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.
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.