Great Moments: Ring Lardner’s “You Know Me, Al” Launches

American humorist, sportswriter, magazine columnist Ring Lardner had already been writing the “You Know Me, Al” series of humor pieces for The Saturday Evening Post since 1914 when a comic strip version launched in 1922. The format was epistolary, ongoing letters that bush league pitcher Jack Keefe wrote to his friend Al back in his old small town. Keefe is a rube in the city, often clueless in the face of urban pretensions and jaded attitudes. 

Keefe is dropped into the real life Chicago White Sox organization, called up from the minors as the team was struggling back from the infamous Black Sox scandal of the previous decade. Real life owner Charles Comiskey is off stage but forever keeping Keefe in his place. Larder makes reference to a host of actual sports figures and rivalries throughout the strip, but baseball play itself is only occasionally depicted.

The basic action of the strips are Keefer’s everyday interactions with the women who often pursue him, sportswriters who cover him, and team owner Comiskey. The humor of the strip came from Jack’s mildly inflated sense of his own talent and attractiveness.

The country vs. city meme had been central to American comic strips since its earliest years. The transformation of American society and culture from an agrarian, rural sensibility to an urban, industrial one was still echoing throughout mass media and literature in the American 20s. More so than most cartoonists, who tended to lionize the plain spoken, morally upright mythology of small town America, Lardner poked fun at Keefer’s naïveté both to the world and to himself. He is forever fooled or easily outsmarted by city ladies, competing suitors and Comiskey. Keefe goes into the main office pumped up to demand a $500 advance, quickly retreats to $50 and then leaves satisfied when told to come back for his “advance” on pay day. 

The strip continuities were outlined by Lardner, who was overworked at the time with magazine articles, columns, and even dramas bearing his name. The artwork was done by popular sports illustrator Dick Dorgan, who lived near Lardner in the New York suburbs and had been illustrating Lardner books and columns for years. Dorgan was also brother to more famous cartoonist TAD. After a few years, Lardner stopped writing for the strip, though it retained his name for a while.

I find Dorgan’s drawing style attractive in its looseness. The lines seem ready to fall apart at any moment, and yet they communicate character more through posture than expression. He keeps most frames visually interesting by working with angles, body leanings, competing head hangs and positions. In some of the best strips it feels as if there is a storyline apparent just in body attitudes. Perhaps this is the attribute of a good sports illustrator, always sensitive to the physicality of character, momentum, stance.

Top 2019 Books: #1 All Hail The Screwballs

From Gene Ahern’s”The Squirrel Cage” 1936

#1 Screwball: The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny, by Paul Tumey. IDW/LOAC, $59.99

In my mind, this is the most important contribution to comic strip history published this year. Tumey’s excellent research validates and revives a dominant style of comics of the first four decades of the medium’s history that may seem shallow, silly or just unfunny to modern sensibilities. The imaginative verve is timeless, however. This book fills a real void in our historical sense of comic strips and leads to important questions about how the medium related to the times.

Nonsense, slapstick, harmless anarchy formed a kind of lightly transgressive response to modern times in both early comics and film. But even if we don’t quite get the humor anymore, the antic visual energy of overlooked figures like Walter R. Bradford, Eugene Zimmerman and Clare Dwiggins is irresistible. Tumey takes a biographical approach to the screwball style, highlighting fifteen artists. But along the way he also references scores of others to create a rich overview of a lost style of popular art. 

Top 2019 Books: #2 Harrison “Peter Rabbit” Cady Gets His Moment

#3 Madness in Crowds: The Teeming Mind of Harrison Cady (Beehive Books, $100)

Harrison Cady (1877-1970) may be the most prolific magazine illustrator you never heard of…until now. But his signature crowd scenes and nature fantasies were found in the pages of LIFE (where he was a staff illustrator) as well as Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, among many others, across seven decades. He was also known for his progressive politics, children’s book images and long-running Peter Rabbit comic strip. The small publisher Beehive has nobly revived this wonderfully imaginative mind in one of the most beautifully designed and printed books of the year. Underground comics artist and publisher Denis Kitchen provides an appreciation. But just fall into these thick pages of crisp, oversized images that Beehive has produced. This is what bookmaking is all about, where design enriches substance. You just want to hug it. 

In his magazine and book work Cady was renowned for his detailed, teeming crowd scenes. These enormous tableaux recall Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley in a couple of respects. Cady shared Outcault’s vision of of the modern crowd as a collection of discrete interpersonal worlds. But he also flattens perspective to give the comic audience a privileged, unnatural view of the social scene.