Great Moments: A. Mutt Meets Jeff (1908)

One of the longest lasting marriages in comic strip history began on March 27, 1908 when Bud Fisher’s wildly popular A. Mutt comic strip anti-hero meets a character who soon became his companion until the strip finally sputtered to an end in 1983.

As told by Jeffrey Lindenblatt in the NBM reprint of early strips, A.Mutt had a whirlwind start in the five months from its brilliant inception to the introduction of Jeff. Bud Fisher was a self-taught artist who talked his way onto the the San Francisco Chronicle in 1906. He worked his way up from layouts in the art department to spot illustrations around news stories to regular caricatures in the sports section. Here is where Fisher sold editors on an idea for a daily strip that would top the sports section with betting neophyte A. (Augustus) Mutt’s uninformed picks to win one of that day’s horse races. The next day’s strip would include Mutt’s winnings, losings and mood after the real world results.

A.Mutt was an instant hit, but its Chronicle run lasted only 26 days. The strip attracted the attention of no less than notorious newspaper staff raider William Randolph Hearst, whose rival San Francisco Examiner battled the Chronicle for circulation. As he had done so many times in his “Yellow” newspaper war with Joseph Pulitzer in New York a decade before, Hearst drowned Fisher in cash and the promise of national syndication to lure him to the Examiner less than a month after A.Mutt launched. Eventually Fisher would leave Hearst too for a much more lucrative syndication deal that became a model for decades of lavishly paid cartoonists.

Fisher’s final A.Mutt for the Chronicle appeared on Dec. 10, 1907, but that last iteration had one very important (and lucrative) addition – “Copyright 1907 by H.C. Fisher.” In Lindenblatt’s telling, Fisher accompanied the artwork to the printing department that day and before the printing plate was struck added that copyright note that led to his being one of the wealthiest cartoonists of his and subsequent decades. Until his death in 1953, Fisher benefited from gushers of revenue from licensing, theatrical and syndication deals that saw Mutt and Jeff on just about anything willing to pay Fisher royalties. There were a number comic strip millionaires during the golden era of newspaper circ wars, but few were as showy and press savvy about that’s wealth than Fisher.

It is under Hearst’s banner that A.Mutt moved quickly away from racing track picks, added Jeff and because a buddy strip that also introduced extended continuities. Alas, the sad anachronistic later decades of Mutt and Jeff strips obscured its earlier, genuinely witty, edgy slapstick years.

But in its early years the strip was indeed gritty. In fact, Mutt meets Jeff in an asylum, one of many incarcerations for him. This time he meets up with multiple cases of delusional inmates, including a diminutive fellow who fancies himself boxer Jeff Jeffries.

While the strip soon evolved beyond its origin as a sports cartoon, it carried with it to mainstream comics pages the sharp-tongued banter, slang, and snide irreverence that typified much of sport page cartooning. Mutt and Jeff took on politics, lampooned public figures, poked at social pomposity, and even ventured down to Mexico in the 1910s to engage with Pancho Villa.

Mutt was also among the first of a staple for the comics pages – the hapless schemer. Always looking for a buck, failing at the serial jobs he tries, the early Mutt conspires with Jeff (who is usually more flush) just to score a much-needed meal. Well evolved from the early simpletons of comics like F.O. Opper’s Happy Hooligan’ and Ed Carey’s Simon Simple, Mutt was like Harriman’s Baron Bean and Goldberg’s Boob, the American always on the make but falling short, working the angles unsuccessfully at the margins of America’s booming modern economy. The rising middle classes at whom 20th Century newspapers generally were aimed seemed to delight in the misfired ambitions of characters like Baron and Mutt, later Moon Mullins, Bobo Baxter and to some degree Andy Gump. It is a figure that extends into Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Chester Riley and Ralph Kramden. Failed ambition is often leavened ironically with empty bravado and inflated self-confidence. It is light satire of America’s core tropes: social and economic ambition, masculinity, mobility, looking for the main chance.

The candor of Mutt and Jeff is in full display in 1918 when the duo scheme to dodge the draft.

Great Moments: The Phantom’s Origin (1936)

Hot on the heels of his first comic strip success, Mandrake the Magician, author, Lee Falk crafted a second and arguably more important bridge between dime novel and pulp heroism and the “super” heroes soon to dominate the American pop culture scene. Falk recalled later he had originally conceived of The Phantom having an alter ego as a millionaire playboy, echoing pulp heroes The Shadow and The Spider. Within the first months of the strip’s premiere in 1936, however, he changed course. “I became intrigued with the whole mythical notion about 400 years and 20 generations of Phantoms in the jungle. The more I got into that, I keep adding to the background.

Here The Phantom relays in thumbnail form to his perennial love interest Diana Palmer, the origin of The Phantom legend. It is a 400 year-old revenge fantasy, in which generations of Phantoms avenge the treachery of Singh pirates. The first-born son of each generation of Phantom must dedicate himself to fighting “all forms of piracy.”

Among jungle natives, of course, The Phantom is known as “The Ghost Who Walks.” Like much of pulp adventure fiction of the day, The Phantom was colonialist fantasy writ large, complete with ignorant or naive native cultures championed by this white (in purple wrapping) savior.

While The Phantom had no super powers, he was the first hero to don the skintight costume that would soon become standard for comic book super heroes with the arrival of Superman several year’s later. The strip was drawn by Ray Moore, following an Alex Raymond style that King Features encouraged across its adventure line of strips.

Like the spicy pulps of the era, The Phantom always had an erotic and sadomasochistic undercurrent that provided more titillation for young and old male readers than usual. Falk and Moore seemed devoted to depicting women in various states of undress and with gossamer thin gowns that were as skintight and revealing as The Phantom’s own outfit.

In fact the series begins with Diana Palmer in short shorts, low-slung tank top and boxing gloves pummeling her male opponent. This set the subtext for the series. For a 400-year-old Ghost, The Phantom finds himself bound and tortured more than you would think possible. And the female love interests and villains alternate between being damsels in need of saving or dominatrixes asking for a slap-down. The second major adventure cycle in the series is about a band of female pirates, the Sky Band, which quickly becomes a figurative S&M orgy of women alternately endangering The Phantom and falling in love with him.

The series has been enduring, however, thriving in comic strip form for these many decades and in comic books as well. Falk continued to author the strip until his death in 1999.

Great Moments: Ring Lardner’s “You Know Me, Al” Launches

American humorist, sportswriter, magazine columnist Ring Lardner had already been writing the “You Know Me, Al” series of humor pieces for The Saturday Evening Post since 1914 when a comic strip version launched in 1922. The format was epistolary, ongoing letters that bush league pitcher Jack Keefe wrote to his friend Al back in his old small town. Keefe is a rube in the city, often clueless in the face of urban pretensions and jaded attitudes. 

Keefe is dropped into the real life Chicago White Sox organization, called up from the minors as the team was struggling back from the infamous Black Sox scandal of the previous decade. Real life owner Charles Comiskey is off stage but forever keeping Keefe in his place. Larder makes reference to a host of actual sports figures and rivalries throughout the strip, but baseball play itself is only occasionally depicted.

The basic action of the strips are Keefer’s everyday interactions with the women who often pursue him, sportswriters who cover him, and team owner Comiskey. The humor of the strip came from Jack’s mildly inflated sense of his own talent and attractiveness.

The country vs. city meme had been central to American comic strips since its earliest years. The transformation of American society and culture from an agrarian, rural sensibility to an urban, industrial one was still echoing throughout mass media and literature in the American 20s. More so than most cartoonists, who tended to lionize the plain spoken, morally upright mythology of small town America, Lardner poked fun at Keefer’s naïveté both to the world and to himself. He is forever fooled or easily outsmarted by city ladies, competing suitors and Comiskey. Keefe goes into the main office pumped up to demand a $500 advance, quickly retreats to $50 and then leaves satisfied when told to come back for his “advance” on pay day. 

The strip continuities were outlined by Lardner, who was overworked at the time with magazine articles, columns, and even dramas bearing his name. The artwork was done by popular sports illustrator Dick Dorgan, who lived near Lardner in the New York suburbs and had been illustrating Lardner books and columns for years. Dorgan was also brother to more famous cartoonist TAD. After a few years, Lardner stopped writing for the strip, though it retained his name for a while.

I find Dorgan’s drawing style attractive in its looseness. The lines seem ready to fall apart at any moment, and yet they communicate character more through posture than expression. He keeps most frames visually interesting by working with angles, body leanings, competing head hangs and positions. In some of the best strips it feels as if there is a storyline apparent just in body attitudes. Perhaps this is the attribute of a good sports illustrator, always sensitive to the physicality of character, momentum, stance.

Great Moments: The Rise of Dauntless Durham of the USA

Harry Hershfield’s Dauntless Durham of the U.S.A. only ran for about a year in 1913-14, but it was among the most fully bonkers American comic strips in its imaginative extravagance. Durham was among several sends of the familiar 19th century hero/damsel/villain melodrama. Our damsel is kidnapped relentlessly by the mustachioed, top-hatted Desperate Desmond and rescued in improbable ways from impossible peril.

It is hard to convey the weirdness of the situations and solutions Hershfield concocts. In one episode, Desmond caries damsel Katrina to the top of the Statue of Liberty, planning to “cremate” her on the torch. A puff of Desmond’s cigarette smoke coming through the Statue’s arm reveals his presence to the pursuing Durham, and the chase is on. In another, Desmond tries to distract Durham by tossing a toy dog onto the third rail of the New York subway, expecting him to rescue the pooch. It just gets weirder. 

As Bill Blackbeard points out in his intro to the 1977 Hyperion Press reprint, Dauntless Durham followed on C.W. Kahles’ Hairbreath Harry, originated by H.A. MacGill in the NY Journal in 1904. And as Blackbeard dwells on in his intro, these and other lampoons of the hero melodrama were picking at a long-obsolete form. American popular culture had long ago moved beyond these simple adventures, but satires of the form persisted in the comic pages. Like many early cartoonists, Hershfield was a sports illustrator who moved to strips. He preceded Durham with a villain-focused Desperate Desmond strip. Demond battles the heroic Claude Eclair in that series, where Hershfield honed his skills at crafting outlandish perils and rescues. Desmond reappears in Dauntless Durham several months into the series and remains the foil throughout. 

But in this strip, the focus is on the hero and the chase. Durham is right out of dime novel heroism. He is described in the opening strip as a yuthful fraternity brother who is privileged by merit, not just blood. He is described of Mayflower lineage but more importantly a rags to riches climber. Following the classic Horatio Alger mythology of American success, Durham brings his family and himself out of poverty through hard work and the generosity of a rich benefactor – “pluck and luck” as Alger described it in his stories of the late 19th Century. “He is the ideal of the young American. His future is more than bright. He will make the kind of citizen that will ‘do and dare.’” “Do and Dare” was in fact the title of a late Alger novel and denotes an American spirit of action and risk-taking. 

Indeed, the early Durham strips are baldly nativist cheerleading for what Hershfield draws as American character strengths. Many of the early Durhams are preoccupied with American egalitarianism. The first villain is Lord Havaglass, a monocled, obese aristocrat and defender of British classism. The early strips frequently distinguish Durham and America’s disdain from Old World privilege and class division.  Hershfield meant to underscore the “of the U.S.A.” of the strip’s full title.  

The early strips are steeped in politics. The heroes attend Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, Durham ventures to Mexico and battles Zapata. He brings damsel in distress Katrina to Ellis Island to show off American openness to emigrees. The strip demonstrates the ways that popular creations like Durham reconcile tensions in American culture. On the one hand, Durham’s own Mayflower lineage reinforces WASP hegemony. Many American leaders were at best ambivalent about the massive waves of immigrants pouring into the US at the time. The industrial engine depended on their labor, and their success validated certain American ideals of being an open, democratic society that rewarded merit over lineage. But at the same time, the WASP scions responded with evermore discussion of bloodlines and breeding, maintaining white hegemony as emigres began flexing political power. Durham is the kind of popular hero who splits the difference and holds the two myths in tension. While a Mayflower descendent, her is not a product of idle wealth but a scrappy striver.

Hershfield was a sports illustrator who derived Despertae Desmond from the earlier ones but focused on the villain Desmond vs. hero Claude Eclair. He had already developed this tendency to draw unbusual challenges and solutions, bizarre situations for his hero to solve.

Along with Hairbreath Harry, Dauntless Desmond of the U.S.A. introduced the rhythms of continuity adventure strips to the form. The adventure continuities and long story arcs wouldn’t flourish until the 20s and especially 30s, but here we see them germinating. In fact if Bill Blackbeeard is correct, these heroic melodramas in comic strips probably invented the cliffhanger structure that film serials would also adopt int he 1920s. 

Great Moments: Rube Goldberg’s Foolish Questions, 1909

In 1908, Rube Goldberg continued to look for a comic strip series that captured popular imagination. His first Foolish Questions panel that year caught on almost immediately and it became a series in the Sunday Chicago Tribune. Like many strips in the first 20 years of the form’s history, Foolish Questions hinged on a simple gag repeated in every strip. In this case, the surreal silliness of the come-back to the “foolish question” is what gives the strip its energy. But most striking here is how Goldberg’s cranky, abrasive tone could also move into some gritty, dark places. Witness making light of wife beating. This is chilling, even in historical context, to see domestic violence treated this casually in a family newspaper, let alone seen as a site for screwball comedy.

Foolish Question also exercises a common comic strip trope – grumpy rejoinders to little human quirks. From its earliest years, the comic strip form took a light satirical perspective on everyday human foibles and excesses, the tics and social types that rang familiar with readers. Making fun of braggarts, poseurs, women’s fashion, the latest catchphrases or the middle class vogue of treating house pets like children (imagine!) were among the trends early comics artists poked.

In various forms Goldberg continued to answer Foolish Questions as late as 1939. These are from Sunday Press’ excellent compilation.