By 1937, Harold Gray seemed to have fallen into an especially foul mood. It was several years into his nemesis F.D.R.’s “New Deal,” which Gray felt represented everything he and his “Little Orphan Annie” disdained: social uplift, misguided do-gooders, institutional authority. From the start, Gray was never shy about voicing his populist perspectives and what he saw as core agrarian values of self-reliance, individualism, and deep suspicion of government bureaucracy of all sorts. His chief scholar, Jeet Heer, has done a much better job than I can here outlining Gray’s vein of Populism and how it ran much deeper than knee-jerk reactionary conservatism. And I have argued in these posts how Gray’s cultural politics were grounded in familiar mid-western traditions and a tension between 19th Century values of “character” and 20th Century notions of “personality. But it is clear that in response to FDR and the popularity of the New Deal Gray got more radical and vocal about his views. And perhaps not coincidentally, the strip grew even darker in the later 1930s.
As Here argues in the introduction of the 7th volume of the Library of American Comics reprint series, Annie was always a gritty, street-smart tale, but Gray usually kept physical violence off-panel. Yet, as the strip approached its creative height in 1936-38, that violence started moving into frame. Heer argues that Gray likely was responding to world conflicts, a greater personal sense of mortality as well as competition from more action-oriented strips that dominated the 1930s. I think Gray may also just have been growing angrier and more resentful towards a culture from which he felt ever more alienated. Gray’s moral vision was always as as simple and plainspoken as his drawing style – venal villainy countered by saccharine sentimentality. But it is clear, Gray was getting darker and seeing the world in starker ways by 1936. In fact the lead-up to one of the most jarring bits of in-panel violence in Little Orphan Annie begins with a remarkable Sunday strip on Oct. 8, 1936 that maps the modern world as a perennial “jungle” of predators and good-hearted strivers. As Annie’s newfound friend and flower-seller Ginger, reflects, “But the rules are still jungle – the survival of the fightingest.”
In the coming weeks, Gray uses Ginger as his populist mouthpiece. Annie had always been a chatty strip to begin with, but in these months the moral bromides, punditry and snide asides crowded most panels. Gray clearly had a lot to get off of his chest…about the corruption of politicians and lawyers and their collusion with thugs…about the mixed motives of “uplifters”…about the productivity and generosity of earned wealth…the moral hazard of handouts and unearned wealth. Gray was not a simplistic or sentimental reactionary. He had relatively progressive racial views. And as he outlined through Ginger in these months, his sense of individualism was a principled rejection of the sociological generalizations he saw driving a lot of reformist uplift and welfare. His populist sociology rejects environment as determinative of behavior.
No one ever accused Harold Gray of subtlety. Annie was as much folk punditry as it was an adventure. But he was artful, albeit dogged, in creating opportunities for his avatars to voice another homily. A street fight triggers bromides on rising out of the “hard kindergarten” of the streets. Passersby making an offhanded comment on these city kids not getting a chance in life set up Ginger’s counter-argument about the dangers of unearned advantage. Meeting an old friend lets her reflect on the morality and generosity of earned wealth. And all of this in just three strips.
Gray’s wordiness can divert us from his considerable and evocative graphic skills. He visualizes his principles and arguments that are as clear and un-subtle as his ideology. The street scenes in the Oct. 26 strip above illustrate the teeming diversity, the danger, raw violence of the city as well as the individuality of the humanity he sees there. That third panel depicting the “rushing tide of life” expresses at once a suffocating crowdedness and individuation.
Gray’s visual voice was singular and somehow it succeeded in establishing his mixed view of humanity, society and the cosmos. His laudable human figures were usually solid, husky and well-planted. Annie herself has tree trunk legs that look and feel organically rooted in much the way his friend Chester Gould like to plant Dick Tracy in the frame. It is the visual embodiment of self-reliance and resilience. The infamous hollow eyes of Gray’s cast underscore how little he and many other daily cartoonists relied less on facial expression and more on words, composition and action in a frame to express feeling. Much like Frank King and Gasoline Alley, Annie visualized the plain spoken style of its creator.
While they were very different artists, to be sure, Gould, King and Gray had visual voices that helped define the worlds we were in for those three or four daily frames. That to me is one of the comic strips’ singular aesthetic qualities, to establish diverse and distinct fictional worlds through these signature styles. For Gray it took the shape of bulky, pillowy figures that lived in a 2D world of little forced perspective or even movement. Gray’s characteristic hatch work helped communicate a grimness to his worldview – the persistence of shadows. Arguably, he did not have the stylistic talent or range of many peers. King had a great sense of panel pacing and rhythm, a feel for place and landscapes, he used relentlessly. Gould leaned heavily on his penchant for muscular action, grotesque violence, forced perspective and those vast planes of inky blacks.
Gray flexed his style sparingly. But he was capable of great visual power. In the run up to the tragic violent death of flower lade Ginger, we get this gorgeous showcase of crosshatched planes, light-source, and cross-cut pace that feels like German Expressionist film.
The local gang of hoods target Ginger because she refuses to pay into their protection racket. Her graphic murder that comes days after the foreboding strip above is a rare instance of a Gray panel exploding in explicit violence.
It is probably best that Gray depicted violence so sparingly. He wasn’t very good at it. But this moment is of a piece with the months of the strip’s immersion in the modern city and its many musings on the modern “jungle.” And it embodied the emotional energy, perhaps even the anger and pessimism that seemed to drive what many comics historians regard as his creative peak in the storylines and characters in the last half of the 1930s.