Opper’s Antediluvian Ancestors: The Original Flintstones

This 1903 installment of Frederick Burr Opper’s Our Antediluvian Ancestors bears an eerie resemblance to Hanna-Barbera’s 60’s cartoon sit-com The Flintstones. From the Stone Age name play to the pet dinos to the rock-wheeled auto, it almost feels like source material. The anachronistic approach to the ancients took fuller form in Alley Oop in the 19300s and then again in B.C.

Opper was best known of course for the hapless hobo Happy Hooligan strip and the maddeningly polite duo of Alphonse and Gaston. But in this series we see his affection for the small comic details. Dig that crank and belt mechanism for the Antedeluvians’ car. Apparently, brakes had not been invented yet. Catch the blacksmith shoe-ing the mastodon. And of course there is Opper’s mastery of mayhem. Part of Opper’s physical comedy comes in his telegraphing the disaster unfolding yet still surprising us with unexpected twists. He was helping to invent some of the basic grammar of comic strip slapstick as well as the art of comic timing between panels. I think Opper doesn’t get the credit he deserves for refining some of the physics of early cartoon comedy. He represented frenetic action, cause and effect, and the slow motion effect to establish what made the funnies funny.

Find a deeper dive into Opper’s visual poetry in this earlier post.

Our Antediluvian Ancestors started in Hearst papers in 1901 and ran for several years. While not as popular as some of his other longer running work, this series was reprinted at the time.

The Original ‘Fake News’: Opper Takes Aim At Newspapers

Before Frederick Burr Opper became a pioneer of early newspaper comics (Happy Hooligan) he was a critic of the medium. In this cartoon from the March 7 1894 issue of the top humor magazine of the day, Puck, Opper targets the increasingly sensational mass circulation city newspapers. While not called out by name, the caricature is clearly Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), publisher of the New York World. Ironically, Opper would sign on with Pultizer’s rival William Randolph Hearst and his New York Journal. In fact, Opper’s cartooning skills would be one of the main weapons in the Pulitzer/Hearst newspaper wars of the 90s.

Before the rise of newspaper comics over the next decade, cartooning was the domain of American humor magazines like Puck, Judge and others. And Opper was one of Puck‘s most popular illustrators. In many ways the rapid expansion of daily newspapers rang the death knell for the humor weeklies, so it wasn’t surprising to see them come after the dailies as “vulgar,” profiteering and sensationalist. Indeed, the newspapers were even accused of peddling “fake news,” as you can see depicted in the upper left quadrant.

Frozen Motion: Opper’s Machine Poetry

America was in motion, and the first decades of the comic strip were shaped by that culture and in turn interpreted it. Frederick Burr Opper was the chief poet of motion. When his signature characters Happy Hooligan and Maude the Mule did their blurred spin (with multiple iterations of a pie-eyed, panicked visage) he gave us an enduring visual trope. This was frantic motion expressed in a contained, comic, vital way.

“Happy Hooligan Looped the Loop: But He Didn’t Do It On Poipose!” (July 25, 1909) has been reprinted at least twice and for good reason. It best exemplifies Opper’s talent for containing and ordering chaotic motion with lyric, mechanical beauty. As always, Hap’s misfortune begins with a good deed, assisting a circus performer’s “Hoop Act.” As she descends the track in her roller coaster car, he is toppled and set into motion.

But Opper is all about cause and effect, not chaos. Most of his earlier Happy Hooligan slapstick starts with a small mishap, a dropped hat, a poorly timed turn, that starts a chain reaction of motion that Opper shapes into a series of comic frozen moments. Notice how he breaks down the Loop sequence into a series of causes and effects. There is the bump of the cart, the signature spin from the momentum, the thump to the bottom of the loop as gravity triumphs, the final launch into space. What otherwise might seem like explosive, chaotic motion is dissected into its parts, turned into a kind of ballet, visual poetry, but one with understandable structure.

Along with Outcault in Yellow Kid, Dirks in Katzenjammer Kids and McCay in Little Nemo, Opper visualized Some of the inchoate forces of modernizing America – motion, energy, mechanical action – in ways that expressed and contained anxiety around them. Opper’s focus on the physical mechanics of motion, of showing it as a series of causes and effects, is just one way of expressing the idea of motion. In another post, I try to explore this point with a sample of early comic artists and how they interpreted motion.

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.