One of the wildest comic strip excavations of the last few years is Frank M. Young’s project to resurface Cecil Jensen’s wildly imaginative, dark satire of the late 1940s, Elmo. Jensen was principally B-list editorial cartoonist for the Chicago Daily News during much of the 1930s through 1960s. But his truly bizarre Elmo, launched after WWII, crafted a hapless Li’l Abner-like rube facing the crazy excesses of modern culture of corporatism, advertising and consumerism. The strip proved too strange for many readers and newspapers, as Young chronicled in his excellent 2019 volume Elmo: An American Experiment, which we cited as a notable book that year.
The Elmo saga gets only stranger in Young’s follow up book, Little Debbie and the Second Coming of Elmo: Daily Comic Strips, August 1960-September 1961. It turns out that by 1949 Elmo had been fully kidnapped by the diminutive, precocious Little Debbie Jensen had introduced as an ancillary character a couple of years before. Readers and editors preferred Debbie’s more conventional kid antics, even if laced occasionally with Jensen’s arch humor and surreal situations. For a decade, Elmo disappeared from the strip and the renamed Little Debbie stripped chugged along unevenly and with an unremarkable following. But as Jensen started thinking about retirement, and the strip’s syndication flagged, he took an unprecedented move – reintroducing a forgotten character, Elmo, for a final madcap flurry.
Things get marvelously bonkers in the strip’s last gasp. Elmo engages with corporate inanities, survives an assassination attempt as well as a suicide attempt (jumping from a first floor window). We get an authoritarian snowman, a talking robot, and final extended parody of Schulz’s Peanuts. Jensen’s sense of humor is not uproarious, pointed, screwball or even deeply satiric. It is just relentlessly offbeat and odd.
In reprinting and chronicling these bizarre episodes of Elmo in Debbie-land, Young is a critic not a cheerleader. In a deft and insightful long intro, he recognizes the unevenness of Jensen’s work and the true inscrutability of his imagination. But as he notes throughout this project, Cecil Jensens left us with one of those rare instances where the otherwise buttoned-down mass medium of 50s comic strips produced a true rara avis.