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.