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.  

McManus’s One Joke, Deftly Told

Comic disharmony between Jiggs and Maggie over their social climb was the central joke of George McManus’s Bringing Up Father for over four decades. For all of McManus’s fine sense of humor, he banged that one note across four panels six days a week and a full page every Sunday. To be sure, he layered in nuances of class and generational conflict. Jiggs was a hod carrier who struck it rich, never adjusted to his own ascent, and clashed with wife Maggie and daughter’s ambitions to join the social elite. The dynamic was rich with potential and embodied the experience of millions of American emigrees moving into the modern middle class. But many of the daily strips tediously replayed Jiggs’s sneaking out to his former watering hole Dinty Moore’s, embarrassing his family with etiquette transgressions or ducking Maggie’s thrown dishes. These were conventions that American newspaper readers enjoyed hearing for a handful of panels and 30 seconds a day over its 87-year run. McManus, however, was especially adept at maintaining reader interest in the familiar with his mastery of visual style, panel sequencing and timing.

The strip above from Feb. 2, 1928 is a good example of McManus executing the old joke in fresh ways. That first panel, with Jiggs characterizing the happy newlywed as a “freak,” could stand alone as a one panel wry gag. McManus was especially good at packing several punch lines into a single daily. Over years and years of daily encounters, readers come to know the sensibilities of their favorite comic characters so well that a simple snide retort recalls a history of suffering. Indeed, McManus illustrates in each frame the comic contrast between this righteous, prideful romantic young modern and the slouching, marriage-weary Jiggs. The banter across the four panels creates an engaging verbal ping pong call and response between self-satisfied youth and beaten, knowing experience. Through posture and gesture McManus aligns the newlywed’s romance with a preening, effete steadfastness. Jiggs, in contrast, is that wonderfully plodding, leaning mass of disbelief.

And it is that gorgeous McManus visual signature that always keeps a Bringing Up Father daily interesting. Somewhere between Art Nouveau and Deco, his thin, uncannily even line loves peerless curves and ruler-straight parallels and squares for shading effect. It is at once otherworldly but somehow human, a big foot style executed with geometric precision. And the artist was endlessly inventive and varied in using his panel structure to offer different perspectives and angles one the unfolding scene. He was masterful at using sillhouette panels to yank us into a different view of the characters and their banter. And he frequently livened up his interior scenes with wall paintings that he animated with scenes that shifted from panel to panel. McManus’s visual signature channeled the look and feel of opulent, machine-age modernity, but he deployed that style ironically, to depict his characters’ discomfort and ill-fit with that modern world…and ambivalence with their own ambitions.

The popularity of Bringing Up Father’s very modern American story made it one of the most reprinted comics of its day. The strip above is taken from the 14th volume in Cupples & Leon’s regular reprints of the title. In his forward to this volume,McManus kids his publisher about the 4,000,000 copies sold of the previous 13 books. “They’ve got Rolls-Royce cars and they eat caviare and terrapin whenever they feel like it. I, the poor author of all this junk, have to stick to corned beef and cabbage.”

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.

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.

Premiere Panel: Who’s That Stowaway?

October 2, 1955 saw the first Sunday entry for a strip that had been running all week from the Chicago Tribune syndicate. Written by Gus Edson, who also had taken over legendary strip The Gumps, and drawn by former comic book cover artist Irwin Haden, Dondi follows the adventures of of a refugee orphaned by WWII.