Napoleon: The Gentle Art of Everyday-ness

Clifford McBride’s portrait of the affable, accident-prone and corpulent Uncle Elby and his puckish oversized dog Napoleon is one of those great American comic strips that are about nothing. There is no adventure or much of an ongoing storyline to the Napoleon and Uncle Elby strip. Nor are there gags, verbal or physical, really. It is more a strip about everyday mishaps. Uncle Elby is proud of his new white suit, which an affectionate Napoleon meets at the the front door with muddy paws. Constructing a simple tent results in a tangled mess. Napoleon chases a fleeing rabbit, chicken,  cat or whatnot (it’s a frequent theme), only to be chased by his prey in the end. Elby mows over one of his dog’s hidden bones, which conks him on the bean. Elby gets out of his car to open the garage door only to have it slam shut before he can drive through.

No, really, the action in the Napoleon strip is that banal and trifling…relentlessly…and apparently by design.

Launching in 1932, the strip bore some similarity to Gasoline Alley in its lack of punch lines, tension, screwball, characterization or story. But King built his Alley into a social epic about interior worlds of feeling. McBride’s narrower ambitions for Napoleon turned on life’s little annoyances, accidents, incompetence and occasional poignance. It was for readers a daily reflection on life’s petty frustrations, little ironies, the comedy of everyday chaos.

As McBride suggests in his opening “Dear Reader” opening panel in 1932, he was self-consciously positioning the strip against the darker and suspenseful tone of the emerging adventure formats and popular hard-boiled favorites like Little Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy, which certainly were filled with “brickbats and misery.” In many ways he was fashioning a genteel counterweight both in tone and style to the rest of the comics pages of the 1930s.

The strip’s considerable charms came in McBride’s deft illustrative style, the staging and sequencing of the physical action, and a gentleness of spirit that earned its readers’ daily 20 seconds of attention. 

The strip is mostly a pantomime where mishaps of one kind or another unfold in a three or four panel sequence. Dialogue (usually Elby talking to himself or Napoleon) is rare. The art of the strip is in McBride’s comfortable illustrative style, a rough use of loose line and acute hatching,  a knack for panel sequencing and rhythm of movement. Elby falling in a lake feels funnier than it should because McBride’s panel progression relies on a touch of surprise. Whereas the screwball timing of Opper, Goldberg or Gross lets us enjoy an obvious disaster unfold in gleeful animation panel by panel, McBride’s pay-off panel is usually an oversized tableaux of an unexpected outcome. This is physical humor but of a more contained, less socially subversive sort than the great screwballism.

McBride was a newspaper cartoonist who did a fair amount of magazine illustration, and that is the aesthetic of Napoleon. Visually, Napoleon invokes the style and spirit of book illustration. The cartoonish realism feels like the familiar plates accompanying a Mark Twain Tom Sawyer or Puddnhead Wilson volume or the line art from a folksy Saturday Evening Post yarn. The outlines are sketchy and imprecise, embodying a winsome, light humor that is the heart of this strip. Napoleon himself is a mass of stray lines indicating messy fur, with his usually expressive eyes poking through for effect. McBride doesn’t try to render naturalistically the surface of water but capture the drama of the splash as Elby inevitably meets his wet fate.

McBride’s hatching is sublime yet singular. His  greys and shadows are built with precise, straight, tightly packed lines. There is a relaxed but deliberate, meticulous care to this style, a visual signature of controlled whimsy. 

Much of McBride’s action focuses on faces, reactions of exasperation, frustration, bewilderment, anger, panic that combine with the panel pace to effect the strip’s gentle humor of familiarity. The world of Napoleon is wonderfully self-contained. It provides bucolic order, a mild comic disruption, and often builds in an astonished response. 

McBride passed in 1951, but the strip continued for another 9 years. His widow penned the scenarios and one of McBride’s longtime assistants continued drawing. Subsequent giant dog characters lie Marmaduke, Clifford and Dennis the Menace’s Ruff would take the trope in more antic, cartoonish directions. But McBride’s approach was singular in the ongoing relationship between the hapless Uncle Elby and his indispensable companion.

Somewhere beneath the surface of the daily, often bland scenarios, lurked a richer story about the complex mixed emotions within love itself. Napoleon often is the source of Uncle Elby’s woes, pratfalls and even costly destruction. But the interdependence of the two comes through cumulatively over the many months and years of daily reading. Elby is after all an affable but unattractive bachelor, for whom the devoted Napoleon serves as surrogate wife/child/family. In some ways that commingling of affection and frustration in this relationship is foreshadowed in the ironic remove McBride himself establishes as the strips voice in his unique inaugural panel that introduced the strip. The self-deprecating apology for adding to the pile of existing comics, the whining about having to draw it daily, and his insistence that “I hate lettering” in an opening panel that is all words – telegraph the light-hearted ambivalence beneath enduring relationships that readers would revisit daily across three decades.

The Timid Soul Toys With Fascism

This 1937 vision of fascism’s psychological appeal to feelings of personal disempowerment is eerily relevant to the current ethos. H.T. Webster’s Casper Milquetoast (The Timid Soul) responds to newspaper images of Italy’s Benito Mussolini and Germany’s Adolph Hitler with his own fantasy of assertiveness. Webster is perceptive enough to understand in this strip how the personal and political entwine around identity. And through Casper he renders it as a will to power that is at once frightening but also silly and sad.

But more than the prescience and enduring relevance of Webster’s 1937 strip, this sequence is a great example of the special powers of the cartoon arts. They can show, not just tell, bring greater depth and impact to an insight through sequential illustration than we would get from the description of language alone. He shows us panel by panel the process of Casper responding to imagery and internalizing it into self-reflection – literally, in front of a mirror – mimicking the despot’s power. And then he twists it into satire: the fantasy of power congratulating itself by terrorizing an unsuspecting cat. Psychologists and political scientists no doubt have filled reams of analysis about how fascism appeals to popular feelings of alienation and disempowerment. But somehow Webster brings it to life in a unique and impactful way here.

The beloved H.T. Webster (1885-1952) drew a range of political and slice of life cartoons across the 20s and 30s. Generally he was known for gentle satires of middle class life and nostalgic takes on bygone boyhood. His most famous contribution to the daily funnies (and American language) was The Timid Soul, which focused on the beleaguered and unassertive Casper Milquetoast who struggled with his own timidity in the face of an increasingly brash, intrusive America. In fact, Casper’s name entered into the language as the familiar descriptor of bland and weak. Casper’s attempts to break out of his own wimpy response to the world is the source of The Timid Soul’s light comedy.

Can This Villain Destroy Dick Tracy?

Foreshadowing some of the more colorful arch-villains in the 40s and beyond, Dick Tracy’s early 1933 encounter with Stooge Viller was a standout as Chester Gould developed his style and focus. Stooge is imported to the city by a broken crime ring to discredit the now-famous gangbuster Dick Tracy. He is a master pickpocket and a bit of an effete dandy. He successfully frames Tracy and even causes Tess Trueheart to fall out with the love of her life.

Here we get our introduction to Stooge.

Stooge plants counterfeit bills on Tracy, who eventually is confronted and accused.

Our hero feels the world collapsing around him and descends into the bane of masculine mythos – self-doubt.

By 1933, Chester Gould ‘s overall style is gelling around those signature thick lines and dense bodies, those wonderful masses of black. But he is also experimenting with evocative design ideas. Here Dick’s emotional nadir, Tess Trueheart’s rejection, is depicted as a full-on silhouette strip.

And adding insult to male ego injury, Stooge moves in on the disillusioned Tess. In the strip’s early years especially, Gould deployed a range of female stereotyping on poor Tess. Often flighty or naive, she was a gender foil for the dripping masculinity of Dick Tracy. As we covered in an earlier post, neither Gould nor his avatar Tracy were progressive feminists by any means.

While Gould’s style and design sense evolved mightily throughout the 30s, and his imagination just got zanier, one thing never evolved – his reliance on unlikely plot contrivances. Viller’s scheme and Tracy’s innocence are revealed to Tess when she finds a draft of Stooge’s wire to Eastern gangsters that conveniently narrates his entire plot against her estranged boyfriend.

When Tess ends up getting shot in the course of her misadventure with Stooge, we have to wonder if this is Gould himself expressing some resentment towards her loss of faith in Dick. The panel in which she declares herself a fool is a wonderful composition that frames her frail, swooning, naive femininity against the burly expanse of the Chief’s grimace, perhaps voicing Gould’s own disappointment in her.

When Dick and Tess do finally reunite and reconcile, Gould exercises what would become a signature move for him, a radical juxtaposition of mood and action from one panel to the next. Gould had a talent for using the panel structure to jar the reader, to interrupt a mood in one panel with a surprising twist in the next. In this case a romantic interlude is upset by the capture Stooge inexplicably trying to slit his own throat.

It goes without saying that in a strip focused mainly on dramatizing the masculine prowess of his hero Chester Gould showed no understanding or sympathy for his female characters. Not surprisingly, he is equally inept even at drawing human intimacy. Tess and Dick’s kiss has all of the romance and finesse of a fender bender.

And yet we wee in the Stooge Viller episode Gould clearly expanding his palette and moving towards more stylized approach to depicting character and capturing mood and emotion especially through shadows and literally dimming the lights on scenes that try to dramatize deeper emotion.

Stooge Viller would be among a small handful of Tracy villains to recur over many years. He proves to be a deft nemesis in the detective’s early years. He is a clever schemer who seems smarter than the glorified thugs of the earliest strips. At Stooge’s hands, Tracy is put out to the physical and psychological wilderness. Stooge not only frames Tracy as a counterfeiter and gets this beloved cop drummed from the force, but he steals Tess’s affections. Tracy’s career, reputation and girl are taken from him all at once, a true trifecta of masculine humiliation. 

The hero of pulp adventure seemed compelled to enshrine masculinity by having it beaten down. In order to triumph, heroes must be bound, trapped, tortured, emasculated or simply ruined by villainy before emerging from humiliation to assert their power. This eccentric opera of masculinity in pop fiction has always led to weird homo-erotic depictions of S&M, bondage, dominatrix encounters, subjugation, and banishment of all sorts. The classic heroes of myth had to suffer taxing encounters with nature and monsters to complete their quest or rescue the land. But the peculiarly American style of pulp heroism often required male humiliation of some sort in order for our hero to assert the righteousness of his masculine power.

Gray Goes Dark: Survival of the Fightingest

By 1937, Harold Gray seemed to have fallen into an especially foul mood. It was several years into his nemesis F.D.R.’s “New Deal,” which Gray felt represented everything he and his “Little Orphan Annie” disdained: social uplift, misguided do-gooders, institutional authority. From the start, Gray was never shy about voicing his populist perspectives and what he saw as core agrarian values of self-reliance, individualism, and deep suspicion of government bureaucracy of all sorts. His chief scholar, Jeet Heer, has done a much better job than I can here outlining Gray’s vein of Populism and how it ran much deeper than knee-jerk reactionary conservatism. And I have argued in these posts how Gray’s cultural politics were grounded in familiar mid-western traditions and a tension between 19th Century values of “character” and 20th Century notions of “personality. But it is clear that in response to FDR and the popularity of the New Deal Gray got more radical and vocal about his views. And perhaps not coincidentally, the strip grew even darker in the later 1930s.

As Here argues in the introduction of the 7th volume of the Library of American Comics reprint series, Annie was always a gritty, street-smart tale, but Gray usually kept physical violence off-panel. Yet, as the strip approached its creative height in 1936-38, that violence started moving into frame. Heer argues that Gray likely was responding to world conflicts, a greater personal sense of mortality as well as competition from more action-oriented strips that dominated the 1930s. I think Gray may also just have been growing angrier and more resentful towards a culture from which he felt ever more alienated. Gray’s moral vision was always as as simple and plainspoken as his drawing style – venal villainy countered by saccharine sentimentality. But it is clear, Gray was getting darker and seeing the world in starker ways by 1936. In fact the lead-up to one of the most jarring bits of in-panel violence in Little Orphan Annie begins with a remarkable Sunday strip on Oct. 8, 1936 that maps the modern world as a perennial “jungle” of predators and good-hearted strivers. As Annie’s newfound friend and flower-seller Ginger, reflects, “But the rules are still jungle – the survival of the fightingest.”

In the coming weeks, Gray uses Ginger as his populist mouthpiece. Annie had always been a chatty strip to begin with, but in these months the moral bromides, punditry and snide asides crowded most panels. Gray clearly had a lot to get off of his chest…about the corruption of politicians and lawyers and their collusion with thugs…about the mixed motives of “uplifters”…about the productivity and generosity of earned wealth…the moral hazard of handouts and unearned wealth. Gray was not a simplistic or sentimental reactionary. He had relatively progressive racial views. And as he outlined through Ginger in these months, his sense of individualism was a principled rejection of the sociological generalizations he saw driving a lot of reformist uplift and welfare. His populist sociology rejects environment as determinative of behavior.

No one ever accused Harold Gray of subtlety. Annie was as much folk punditry as it was an adventure. But he was artful, albeit dogged, in creating opportunities for his avatars to voice another homily. A street fight triggers bromides on rising out of the “hard kindergarten” of the streets. Passersby making an offhanded comment on these city kids not getting a chance in life set up Ginger’s counter-argument about the dangers of unearned advantage. Meeting an old friend lets her reflect on the morality and generosity of earned wealth. And all of this in just three strips.

Gray’s wordiness can divert us from his considerable and evocative graphic skills. He visualizes his principles and arguments that are as clear and un-subtle as his ideology. The street scenes in the Oct. 26 strip above illustrate the teeming diversity, the danger, raw violence of the city as well as the individuality of the humanity he sees there. That third panel depicting the “rushing tide of life” expresses at once a suffocating crowdedness and individuation.

Gray’s visual voice was singular and somehow it succeeded in establishing his mixed view of humanity, society and the cosmos. His laudable human figures were usually solid, husky and well-planted. Annie herself has tree trunk legs that look and feel organically rooted in much the way his friend Chester Gould like to plant Dick Tracy in the frame. It is the visual embodiment of self-reliance and resilience. The infamous hollow eyes of Gray’s cast underscore how little he and many other daily cartoonists relied less on facial expression and more on words, composition and action in a frame to express feeling. Much like Frank King and Gasoline Alley, Annie visualized the plain spoken style of its creator.

While they were very different artists, to be sure, Gould, King and Gray had visual voices that helped define the worlds we were in for those three or four daily frames. That to me is one of the comic strips’ singular aesthetic qualities, to establish diverse and distinct fictional worlds through these signature styles. For Gray it took the shape of bulky, pillowy figures that lived in a 2D world of little forced perspective or even movement. Gray’s characteristic hatch work helped communicate a grimness to his worldview – the persistence of shadows. Arguably, he did not have the stylistic talent or range of many peers. King had a great sense of panel pacing and rhythm, a feel for place and landscapes, he used relentlessly. Gould leaned heavily on his penchant for muscular action, grotesque violence, forced perspective and those vast planes of inky blacks.

Gray flexed his style sparingly. But he was capable of great visual power. In the run up to the tragic violent death of flower lade Ginger, we get this gorgeous showcase of crosshatched planes, light-source, and cross-cut pace that feels like German Expressionist film.

The local gang of hoods target Ginger because she refuses to pay into their protection racket. Her graphic murder that comes days after the foreboding strip above is a rare instance of a Gray panel exploding in explicit violence.

It is probably best that Gray depicted violence so sparingly. He wasn’t very good at it. But this moment is of a piece with the months of the strip’s immersion in the modern city and its many musings on the modern “jungle.” And it embodied the emotional energy, perhaps even the anger and pessimism that seemed to drive what many comics historians regard as his creative peak in the storylines and characters in the last half of the 1930s.

Alley Oop: Off To A Flying Start

“Off to a Flying Start” is how V.T. Hamlin titled his introduction to the Alley Oop character and world in late 1932. And in fact Hamlin’s eponymous hero cries for help in the opening panel…only to be chased by the prehistoric dinosaurs of this fantastic “Bone Age.” For the next six or seven years, Hamlin’s art and story were at their best when his furry-crowned, thick-limbed everyman scurried at the center of screwball mayhem. We now have a great opportunity to review and reconsider Alley, as the small press Acoustic Learning recently launched reprint series of both Hamlin’s early adventures and later work by his successor Dave Graue.

My first impression diving into Alley Oop is Hamlin’s strong feel for set, background and character design Hamlin had from the beginning. Unlike Segar’s Thimble Theatre, Capp’s L’il Abner and certainly Gould’s Dick Tracy, Alley Oop doesn’t begin in a crude style that only finds its signature style over months and years. Hamlin goes into Alley Oop knowing he wanted to contrast fine-lined, simple but polished characters with detailed and accurate scenery and dinosaurs. Hamlin had a cultivated curiosity about prehistoric creatures in one of his many jobs as an illustrator in the Texas oil industry. He well knew the historical fantasty at the center of Alley Oop. The age of dinosaurs long preceded any human ancestors. But he was dedicated to drawing, naming and animating his Bone Age dinos as accurately as he could.

By contrast, his cast of cartoon humans, the males at least, are carefully built with a bit of the era’s deco minimalism. Oop, his rhyming buddy Foozy, Guz, the King of the Moos and the tribes of cave men are small of head, with enviable four-pack abs, and forearms and calves shaped like bowling pins. He builds his characters in order to animate them. Those bottom-heavy limbs become wonderful devices when fleeing, fighting or rioting. The action poses, freeze-frames of punches thrown and received, crowds of cave men imploding or exploding, all have an expressiveness that sits between cartoon abstraction and naturalism. This fine-lined, controlled art style is served very well in this reprint. The strips fully render Hamlin’s thin line shading of background flora and the dinosaurs.

Alley Oop is also one of those rare strips, along with Walt Kelly’s later Pogo, that renders the words as part of the art. From the strip’s first panel, Hamlin shows his distinct deco styling for characters shouting. They move from small to larger type sizes, megaphone-like, into the air. And Hamlin plays with bolding, differing type styles and sizes, words moving in and out of word baloons, to express tones, crowd murmerings, sound effects. In some ways he was bringing to his comic strip layers that mimiced the early days of the talking motion picture, still in its infancy when Oop appears in 1932/33.

And much like Segar’s approach to Popeye, even Gray’s Annie, Hamlin brings a populist sensibility to the strip. Conventional wisdom suggests that Alley Oop becomes more interesting and a genuine adventure strip in 1939 when he introduced a time travel device that brought Oop and girlfireind Ooola across major historical ages. But from the start, Oop is an everyman hero, good of heart, who is less of an adventurer than a victim of circumstance. He quickly becomes the unintentional antagonist to King Guz, the insecure and thin-skinned leader of the Moos. Guz envies Oop’s popularity when the cave man returns to the tribe astride his tamed pet dinosaur Dinny. Guz’s machinations to retain prestige and diminish Oop is the driving force of the strip’s first year. Oop fits neatly within the pantheon of Depression-era common many heroes. Prohibition, which didn’t end until the December 1933, and a deepening Depression had already undermined public trust in institutional authority, the purity and wisdom of legal and political institutions. Popular culture registered a generalized distaste for authority in everything from the romanticization of gangsters in the press to images of kings, politicians, policemen and bosses as either hapless or imperious. We usually come upon common men like Popeye, Tom Joad, Micky Mouse and Mr. Oop just trying to go about their business, only to become heroic in the face of the moral duplicity (or just stupidity).

As simple and familiar as these everyman heroes may seem, the idea of the inherently moral, simple and unpretentious “nature’s nobleman” runs deep and long in American culture, extending back to the tales of James Fennimore Cooper’s frontier hero Natty Bumppo and Jacksonian politics of the 1840s. American popular literature is filled with examples of the naturally ethical, American individualist asserting basic common sense and morality against both little human and big insitutional corruptions. Cast as he may be in the Bone Age, Oop was certainly in that tradition, one that had special valence to Depression-Era.