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.

Little Orphan Annie: Character Is The Real Hero

On August 5, 1924, Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie premiered. It was among the earliest serial adventure strips, with the real quest across decades being Annie’s search for a real family. But Gray was an odd bird with extreme sentiments, clear even here in the opening strip. Annie’s resentful relationship with institutions and their corrupt managers is set from Day 1. Many of the enduring Gray tropes are here from the beginning: resentful anger, lengthy interior monologues, great names (Mis Asthma!), a truly alienated heroine. Little Orphan Annie is among that handful of great American comic strips (Dick Tracy, Popeye, Krazy Kat) that immersed American newspaper readers in a deeply idiosyncratic imagination that was unlike just about any other artistic experience and vision available elsewhere.

Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie is an eccentric expression of the bittersweet aesthetic. its locus is a pathetic, orphaned figure who is exploited and abused by a world that seems dominated by evildoers and bad luck, barely salvaged by good-hearted salts of the earth who make their local reality humane. Villainy is around every corner for Annie, whether that corner is on a rural road or in mid-town cities. It is a Manichean vision of the world where good hearts are in perennial war with exploiters. Gray’s cosmology is remarkably dark, with a main character in search of an ersatz family the universe denies her.  Most institutions are not to be trusted, and most human hearts are as likely to be black and cold as warm and open. 

Whatever the specific adventure Annie is on in a given cycle, the real theme in Little Orphan Annie is moral character. The parallel action in Annie is that of moral judgement. Annie and the ancillary cast are always spending more panel time talking to themselves and sizing one another up than engaging in action or even dialog. Gray makes greater use of the internal monologue than just about any comic strip artist. Much of the soliloquies are the characters debating internally about the good or dangerous nature of another character and at the same time delivering homilies that explain an action or person.

Judging new characters’ moral fitness, good or bad intentions and even their inner natures is a central part of the Annie world from the very beginning of the strip. In the 1925 sequence above we get the entire arc of moral judgment theme in a two-day miniature. Annie comes upon a new character, argues to herself whether this is a positive or negative force in her life, and her gut conclusion is borne out by later action. In this case she runs into the judge who is about to determine her fate and then receives his welcome ruling the next day.

Gray gives these soliloquies around character the shape of argument, where the characters anticipate and counter other perspectives. His characters are endowed with a kind of lawyerly fair-mindedness that are always showing their work – the path to a reasonable conclusion.

Gray is often miscast by subsequent comics fans as “conservative” by way of his famous opposition to FDR and The New Deal in the 30s. But he was really a populist of the old midwestern sort that had the farmers’ Grange and eventual Populist Party as its foundation. He was suspicious of aggrandized, institutional power wherever he found it and romanticized salt of the earth farmers, manual laborers and maverick, independent souls who almost always had communitarian instincts. The argumentative style of internal monologue in the Annie strip dovetails well with the ideal of the midwestern political populist – a well-informed, fair-minded, citizen who exercises reason not just passion. 

Annie is also a psychologist who sees through the hard-boiledness of even the gruffest actors. 

Little Orphan Annie is as much a comic strip about the indomitability of moral character in the modern world as it is about anything else. Gray’s heroes are as steadfast as is the strip itself against amoral expediency, scheming to get ahead, pomposity and elitism. The strip often skirts with tedium and maudlin sentimentalism in its stream of everyday villains and homily responses. But at heart the strip is at war with an age that is replacing the last century’s moral ideal of character with a modern notion of malleable, adaptive, performative “personality.” 

In his famous essay on “‘Personality’ and Twentieth Century Culture,” Warren Susman argued that the modal type of self central to the 19th Century coalesced around the concept of “character.” The words usually associated with “character” included, work, duty, citizenship, democracy, manners, integrity, manhood. Sometime in the first decades of the 20th Century increased calls for a “new man” to cope with relentless modern change surrounded the term “personality.” Standing out from the crowd, the modern “masses,” was a preeminent value of the emerging culture of “personality.” Around it we find different terms like fascinating, individuality, self-development, magnetic, creative, dominant, forceful. Concepts like self-realization begin replacing self-sacrifice. “The social role demanded of all in the new culture of personality was that of a performer,” writes Susman (Culture as History, p. 280).” Subsequently, Jackson Lears further developed this idea of a new modal self for modern American, arguing that a new psychological vision of self emerged as shaped by the needs of consumerism. “As economists conceived an upward spiral of production and consumption powering endless economic growth, psychologists imagined a fluid, vital self pursuing a path of endless personal growth.” (Literary History of America, p. 453)

Along with Segar’s Popeye, Gould’s Tracy and King’s Walt, Gray’s Annie is a defense of immutable 19th Century character against the fluid, self-serving, socially disconnected personality. In his introduction to the first volume of Annie reprints by the Library of American Comics, Annie’s smartest chronicler Jeet Here positions Gray amidst a new Midwestern stable of cartoonists who drove the 20s and 30s. Annie, Gasoline Alley, The Gumps, Thimble Theatre, Dick Tracy brought the comic strip into a plainspoken heartland perspective on changing American life. They used melodrama, sentimentality, persistent moralism as their emotional palette. I would argue that on an even deeper level they were arguing with a fundamental change in American ideals around self and social order.