Giving Image to Feeling: “How You Felt” (1914)

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.  

Panel Premiere: From Old Doc Yak to Jawless Gump

One of the singular comic strip launches must be the artful transition from Sidney Smith’s relatively short-lived (1912-1917) Old Doc Yak to one of the great runs of inter-war family strips, The Gumps (1917-1959). Doc Yak was a goat and centerpiece of an early sitcom daily. Smith ended the Yak run to start his Gumps series by literally evicting his hard-luck goat from the premises. In the early days of 1917, Yak’s landlord threatens to toss his deadbeat tenant unless he pays up. Failing to raise the back rent, Yak takes a powder, leaving the landlord with a taunting note (never likes the place anyway) and an empty property. In the final panel of Feb. 10, 1917, the landlord announces that new tenants will be moving into the property and the strip on Monday.

And on that following Monday, indeed, the eerily jawless Andy Gump and the Gump clan are introduced. The strip was quite literally vacated by one character and occupied by a new one. in fact, in the closing day of the Yak series Smith tells the reader “Doc has but one day left to raise the rent or be thrown off this page.”

Andy Gump himself would go on to become one of the most recognizable and seminal sitcom dads in the early decades of century. The besieged and aggrieved comic father figure had been foreshadowed already in the Dingbat Family, Bringing Up Father and Smith’s own Old Doc Yak. But Andy helped crystallize and propel the sitcom formula. Overconfident of his knowledge, skills and savvy, Andy was the kind of oafish but ineffectual blowhard that would become the bedrock of radio and TV family comedy for, well, forever. His patient wife Min is understood as the quiet “brains of the family” as well as its heart. Life of Riley, The Honeymooners, The Jeffersons (and pick any 2000s famcom) rode the same formula. Which is to say that America has been laughing about the middle and working class father figure pretty much since they were invented. But the formula really seems to have taken shape in the comic strips of the 10s and 20s.

Nemo in Dystopia Land: The Man Who Owned Mars (1910)

Between April 24 and Aug 23 1910 Winsor McCay sent Nemo and Flip to Mars, making for one of the longest and most politically pointed of the Slumberland adventures. Mars was a dystopian vision of cement canyons of urban overgrowth, faceless workers rushing to their jobs in stifling clots of bodies or scooting around the unappealing cityscape in spherical flying cars. Running this overbearing urban machine is a capitalist nightmare in which everything, from air to words, come at a cost. “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Try to Enter Here Without the Price” reads an archway to the city.

Mars and even its most basic elements were under the sole proprietorship of one B. Gosh and Co. He owned and resold the basic elements of discourse and survival. Clearly a satirical mash-up of the Gilded Age monopolist and corrupt political boss, “He does certainly love money,” Nemo says. And clearly McCay, after all a newspaperman and political cartoonist, is building a critique of emerging consumerism, a growing class divide, and exploited labor in crafting B. Gosh and Co.’s Martian realm. Because words are literally for sale, we are told, “You see only people who have money can talk. Unless you buy them you cannot use them.”

McCay’s dystopia takes to satiric excess the key trends of early 20th Century America, consumer capitalism, monopoly and centralized control and urban scale. While he did thousands of pointed editorial cartoons in other pages of the newspaper, the Mars episode is one of the few instances where you catch the artist making an extended satiric vision of America’s turn-of the-century “progress” in his otherwise fantastic Little Nemo opus.

But here, McCay deploys his artistic genius to illustrating the sense of suffocation, anonymity, despair of among a people oppressed rather than liberated by modern “progress.” The caverns of Mars skyscrapers are so tall that sunlight needs to be shipped in. Workers are punished for trying to get to genuine sunlight and not allowed to cheer during sporting events. B. Gosh himself is a robber baron in the classic mold. We rarely see Gosh himself during these months on Mars. We see the dystopia narrated through his assistant, with Gosh himself occasionally barking in commands. When rebellious pirates kidnap Nemo, Gosh defeats and captures them. But Gosh’s assistant admits the boss will most likely turn the rebel chief into a personal advisor. “Old Gosh is a robber himself or he’d not own everything,” his assistant tells Nemo. 

This is a remarkably insightful episode in McCay’s Nemo run, and it reminds us how this milestone of wild fantasy and surrealism got much of its impact from the way McCay manipulated and exagerrated the experience of a rapidly changing 20th Century America. The Progressive Era was one in which Americans were imagining both light and dark results from “progress.” One of the best selling novels of the late 19th Century had been Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which imagined a utopian socialist future. But just prior to McCay’s Mars sojourn, we saw a number of dystopian rejoinders. authors like Jack London (The Iron Heel, 1907) and Hugh Benson (Lord of the World, 1908) as well as E.M. Forster (The Machine Stops, 1909). They warned of a future where aggregated power corrupted governments and corporations and technology created alienation. The Marie episode of Little Nemo in Slumberland not only fits within this dystopian mode but enhances it in ways only the comic arts can. McCay visualizes the anonymity and dehumanization of the crowd just as effectively as other comics artists of the day were trying to humanize the urban “masses.”

Perhaps I become tiresome, but one of the themes of this blog and my take on the cultural history of the comic strips is that this medium brought to a rapidly changing 20th Century America unique perspectives on the experience of social change. The best and most popular of these artists were in conversation both with their readers and with their times in ways that were unavailable to the other great mass media of radio, film and TV.

The entire run of Nemo on Mars is reprinted below. Pardon any long load times but I wanted to preserve the resolution so readers could zoom for detail.

Between April 24 and Aug 23 1910 Winsor McCay sent Nemo and Flip to Mars, making for one of the longest and most politically pointed of the Slumberland adventures. Mars was a dystopian vision of cement canyons of urban overgrowth, faceless workers scurrying to work or scooting around the unappealing cityscape in spherical flying cars. This is McCay’s consumer dystopia. “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Try to Enter Here Without the Price” reads an archway to the city.

Mars and even its most basic elements were under the sole proprietorship of one B. Gosh and Co. He owned and resold the air and even the words. Clearly a send-up of the turn of the century monopolist, “He does certainly love money,” Nemo says. And clearly McCay has emerging consumerism, a growing class divide, and exploited labor in mind in B. Gosh and Co.’s Martian realm. Because words are literally for sale, they are told, “You see only people who have money can talk. Unless you buy them you cannot use them.”

McCay’s dystopia brings emergent consumerism, monopoly control and urbanism to satiric excess, one of the few instances when you catch the artist making an extended satiric vision of America’s turn-of the-century “progress.” The caverns of Mars skyscrapers are so tall that sunlight needs to be shipped in. Workers are punished for trying to get to genuine sunlight and not allowed to cheer during sporting events. B. Gosh himself is a robber baron in the classic mold. We rarely see Gosh himself during these months on Mars. We see the dystopia narrated through his assistant, with Gosh himself occasionally barking in commands. When rebellious pirates kidnap Nemo, Gosh defats and captures them. But Gosh’s assistant admits the boss will most likely turn the rebel chief into a personal advisor. “Old Gosh is a robber himself or he’d not own everything,” his assistant tells Nemo. 

Dodging the Draft With Mutt and Jeff

When Woodrow Wilson and Congress formally declared war on Germany in 1917, many Americans remained lukewarm on involvement. Volunteers for getting gassed and shot in the muddy trenches of the French front fell far short of goals. More persuasion was needed. And so Congress invoked the draft with the Selective Service Act that men to register for a draft lottery. Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff registered continued ambivalence in this Jan. 21, 1918 strip in which both characters muse on draft exemption strategies. For Jeff this involves reuniting with his estranged wife.

This is a great example of what critic Gilbert Seldes meant when he cited the unique grittiness of the comic strip. The rest of America is gearing up a massive propaganda machine to whip up patriotic fervor for a dubious venture. In the world of Mutt and Jeff, however, self-interested scheming, the stuff of humanity, is a given. At their best, newspaper comics offered counterpoints to all of the news that preceded them in the daily newspaper simply by localizing and personalizing the political and civic coverage in the rest of the news.

This strip is scanned from Fisher’s original art. More on Mutt and Jeff’s first meeting here.

Kat and Mouse: Herriman’s Creative Absurdism

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.