City Visions: The Hurry Up New Yorker

The modern (circa 1910s) middle-class New Yorker pushing arrogantly through family, workers, pedestrians, crowds, even his or her own children – is the simple trope driving Maurice Ketten’s 1906 month-long run of Hurry Up New Yorker in the New York World. Ketten projects this trait onto a range of characters, male and female, across the brief run, but reiterates a core hypocrisy as the central gag. The final panel sees the harried and busy urbanite suddenly finding the time to watch a street fight, monitor a football score, gossip with a friend, watch a fire.

The basic insight about Hurryupism is as relevant today as it was then – the pomposity (and hypocrisy) of the urban striver and using the appearance of busyness as a bit of ambition-signaling. It is the kind of personality tic that comics have always been especially good at satirizing.

But it is Ketten’s visual style that makes this series so entrancing. His rubber-legged characters, his even, thin art nouveau line, the forward bends and slopes of his figures all embody the motion, momentum, sleek modernity of the city itself. The visual style is so expressive of a certain modern sensibility itself.

The kinetic energy of his style and its urban expressiveness is clear in the way it courses across the half-page layout. What a lovely use of arcs across forward-moving figures. check out the way he uses a clutter of bent legs to depict a clot of humans at the train car door. Or the way the arcs of the rushing businessman is echoed in the two men he bumps during his heedless rush. And I love the elastic legs of the startled horse in the following panel. Ketten typifies what I consider one of the core appeals of the comic strip in its first two decades; so many of its artists caricatured the new city experience in ways that helped map out that unfamiliar experience for many Americans. They offered ways of seeing and making sense of that environment.

It is not surprising then that Maurice Ketten was a pseudonym for Florentine emigre Propser Fiorini who was more than familiar with the modernist art styles he echoes here. Fiorini studied art at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, France. Coming to the U.S. around 1906, according to Lambiek’s index of comic arts, he started experimenting with a range of comic ideas for Pulitzer’s New York World and would eventually become better known for the long running Can You Beat It? (1907-1934).

And Ketten/Fiorini’s understanding of modern art styles was made clear in a clever one-panel he did during the 1910s lampooning European art movements.

The Hurry Up New Yorker is one of the many fleeting experiments in comic arts in this first decade of the form, but it brings some fresh perspectives on the urban and personality tropes that characterized so much of early comics. Like many strips in this second decade of the form, it is a single joke repeated regularly. The most popular strips of the day riffed on a weekly or daily basis on a single gag: the Katzenjammers’ prankishness, Happy Hooligan’s well-meaning haplessness, Mr. Jack’s infidelity, Buster Brown’s impishness, Sammy’s sneeze.

In this case, however, Ketten’s strip addresses two of the ways comics reflected on modern culture and change – the city and individual character. As I have argued in other posts about Walt McDougall and his city visions, R. F. Outcault and The Yellow Kid, and Winsor McCay’s use of the urban environment of the day, the fabulous popularity of the comic strip lay in part in its unique power to interpret the experience of the new urban setting. Likewise, early strip artists were preoccupied with deciphering the social types that comprised the city crowd. And so we see so many strips that focused on specific types, personal foibles, obsessions, behavioral tics. forgetfulness, sneezing, infidelity, frugality, braggarts, grumps, henpecked husbands fueled many of these one-gag strip ideas.

Props to the indispensible Barnacle Press site for collecting the Hurry Up New Yorker strips. You can see more of the run here.

Walt McDougall’s City – The Rube’s-Eye View

It is a shame that Walt McDougall has been overlooked by most comic strip history, because he left a lot of great material behind. While accounts differ over who originated different formats, everyone agrees he was among the first modern political cartoonists for the weekly humor magazines of the 1880’s and 90’s. He was among the first to create Sunday newspaper comic images in color. He visualized L. Frank Baum’s “Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of OZ” and penned “Peck’s Bad Boy.” newspaper series. And he was among the first syndicated cartoonists. His autobiography This Is The Life was one of the first lengthy chronicles of the early days of cartoon art as told by a practitioner.

But as I mentioned in my last post on one of my favorite McDougall panels, “Familiar Sights of a Great City – No. 1 The Cop Is Coming,” he was one of many early comic artists to take the new city experience as his subject, “Life in the City as the Countryman Pictures It” makes the country vs. city disjunction explicit.

Here he brings to life the “Countryman’s” caricature of city life. This one rich and very busy tableau serves up many of the age’s fears about the new city environment, and many of them have to do with deception, con games, wealth. Notice the many window signs for mail order houses and by-mail courses, alluding to many such come-ons most Americans knew from the classified ads in the backs of national magazines and local newspapers. At each corner of the panel we see rural folk as our point of identification, wary of the city’s seductions. The streets are literally paved in cash. The street sweeper complains about having to clean up the money. The loca bank is transferring moneybags down a Chouteau through the window. And Mssrs. Rockefeller and Morgan carry their own valises of “Cash” down the left sidewalk. McDougall satirizes the velocity of urban build-out and industry in the Waterstock Bldg that is under construction but advertises rooms ready today.

Starting with the multi-layered crowd-scapes of R.F. Outcault’s “Hogan’s Alley” the comic arts were uniquely positioned to depict the sensations of modern urban life. The full page could freeze the cityscape and let the eye travel across its multiple planes of disconnected action, dialogue and relationships. Film was good at depicting the crowd as a throng – an undifferentiated force. Artists like Outcault, McDougall and later Harrison Cady and Harvey Kurtzman instead used the large panel as a way to find order and sense, or at least meaning, in what otherwise seems like chaos when in motion.

In one sense artists of this crowd style both interpret the new masses and instruct us in how to view the urban world. These images force our eye into the the detail of the crowd, to ferret out the little stories, miniature satires, little in-joke details. They are giving us a powerful vision of how not to see the crowd as a crowd but as a glorious and exciting tableau of many small worlds all somehow going in the same direction.

Also interesting to me is how the image is about subjectivity itself. McDougall is bringing to life a specific fantasy of the new city, using the comic page to dramatize the way a particular part of America caricatures another.

Stereotyping The New American City

New York World staff cartoonist Dan McCarthy’s 1898 “The American Sky-Scraper Is a Modern Tower of Babel” is a trove of tropes that characterizes so much of the first decade of American newspaper comics. Like R.F. Outcault and Walt McDougall, McCarthy uses that massive Sunday newspaper page to draw a tableaux caricature of the cityscape, the new and rapidly changing environment the World readers experience each day.  

Some of the most talented and ambitious early newspaper cartoonists used the full page tableau format to capture the energy of the city. Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley was the first to use the format to depict the city scape, which is to say it was an interpretation of that new experience. Walt McDougall was another fan of the tableau to depict social landscapes, including his magnificent “Life in the City as the Countryman Sees It.”  Comic artists seemed to absorb the physical energy of turn-of-the century America and direct and shape it into popular art. Just as the slapstick, chases and fight scenes of early film were aesthetic conventions that channeled the antic energies of modern urban progress, mechanization and rapid change, so too did modern preoccupations with motion, energy, cause and effect, the urban experience shape the aesthetics of early comic art. 

Dan McCarthy 1898. McCarthy was a well-regarded caricaturist for the humor weeklies and eventually for the World. He founded a caricature school but died in the first decade of the 20th Century in his 50s. His “The American Sky-Scraper is a Modern Tower of Babel” is a caricature of urban progress seen through the lend of ethnic diversity. The panoply of so called “hyphenated American” – Italian-, Irish-, Chinese-, Eastern European-, and African-Americans – are all stereotyped here at the same time they are acknowledged as the builders of the new city. 

You can spend hours dissecting McCarthy’s depictions of individual ethnic groups here, and there are some predictable bigotries. They are mainly distinguished by their common visual stereotypes of the day. Italians with triangular hats and handlebar mustaches. Irish with chin beards and simian face. Chinese figures with yellow long shirts and thin braided pony tails. Eastern Europeans/Jews with full beards, hats and high boots. The Irish characters often seem to be ready for a fight. One African-American sports primitive dress. And for some reason the Chinese-American figures are on the receiving end of deliberate violence. But generally, this “Tower of Babel” is a tableaux of chaos, slapstick mishaps all in service of a mechanically sophisticated scientific wonder. The tension between the chaotic energy and play of McCarthy’s workers and the rigid symmetry of the structure they are building is of course the “joke” here.

But McCarthy’s cross section of both the building itself and the New York population generally embodies the ambivalence of WASP America towards the massive waves of emigration during this era.

In other depictions of emigration, Americans seemed to greet emigrates as newcomers and fledgling Americans. It was generally acknowledged that a fast-growing and internationally ambitious America needed this infusion of cheap labor to fuel its growth. And so the stereotyping was not of the most vicious and dehumanizing sort we find elsewhere in American culture. Here it is more patronizing and imperialistic. The American middle class seemed to recognize that immigration was key to American ambitions, but patronizing stereotyping kept these emigres at a distance and always inferior.  

Bending the City – McCay’s Urban Dreams

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.

McDougall’s City Vision

The city was among the pressing new realities facing Americans at the turn of the 20th Century, and the comics medium was uniquely equipped to express sensations around a novel environment. Walt McDougall (1858-1938) was among the pioneers of American cartooning who took special interest in this historic shift. His “Familiar Sights of a Great City – No. 1 The Cop Is Coming” (New York Journal, Sunday, Jan. 9, 1898) is among my favorite one-offs of the era.

Much like R.F Outcault’s visions of urban chaotic action in The Yellow Kid that I commented about earlier, McDougall signifies city life with images of antic physical energy but a highly individuate view of that crowd. Visually, this frantic flight of street vendors (presumably unlicensed) from a strolling cop is a delicious explosion. The mere presence of a virtually inert cop in the far background produces this lurch into the foreground of scurrying limbs and panicked visages.

McDougall’s cartoon stylings are so much more sophisticated than many of his peers here. The cantilevered limbs of all his fleeing vendors are all frozen perfectly at the apogee of their panic. He has a sharp sense of each character’s weight and stance, momentum and facial expression. All of these qualities foreshadow in my mind post-WWII master Jack Davis in particular. There is some wonderful detail in here as well, like the shadows cast by wagon wheels and fruit. The one newspaper reader in the right foreground is an oblivious counterpoint to the onrush, which only enhances the sense of movement and fear in the rest of the crowd.

McDougall’s reading of the city here is much like Outcault’s in that he never lets the crowd be a “crowd.” He personalizes the cityscape. It is a collection of highly distinct individuals rather than the crowd as faceless horde. The emerging medium of film, however, would soon reinterpret the crowd more as a mass.

That said, McDougall exercises ethnic stereotyping as broadly as his comrades often did in newspaper comics of the day. I presume that the handlebar mustaches, beards, fruit, figs and statuettes signify an early Italian-American neighborhood. The great migration of Italians to the US spanned 1880 to 1924 and settled principally in Manhattan, where they often occupied street vendor and dayworker jobs.

I like this image because it is a great example of the uniqueness of comic art in America. Of course many formal critics wrote extensively about the city, pro and con. Their skyscraping buildings, mass transport and increasingly organized city governments were considered icons of progress, the triumph of industry, the genius of science. At the same time angst over crime, disease, xenophobic responses to emigrees, dislocation from nature all proliferated. But illustration, especially comics that took the crowd and the skyscraper as its subject, could express and interpret the sensations of urban life. The cultural role of modern visual media like comics and film often were to help make sense of these feelings with nuance that eludes written prose.