Ketten’s strip addresses two of the ways comics reflected on modern culture and change – the city and individual character. As I have argued in other posts about Walt McDougall and his city visions, R. F. Outcault and The Yellow Kid, and Winsor McCay’s use of the urban environment of the day, the fabulous popularity of the comic strip lay in part in its unique power to interpret the experience of the new urban setting. Likewise, early strip artists were preoccupied with deciphering the social types that comprised the city crowd. And so we see so many strips that focused on specific types, personal foibles, obsessions, behavioral tics. forgetfulness, sneezing, infidelity, frugality, braggarts, grumps, henpecked husbands fueled many of these one-gag strip ideas.

Props to the indispensible Barnacle Press site for collecting the Hurry Up New Yorker strips. You can see more of the run here.

Dodging the Draft With Mutt and Jeff

When Woodrow Wilson and Congress formally declared war on Germany in 1917, many Americans remained lukewarm on involvement. Volunteers for getting gassed and shot in the muddy trenches of the French front fell far short of goals. More persuasion was needed. And so Congress invoked the draft with the Selective Service Act that men to register for a draft lottery. Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff registered continued ambivalence in this Jan. 21, 1918 strip in which both characters muse on draft exemption strategies. For Jeff this involves reuniting with his estranged wife.

This is a great example of what critic Gilbert Seldes meant when he cited the unique grittiness of the comic strip. The rest of America is gearing up a massive propaganda machine to whip up patriotic fervor for a dubious venture. In the world of Mutt and Jeff, however, self-interested scheming, the stuff of humanity, is a given. At their best, newspaper comics offered counterpoints to all of the news that preceded them in the daily newspaper simply by localizing and personalizing the political and civic coverage in the rest of the news.

This strip is scanned from Fisher’s original art. More on Mutt and Jeff’s first meeting here.

Reviving Gilbert Seldes: Krazy Kat’s First BFF

The great, woefully under-appreciated American culture critic of the early 20th Century Gilbert Seldes remains my own North Star of pop culture criticism. I could go on forever about this guy, and almost did. I started researching a biography of him and his critical legacy, but Michael Kammen beat me to it with his fine 1996 evaluation of Seldes’ life and work. Still, my own appreciation of Seldes’ open, democratic spirit of criticism is a bit different from Kammen’s, even if I didn’t feel at the time that the world needed a second book-length study of the man. I explored some of those ideas in an essay Tom Heintjes kindly published in Hogan’s Alley No. 6 in 1999. It is reprinted below. I will also post soon Seldes’ original take on Krazy Kat and the comics generally from 1923’s The Seven Lively Arts. Almost a century later, I still think Seldes’ early observations about the unique aesthetic and cultural qualities of the comic strip remain indispensable to anyone trying to appreciate the form. – Ed.

The Critic That Walks By Himself

The longtime and often lonely historians of the American comic strip have enjoyed an embarrassment of riches in recent years. What with centennial exhibits, commemorative postage stamps, some truly luscious reprints of seminal work and even—God help us—occasional academic scrutiny, the comic strip form seems poised to assume a place among the “respectable” mass media. But assembling the history of any medium, including the comic strip, requires more than rediscovering its primary documents, however fun that may be. A rich chronicle of an art form must also recount how the medium integrated itself into people’s lives, how it was understood and debated. In America, such a history must begin with the first thoughtful and genuinely critical celebrant of the modern popular arts in general and of the comic strip in particular. He was more responsible than any single American for getting common readers and other intellectuals to think about the comics that they enjoyed. Gilbert Seldes (1893-1970) was the father of comic-strip criticism, and his insights about the form represent an alternative, albeit now largely overlooked, path in the serious appraisal of our national pleasure.

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Walt McDougall’s City – The Rube’s-Eye View

It is a shame that Walt McDougall has been overlooked by most comic strip history, because he left a lot of great material behind. While accounts differ over who originated different formats, everyone agrees he was among the first modern political cartoonists for the weekly humor magazines of the 1880’s and 90’s. He was among the first to create Sunday newspaper comic images in color. He visualized L. Frank Baum’s “Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of OZ” and penned “Peck’s Bad Boy.” newspaper series. And he was among the first syndicated cartoonists. His autobiography This Is The Life was one of the first lengthy chronicles of the early days of cartoon art as told by a practitioner.

But as I mentioned in my last post on one of my favorite McDougall panels, “Familiar Sights of a Great City – No. 1 The Cop Is Coming,” he was one of many early comic artists to take the new city experience as his subject, “Life in the City as the Countryman Pictures It” makes the country vs. city disjunction explicit.

Here he brings to life the “Countryman’s” caricature of city life. This one rich and very busy tableau serves up many of the age’s fears about the new city environment, and many of them have to do with deception, con games, wealth. Notice the many window signs for mail order houses and by-mail courses, alluding to many such come-ons most Americans knew from the classified ads in the backs of national magazines and local newspapers. At each corner of the panel we see rural folk as our point of identification, wary of the city’s seductions. The streets are literally paved in cash. The street sweeper complains about having to clean up the money. The loca bank is transferring moneybags down a Chouteau through the window. And Mssrs. Rockefeller and Morgan carry their own valises of “Cash” down the left sidewalk. McDougall satirizes the velocity of urban build-out and industry in the Waterstock Bldg that is under construction but advertises rooms ready today.

Starting with the multi-layered crowd-scapes of R.F. Outcault’s “Hogan’s Alley” the comic arts were uniquely positioned to depict the sensations of modern urban life. The full page could freeze the cityscape and let the eye travel across its multiple planes of disconnected action, dialogue and relationships. Film was good at depicting the crowd as a throng – an undifferentiated force. Artists like Outcault, McDougall and later Harrison Cady and Harvey Kurtzman instead used the large panel as a way to find order and sense, or at least meaning, in what otherwise seems like chaos when in motion.

In one sense artists of this crowd style both interpret the new masses and instruct us in how to view the urban world. These images force our eye into the the detail of the crowd, to ferret out the little stories, miniature satires, little in-joke details. They are giving us a powerful vision of how not to see the crowd as a crowd but as a glorious and exciting tableau of many small worlds all somehow going in the same direction.

Also interesting to me is how the image is about subjectivity itself. McDougall is bringing to life a specific fantasy of the new city, using the comic page to dramatize the way a particular part of America caricatures another.

Stereotyping The New American City

New York World staff cartoonist Dan McCarthy’s 1898 “The American Sky-Scraper Is a Modern Tower of Babel” is a trove of tropes that characterizes so much of the first decade of American newspaper comics. Like R.F. Outcault and Walt McDougall, McCarthy uses that massive Sunday newspaper page to draw a tableaux caricature of the cityscape, the new and rapidly changing environment the World readers experience each day.  

Some of the most talented and ambitious early newspaper cartoonists used the full page tableau format to capture the energy of the city. Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley was the first to use the format to depict the city scape, which is to say it was an interpretation of that new experience. Walt McDougall was another fan of the tableau to depict social landscapes, including his magnificent “Life in the City as the Countryman Sees It.”  Comic artists seemed to absorb the physical energy of turn-of-the century America and direct and shape it into popular art. Just as the slapstick, chases and fight scenes of early film were aesthetic conventions that channeled the antic energies of modern urban progress, mechanization and rapid change, so too did modern preoccupations with motion, energy, cause and effect, the urban experience shape the aesthetics of early comic art. 

Dan McCarthy 1898. McCarthy was a well-regarded caricaturist for the humor weeklies and eventually for the World. He founded a caricature school but died in the first decade of the 20th Century in his 50s. His “The American Sky-Scraper is a Modern Tower of Babel” is a caricature of urban progress seen through the lend of ethnic diversity. The panoply of so called “hyphenated American” – Italian-, Irish-, Chinese-, Eastern European-, and African-Americans – are all stereotyped here at the same time they are acknowledged as the builders of the new city. 

You can spend hours dissecting McCarthy’s depictions of individual ethnic groups here, and there are some predictable bigotries. They are mainly distinguished by their common visual stereotypes of the day. Italians with triangular hats and handlebar mustaches. Irish with chin beards and simian face. Chinese figures with yellow long shirts and thin braided pony tails. Eastern Europeans/Jews with full beards, hats and high boots. The Irish characters often seem to be ready for a fight. One African-American sports primitive dress. And for some reason the Chinese-American figures are on the receiving end of deliberate violence. But generally, this “Tower of Babel” is a tableaux of chaos, slapstick mishaps all in service of a mechanically sophisticated scientific wonder. The tension between the chaotic energy and play of McCarthy’s workers and the rigid symmetry of the structure they are building is of course the “joke” here.

But McCarthy’s cross section of both the building itself and the New York population generally embodies the ambivalence of WASP America towards the massive waves of emigration during this era.

In other depictions of emigration, Americans seemed to greet emigrates as newcomers and fledgling Americans. It was generally acknowledged that a fast-growing and internationally ambitious America needed this infusion of cheap labor to fuel its growth. And so the stereotyping was not of the most vicious and dehumanizing sort we find elsewhere in American culture. Here it is more patronizing and imperialistic. The American middle class seemed to recognize that immigration was key to American ambitions, but patronizing stereotyping kept these emigres at a distance and always inferior.