Giving Image to Feeling: “How You Felt” (1914)

I don’t know who this Ferd. C Long was, nor how long the engaging “How You Felt” strip ran. But it captured me instantly as a great example of early cartoon experiments that explored some of the unique qualities of the new medium. The great team at Barnacle Press, who nobly harvest every scrap of early comic strips they can, gathered these. Like many strips of the day, it took up a simple single conceit – in this case using visual exaggeration to capture a feeling. The result is a fantastic surrealism that communicates in a singular way a range of small and common responses to the world.

The middle class man is shrunken by the prospect of having to be stern and authoritative with the overbearing and enlarged cook. The disempowerment of the overcivilized modern man was a fairly common trope of the late 19th and early 20th Century. But here Ferd Long uses scale, the man’s fearful, awkward stance, the cook’s gigantic threatening approach to give a sense of physical threat, perhaps the real dread that underlies fear itself. I can’t tell if the cook has a small broom, a coal shovel or a fly swatter in her hand, but the sheer smallness of it suggests what easy and quick work she could make of her shrinking boss.

“When You First Carried a Cane” is a wonderfully emotive snapshot of painful self-consciousness. Again, it is using the special qualities of cartoon exaggeration to convey the feeling of being literally surrounded by mockery over your new affectation of sophistication. It is a small feeling writ large in a way only comic visualization can achieve. Likewise, “When You Wore The Tie The Wifie Embroidered For You” dramatizes self-consciousness in another way. The garish tie is the smallest thing the man is wearing, but in his mind it is an embarrassing bedsheet that is all he can see about himself.

Early cartoonists often focused the new form on small human tics, familiar moments, common social types, pretentions, cliches and interactions. There was Superstitious Sam, the lateness and procrastination of The Almost Family and Peter Putoff, the everyday rage over everyday life in The Outbursts of Everett True, the obsessive frugality of Mrs. Rummage, the daily philandering of Mr. Jack. Artists saw in the tools of caricature a new ability to distort and magnify the smallest of human attributes into theater.

It is interesting that in these handful of samples of How It Felt, Long uses exaggerated scale to capture the sense of emotional obsession. He uses these ridiculously outsized objects to capture the ways the human mind dwells, exaggerates and lets the smallest reality become all-consuming. In that way he seems to me making real and palpable an aspect of modern consciousness that other cartoonists echoed in their work and would be hard to describe in language let alone in a history of the period.

For me at least it is not enough to say that modern cartooning somehow merely “reflected” its age. That is to miss how America’s quick embrace of the comic strip as a daily ritual suggested something much more was afoot. Whenever a popular art form takes hold so quickly and surely as the comic strip did between 1896 and 1915, most likely it is contributing something powerful and uniquely meaningful to the cultural conversation. One of the things that comic artists were doing in this period was tightening the frame in which to observe, lampoon and analyze modern American life. This was observational humor of a special kind, because we find it in no other form of pop culture at the time. Some social realists like William Dean Howells, Sara Orne Jewett and Sinclair Lewis would employ similar views of everyday social and emotional life. But for the comic strip it became a mainstay that would endure across the next century. It demanded only 20-30 seconds of our time and across a mere one to five panels. But it did so at a persistent daily cadence. And in this format, artists like Frank King (Gasoline Alley), Jimmy Hatlo (They’ll Do It Every Time) Clare Briggs (Ain’t It a Grand and Glorious Feeling), H.T. Webster (The Timid Soul) and even Gary Larson (The Far Side) and so many more added a singular lens on modern American life that I think added to the modern experience rather than simply reflected it.  

McManus’s One Joke, Deftly Told

Comic disharmony between Jiggs and Maggie over their social climb was the central joke of George McManus’s Bringing Up Father for over four decades. For all of McManus’s fine sense of humor, he banged that one note across four panels six days a week and a full page every Sunday. To be sure, he layered in nuances of class and generational conflict. Jiggs was a hod carrier who struck it rich, never adjusted to his own ascent, and clashed with wife Maggie and daughter’s ambitions to join the social elite. The dynamic was rich with potential and embodied the experience of millions of American emigrees moving into the modern middle class. But many of the daily strips tediously replayed Jiggs’s sneaking out to his former watering hole Dinty Moore’s, embarrassing his family with etiquette transgressions or ducking Maggie’s thrown dishes. These were conventions that American newspaper readers enjoyed hearing for a handful of panels and 30 seconds a day over its 87-year run. McManus, however, was especially adept at maintaining reader interest in the familiar with his mastery of visual style, panel sequencing and timing.

The strip above from Feb. 2, 1928 is a good example of McManus executing the old joke in fresh ways. That first panel, with Jiggs characterizing the happy newlywed as a “freak,” could stand alone as a one panel wry gag. McManus was especially good at packing several punch lines into a single daily. Over years and years of daily encounters, readers come to know the sensibilities of their favorite comic characters so well that a simple snide retort recalls a history of suffering. Indeed, McManus illustrates in each frame the comic contrast between this righteous, prideful romantic young modern and the slouching, marriage-weary Jiggs. The banter across the four panels creates an engaging verbal ping pong call and response between self-satisfied youth and beaten, knowing experience. Through posture and gesture McManus aligns the newlywed’s romance with a preening, effete steadfastness. Jiggs, in contrast, is that wonderfully plodding, leaning mass of disbelief.

And it is that gorgeous McManus visual signature that always keeps a Bringing Up Father daily interesting. Somewhere between Art Nouveau and Deco, his thin, uncannily even line loves peerless curves and ruler-straight parallels and squares for shading effect. It is at once otherworldly but somehow human, a big foot style executed with geometric precision. And the artist was endlessly inventive and varied in using his panel structure to offer different perspectives and angles one the unfolding scene. He was masterful at using sillhouette panels to yank us into a different view of the characters and their banter. And he frequently livened up his interior scenes with wall paintings that he animated with scenes that shifted from panel to panel. McManus’s visual signature channeled the look and feel of opulent, machine-age modernity, but he deployed that style ironically, to depict his characters’ discomfort and ill-fit with that modern world…and ambivalence with their own ambitions.

The popularity of Bringing Up Father’s very modern American story made it one of the most reprinted comics of its day. The strip above is taken from the 14th volume in Cupples & Leon’s regular reprints of the title. In his forward to this volume,McManus kids his publisher about the 4,000,000 copies sold of the previous 13 books. “They’ve got Rolls-Royce cars and they eat caviare and terrapin whenever they feel like it. I, the poor author of all this junk, have to stick to corned beef and cabbage.”

Napoleon: The Gentle Art of Everyday-ness

Clifford McBride’s portrait of the affable, accident-prone and corpulent Uncle Elby and his puckish oversized dog Napoleon is one of those great American comic strips that are about nothing. There is no adventure or much of an ongoing storyline to the Napoleon and Uncle Elby strip. Nor are there gags, verbal or physical, really. It is more a strip about everyday mishaps. Uncle Elby is proud of his new white suit, which an affectionate Napoleon meets at the the front door with muddy paws. Constructing a simple tent results in a tangled mess. Napoleon chases a fleeing rabbit, chicken,  cat or whatnot (it’s a frequent theme), only to be chased by his prey in the end. Elby mows over one of his dog’s hidden bones, which conks him on the bean. Elby gets out of his car to open the garage door only to have it slam shut before he can drive through.

No, really, the action in the Napoleon strip is that banal and trifling…relentlessly…and apparently by design.

Launching in 1932, the strip bore some similarity to Gasoline Alley in its lack of punch lines, tension, screwball, characterization or story. But King built his Alley into a social epic about interior worlds of feeling. McBride’s narrower ambitions for Napoleon turned on life’s little annoyances, accidents, incompetence and occasional poignance. It was for readers a daily reflection on life’s petty frustrations, little ironies, the comedy of everyday chaos.

As McBride suggests in his opening “Dear Reader” opening panel in 1932, he was self-consciously positioning the strip against the darker and suspenseful tone of the emerging adventure formats and popular hard-boiled favorites like Little Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy, which certainly were filled with “brickbats and misery.” In many ways he was fashioning a genteel counterweight both in tone and style to the rest of the comics pages of the 1930s.

The strip’s considerable charms came in McBride’s deft illustrative style, the staging and sequencing of the physical action, and a gentleness of spirit that earned its readers’ daily 20 seconds of attention. 

The strip is mostly a pantomime where mishaps of one kind or another unfold in a three or four panel sequence. Dialogue (usually Elby talking to himself or Napoleon) is rare. The art of the strip is in McBride’s comfortable illustrative style, a rough use of loose line and acute hatching,  a knack for panel sequencing and rhythm of movement. Elby falling in a lake feels funnier than it should because McBride’s panel progression relies on a touch of surprise. Whereas the screwball timing of Opper, Goldberg or Gross lets us enjoy an obvious disaster unfold in gleeful animation panel by panel, McBride’s pay-off panel is usually an oversized tableaux of an unexpected outcome. This is physical humor but of a more contained, less socially subversive sort than the great screwballism.

McBride was a newspaper cartoonist who did a fair amount of magazine illustration, and that is the aesthetic of Napoleon. Visually, Napoleon invokes the style and spirit of book illustration. The cartoonish realism feels like the familiar plates accompanying a Mark Twain Tom Sawyer or Puddnhead Wilson volume or the line art from a folksy Saturday Evening Post yarn. The outlines are sketchy and imprecise, embodying a winsome, light humor that is the heart of this strip. Napoleon himself is a mass of stray lines indicating messy fur, with his usually expressive eyes poking through for effect. McBride doesn’t try to render naturalistically the surface of water but capture the drama of the splash as Elby inevitably meets his wet fate.

McBride’s hatching is sublime yet singular. His  greys and shadows are built with precise, straight, tightly packed lines. There is a relaxed but deliberate, meticulous care to this style, a visual signature of controlled whimsy. 

Much of McBride’s action focuses on faces, reactions of exasperation, frustration, bewilderment, anger, panic that combine with the panel pace to effect the strip’s gentle humor of familiarity. The world of Napoleon is wonderfully self-contained. It provides bucolic order, a mild comic disruption, and often builds in an astonished response. 

McBride passed in 1951, but the strip continued for another 9 years. His widow penned the scenarios and one of McBride’s longtime assistants continued drawing. Subsequent giant dog characters lie Marmaduke, Clifford and Dennis the Menace’s Ruff would take the trope in more antic, cartoonish directions. But McBride’s approach was singular in the ongoing relationship between the hapless Uncle Elby and his indispensable companion.

Somewhere beneath the surface of the daily, often bland scenarios, lurked a richer story about the complex mixed emotions within love itself. Napoleon often is the source of Uncle Elby’s woes, pratfalls and even costly destruction. But the interdependence of the two comes through cumulatively over the many months and years of daily reading. Elby is after all an affable but unattractive bachelor, for whom the devoted Napoleon serves as surrogate wife/child/family. In some ways that commingling of affection and frustration in this relationship is foreshadowed in the ironic remove McBride himself establishes as the strips voice in his unique inaugural panel that introduced the strip. The self-deprecating apology for adding to the pile of existing comics, the whining about having to draw it daily, and his insistence that “I hate lettering” in an opening panel that is all words – telegraph the light-hearted ambivalence beneath enduring relationships that readers would revisit daily across three decades.

The Timid Soul Toys With Fascism

This 1937 vision of fascism’s psychological appeal to feelings of personal disempowerment is eerily relevant to the current ethos. H.T. Webster’s Casper Milquetoast (The Timid Soul) responds to newspaper images of Italy’s Benito Mussolini and Germany’s Adolph Hitler with his own fantasy of assertiveness. Webster is perceptive enough to understand in this strip how the personal and political entwine around identity. And through Casper he renders it as a will to power that is at once frightening but also silly and sad.

But more than the prescience and enduring relevance of Webster’s 1937 strip, this sequence is a great example of the special powers of the cartoon arts. They can show, not just tell, bring greater depth and impact to an insight through sequential illustration than we would get from the description of language alone. He shows us panel by panel the process of Casper responding to imagery and internalizing it into self-reflection – literally, in front of a mirror – mimicking the despot’s power. And then he twists it into satire: the fantasy of power congratulating itself by terrorizing an unsuspecting cat. Psychologists and political scientists no doubt have filled reams of analysis about how fascism appeals to popular feelings of alienation and disempowerment. But somehow Webster brings it to life in a unique and impactful way here.

The beloved H.T. Webster (1885-1952) drew a range of political and slice of life cartoons across the 20s and 30s. Generally he was known for gentle satires of middle class life and nostalgic takes on bygone boyhood. His most famous contribution to the daily funnies (and American language) was The Timid Soul, which focused on the beleaguered and unassertive Casper Milquetoast who struggled with his own timidity in the face of an increasingly brash, intrusive America. In fact, Casper’s name entered into the language as the familiar descriptor of bland and weak. Casper’s attempts to break out of his own wimpy response to the world is the source of The Timid Soul’s light comedy.