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.

City Visions: The Hurry Up New Yorker

The modern (circa 1910s) middle-class New Yorker pushing arrogantly through family, workers, pedestrians, crowds, even his or her own children – is the simple trope driving Maurice Ketten’s 1906 month-long run of Hurry Up New Yorker in the New York World. Ketten projects this trait onto a range of characters, male and female, across the brief run, but reiterates a core hypocrisy as the central gag. The final panel sees the harried and busy urbanite suddenly finding the time to watch a street fight, monitor a football score, gossip with a friend, watch a fire.

The basic insight about Hurryupism is as relevant today as it was then – the pomposity (and hypocrisy) of the urban striver and using the appearance of busyness as a bit of ambition-signaling. It is the kind of personality tic that comics have always been especially good at satirizing.

But it is Ketten’s visual style that makes this series so entrancing. His rubber-legged characters, his even, thin art nouveau line, the forward bends and slopes of his figures all embody the motion, momentum, sleek modernity of the city itself. The visual style is so expressive of a certain modern sensibility itself.

The kinetic energy of his style and its urban expressiveness is clear in the way it courses across the half-page layout. What a lovely use of arcs across forward-moving figures. check out the way he uses a clutter of bent legs to depict a clot of humans at the train car door. Or the way the arcs of the rushing businessman is echoed in the two men he bumps during his heedless rush. And I love the elastic legs of the startled horse in the following panel. Ketten typifies what I consider one of the core appeals of the comic strip in its first two decades; so many of its artists caricatured the new city experience in ways that helped map out that unfamiliar experience for many Americans. They offered ways of seeing and making sense of that environment.

It is not surprising then that Maurice Ketten was a pseudonym for Florentine emigre Propser Fiorini who was more than familiar with the modernist art styles he echoes here. Fiorini studied art at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, France. Coming to the U.S. around 1906, according to Lambiek’s index of comic arts, he started experimenting with a range of comic ideas for Pulitzer’s New York World and would eventually become better known for the long running Can You Beat It? (1907-1934).

And Ketten/Fiorini’s understanding of modern art styles was made clear in a clever one-panel he did during the 1910s lampooning European art movements.

The Hurry Up New Yorker is one of the many fleeting experiments in comic arts in this first decade of the form, but it brings some fresh perspectives on the urban and personality tropes that characterized so much of early comics. Like many strips in this second decade of the form, it is a single joke repeated regularly. The most popular strips of the day riffed on a weekly or daily basis on a single gag: the Katzenjammers’ prankishness, Happy Hooligan’s well-meaning haplessness, Mr. Jack’s infidelity, Buster Brown’s impishness, Sammy’s sneeze.

In this case, however, Ketten’s strip addresses two of the ways comics reflected on modern culture and change – the city and individual character. As I have argued in other posts about Walt McDougall and his city visions, R. F. Outcault and The Yellow Kid, and Winsor McCay’s use of the urban environment of the day, the fabulous popularity of the comic strip lay in part in its unique power to interpret the experience of the new urban setting. Likewise, early strip artists were preoccupied with deciphering the social types that comprised the city crowd. And so we see so many strips that focused on specific types, personal foibles, obsessions, behavioral tics. forgetfulness, sneezing, infidelity, frugality, braggarts, grumps, henpecked husbands fueled many of these one-gag strip ideas.

Props to the indispensible Barnacle Press site for collecting the Hurry Up New Yorker strips. You can see more of the run here.

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.