He was a “banjo-eyed” former boxer whose life’s work seemed to be avoiding a life of work. Frank Willard’s Moon Mullins (b. 1923, Chicago Tribune syndicate) was a boarding house situation comedy, where Moon and his little brother Kayo schemed, loafed and tussled with a like-minded cast. But what distinguishes Moon Mullins in my mind is the authenticity, affection and artistic talent Willard brought to a strip that tugged against the middle class fantasies of 20s American culture. While much of the comics page moved towards gentler domestic comedy in the 1920s (The Gumps, Bringing Up Father, Gasoline Alley, Polly and Her Pals, et. al.) Moon’s world was an alternative America that was relentlessly mean, self-interested, devotedly unproductive.
Moon Mullins’ visual signature blended caricature nicely grounded in physical detail. He assisted Billy DeBeck, whose Barney Google was another strip about socially marginal characters, but he had a more naturalistic style. The run down neighborhoods and well-worn rooms of Moon’s world come through in cross-hatched corner, splashes of broken wall plaster, the stray broken fence slat. His characters are weightier, individualized and expressive of inner qualities. Moon’s wry, laconic approach to life lives in his usual posture, relaxed, disinterested.
The gangly, bespectacled boardinghouse owner Emmy Schmaltz is as tightly wrapped as her ever-present bun. Her figure recalls Segar’s depiction of Olive Oyl but without irony. The absence of sex-appeal is genuine, even if her hunger for a man throughout the 1920s drives her own scheming comedy.
The sloppily stout Uncle Willie and his equally massive wife Mamie are models of domestic disharmony, usually resulting in Willie taking a kitchen implement to the head and being tossed from the house.
Willard had a deft sense of comic strip cadence, with a great ability to advance an episode yet tell a complete story in just three or four daily frames. In the sequence above, part of a 1931 road trip to Florida, Emmy is trying to get Lord Plushbottom’s attention. The usual sit-com tropes ensue: miscommunication, misapprehension, confusion. Premise, activation and gag all take place within three panels.
Willard had a special talent for slapstick timing, usually on display in the Sunday gag strips. Like the best slapstick silents, he used careful panel editing and cadence to capture the flow of unintended cause and effect. The strip above is a good example of how tired tropes feel fresh and funny mainly from the way Willard times his action and layers into them the sit-com notes of misapprehension. Or, in the strip below, Willard blends some of the dark scheming of his characters, Emmy’s creepy faked suicide plot, with a beautifully rendered birdshot-to-the-ass scene – from weirdly dark to classically comic in three panels.
It was Willard’s great comic sense that gave him license to portray an unsentimental vision of marginalized America in ways that were uncommon to the hapless but good-hearted domesticity across the rest of the comics page let alone the idealizations of American life in the rest of popular culture. More on this in the next post.