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.
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