On August 5, 1924, Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie premiered. It was among the earliest serial adventure strips, with the real quest across decades being Annie’s search for a real family. But Gray was an odd bird with extreme sentiments, clear even here in the opening strip. Annie’s resentful relationship with institutions and their corrupt managers is set from Day 1. Many of the enduring Gray tropes are here from the beginning: resentful anger, lengthy interior monologues, great names (Mis Asthma!), a truly alienated heroine. Little Orphan Annie is among that handful of great American comic strips (Dick Tracy, Popeye, Krazy Kat) that immersed American newspaper readers in a deeply idiosyncratic imagination that was unlike just about any other artistic experience and vision available elsewhere.
Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie is an eccentric expression of the bittersweet aesthetic. its locus is a pathetic, orphaned figure who is exploited and abused by a world that seems dominated by evildoers and bad luck, barely salvaged by good-hearted salts of the earth who make their local reality humane. Villainy is around every corner for Annie, whether that corner is on a rural road or in mid-town cities. It is a Manichean vision of the world where good hearts are in perennial war with exploiters. Gray’s cosmology is remarkably dark, with a main character in search of an ersatz family the universe denies her. Most institutions are not to be trusted, and most human hearts are as likely to be black and cold as warm and open.
Whatever the specific adventure Annie is on in a given cycle, the real theme in Little Orphan Annie is moral character. The parallel action in Annie is that of moral judgement. Annie and the ancillary cast are always spending more panel time talking to themselves and sizing one another up than engaging in action or even dialog. Gray makes greater use of the internal monologue than just about any comic strip artist. Much of the soliloquies are the characters debating internally about the good or dangerous nature of another character and at the same time delivering homilies that explain an action or person.
Judging new characters’ moral fitness, good or bad intentions and even their inner natures is a central part of the Annie world from the very beginning of the strip. In the 1925 sequence above we get the entire arc of moral judgment theme in a two-day miniature. Annie comes upon a new character, argues to herself whether this is a positive or negative force in her life, and her gut conclusion is borne out by later action. In this case she runs into the judge who is about to determine her fate and then receives his welcome ruling the next day.
Gray gives these soliloquies around character the shape of argument, where the characters anticipate and counter other perspectives. His characters are endowed with a kind of lawyerly fair-mindedness that are always showing their work – the path to a reasonable conclusion.
Gray is often miscast by subsequent comics fans as “conservative” by way of his famous opposition to FDR and The New Deal in the 30s. But he was really a populist of the old midwestern sort that had the farmers’ Grange and eventual Populist Party as its foundation. He was suspicious of aggrandized, institutional power wherever he found it and romanticized salt of the earth farmers, manual laborers and maverick, independent souls who almost always had communitarian instincts. The argumentative style of internal monologue in the Annie strip dovetails well with the ideal of the midwestern political populist – a well-informed, fair-minded, citizen who exercises reason not just passion.
Annie is also a psychologist who sees through the hard-boiledness of even the gruffest actors.
Little Orphan Annie is as much a comic strip about the indomitability of moral character in the modern world as it is about anything else. Gray’s heroes are as steadfast as is the strip itself against amoral expediency, scheming to get ahead, pomposity and elitism. The strip often skirts with tedium and maudlin sentimentalism in its stream of everyday villains and homily responses. But at heart the strip is at war with an age that is replacing the last century’s moral ideal of character with a modern notion of malleable, adaptive, performative “personality.”
In his famous essay on “‘Personality’ and Twentieth Century Culture,” Warren Susman argued that the modal type of self central to the 19th Century coalesced around the concept of “character.” The words usually associated with “character” included, work, duty, citizenship, democracy, manners, integrity, manhood. Sometime in the first decades of the 20th Century increased calls for a “new man” to cope with relentless modern change surrounded the term “personality.” Standing out from the crowd, the modern “masses,” was a preeminent value of the emerging culture of “personality.” Around it we find different terms like fascinating, individuality, self-development, magnetic, creative, dominant, forceful. Concepts like self-realization begin replacing self-sacrifice. “The social role demanded of all in the new culture of personality was that of a performer,” writes Susman (Culture as History, p. 280).” Subsequently, Jackson Lears further developed this idea of a new modal self for modern American, arguing that a new psychological vision of self emerged as shaped by the needs of consumerism. “As economists conceived an upward spiral of production and consumption powering endless economic growth, psychologists imagined a fluid, vital self pursuing a path of endless personal growth.” (Literary History of America, p. 453)
Along with Segar’s Popeye, Gould’s Tracy and King’s Walt, Gray’s Annie is a defense of immutable 19th Century character against the fluid, self-serving, socially disconnected personality. In his introduction to the first volume of Annie reprints by the Library of American Comics, Annie’s smartest chronicler Jeet Here positions Gray amidst a new Midwestern stable of cartoonists who drove the 20s and 30s. Annie, Gasoline Alley, The Gumps, Thimble Theatre, Dick Tracy brought the comic strip into a plainspoken heartland perspective on changing American life. They used melodrama, sentimentality, persistent moralism as their emotional palette. I would argue that on an even deeper level they were arguing with a fundamental change in American ideals around self and social order.