Just a reminder of Winsor McCay’s genius, this wondrous episode from Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. In other hands the simple furling of the panel would be enough of an inspired use of form. But McCay runs with the creative move to play through the possibilities of reimagining the comic strip frame as an object in the story. And as with all of McCay, the aesthetic innovation is laid atop the journalistic awareness of the real turn-of-the-century world. His middle class characters are just a few steps ahead of the debt collector. McCay’s special talent was for anchoring a fabulist imagination in a draughtsman’s respect for physics and a journalist’s awareness of the world changing around him.
This 1903 installment of Frederick Burr Opper’s Our Antediluvian Ancestors bears an eerie resemblance to Hanna-Barbera’s 60’s cartoon sit-com The Flintstones. From the Stone Age name play to the pet dinos to the rock-wheeled auto, it almost feels like source material. The anachronistic approach to the ancients took fuller form in Alley Oop in the 19300s and then again in B.C.
Opper was best known of course for the hapless hobo Happy Hooligan strip and the maddeningly polite duo of Alphonse and Gaston. But in this series we see his affection for the small comic details. Dig that crank and belt mechanism for the Antedeluvians’ car. Apparently, brakes had not been invented yet. Catch the blacksmith shoe-ing the mastodon. And of course there is Opper’s mastery of mayhem. Part of Opper’s physical comedy comes in his telegraphing the disaster unfolding yet still surprising us with unexpected twists. He was helping to invent some of the basic grammar of comic strip slapstick as well as the art of comic timing between panels. I think Opper doesn’t get the credit he deserves for refining some of the physics of early cartoon comedy. He represented frenetic action, cause and effect, and the slow motion effect to establish what made the funnies funny.
Find a deeper dive into Opper’s visual poetry in this earlier post.
Our Antediluvian Ancestors started in Hearst papers in 1901 and ran for several years. While not as popular as some of his other longer running work, this series was reprinted at the time.
Herriman enjoyed calling attention to the absurdities of his own strip. In these dailies (1919) he also uses his signature device of changing the background landscape from panel to panel. All together Herriman is creating an absurdist space in which Krazy, Ignatz and the Coconino County cast focus on language and interpersonal dynamics.
The unique aesthetic of the comic strip is its ability to create an immersive environment through visual style, composition and character that we fall into for less than a minute a day across three or four sequential panels. Herriman used the full palette available to those panels to ground us in his characters by making the physical environment disorienting and fluid.
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.
The teeming, always moving, mechanized, bureaucratic, dwarfing city was the the most striking new reality pushing on American in just those very years the comic pages emerged in the late 19th and early 20th Century. Many of the leading artists of the day like Outcault, Opper and McCay were themselves midwestern rural transplants for whom the big city and its humbling scale must have been disorienting environments. Outcault was known to walk the streets of the city picking up inspiration and ambience for his Hogan’s Alley/Yellow Kid vision of tenement life. McCay lavished the city skyline with his obsessively detailed line work in both Dream of the Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo in Slumberland.
That is why I am fascinated by the ways in which these artists visually depicted this new reality in the first decades of the newspaper comics. In the two examples here, Windsor McCay and Jimmy Swinnerton use dream sequences to reimagine the landscape. In the first from the Rarebit Fiend series, McCay has his character master the scale of the modern city by becoming a giant himself and reducing the skyline to so many toys, some of which even can be bent. Swinnerton’s is the newcomer’s surreal nightmare of all the ways in which the city masters him.
The daunting urban world becomes malleable, subject to human reimagination in the comic pages, offering readers alternative ways of thinking about the disorienting spaces they occupy.
The city was among the pressing new realities facing Americans at the turn of the 20th Century, and the comics medium was uniquely equipped to express sensations around a novel environment. Walt McDougall (1858-1938) was among the pioneers of American cartooning who took special interest in this historic shift. His “Familiar Sights of a Great City – No. 1 The Cop Is Coming” (New York Journal, Sunday, Jan. 9, 1898) is among my favorite one-offs of the era.
Much like R.F Outcault’s visions of urban chaotic action in The Yellow Kid that I commented about earlier, McDougall signifies city life with images of antic physical energy but a highly individuate view of that crowd. Visually, this frantic flight of street vendors (presumably unlicensed) from a strolling cop is a delicious explosion. The mere presence of a virtually inert cop in the far background produces this lurch into the foreground of scurrying limbs and panicked visages.
McDougall’s cartoon stylings are so much more sophisticated than many of his peers here. The cantilevered limbs of all his fleeing vendors are all frozen perfectly at the apogee of their panic. He has a sharp sense of each character’s weight and stance, momentum and facial expression. All of these qualities foreshadow in my mind post-WWII master Jack Davis in particular. There is some wonderful detail in here as well, like the shadows cast by wagon wheels and fruit. The one newspaper reader in the right foreground is an oblivious counterpoint to the onrush, which only enhances the sense of movement and fear in the rest of the crowd.
McDougall’s reading of the city here is much like Outcault’s in that he never lets the crowd be a “crowd.” He personalizes the cityscape. It is a collection of highly distinct individuals rather than the crowd as faceless horde. The emerging medium of film, however, would soon reinterpret the crowd more as a mass.
That said, McDougall exercises ethnic stereotyping as broadly as his comrades often did in newspaper comics of the day. I presume that the handlebar mustaches, beards, fruit, figs and statuettes signify an early Italian-American neighborhood. The great migration of Italians to the US spanned 1880 to 1924 and settled principally in Manhattan, where they often occupied street vendor and dayworker jobs.
I like this image because it is a great example of the uniqueness of comic art in America. Of course many formal critics wrote extensively about the city, pro and con. Their skyscraping buildings, mass transport and increasingly organized city governments were considered icons of progress, the triumph of industry, the genius of science. At the same time angst over crime, disease, xenophobic responses to emigrees, dislocation from nature all proliferated. But illustration, especially comics that took the crowd and the skyscraper as its subject, could express and interpret the sensations of urban life. The cultural role of modern visual media like comics and film often were to help make sense of these feelings with nuance that eludes written prose.