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.

Premiere Panels: Mandrake Materializes…Eventually

It took a full week of strips for the eponymous hero of Lee Falk’s Mandrake the Magician strip to make his grand entrance. June 11, 1934 was the first strip, which evokes some of the feel of a classic mystery wind-up. But on June 15, in what has to stand as one of the most unambiguously racist intros in pop culture history, Mandrake’s “servant” Lothar heralds the coming of his “master.” One doesn’t even know where to start here. Falk’s full bore colonialism is more fully and relentlessly explored in his later The Phantom series whose origin we covered here and whose fetishes we covered here.

For all of its weaknesses, Mandrake remains important both to comic strip and comic book history in that his is the first strip to move towards a super-powered hero. Mandrake’s “magic” is only nominally super-natural, in that it is based on the power of suggestion and influence over others’ minds. But it precedes the appearance of Superman by 5 years and aldo nods towards costumed heroism, which would be more fully introduced in Falk’s The Phantom.

Krazy Philosophy: Herriman At His Best

I have to admit that I have always admired and appreciated George Herriman more than I enjoyed reading him. The gush of praise for his work among American intellectuals in the 1920s was deserved and an important piece of pop culture history. My own favorite pioneer of pop culture criticism Gilbert Seldes famously declared Krazy Kat among the most satisfying works of American art in the 1920s. But I always have had trouble really getting into him. I have to dip in and out of Herriman, sip him briefly, in order to appreciate the full effect of his offbeat sensibility, linguistic play, hit-and-miss humor. The characters and their world, while wonderfully abstract and even surreal, also create a distance for me.

All that is to say that there are also times when the abstraction and subtle philosophizing in Krazy Kat really pops through and reminds me what a rich mind was at work behind the strip. This daily from 1922 is one example of the ways in which Ignatz and Krazy really do represent fundamentally different sensibilities that were quite relevant to the America Herriman was experiencing in the inter-war years. Ignatz, the worldly, materialist, the jaded modern defender of “realism” is not only opposed to Krazy’s more ethereal, romantic approach to the universe, he is moved to violence at the very sight of it. That to me is the most interesting dynamic in their relationship. It is not the difference between the two world views they represent. It is how they react to one another, Ignatz’s frustration and intolerance of the very existence of a Krazy-eyed view of the world, that activates the strip for me and speaks to its age. Most Krazy Kat dailies don’t end with a brick to Kracy’s head but instead Ignatz reaching for a brick as a primitive response to Krazy’s musings or poor pun or nonsensical quip. Herriman calls attention to our own response. Who are you? Ignatz or Krazy?

Like Krazy her/himself, I find that I am appreciating Herriman by taking it slow through his dailies and Sundays. Others that caught my eye are here and of course the discussion of Krazy’s gender here.

Death Becomes You: Tracy Villains Meet Their Fitting End

Retribution was Chester Gould and Dick Tracy’s model for justice from the beginning. The strip started in 1931 literally as a revenge narrative. Standing over the murdered body of his fiancé Tess Trueheart’s father, civilian Tracy swears vengeance on the killers. He quickly joins the police force, but the themes of retribution and conviction by poetic justice remained a hallmark of the strip across four and a half decade run. From the beginning Chester Gould unapologetically crossed the lines of good taste. By the late 1930s in criminals like The Mole, B.B. Eyes, Flattop, Pruneface and the like, Gould started using outward disfigurement as expressive of inner villainy. And the level of explicit violence and even torture in Dick Tracy was unlike anything else on the comics page, or elsewhere in pop culture for that matter.

The revenge motif was baked into the strip’s moral universe. Tracy villains didn’t just need to be sought, caught and jailed. They needed to be hounded and often tortured along the way. Many of Tracy’s prey ended up behind bars, but just as often they met poetically just ends. Gould turned the grisly, fitting deaths of villains into his own special kind of art. Here are some examples from the first two decades of the strip that highlight Gould’s dark talent for retributive justice and capital punishment Dick Tracy style. At these climactic moments we see most clearly the visual, moral and often bizarre world,

Final Curtain for Whip Chute – 1939

Subtlety was not in Chester Gould’s quiver. Here he triple underlines his irony.

B-B Eyes Gets Dumped – 1942

More than anything, Gould loved to kill and humiliate Tracy villains in slo-mo. Here, B-B Eyes hides in a garbage barge in the final leg of a desperate flight from justice, only to get dumped, trapped and drowned. Gould had a special talent for using the panel. framing and zoom techniques to communicate feeling through his use of space. His signature tight shots on dead villains often conveyed the loneliness and claustrophobia of death itself.

Flattop Gets Spiked – 1944

In 1944, Gould concocted two of his most venal villains. Flattop was simply psychopathic as a hit man, and he would be followed by The Brow, who was sadistic and a spy. Hiding beneath a ship being constructed, Flattop gets hung up on protruding spikes, leading to another close-up of deserving death.

The Brow Is Killed By Patriotism – 1944

Far and away the most inventive and stomach-turning death in the first decades of Dick Tracy was the impaling of The Brow. I covered this in greater detail and with more context elsewhere. But here again is the wartime spy getting impaled on the flagpole commemorating the city’s war dead. The bending flagpole is a gruesomely brilliant touch to amplify that moment of maximal tension that will ultimately pierce the villain.

Gargles Eats Glass – 1946

Falling through a skylight, again in comic strip slo-mo, Gargles gets sliced across three panels. And Gould can’t resist giving us his final shudders. In fact Gargles hangs on until the next strip so his final words exonerate an innocent suspect just in time for Christmas. One of the hallmarks of Dick Tracy was the strip’s extremism, Gould’s penchant for balancing unmatched graphic violence and angry vindictiveness with maudlin sentimentality. This sequence leads up to a Christmas strip that celebrates the villain’s death and the joy of the season.

Mumbles’ Cry for ‘Elp’ – 1947

Making a speech impediment somehow expressive of a villain’s evil was a questionable move to begin with. But Gould doubles down on this conceit by having Mumbles frantically, futiley hail for “ELP”.

T.V. Wiggles Can’t Move – 1950

Gould loved to draw in that little bit of grisly business to convey violence. While he used a heavy, cartoonish line and unreal, expressionist style that set the strip far apart from the illustrative style of most adventure strips, Gould used other ways of communicating hard-boiled reality. He had a penchant for objects penetrating bodies. Bullets often passed through their targets in shootout sequences. And as the deaths of The Brow and Gargles showed, the impaled body has a special place in Gould’s sense of horror. The death of T.V. Wiggles comes from fallen metal sheets that form an ersatz coffin. But it is that little corner of metal piercing a flap of neck flesh that telegraphs the experience of death itself.

Mr. Crime and Judge Mix Blood and Money – 1953

Mr. Crime was among Tracy’s most ruthless, pitiless villains of the 50s, and in the context of the Gould moral universe I am surprised (and a bit disappointed) that he suffers a simple shootout with Tracy. In fact Gould reserves the grisliest image for Mr. Crime’s extorted dupe, Judge Ruling. When cornered, the corrupt Judge chooses suicide. But of course Gould can’t give us a gunshot sound effect heard through a closed door. We have to get an image of Judge Ruling eating the gun, complete with cheek lines to suggest how deep he has planted the barrel. But we’re not done with this duo. As is his wont, Gould closes in for a final tableaux of both villains swimming in their own blood and money.

Flattop Jr.’s Near Miss – 1956

Flattop Jr. was indeed the son of the original Flattop, but he was framed by Gould as a neglected youth who embodied the overhyped scourge of the 1950s – the juvenile delinquent. He appears to meet his end in a theater fire he himself set to cover his escape. Despite the massive explosion Gould depicts dramatically, and the presumption of having died in the inferno, Jr. turns up later where his genuine death takes place in the middle of another villain’s cycle. And so that final contemplative panel here turns out to be ironic.