Pioneer Slapstick: A.B. Frost’s Poisoned Cat (1884)

A.B. Frost’s 1884 graphic album Stuff and Nonsense was one of the earliest book-length cartoon collection published in the U.S., and it proved to be a milestone in the evolution of the art. Jim Woodring argues that until this point, most American caricature tended to deal in lifeless, static stereotypes. “This collection laid the foundation of real American cartooning: frisky pen drawings of people and animals that exuded rough, warm, egalitarian humor,” he writes in the recent collection of T.S. Sullivant drawings. Woodring credits Frost with bringing character to American cartooning by using facial expression, movement, gesture and more to individuate what had been stiff social types in most drawing of the day.

Scanned here from the original Stuff and Nonsense is the first lengthy narrative in the 92-page collection, “The Fatal Mistake: A Tale of a Cat.” Each image is its own full page. The captions I have attached to each are A.B. Frost’s own, although in the original book they are found in the Table of Contents rather than beneath each image.

Frost was a regular in the humor weeklies of the 1880s and his influence on the first generation of newspaper cartoonists is apparent here. In just this sequence we can see previewed so many themes and visual tropes of the first decades of comic strips. The comic disruption of middle class stoicism and order with slapstick chaos was the centerpiece of comics. And it was expressed with the cartoonist’s fascination with cause and effect, the physics of exaggerated motion, the shocked response.

The first three reaction images to the poisoned cat seem like Frost exploring with increasing velocity both the shocked facial and physical impacts of the frantic cat. Keep in mind that motion and the art of freezing motion was very much in the air in the late 1870s and early 80s. Eadweard Muybridge had already started his seminal stop-motion studies of animals in motion that impacted both formal and cartoon arts. And while certainly there are precedents for caricatured pratfalls and slapstick in the pioneer Rodolphe Töpffer’s work, Frost’s superb rendering of extravagant cause and effect were helping establish a special cartoon physics that Opper, Outcault, MacDougal and others would further refine in the 90s and 00s.

Frost appears to be relishing the mayhem he is creating as he upends the familiar objects and cast of a common affluent household. This is an anarchic convention that many artists took up in the first five or ten years of the next century in middle class bad boys like Little Jimmy, the Katzenjammers and Buster Brown. And Frost is clearly conscious of his own experimentation. The final page in the selection above is entitled “Down the Cellar Stairs (A Study in High Perspective).” In the next-to-last page of the narrative (below) he brings us behind the charging cat to create a new point of view for the audience that also seems to put the viewer in motion as well. Clearly, he knew what he was doing, test driving the potential of caricature to render new effects.

And it all works so well because Frost is just such a polished caricaturist. The bend of the butler’s inhumanly lanky long legs, the slippers shooting from the toppling man in the library, the enormous bedsheets flailing behind the mumps patient are all so convincingly animated. And make no mistake; this is black humor, comic antics bracketed by an accidental poisoning and finally death. The most effective geniuses of cartoon art always have that ability to make the cartoonish still feel real and the real feel cartoonish.

My favorite sequence, however, must be the cat, dog and master in mutual terror erupting from the sewer. All three mouths seem to mimic each other. There is no cause and effect. They are both at once. And yet Frost uses the eyes of each figure to individuate and give each its own voice and character. A decade before the creation of the newspaper humor sections that would nurture a comics universe, A.B. Frost was setting down a comic grammar for this new art to follow.

Death Becomes You: Tracy Villains Meet Their Fitting End

Retribution was Chester Gould and Dick Tracy’s model for justice from the beginning. The strip started in 1931 literally as a revenge narrative. Standing over the murdered body of his fiancé Tess Trueheart’s father, civilian Tracy swears vengeance on the killers. He quickly joins the police force, but the themes of retribution and conviction by poetic justice remained a hallmark of the strip across four and a half decade run. From the beginning Chester Gould unapologetically crossed the lines of good taste. By the late 1930s in criminals like The Mole, B.B. Eyes, Flattop, Pruneface and the like, Gould started using outward disfigurement as expressive of inner villainy. And the level of explicit violence and even torture in Dick Tracy was unlike anything else on the comics page, or elsewhere in pop culture for that matter.

The revenge motif was baked into the strip’s moral universe. Tracy villains didn’t just need to be sought, caught and jailed. They needed to be hounded and often tortured along the way. Many of Tracy’s prey ended up behind bars, but just as often they met poetically just ends. Gould turned the grisly, fitting deaths of villains into his own special kind of art. Here are some examples from the first two decades of the strip that highlight Gould’s dark talent for retributive justice and capital punishment Dick Tracy style. At these climactic moments we see most clearly the visual, moral and often bizarre world,

Final Curtain for Whip Chute – 1939

Subtlety was not in Chester Gould’s quiver. Here he triple underlines his irony.

B-B Eyes Gets Dumped – 1942

More than anything, Gould loved to kill and humiliate Tracy villains in slo-mo. Here, B-B Eyes hides in a garbage barge in the final leg of a desperate flight from justice, only to get dumped, trapped and drowned. Gould had a special talent for using the panel. framing and zoom techniques to communicate feeling through his use of space. His signature tight shots on dead villains often conveyed the loneliness and claustrophobia of death itself.

Flattop Gets Spiked – 1944

In 1944, Gould concocted two of his most venal villains. Flattop was simply psychopathic as a hit man, and he would be followed by The Brow, who was sadistic and a spy. Hiding beneath a ship being constructed, Flattop gets hung up on protruding spikes, leading to another close-up of deserving death.

The Brow Is Killed By Patriotism – 1944

Far and away the most inventive and stomach-turning death in the first decades of Dick Tracy was the impaling of The Brow. I covered this in greater detail and with more context elsewhere. But here again is the wartime spy getting impaled on the flagpole commemorating the city’s war dead. The bending flagpole is a gruesomely brilliant touch to amplify that moment of maximal tension that will ultimately pierce the villain.

Gargles Eats Glass – 1946

Falling through a skylight, again in comic strip slo-mo, Gargles gets sliced across three panels. And Gould can’t resist giving us his final shudders. In fact Gargles hangs on until the next strip so his final words exonerate an innocent suspect just in time for Christmas. One of the hallmarks of Dick Tracy was the strip’s extremism, Gould’s penchant for balancing unmatched graphic violence and angry vindictiveness with maudlin sentimentality. This sequence leads up to a Christmas strip that celebrates the villain’s death and the joy of the season.

Mumbles’ Cry for ‘Elp’ – 1947

Making a speech impediment somehow expressive of a villain’s evil was a questionable move to begin with. But Gould doubles down on this conceit by having Mumbles frantically, futiley hail for “ELP”.

T.V. Wiggles Can’t Move – 1950

Gould loved to draw in that little bit of grisly business to convey violence. While he used a heavy, cartoonish line and unreal, expressionist style that set the strip far apart from the illustrative style of most adventure strips, Gould used other ways of communicating hard-boiled reality. He had a penchant for objects penetrating bodies. Bullets often passed through their targets in shootout sequences. And as the deaths of The Brow and Gargles showed, the impaled body has a special place in Gould’s sense of horror. The death of T.V. Wiggles comes from fallen metal sheets that form an ersatz coffin. But it is that little corner of metal piercing a flap of neck flesh that telegraphs the experience of death itself.

Mr. Crime and Judge Mix Blood and Money – 1953

Mr. Crime was among Tracy’s most ruthless, pitiless villains of the 50s, and in the context of the Gould moral universe I am surprised (and a bit disappointed) that he suffers a simple shootout with Tracy. In fact Gould reserves the grisliest image for Mr. Crime’s extorted dupe, Judge Ruling. When cornered, the corrupt Judge chooses suicide. But of course Gould can’t give us a gunshot sound effect heard through a closed door. We have to get an image of Judge Ruling eating the gun, complete with cheek lines to suggest how deep he has planted the barrel. But we’re not done with this duo. As is his wont, Gould closes in for a final tableaux of both villains swimming in their own blood and money.

Flattop Jr.’s Near Miss – 1956

Flattop Jr. was indeed the son of the original Flattop, but he was framed by Gould as a neglected youth who embodied the overhyped scourge of the 1950s – the juvenile delinquent. He appears to meet his end in a theater fire he himself set to cover his escape. Despite the massive explosion Gould depicts dramatically, and the presumption of having died in the inferno, Jr. turns up later where his genuine death takes place in the middle of another villain’s cycle. And so that final contemplative panel here turns out to be ironic.

Mandrake’s Evil Twin?

Courtesy of my Comics Kingdom access to vintage strips, they are running a 1949 sequence with an engaging origin story for Mandrake the Magician. Orphaned when their father dies in an accident Mandrake and twin brother Derek are taken in to an island based magician school where they learn secret powers. The backstory seems but a setup for a contemporary reappearance of Derek who appears to have been an evil twin all along.

MAD Looks at Politicized Comics: 1969

By the 1960s American newspaper comics had gained a deserved reputation as generally banal and innocuous pop culture, prime targets for satire. In April 1969 MAD Magazine took aim at the generally apolitical nature of most strips by imagining a world where comic strips actually reflected their culture. With art by Bob Clarke and script by Frank Ridgeway, “If Comic Strips Covered the Issues of the Day” has Superman coping with air pollution, Dick Tracy adapting to police brutality concerns and Mandrake the Magician’s already-racist depiction of his assistant Lothar turned into an even more troubling notion of Black American fantasies.

Sherlocko the Monk (Part 1): The Great Mystery of the Everyday

The running gag in Gus Mager’s 1911-1912 small wonder Sherlocko the Monk is that this send-up of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective rarely uncovers a crime. Mager’s parody sleuth usually unravels “mysteries” around a henpecked husband’s scheme to avoid his wife, an absent-minded fop forgetting where he left the missing object, a neurotic too scared to show up for work. The mystery is really around character and behavior more than around misdeeds. And this is why Sherlocko the Monk is such a satisfying but under-appreciated relic of the first decades of the American comic. Sherlocko pulled together into a coherent narrative whole, themes and narrative conceits that had been germinating in a more haphazard way across many artists and strips since 1895. Sherlocko is the apotheosis of early comics’ preoccupation with social and character types, traits and obsessions. he took that trope and developed it into coherent theater. And along the way Sherlocko maps out where the comic strip had been by 1911 and where it was headed as an American popular art. 

The great deductive mind does indeed exercise itself, usually in the middle two panels of the 6 panel sequence by using physical evidence to rule out Watso’s grandiose suspicions of murder, kidnapping or grand larceny. But in the end the crime is simply tied to characters expressing their character. Bonehead is being stupid, Forget absent-minded, Henpecko fearful of his wife, Nervo being audacious. The solution to the “mystery” is character itself – the revelation of someone being who they are. 

Which is to say that Sherlock gets it appeal from putting a grand design around the discovery of the mundane and expected. That is its one-note joke but it is also what makes the strip such a nexus of trends in the form. Sherlocko the Monk embodies the focus of the comic strip on the everyday, the intimate, the idiosyncratic, the local. It helps us map the direction the comic strip would take as an American art form of the familiar and near at hand, the little observations, annoyances, character tics. It is the strain of American comics that gives us “They’ll Do It Every Time,” the gentle observational humor of Clare Briggs’ many one-panel series like “Real Folks at Home” or “There’s One In Every Office” or Family Circle. As photography replaced illustration in the 20th Century American newspaper, cartooning was consigned to polar realms – political and domestic. The newspaper comics page became the flip side of the editorial page political cartoons. One page caricatured the official public life of the nation, the other focused on the local, the intimate, the caricaturing of social interaction, domestic politics, personality types – an art of everyday-ness.