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.

Happy Halloween From Frank King and Bobby Make-Believe – 1919

By title alone Frank King’s Bobby Make-Believe strip is compared to Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo. But King Brought to the strip richer and subtler understanding of the inner life of children than McCay. And yet, like McCay, King loved to play with nature and landscape, bringing out their surreal potential. But this strip foreshadows the gentle sensitivity to everyday emotional reality King was about to bring to Gasoline Alley.

Premiere Panel: Gasoline Alley Meets Skeezix

On Feb. 14, 1921 the orphan who came to be known as Skeezix landed on Walt Wallet’s doorstep, forever changing the trajectory of the Gasoline Alley comic strip and making it a singular American work of art. Until then, Walt had been the main character in a small tribe of neighborhood fellas who loved to tinker with cars (hence “Gasoline Alley”) and trade quips and jibes. Male bonding, circa 1919. With the introduction of Skeezix, however, the strip became a uniquely introspective saga of everyday human connections. Unlike anything else on a comics page that included Thimble Theatre, The Gumps, Mr. and Mrs., Moon Mullins, Little Orphan Annie and Wash Tubes and Captain Easy, Gasoline Alley explored the progression of generations, community dynamics and values, the emotional cadence of everyday human interaction in a granular, gentle way.

Gasoline Alley is best known for being the only major American strip that let its characters age and even pass away. By the 1930s, Skeezix would hit early adolescence, and the strip became one of the first works of pop culture to focus on this modern phenomenon of the “teenager.” Many of the main first generation characters in this male bonding epic would die, usually quietly and off stage, several decades after the strip launched.

Authored by Frank King, Gasoline Alley was a genuinely homespun comic strip. While many American cartoonists had their roots in the Midwest and small towns, King brought that personal experience to the center of the strip. He patterned many of the characters after friends and acquaintances. Walt was based on a childhood friend. Skeezix’s growth paralleled King’s own son, including those rough teen years. But more than anything else, King based his strip on the language, rhythms and emotions of everyday exchanges. As Jeet Heer points out in his excellent introductions to the ongoing reprints of the strip, Gasoline Alley was not a gag strip or a soap opera, nor was it slapstick or satire. Strips rarely ended with a punchline or a cliff hanger. The four daily panels typically added perhaps a little insight into a character, advanced a plot line just a smidge, or showed characters interacting in a small way that expressed the depth of their connection with each other. The joys of the strip were cumulative, an extended immersion in the little interactions and feelings of a tightly knit cluster of friends and family, people who knew one another well and forever.

Which is to say that no small collection of reprinted strips here can really capture the unremarkable remarkableness of Gasoline Alley. I find that extended immersion is King’s world is truly compelling but takes days and weeks of persistent exposure. As Heer says, “Gasoline Alley achieves its hold on its audience by being ruminative and cumulative.” It lets you peer into the nuances of family, immediate and extended and the subtle ways in which people know and appreciate one another. But the strip below, which marked the first anniversary Skeezix’s appearance, hints at the kind of emotional depth and intimacy King crafted here. As a single father for the first years of Skeezix’s life, Walt proved to be the prototypical sensitive male, that rare figure in popular culture of the nurturing man. It is a good example of how King was getting at aspects of modern American culture that were not accessible in other more compressed popular arts like film, novels or even the pulps. Gasoline Alley is the quintessential comic strip. It demonstrates more than any other strip how the medium can build worlds subtly, incrementally, and over the course of decades in four panels a day.

Barney Google: The Art of the Petty Schemer

Billy DeBeck described his own comic anti-hero as a “low-life” with a heart, but it took a few years from Barney Google’s introduction in 1919 for DeBeck to find his real character. Barney started as yet another henpecked husband, a servile schemer whose daily antics focused on outflanking his overbearing wife. From the start, however, DeBeck’s imagination veered towards outlandish solutions to everyday slights and oppression, At one point the early Barney plots to avoid his wife’s wrath by getting beat up to garner sympathy. Barney was DeBeck’s man on the margins, bouncing from job to job, always broke, forever buffeted by wife, bosses, circumstances or dumb bad luck.

As DeBeck came to understand his own character, Barney literally shrank in stature, from a tall but stooped supplicant to a figure half that original size, now more crushed than stooped, a compact underling of life whose famously oversized “google eyes” always seems to be looking up at other characters. With so little space between Barney’s nose, mouth, torso and legs, he looks like a crumpled ball of formerly human features, the visual embodiment of a man pressed down into a diminutive stature.

But the real heart of Barney Google comes out when he connects with Spark Plug, the horse that would win and lose countless races over the next decade. See above the first strip in 1922 introducing Sparky. In many ways, the horse replaced Barney’s wife as his love-hate interest. Barney raged whenever his nag lost a race but never could bring himself to stay mad for long. There was real romance here. It is not surprising that Spark Plug became a merchandising hit in the 1920s. One later comics historian compared the nag to Snoopy in the level of his fame.

But the coming of Spark Plug also literally raised the stakes for Barney’s conniving. Now he is on a larger stage, traversing the country with Sparky, plotting to get race entry fees, looking for shortcuts. And his fortunes rise and fall radically, from wealthy purses Sparky wins to big bets that come cup a cropper. And Barney starts looking the part, now donning a top hat and formal coat. He has evolved from petty existential haplessness to riding up and down the rollercoaster of American pluck and luck. Barney Google becomes both a celebration and satire of American ambition. He is always on the make, looking for the big chance, and a universe of pitiless institutions, authorities and chance bounce this compressed ball of a character up and down fortune’s wheel. DeBeck is working in a grand tradition of American comic archetypes and echoing some of the tropes that were driving the great slapstick silent clowns of the same decade. Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton also explored the marginal man, luckless but big-hearted and managing an absurd cosmos with clever survival skills.

And there was relentless scheming, DeBeck knew no bounds in dreaming up ways that Barney could make money, thwart rules, fool race officials, or just cheat to help Spark Plug win. In the strip above he gets Sparky a facelift in order to convince the race judges that his horse is a genuine three-year-old.

DeBeck’s plotting of Barney Google’s machinations to succeed were so convoluted that he became famous for recap strips that just reminded readers what his little schemer was up to. And it is this low-level conniving that is the beating heart of Barney Google. Barney is a hapless creature in the comic strip tradition of Happy Hooligan, Slim Jim, Mutt and Jeff, Boob McNutt, Boob Baxter and even Baron Bean. The lovable loser was a particular hero of the American comic strip. It begs so many questions about the role of this art form in Americans’ everyday lives. There was a special kind of social satire going on here, under cover of clever banter, situation comedy and screwball antics. At heart, many of the comic strip figures of the 1920s – Google, Andy Gump, Boob McNutt, Moon Mullins — were more victim than victor.