Pioneer Slapstick: A.B. Frost’s Poisoned Cat (1884)

A.B. Frost’s 1884 graphic album Stuff and Nonsense was one of the earliest book-length cartoon collection published in the U.S., and it proved to be a milestone in the evolution of the art. Jim Woodring argues that until this point, most American caricature tended to deal in lifeless, static stereotypes. “This collection laid the foundation of real American cartooning: frisky pen drawings of people and animals that exuded rough, warm, egalitarian humor,” he writes in the recent collection of T.S. Sullivant drawings. Woodring credits Frost with bringing character to American cartooning by using facial expression, movement, gesture and more to individuate what had been stiff social types in most drawing of the day.

Scanned here from the original Stuff and Nonsense is the first lengthy narrative in the 92-page collection, “The Fatal Mistake: A Tale of a Cat.” Each image is its own full page. The captions I have attached to each are A.B. Frost’s own, although in the original book they are found in the Table of Contents rather than beneath each image.

Frost was a regular in the humor weeklies of the 1880s and his influence on the first generation of newspaper cartoonists is apparent here. In just this sequence we can see previewed so many themes and visual tropes of the first decades of comic strips. The comic disruption of middle class stoicism and order with slapstick chaos was the centerpiece of comics. And it was expressed with the cartoonist’s fascination with cause and effect, the physics of exaggerated motion, the shocked response.

The first three reaction images to the poisoned cat seem like Frost exploring with increasing velocity both the shocked facial and physical impacts of the frantic cat. Keep in mind that motion and the art of freezing motion was very much in the air in the late 1870s and early 80s. Eadweard Muybridge had already started his seminal stop-motion studies of animals in motion that impacted both formal and cartoon arts. And while certainly there are precedents for caricatured pratfalls and slapstick in the pioneer Rodolphe Töpffer’s work, Frost’s superb rendering of extravagant cause and effect were helping establish a special cartoon physics that Opper, Outcault, MacDougal and others would further refine in the 90s and 00s.

Frost appears to be relishing the mayhem he is creating as he upends the familiar objects and cast of a common affluent household. This is an anarchic convention that many artists took up in the first five or ten years of the next century in middle class bad boys like Little Jimmy, the Katzenjammers and Buster Brown. And Frost is clearly conscious of his own experimentation. The final page in the selection above is entitled “Down the Cellar Stairs (A Study in High Perspective).” In the next-to-last page of the narrative (below) he brings us behind the charging cat to create a new point of view for the audience that also seems to put the viewer in motion as well. Clearly, he knew what he was doing, test driving the potential of caricature to render new effects.

And it all works so well because Frost is just such a polished caricaturist. The bend of the butler’s inhumanly lanky long legs, the slippers shooting from the toppling man in the library, the enormous bedsheets flailing behind the mumps patient are all so convincingly animated. And make no mistake; this is black humor, comic antics bracketed by an accidental poisoning and finally death. The most effective geniuses of cartoon art always have that ability to make the cartoonish still feel real and the real feel cartoonish.

My favorite sequence, however, must be the cat, dog and master in mutual terror erupting from the sewer. All three mouths seem to mimic each other. There is no cause and effect. They are both at once. And yet Frost uses the eyes of each figure to individuate and give each its own voice and character. A decade before the creation of the newspaper humor sections that would nurture a comics universe, A.B. Frost was setting down a comic grammar for this new art to follow.

Death Becomes You: Tracy Villains Meet Their Fitting End

Retribution was Chester Gould and Dick Tracy’s model for justice from the beginning. The strip started in 1931 literally as a revenge narrative. Standing over the murdered body of his fiancé Tess Trueheart’s father, civilian Tracy swears vengeance on the killers. He quickly joins the police force, but the themes of retribution and conviction by poetic justice remained a hallmark of the strip across four and a half decade run. From the beginning Chester Gould unapologetically crossed the lines of good taste. By the late 1930s in criminals like The Mole, B.B. Eyes, Flattop, Pruneface and the like, Gould started using outward disfigurement as expressive of inner villainy. And the level of explicit violence and even torture in Dick Tracy was unlike anything else on the comics page, or elsewhere in pop culture for that matter.

The revenge motif was baked into the strip’s moral universe. Tracy villains didn’t just need to be sought, caught and jailed. They needed to be hounded and often tortured along the way. Many of Tracy’s prey ended up behind bars, but just as often they met poetically just ends. Gould turned the grisly, fitting deaths of villains into his own special kind of art. Here are some examples from the first two decades of the strip that highlight Gould’s dark talent for retributive justice and capital punishment Dick Tracy style. At these climactic moments we see most clearly the visual, moral and often bizarre world,

Final Curtain for Whip Chute – 1939

Subtlety was not in Chester Gould’s quiver. Here he triple underlines his irony.

B-B Eyes Gets Dumped – 1942

More than anything, Gould loved to kill and humiliate Tracy villains in slo-mo. Here, B-B Eyes hides in a garbage barge in the final leg of a desperate flight from justice, only to get dumped, trapped and drowned. Gould had a special talent for using the panel. framing and zoom techniques to communicate feeling through his use of space. His signature tight shots on dead villains often conveyed the loneliness and claustrophobia of death itself.

Flattop Gets Spiked – 1944

In 1944, Gould concocted two of his most venal villains. Flattop was simply psychopathic as a hit man, and he would be followed by The Brow, who was sadistic and a spy. Hiding beneath a ship being constructed, Flattop gets hung up on protruding spikes, leading to another close-up of deserving death.

The Brow Is Killed By Patriotism – 1944

Far and away the most inventive and stomach-turning death in the first decades of Dick Tracy was the impaling of The Brow. I covered this in greater detail and with more context elsewhere. But here again is the wartime spy getting impaled on the flagpole commemorating the city’s war dead. The bending flagpole is a gruesomely brilliant touch to amplify that moment of maximal tension that will ultimately pierce the villain.

Gargles Eats Glass – 1946

Falling through a skylight, again in comic strip slo-mo, Gargles gets sliced across three panels. And Gould can’t resist giving us his final shudders. In fact Gargles hangs on until the next strip so his final words exonerate an innocent suspect just in time for Christmas. One of the hallmarks of Dick Tracy was the strip’s extremism, Gould’s penchant for balancing unmatched graphic violence and angry vindictiveness with maudlin sentimentality. This sequence leads up to a Christmas strip that celebrates the villain’s death and the joy of the season.

Mumbles’ Cry for ‘Elp’ – 1947

Making a speech impediment somehow expressive of a villain’s evil was a questionable move to begin with. But Gould doubles down on this conceit by having Mumbles frantically, futiley hail for “ELP”.

T.V. Wiggles Can’t Move – 1950

Gould loved to draw in that little bit of grisly business to convey violence. While he used a heavy, cartoonish line and unreal, expressionist style that set the strip far apart from the illustrative style of most adventure strips, Gould used other ways of communicating hard-boiled reality. He had a penchant for objects penetrating bodies. Bullets often passed through their targets in shootout sequences. And as the deaths of The Brow and Gargles showed, the impaled body has a special place in Gould’s sense of horror. The death of T.V. Wiggles comes from fallen metal sheets that form an ersatz coffin. But it is that little corner of metal piercing a flap of neck flesh that telegraphs the experience of death itself.

Mr. Crime and Judge Mix Blood and Money – 1953

Mr. Crime was among Tracy’s most ruthless, pitiless villains of the 50s, and in the context of the Gould moral universe I am surprised (and a bit disappointed) that he suffers a simple shootout with Tracy. In fact Gould reserves the grisliest image for Mr. Crime’s extorted dupe, Judge Ruling. When cornered, the corrupt Judge chooses suicide. But of course Gould can’t give us a gunshot sound effect heard through a closed door. We have to get an image of Judge Ruling eating the gun, complete with cheek lines to suggest how deep he has planted the barrel. But we’re not done with this duo. As is his wont, Gould closes in for a final tableaux of both villains swimming in their own blood and money.

Flattop Jr.’s Near Miss – 1956

Flattop Jr. was indeed the son of the original Flattop, but he was framed by Gould as a neglected youth who embodied the overhyped scourge of the 1950s – the juvenile delinquent. He appears to meet his end in a theater fire he himself set to cover his escape. Despite the massive explosion Gould depicts dramatically, and the presumption of having died in the inferno, Jr. turns up later where his genuine death takes place in the middle of another villain’s cycle. And so that final contemplative panel here turns out to be ironic.

Peak Segar: Plunder Island (1934)

The Plunder Island sequence of Thimble Theatre Sundays that ran from December 1933 to July 1934 was E.C. Segar’s signature epic. It concentrated most of this master’s diverse talents and blended the many genres Thimble Theatre traversed into the strips most impressive run. Fabulism, farce, adventure, sentiment, venality, romance, screwball — all and more are here. And along the way, Segar even fleshes out and distinguishes among his key characters.

Segar, the artist who started in a movie house projection booth, who drew Chaplin in comic strip form, who started Thimble Theatre as a series of film shorts in strip form, clicked into full adventure mode from the start. He opens the tale be reuniting with old hell-raising pal Bill Barnacle. but then he quickly assembles a cast of characters for the voyage. Olive requires a chaperon, in Miss Sniddle. The ship must be led by Cap’n Hull and manned by Rough-House, Gritmore and shoemaker, Geezil, who becomes Wimpy’s sworn enemy throughout. And of course there are Segar’s most successful villains. The craggy faced, inky-cloaked Sea Hag induces shivers with the venal ill-will, bizarrely long limbs and evil presence she brings to every panel she inhabits. Likewise, her creepy henchman, the Goon monster (a.k.a. “Alice”) is another visual concoction that apparently gave some of Segar’s younger readers nightmares. His bulbous head, phallic nose, white and curvy outlines and apparently hairless body is corrupted by these massive rings of fur at wrists and ankles.

The Plunder Island epic is a delight precisely because it sets itself up as a decently constructed comic strip adventure yarn that in the end subverts its own premises. Popeye and crew are pursuing the anti-feminine Hag, who reveals herself to be a sensitive woman when romanced and scorned by the unctuous Winpy. Alice the Goon begins as an alien, mindless beast, who proves to be a loving mother figure. And the entire story arc of pursuing the Hag to Plunder Island in search of hidden treasures is flipped entirely in the story’s postscript. Popeye ends up pitying and rewarding both the Sea Hag and Alice the Goon and finds himself depressed and unhappy because of his newfound wealth. And so just as the adventure genre is about to overtake the comics page in the early 1930s(Terry and the Pirates, Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers, Mandrake the Magician, Flash Gordon, Radio Patrol, Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy, et.al), Segar upends the genre itself.

For Segar the adventure genre is just another stage for a screwball fabulism that seems to reach its height here. He is the master of creating his own madcap reality that makes trades in the ridiculous and impossible. One of the Sea Hag’s henchmen tries to run Popeye through with a saber, only to leave his rope restraints in tatters. Popeye and Bill calmly reminisce over old times as they punch, strangle and repel waves of enemy sailors. Wimpy snips off the whiskers of his nemesis Geezil, pastes them on himself to pose as a complete stranger. It is the absurdism of the animated cartoon, but Segar makes it work by fully committing himself and his characters to the unlikely premise.

Part of this is Segar’s peculiar way of using panels. In these absurdist sequences his panels each seem to occupy their own space and time and often disconnected from what is around or b before them. When Popeye and Bill converse calmly while beating on all comers, the dialog occurs at the center of the frame while the casual beatings are at the edges of the frame, erasing the reality outside of the frame. When Wimpy snips Geezil’s whiskers and takes them as his own, Geezil seems oblivious to the action and takes the disguised Wimpy in the next panel as someone new. This is part of the unique tone of Segar’s strips. The panel walls often mark the edge of the characters’ world, showing little awareness of the action outside of the panel or even in their own previous panel.

In fact, Segar is also artful in his use of panel timing — that is the implied time and unseen action that occurs between panels. Consider the Sunday strip below, which demonstrates in tight succession how Segar uses panel timing to pull off a great animated joke followed by a different use of panel timing to stage a verbal joke. The Goon’s pursuit of Winpy in the third row, especially panels two and three, sets up and pays off with a sweet bit of bit of animated business that lets us imagine the funny part, Wimpy zipping out to the horizon in fear of the Goon’s downward thrust. And the final panel of the row illustrates the gag with Wimpy in full terrorized flight. The next row brings Wimpy into the hand of woefully stereotyped cannibals and a verbal gag that uses panel gaps to provide the setup (panel two), extra beat (in a half-sized panel three) and punch line in an expansive panel four. Fans of Thimble Theater will recognize the added wit of turning one of Wimpy’s signature quips on himself. In an ongoing gag, the perennially self-absorbed (and hungry) Wimpy invites characters to a duck dinner. “You bring the duck,” he typically tells them.

Segar liked to work with contrast, comparing action and abrupt scene shifts to make points about character. In many ways Wimpy is the main character of the Plunder Island story, even if he certainly is not the hero. In fact we see him at the height of his opportunism and self-interest. Geezil’s revulsion towards him (he could “kill him to death”) is a major thread in the epic. He romances the repulsive Hag in order to access her cache of hamburger. And he unfairly divvies up the plunder in the end. In many cases, Segar contrasts him to Popeye’s simple morality.

In the 1930s, and after Popeye’s arrival to Thimble Theater, Wimply seemed to stand in for the roles occupied by Olive and the Oyl family through much of the 1920s. In those earlier strips, Olive, friend Ham Gravy and especially brother Castor Oyl were often at each others’ throats and onto some scheme for wealth. Popeye came into this tribe as a folksy moralist whose fists took proper aim at the pompous and the venal. In the 30’s, however, the Oyls receded and Wimpy seemed to carry Segar’s ambivalent view of human nature.

But Segar was also a sentimentalist. His cast of flawed connivers and selfish backbiters usually find the limits of their own moral trimming. In the Plunder Island adventure the Sea Hag demands Wimpy show his loyalty to the villainess by beheading his best friend Popeye. His inability to murder Popeye leads to another absurdist deception. Popeye’s head pokes through a hole in a barrelhead to fool the Hag into thinking Wimpy has done the deed. The ruse is inevitably broken of course when Popeye can’t keep himself from laughing at the sight of Wimpy romancing the Hag.

Which brings us to yet another sentimental turn in the Plunder Island sequence – Segar redeeming both Alice the Goon and the Hag herself. Popeye is poised to do in the Goon once and for all when Alice’s Goon child calls out for his “Mama.” Popeye melts at the scene and leaves mother and child Goon in loving embrace. Likewise, the Hag is setup as an anti-feminine villainess, as repulsive inside as outside. And yet she proves easily romanced by Wimpy’s fake advances, becomes a scorned lover when betrayed, and seems genuinely wounded when Popeye chuckles at the site of this romance. Segar is compelled to have his duplicitous cast find their consciences somehow and even give emotional depth and sympathy to his villains.

All of Segar’s talents for absurd situations, wild physical violence, and a cast of truly self-absorbed characters offset by a folk moralist helped make Thimble Theatre a remarkably self-contained world. It had its own weird cadence and tone. The violence was often spontaneous and eccentric. And this well-animated action was in stark contrast to the extensive terse dialogue between antagonistic characters that Segar posed like static, limp marionettes in narrow tightly staged panel sequences. Segar’s characters often looked like they were conversing in a closet, cut off from any environment. And yet, the Popeye character was very much a creature of the Depression. In comic strips and in the Fleischer Brothers’ wildly popular cartoon iteration, Americans responded to Popeye’s ready fists and no-nonsense response to the pretensions and empty authority around him. Clearly he channeled widespread frustration Americans deservedly felt towards the institutions, social classes and supposed progress that had failed them. Popeye quick anger, righteous fists, wry asides and responses to more “civilized” landlubbers echoed the class and social tensions of the Depression. He embodied a populist response to the age that also took shape in John Steinbeck’s fiction, the scholarly interest in American roots music, humor and culture. And on some level, Segar himself understood this connection between his slapstick hero and the culture. He resolves one of his greatest storylines with Popeye depressed despite his wealth and revived only by relieving the poverty around him.

Howwwwl!: During WWII, G.I. Wolf Was On The Prowl

During WWII the country mobilized for a two-front war on every level, including cartooning. Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe, Milt Caniff’s Male Call, Sgt. George Baker’s Sad Sack are among the best known strips created for the troops, and many of them enjoyed a greater latitude than newspaper counterparts in their use of language, sexual references, and sheer cheesecake. Less well-known and remembered is Leonard Sansone’s girl-chasing, cat-calling, kiss-stealing “G.I. Wolf”. Also known as “The Wolf” and “Private Wolf,” this one-panel comic featured a GI depicted with a wolf’s head and insatiable, predatory libido. It was a big hit among the troops in its 1942-1945 run, landed Sansone a profile in Life magazine in ’44 and a book reprint “The Wolf” in 1945 with an introduction from the king of male adventure strips Milt Caniff.

G.I Wolf’s humor was based less on hilarity than familiarity. The character was instantly recognizable to most of the late adolescents we sent to war as the embodiment of their inevitable frustrated sexuality. And he is the one lad in the unit most vocal about it. But while the GI Wolf strip is not especially funny, not to mention hopelessly sexist in retrospect, it remains noteworthy. Most of all, it takes horniness itself as its subject. While other strips for the troops, like Caniff’s, ladled on the legs and double entendre for its more adult and lonely male audience, GI Wolf was more direct. Men without women is an inevitable trope of army tales, but it is usually engaged obliquely. Bob Hope shows always featured the latest Hollywood starlets. Airmen painted cheesecake images on their planes’ nosecones. And the marauding of soldiers and sailors on leave was the stuff of lore. But Sansone puts horniness front and center in GI Wolf. He not only personifies the theme with a fantastic wolf-headed character but makes his sex drive the persistent punch-line. And Sansone pushes the theme in fantastic directions. My favorite is the cow talking back to Wolf as he manhandles her udders.

But most often, GI Wolf is recognition humor aimed at enlisted men’s common experiences. Buddies set each other up with disappointing blind dates. Wolf projects his sexuality onto everything, from potatoes he is peeling to cows he is milking to fish swimming off a dock. And so the relentlessness of GI Wolf’s horniness is the real butt of the joke here. His predatory and politically incorrect antics may be familiar but they are not seen here as heroic. Far from it. His fellow soldiers complain about his unproductive fantasizing, even intimate that he may be jerking off too much. His skirt chasing rarely ends in conquest. And most often the damsels he chases hit back…effectively.

Which is not to say Sansone’s GI Wolf was a feminist treat. Slinking away from unattractive dates is a frequent trope of the series. And the entire cat-calling ritual is presented as a mutually agreed upon game between the sexes. In fact in a stupendously dated introduction to the 1945 reprint, Caniff says as much. “No matter how smoothly she tossed her head, I have yet to see a woman who did not betray the secretly pleased expression around the eyes when whistled at or wolf-called by a man or men in uniform,” Caniff writes. Yeesh!

Sgt. Sansone was a member of the Camp Newspaper Service, and GI Wolf ran in the Stars and Stripes newspaper and Yank magazine the armed forces produced for the troops. He was born in Norwood, MA in 1917 and moved to New York City before the war to pursue a freelance art career for advertisers and the early comic book market. After the war, Sanone moved to Miami and developed the Willie newspaper strip. He died in an auto accident in 1963 at the young age of 46.