Year in Review: The Wisdom of the Crowds

I posted a lot this past year and attracted thousands of new visitors along the way. And so as the year ends I wanted to surface some of the most popular items of the past year that might be of interest to newer readers of the blog.

Moon Mullins on the Margins” was the most-read post this year, and it was part of a mini project exploring several comics characters on the edge of social respectability that flourished in the 1920s. Frank Willard’s deft touch with comic timing and raw flurries of insults and put-downs really impressed me this time through just a sampling of his work. I wish more of his strips were available in reprint. I used this old short edition, which is still available from used booksellers.

Likewise, the piece on Mutt first meeting Jeff in 1908 explored how the acerbic relationship between these two scallawags grew. Bud Fisher used this scheming duo to take aim at social and political trends, and could be suprisingly edgy. In one case they plotted to dodge the draft for WWI. Mutt and Jeff is another classic that could use a reprint. The most recent one, which I used for this post, was part of NBM’s Screwball reprints in 2007, still available, however.

Maurice Ketten’s short-lived ”Hurry-Up New Yorker” series in 1906 for The New York World was a wonderful find for me this year, as it seemed to be for many of you. Ketten’s modernist style embodied the theme of this strip and was among many visually interesting takes on the new urban environment in the comics pages. And to get on my hobby horse again, I think this very theme of urban change is one of those places where the American comics distinguished itself in Americasn culture. Few other popular or high art forms were capturing the new experience of urban environments as richly and as consistently as comics artists.

Discovering the wondrous Nell Brinkley was one of the highlights of my comics journey this year. She was a trailblazer in so many ways. Her heroines were flapper feminists, and her ideal of modern femininity replaced the Gibson Girl with that Brinkley Girl. I discovered Brinkley in my favorite book of last year, Trina Robbins’s ”Flapper Queens,” which I can’t recommend enough. Still widely available at a good price for the size, quality and scope of this look at several of the most popular women cartoonists of the 1920s.

The idiosyncratic style and worldview of comics strips is one of my main attractions to the form, and I got to revisit two of my favorite extremists of the form this year. The cranky Harold Gray’s populist vision of humanity and society in Little Orphan Annie was established in every aspect of the strip’s plainspoken art style, plotting and characterization. Human character was the real subject of the strip. And to this day I find no cartoonist more compelling and absorbing than Chester Gould. As the Library of American Comics wound down its massive 29 volume reprinting of Dick Tracy, it gave me an excuse to come at the strip from several angles, all compiled here. I especially enjoyed reviewing the many ways Gould doled out retributive justice in the grisly ends to his gruesome villains.

Looking forward to 2022 here at Panels & Prose, I have some thoughts on Hank Ketcham and Dennis the Menace on deck. I’d like to dig into The Bungle Family, especially if I can get hold of more dailies than are reprinted in the indispensable LOAC Essentials volume. Tuthill’s was a uniquely dark vision of 1920s family and social dynamics. Similarly, I don’t think E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre both before and after Popeye’s arrival, for its highly critical view of modern American character and acquisitiveness. As Fantagraphics starts reprinting the Sunday Popeyes, it makes a fine occasion to revisit the contentious Oil clan and its many machinations.

Also I hope to enrich Panels & Prose with some more forays into the larger reach of comic strip media in American culture. The many film and radio serials inspired by comics series, as well as the invention of the situation comedy itself, all beg for greater scrutiny. Finally, I also hope to step up my postings about new books of special interest to comic strip fans. There are so many resources online aimed at comic book collectors, but no one I have seen is focusing on what is new and available during this new golden age of comic strip reprints.

Many thanks to all of you who have been reading my musings this year.

Dennis the Menace on Silly Ol’ Girls

Hank Ketcham says he always found it odd that he spent his life in service to a five year old. But of course Dennis the Menace was never for kids, really. At his best, Ketcham used Dennis as a device for poking gently – ever so gently- at the straitjacket of post-WWII suburban repression and painful social self-consciousness. And Ketcham himself was as straight laced, conventional and revenant as we imagine the Mitchells and their world to be. How else could such a pint-sized hellion find so many lines of propriety to transgress so habitually?

Ketcham’s breathtaking tone deafness to the songs of change singing around him in the 60s especially would surface in a famous episode we will save for another post. But for now let’s enjoy Ketcham at his cleverest, usually in the 1950s, using Dennis as a wry observer of pre-feminist gender typing.

Torchy, Patty-Jo and the Indispensable Jackie Ormes

Pioneering cartoonist Jackie Ormes did not suffer fools, and neither did her heroines. Her Torchy Brown, an ambitious Mississippi gal, migrates North (“From Dixie to Harlem”) in the late 1930s to become an accomplished Cotton Club entertainer who navigates the hard-boiled city. By the time of the second iteration of Torchy In the Sunday Pittsburgh Courier section we reprinted earlier) she romances and supports some of the movers and shakers of her community. The even more famous and long-lived Patty-Jo (“Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger”) was a sharp-tonged tike who shot barbs at the pretensions of adulthood and especially the petty bigotries of others and the larger structural racism of 40s and 50s America.

Jackie Ormes (1911-1985) is finally getting the attention she deserves with a full-length biography and a further reprinting of some of her work in this year’s indispensable It’s Life As I See It compilation of Black cartoonists of Chicago. She was the first Black woman to work in the comic strip medium, and spent her career addressing both race and gender in mid-Century America. Her political and cultural activism attracted the FBI enough to earn her a 200+ page dossier. While a cartoonist since childhood, she started as a journalist in the 1930s writing for her hometown Pittsburgh Courier, one of the major American newspapers serving Black communities. She got a shot at a comic strip for the Courier in 1937 and invented nightclub singer Torchy. The strip lasted only a couple of years, as Ormes followed her husband to Chicago. Torchy would be revived in 1950 as “Torchy in Heartbeats” to the romance genre role in the color comics section syndicated by Smith-Mann to the Courier and likely other Black newspapers.

Torchy parallels Ormes herself in some essential ways. Ormes lost her father at a young age to an accident and was raised principally by relatives as her mother pursued career and re-marriage. Ormes/Torchy’s devotion to fashion becomes central to the art and some of the best moments of the strip involve her depiction of feminine curves, sharp attire and bodies in motion.

Ormes’s art had its contradictions. Visually, it could be inconsistent. In the “Business of Star Hitching” episode above her use of clothing and dance has wonderful energy. And her fashion drawing is quite precise. And yet her juxtaposition of figures, sense of mass and perspective (especially in the Torchy in Heartbeats Sundays) feel wooden and inanimate. On the one hand she portrayed ambitious, self-possessed and whip-smart women characters, who she often disrobed into sheer cheesecake allure. And fundamentally, Ormes’s work was a deliberate counterpoint to ethnic stereotyping in rejecting any use of dialect or caricature in any of her Black characters. And yet in “A Letter ‘T Home” above she projects both dialect and illiteracy on her former caretakers, perhaps signaling Ormes and Torchy distancing themselves from humble pasts.

In the 1950 revival pf Torchy. Ormes recasts Torchy as supporting player to successful Black professional men. She was deliberately filling a genre slot for Smith-Mann, the romance comic that by 1950 was a bestselling comic book market segment already pioneered by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. But Heartbeats advances the form, as Torchy shows exceptional psychological insight into her romantic interests. In the case of the disabled pianist Earl, romance is less the object than is navigating his bitterness. Her job here is both personal and political, to rekindle his ambition so that this talented lover can assert himself again into an America that traditionally prefers to infantilize and undermine Black manhood.

Even a perfunctory dive into the Black cartoonists of the 30s through 50s shows how the concept of institutional racism, which seems revelatory to many white Americans today, was a common insight of Black newspapers decades ago. In one Heartbeats storyline, Torchy’s boyfriend is a doctor investigating the environmental poisoning of their community by a nearby manufacturing plant. It would take half a century for the rest of America to recognize the ways in which toxic dumping has always disproportionately endangered America’s disadvantaged and disempowered minority geographies.

Her biggest hit came in 1945 when she returned to cartooning for the Courier with “Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger,” a one-panel cartoon that paired the wise-cracking and politically knowing child Patty-Jo with the curvaceous big sister Ginger, who remains mute and reactive throughout the series. But Patty-Jo went far beyond the typical precocious kid’s-eye-view. She was a jaded and informed social critic, making references to everything from Southern racism to the Truman Doctrine, Sen. Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee.

As in all of her work, in Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger Ormes combines upscale images of Black middle-class style with political awareness, social and racial justice principles and sex appeal. Ginger is effectively a mannequin for Ormes’s talent for drawing fashion and sexuality. In fact in one of the strip’s meta moment Patty-Jo chides big sister for her mute role in the strip, announcing she has been named “Miss Yummy Dummy of 1947.”

The real triumph of the Patty-Jo strip is the imp’s wry irony. She is on to the performative terrorism of Joe McCarthy by characterizing his dominance of early TV as “Cinnamacarthy.” She questions whether appeals to an “American way of life” refer to New York or Georgia’s version of the ideal. Through her Ormes takes aim at the subtleties of racial exclusion from official discourse. Patty-Jo reassures a tenement room of impoverished children not to worry because Uncle Sam is spending his treasure on a nuclear arsenal, so that they are poor but “protected.”

It is even more ironic that Ormes’s acerbic social critic would become the most mainstream of all her creations, a child’s doll. Produced between 1947 and 1949 by the Terri Lee doll company, the Patty Jo hard plastic toy was the first widely distributed Black character doll to dispense with “mammy” and “pickaninny” stereotypes. Few American cartoonists can claim to have blazed as many new cultural trails, upended so artfully the visual tropes of American culture and had a such genuine impact on her community than Ormes. A fuller reprint of her work is long overdue.

Morning Meta: Winsor McCay’s Fabulist Realism

Just a reminder of Winsor McCay’s genius, this wondrous episode from Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. In other hands the simple furling of the panel would be enough of an inspired use of form. But McCay runs with the creative move to play through the possibilities of reimagining the comic strip frame as an object in the story. And as with all of McCay, the aesthetic innovation is laid atop the journalistic awareness of the real turn-of-the-century world. His middle class characters are just a few steps ahead of the debt collector. McCay’s special talent was for anchoring a fabulist imagination in a draughtsman’s respect for physics and a journalist’s awareness of the world changing around him.

The Unsung Black Heroes

Newspapers by and for predominantly Black audiences were a thriving part of the American press throughout much of the 20th Century in most major cities, even if they have been woefully invisible to most media history. More obscure have been the comic strips and their artists that appeared in many of these major newspapers like the Chicago Defender, Atlanta World and Pittsburgh Courier. The dearth of surviving hard copies and poor microfiche renderings have complicated attempts to retrieve that history to publish much-overdue reprints of some of this work. The 1993 Dark Laughter: The Satiric Art of Oliver W. Harrington is among the only extended reprints of a single Black artist I have found. Recently, however, a few industrious comics historians started filling in this blind spot. Ken Quattro’s indispensible Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books was among my favorites of last year (reviewed here). Also full of great reprinted work is Dan Nadel’s It’s Life As I See It: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940-1980. And Rebecca Wanzo’s more scholarly The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging has a unique take on how many Black cartoonists navigated the shoals of stereotype.

Earlier this year a small treasure fell into my lap courtesy of Library of American Comics head Dean Mullaney. During an email exchange about the possibility of reprinting Black cartoonists he sent me this pristine rendering of a rare surviving 8-page color comics section syndicated by the Smith-Mann company and appearing in the Pittsburgh Courier for Nov. 11, 1950. Smith-Mann distributed a full-color section to the Courier for only a few years, from August 1950 to Nov. 1955, according to Allen Holtz, who has done some legwork on Smith-Mann at his essential Stripper’s Guide. The sone of one of the syndicate’s founders has posted his own history and extensive samples of the Smith-Mann comics section at The Museum of Uncut Funk.

This Nov. 11 1950 edition Dean sent me includes espionage adventure Guy Fortune (by Edd Ashe), western The Chisholm Kid (by Carl Pfeufer), gag strips Sunny Boy Sam (by Wilbert Holloway) and Woody Woodenhead (by Edo Anderson), sports adventure Don Powers (by Sam Milai), romance strip Torchy Brown Heartbeats (by Jackie Ormes), adventure Mark Hunt (also by Ashe), sci-fi adventure Neil Knight of the Air (credited only to “‘Carl and Mac”), and animal adventure Lohar (by Bill Brady). The full 8-page section is below. In the coming weeks I will tease out a few of these strips and artists for more detail.