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.