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.
This 1937 vision of fascism’s psychological appeal to feelings of personal disempowerment is eerily relevant to the current ethos. H.T. Webster’s Casper Milquetoast (The Timid Soul) responds to newspaper images of Italy’s Benito Mussolini and Germany’s Adolph Hitler with his own fantasy of assertiveness. Webster is perceptive enough to understand in this strip how the personal and political entwine around identity. And through Casper he renders it as a will to power that is at once frightening but also silly and sad.
But more than the prescience and enduring relevance of Webster’s 1937 strip, this sequence is a great example of the special powers of the cartoon arts. They can show, not just tell, bring greater depth and impact to an insight through sequential illustration than we would get from the description of language alone. He shows us panel by panel the process of Casper responding to imagery and internalizing it into self-reflection – literally, in front of a mirror – mimicking the despot’s power. And then he twists it into satire: the fantasy of power congratulating itself by terrorizing an unsuspecting cat. Psychologists and political scientists no doubt have filled reams of analysis about how fascism appeals to popular feelings of alienation and disempowerment. But somehow Webster brings it to life in a unique and impactful way here.
The beloved H.T. Webster (1885-1952) drew a range of political and slice of life cartoons across the 20s and 30s. Generally he was known for gentle satires of middle class life and nostalgic takes on bygone boyhood. His most famous contribution to the daily funnies (and American language) was The Timid Soul, which focused on the beleaguered and unassertive Casper Milquetoast who struggled with his own timidity in the face of an increasingly brash, intrusive America. In fact, Casper’s name entered into the language as the familiar descriptor of bland and weak. Casper’s attempts to break out of his own wimpy response to the world is the source of The Timid Soul’s light comedy.
It took a full week of strips for the eponymous hero of Lee Falk’s Mandrake the Magician strip to make his grand entrance. June 11, 1934 was the first strip, which evokes some of the feel of a classic mystery wind-up. But on June 15, in what has to stand as one of the most unambiguously racist intros in pop culture history, Mandrake’s “servant” Lothar heralds the coming of his “master.” One doesn’t even know where to start here. Falk’s full bore colonialism is more fully and relentlessly explored in his later The Phantom series whose origin we covered here and whose fetishes we covered here.
For all of its weaknesses, Mandrake remains important both to comic strip and comic book history in that his is the first strip to move towards a super-powered hero. Mandrake’s “magic” is only nominally super-natural, in that it is based on the power of suggestion and influence over others’ minds. But it precedes the appearance of Superman by 5 years and aldo nods towards costumed heroism, which would be more fully introduced in Falk’s The Phantom.
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.
A wildly successful woman in the man’s world of cartooning, Nell Brinkley (1886-1944) was intent on letting her comics page heroines have it all. Fantasy was the passport Brinkley used to ferret her characters and readers from the domesticity most experienced to a world of self-expression, assertiveness, fame and professional success. I have written a bit about Brinkley in an earlier review of Trina Robbins’ superb Flapper Queens, and I am in the middle of writing an extended essay on her under-appreciated importance to comics history. But here is a compact example of the wonderful extravagance of her romantic fantasies and the ways she channeled for women a growing frustration with the social roles available to them in 1920s America.
Dimples’ Day Dreams from 1928 came late in the series of graphic short stories Brinkley drew through much of the 1920s, each of which would run for a dozen or so weekly episodes. In Dimples, Brinkley underscores a theme present in most of her work, modern women breaking out of the domestic sphere into adventure, professional competence, intrigue, fame. Romantic engagement and marriage often served as the end point of these series, but not the substance of most episodes. In fact, by the time we get to 1928, Brinkley’s Dimples premise is the tension between social expectations of women, Dimples’ boyfriend begging her to marry, and dreaming of bigger, more satisfying lives.
“Be Pretty Mrs. Jones” urges Dimples “droning” boyfriend. Broken down here into its rough panel structure, this episode embodies Brinkley’s use of feminine escapist fantasy as a motif. And the sheer extravagance of that fantasy is such a delicious part of Brinkley’s work. Dimples isn’t just a celebrated film star in this day dream, but her erotic power threatens to “burn the fuses.” The thrill of Brinkley’s work is its excess. There is the excess of line work and detail. There is the material excess of her heroes’ embrace of Gatsby-era materialism, high fashion, eroticism. It is all there and all over the top.
Compared to just about anyone else working in the Sunday comics pages of the 1920s, Brinkley extended the form into a unique kind of visual storytelling. Her “panels” are aimed less at advancing a linear story than hitting different emotional notes to flesh out a central fantasy. Most of her Sunday strip culminate in an emotional climax rather than a gag or story resolution in an oversized splash image. Compare this progression to that other great comics master of fantasy, Winsor McCay (Little Nemo in Slumberland and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend0. McCay’s fantasies end in a final panel where his protagonist wakes from the dream. Brinkley end with the fantasy at its peak.
Nell Brinkley is not only an undervalued pioneer of American comics, but she is an important figure in understanding the complex history of American women in the last century. On a weekly basis she was engaging her audience’s discontent with the social roles available to them and fantasizing a broader range of options. That she had to use extravagant fantasy and daydreaming to get there only underscored the constraints her admiring audience experienced and felt.
Between April 24 and Aug 23 1910 Winsor McCay sent Nemo and Flip to Mars, making for one of the longest and most politically pointed of the Slumberland adventures. Mars was a dystopian vision of cement canyons of urban overgrowth, faceless workers rushing to their jobs in stifling clots of bodies or scooting around the unappealing cityscape in spherical flying cars. Running this overbearing urban machine is a capitalist nightmare in which everything, from air to words, come at a cost. “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Try to Enter Here Without the Price” reads an archway to the city.
Mars and even its most basic elements were under the sole proprietorship of one B. Gosh and Co. He owned and resold the basic elements of discourse and survival. Clearly a satirical mash-up of the Gilded Age monopolist and corrupt political boss, “He does certainly love money,” Nemo says. And clearly McCay, after all a newspaperman and political cartoonist, is building a critique of emerging consumerism, a growing class divide, and exploited labor in crafting B. Gosh and Co.’s Martian realm. Because words are literally for sale, we are told, “You see only people who have money can talk. Unless you buy them you cannot use them.”
McCay’s dystopia takes to satiric excess the key trends of early 20th Century America, consumer capitalism, monopoly and centralized control and urban scale. While he did thousands of pointed editorial cartoons in other pages of the newspaper, the Mars episode is one of the few instances where you catch the artist making an extended satiric vision of America’s turn-of the-century “progress” in his otherwise fantastic Little Nemo opus.
But here, McCay deploys his artistic genius to illustrating the sense of suffocation, anonymity, despair of among a people oppressed rather than liberated by modern “progress.” The caverns of Mars skyscrapers are so tall that sunlight needs to be shipped in. Workers are punished for trying to get to genuine sunlight and not allowed to cheer during sporting events. B. Gosh himself is a robber baron in the classic mold. We rarely see Gosh himself during these months on Mars. We see the dystopia narrated through his assistant, with Gosh himself occasionally barking in commands. When rebellious pirates kidnap Nemo, Gosh defeats and captures them. But Gosh’s assistant admits the boss will most likely turn the rebel chief into a personal advisor. “Old Gosh is a robber himself or he’d not own everything,” his assistant tells Nemo.
This is a remarkably insightful episode in McCay’s Nemo run, and it reminds us how this milestone of wild fantasy and surrealism got much of its impact from the way McCay manipulated and exagerrated the experience of a rapidly changing 20th Century America. The Progressive Era was one in which Americans were imagining both light and dark results from “progress.” One of the best selling novels of the late 19th Century had been Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which imagined a utopian socialist future. But just prior to McCay’s Mars sojourn, we saw a number of dystopian rejoinders. authors like Jack London (The Iron Heel, 1907) and Hugh Benson (Lord of the World, 1908) as well as E.M. Forster (The Machine Stops, 1909). They warned of a future where aggregated power corrupted governments and corporations and technology created alienation. The Marie episode of Little Nemo in Slumberland not only fits within this dystopian mode but enhances it in ways only the comic arts can. McCay visualizes the anonymity and dehumanization of the crowd just as effectively as other comics artists of the day were trying to humanize the urban “masses.”
Perhaps I become tiresome, but one of the themes of this blog and my take on the cultural history of the comic strips is that this medium brought to a rapidly changing 20th Century America unique perspectives on the experience of social change. The best and most popular of these artists were in conversation both with their readers and with their times in ways that were unavailable to the other great mass media of radio, film and TV.
The entire run of Nemo on Mars is reprinted below. Pardon any long load times but I wanted to preserve the resolution so readers could zoom for detail.
Between April 24 and Aug 23 1910 Winsor McCay sent Nemo and Flip to Mars, making for one of the longest and most politically pointed of the Slumberland adventures. Mars was a dystopian vision of cement canyons of urban overgrowth, faceless workers scurrying to work or scooting around the unappealing cityscape in spherical flying cars. This is McCay’s consumer dystopia. “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Try to Enter Here Without the Price” reads an archway to the city.
Mars and even its most basic elements were under the sole proprietorship of one B. Gosh and Co. He owned and resold the air and even the words. Clearly a send-up of the turn of the century monopolist, “He does certainly love money,” Nemo says. And clearly McCay has emerging consumerism, a growing class divide, and exploited labor in mind in B. Gosh and Co.’s Martian realm. Because words are literally for sale, they are told, “You see only people who have money can talk. Unless you buy them you cannot use them.”
McCay’s dystopia brings emergent consumerism, monopoly control and urbanism to satiric excess, one of the few instances when you catch the artist making an extended satiric vision of America’s turn-of the-century “progress.” The caverns of Mars skyscrapers are so tall that sunlight needs to be shipped in. Workers are punished for trying to get to genuine sunlight and not allowed to cheer during sporting events. B. Gosh himself is a robber baron in the classic mold. We rarely see Gosh himself during these months on Mars. We see the dystopia narrated through his assistant, with Gosh himself occasionally barking in commands. When rebellious pirates kidnap Nemo, Gosh defats and captures them. But Gosh’s assistant admits the boss will most likely turn the rebel chief into a personal advisor. “Old Gosh is a robber himself or he’d not own everything,” his assistant tells Nemo.