Napoleon: The Gentle Art of Everyday-ness

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.

Launching in 1932, the strip bore some similarity to Gasoline Alley in its lack of punch lines, tension, screwball, characterization or story. But King built his Alley into a social epic about interior worlds of feeling. McBride’s narrower ambitions for Napoleon turned on life’s little annoyances, accidents, incompetence and occasional poignance. It was for readers a daily reflection on life’s petty frustrations, little ironies, the comedy of everyday chaos.

As McBride suggests in his opening “Dear Reader” opening panel in 1932, he was self-consciously positioning the strip against the darker and suspenseful tone of the emerging adventure formats and popular hard-boiled favorites like Little Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy, which certainly were filled with “brickbats and misery.” In many ways he was fashioning a genteel counterweight both in tone and style to the rest of the comics pages of the 1930s.

The strip’s considerable charms came in McBride’s deft illustrative style, the staging and sequencing of the physical action, and a gentleness of spirit that earned its readers’ daily 20 seconds of attention. 

The strip is mostly a pantomime where mishaps of one kind or another unfold in a three or four panel sequence. Dialogue (usually Elby talking to himself or Napoleon) is rare. The art of the strip is in McBride’s comfortable illustrative style, a rough use of loose line and acute hatching,  a knack for panel sequencing and rhythm of movement. Elby falling in a lake feels funnier than it should because McBride’s panel progression relies on a touch of surprise. Whereas the screwball timing of Opper, Goldberg or Gross lets us enjoy an obvious disaster unfold in gleeful animation panel by panel, McBride’s pay-off panel is usually an oversized tableaux of an unexpected outcome. This is physical humor but of a more contained, less socially subversive sort than the great screwballism.

McBride was a newspaper cartoonist who did a fair amount of magazine illustration, and that is the aesthetic of Napoleon. Visually, Napoleon invokes the style and spirit of book illustration. The cartoonish realism feels like the familiar plates accompanying a Mark Twain Tom Sawyer or Puddnhead Wilson volume or the line art from a folksy Saturday Evening Post yarn. The outlines are sketchy and imprecise, embodying a winsome, light humor that is the heart of this strip. Napoleon himself is a mass of stray lines indicating messy fur, with his usually expressive eyes poking through for effect. McBride doesn’t try to render naturalistically the surface of water but capture the drama of the splash as Elby inevitably meets his wet fate.

McBride’s hatching is sublime yet singular. His  greys and shadows are built with precise, straight, tightly packed lines. There is a relaxed but deliberate, meticulous care to this style, a visual signature of controlled whimsy. 

Much of McBride’s action focuses on faces, reactions of exasperation, frustration, bewilderment, anger, panic that combine with the panel pace to effect the strip’s gentle humor of familiarity. The world of Napoleon is wonderfully self-contained. It provides bucolic order, a mild comic disruption, and often builds in an astonished response. 

McBride passed in 1951, but the strip continued for another 9 years. His widow penned the scenarios and one of McBride’s longtime assistants continued drawing. Subsequent giant dog characters lie Marmaduke, Clifford and Dennis the Menace’s Ruff would take the trope in more antic, cartoonish directions. But McBride’s approach was singular in the ongoing relationship between the hapless Uncle Elby and his indispensable companion.

Somewhere beneath the surface of the daily, often bland scenarios, lurked a richer story about the complex mixed emotions within love itself. Napoleon often is the source of Uncle Elby’s woes, pratfalls and even costly destruction. But the interdependence of the two comes through cumulatively over the many months and years of daily reading. Elby is after all an affable but unattractive bachelor, for whom the devoted Napoleon serves as surrogate wife/child/family. In some ways that commingling of affection and frustration in this relationship is foreshadowed in the ironic remove McBride himself establishes as the strips voice in his unique inaugural panel that introduced the strip. The self-deprecating apology for adding to the pile of existing comics, the whining about having to draw it daily, and his insistence that “I hate lettering” in an opening panel that is all words – telegraph the light-hearted ambivalence beneath enduring relationships that readers would revisit daily across three decades.

Alley Oop: Off To A Flying Start

“Off to a Flying Start” is how V.T. Hamlin titled his introduction to the Alley Oop character and world in late 1932. And in fact Hamlin’s eponymous hero cries for help in the opening panel…only to be chased by the prehistoric dinosaurs of this fantastic “Bone Age.” For the next six or seven years, Hamlin’s art and story were at their best when his furry-crowned, thick-limbed everyman scurried at the center of screwball mayhem. We now have a great opportunity to review and reconsider Alley, as the small press Acoustic Learning recently launched reprint series of both Hamlin’s early adventures and later work by his successor Dave Graue.

My first impression diving into Alley Oop is Hamlin’s strong feel for set, background and character design Hamlin had from the beginning. Unlike Segar’s Thimble Theatre, Capp’s L’il Abner and certainly Gould’s Dick Tracy, Alley Oop doesn’t begin in a crude style that only finds its signature style over months and years. Hamlin goes into Alley Oop knowing he wanted to contrast fine-lined, simple but polished characters with detailed and accurate scenery and dinosaurs. Hamlin had a cultivated curiosity about prehistoric creatures in one of his many jobs as an illustrator in the Texas oil industry. He well knew the historical fantasty at the center of Alley Oop. The age of dinosaurs long preceded any human ancestors. But he was dedicated to drawing, naming and animating his Bone Age dinos as accurately as he could.

By contrast, his cast of cartoon humans, the males at least, are carefully built with a bit of the era’s deco minimalism. Oop, his rhyming buddy Foozy, Guz, the King of the Moos and the tribes of cave men are small of head, with enviable four-pack abs, and forearms and calves shaped like bowling pins. He builds his characters in order to animate them. Those bottom-heavy limbs become wonderful devices when fleeing, fighting or rioting. The action poses, freeze-frames of punches thrown and received, crowds of cave men imploding or exploding, all have an expressiveness that sits between cartoon abstraction and naturalism. This fine-lined, controlled art style is served very well in this reprint. The strips fully render Hamlin’s thin line shading of background flora and the dinosaurs.

Alley Oop is also one of those rare strips, along with Walt Kelly’s later Pogo, that renders the words as part of the art. From the strip’s first panel, Hamlin shows his distinct deco styling for characters shouting. They move from small to larger type sizes, megaphone-like, into the air. And Hamlin plays with bolding, differing type styles and sizes, words moving in and out of word baloons, to express tones, crowd murmerings, sound effects. In some ways he was bringing to his comic strip layers that mimiced the early days of the talking motion picture, still in its infancy when Oop appears in 1932/33.

And much like Segar’s approach to Popeye, even Gray’s Annie, Hamlin brings a populist sensibility to the strip. Conventional wisdom suggests that Alley Oop becomes more interesting and a genuine adventure strip in 1939 when he introduced a time travel device that brought Oop and girlfireind Ooola across major historical ages. But from the start, Oop is an everyman hero, good of heart, who is less of an adventurer than a victim of circumstance. He quickly becomes the unintentional antagonist to King Guz, the insecure and thin-skinned leader of the Moos. Guz envies Oop’s popularity when the cave man returns to the tribe astride his tamed pet dinosaur Dinny. Guz’s machinations to retain prestige and diminish Oop is the driving force of the strip’s first year. Oop fits neatly within the pantheon of Depression-era common many heroes. Prohibition, which didn’t end until the December 1933, and a deepening Depression had already undermined public trust in institutional authority, the purity and wisdom of legal and political institutions. Popular culture registered a generalized distaste for authority in everything from the romanticization of gangsters in the press to images of kings, politicians, policemen and bosses as either hapless or imperious. We usually come upon common men like Popeye, Tom Joad, Micky Mouse and Mr. Oop just trying to go about their business, only to become heroic in the face of the moral duplicity (or just stupidity).

As simple and familiar as these everyman heroes may seem, the idea of the inherently moral, simple and unpretentious “nature’s nobleman” runs deep and long in American culture, extending back to the tales of James Fennimore Cooper’s frontier hero Natty Bumppo and Jacksonian politics of the 1840s. American popular literature is filled with examples of the naturally ethical, American individualist asserting basic common sense and morality against both little human and big insitutional corruptions. Cast as he may be in the Bone Age, Oop was certainly in that tradition, one that had special valence to Depression-Era.

Barney Google: The Art of the Petty Schemer

Billy DeBeck described his own comic anti-hero as a “low-life” with a heart, but it took a few years from Barney Google’s introduction in 1919 for DeBeck to find his real character. Barney started as yet another henpecked husband, a servile schemer whose daily antics focused on outflanking his overbearing wife. From the start, however, DeBeck’s imagination veered towards outlandish solutions to everyday slights and oppression, At one point the early Barney plots to avoid his wife’s wrath by getting beat up to garner sympathy. Barney was DeBeck’s man on the margins, bouncing from job to job, always broke, forever buffeted by wife, bosses, circumstances or dumb bad luck.

As DeBeck came to understand his own character, Barney literally shrank in stature, from a tall but stooped supplicant to a figure half that original size, now more crushed than stooped, a compact underling of life whose famously oversized “google eyes” always seems to be looking up at other characters. With so little space between Barney’s nose, mouth, torso and legs, he looks like a crumpled ball of formerly human features, the visual embodiment of a man pressed down into a diminutive stature.

But the real heart of Barney Google comes out when he connects with Spark Plug, the horse that would win and lose countless races over the next decade. See above the first strip in 1922 introducing Sparky. In many ways, the horse replaced Barney’s wife as his love-hate interest. Barney raged whenever his nag lost a race but never could bring himself to stay mad for long. There was real romance here. It is not surprising that Spark Plug became a merchandising hit in the 1920s. One later comics historian compared the nag to Snoopy in the level of his fame.

But the coming of Spark Plug also literally raised the stakes for Barney’s conniving. Now he is on a larger stage, traversing the country with Sparky, plotting to get race entry fees, looking for shortcuts. And his fortunes rise and fall radically, from wealthy purses Sparky wins to big bets that come cup a cropper. And Barney starts looking the part, now donning a top hat and formal coat. He has evolved from petty existential haplessness to riding up and down the rollercoaster of American pluck and luck. Barney Google becomes both a celebration and satire of American ambition. He is always on the make, looking for the big chance, and a universe of pitiless institutions, authorities and chance bounce this compressed ball of a character up and down fortune’s wheel. DeBeck is working in a grand tradition of American comic archetypes and echoing some of the tropes that were driving the great slapstick silent clowns of the same decade. Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton also explored the marginal man, luckless but big-hearted and managing an absurd cosmos with clever survival skills.

And there was relentless scheming, DeBeck knew no bounds in dreaming up ways that Barney could make money, thwart rules, fool race officials, or just cheat to help Spark Plug win. In the strip above he gets Sparky a facelift in order to convince the race judges that his horse is a genuine three-year-old.

DeBeck’s plotting of Barney Google’s machinations to succeed were so convoluted that he became famous for recap strips that just reminded readers what his little schemer was up to. And it is this low-level conniving that is the beating heart of Barney Google. Barney is a hapless creature in the comic strip tradition of Happy Hooligan, Slim Jim, Mutt and Jeff, Boob McNutt, Boob Baxter and even Baron Bean. The lovable loser was a particular hero of the American comic strip. It begs so many questions about the role of this art form in Americans’ everyday lives. There was a special kind of social satire going on here, under cover of clever banter, situation comedy and screwball antics. At heart, many of the comic strip figures of the 1920s – Google, Andy Gump, Boob McNutt, Moon Mullins — were more victim than victor.

Peak Segar: Plunder Island (1934)

The Plunder Island sequence of Thimble Theatre Sundays that ran from December 1933 to July 1934 was E.C. Segar’s signature epic. It concentrated most of this master’s diverse talents and blended the many genres Thimble Theatre traversed into the strips most impressive run. Fabulism, farce, adventure, sentiment, venality, romance, screwball — all and more are here. And along the way, Segar even fleshes out and distinguishes among his key characters.

Segar, the artist who started in a movie house projection booth, who drew Chaplin in comic strip form, who started Thimble Theatre as a series of film shorts in strip form, clicked into full adventure mode from the start. He opens the tale be reuniting with old hell-raising pal Bill Barnacle. but then he quickly assembles a cast of characters for the voyage. Olive requires a chaperon, in Miss Sniddle. The ship must be led by Cap’n Hull and manned by Rough-House, Gritmore and shoemaker, Geezil, who becomes Wimpy’s sworn enemy throughout. And of course there are Segar’s most successful villains. The craggy faced, inky-cloaked Sea Hag induces shivers with the venal ill-will, bizarrely long limbs and evil presence she brings to every panel she inhabits. Likewise, her creepy henchman, the Goon monster (a.k.a. “Alice”) is another visual concoction that apparently gave some of Segar’s younger readers nightmares. His bulbous head, phallic nose, white and curvy outlines and apparently hairless body is corrupted by these massive rings of fur at wrists and ankles.

The Plunder Island epic is a delight precisely because it sets itself up as a decently constructed comic strip adventure yarn that in the end subverts its own premises. Popeye and crew are pursuing the anti-feminine Hag, who reveals herself to be a sensitive woman when romanced and scorned by the unctuous Winpy. Alice the Goon begins as an alien, mindless beast, who proves to be a loving mother figure. And the entire story arc of pursuing the Hag to Plunder Island in search of hidden treasures is flipped entirely in the story’s postscript. Popeye ends up pitying and rewarding both the Sea Hag and Alice the Goon and finds himself depressed and unhappy because of his newfound wealth. And so just as the adventure genre is about to overtake the comics page in the early 1930s(Terry and the Pirates, Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers, Mandrake the Magician, Flash Gordon, Radio Patrol, Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy, et.al), Segar upends the genre itself.

For Segar the adventure genre is just another stage for a screwball fabulism that seems to reach its height here. He is the master of creating his own madcap reality that makes trades in the ridiculous and impossible. One of the Sea Hag’s henchmen tries to run Popeye through with a saber, only to leave his rope restraints in tatters. Popeye and Bill calmly reminisce over old times as they punch, strangle and repel waves of enemy sailors. Wimpy snips off the whiskers of his nemesis Geezil, pastes them on himself to pose as a complete stranger. It is the absurdism of the animated cartoon, but Segar makes it work by fully committing himself and his characters to the unlikely premise.

Part of this is Segar’s peculiar way of using panels. In these absurdist sequences his panels each seem to occupy their own space and time and often disconnected from what is around or b before them. When Popeye and Bill converse calmly while beating on all comers, the dialog occurs at the center of the frame while the casual beatings are at the edges of the frame, erasing the reality outside of the frame. When Wimpy snips Geezil’s whiskers and takes them as his own, Geezil seems oblivious to the action and takes the disguised Wimpy in the next panel as someone new. This is part of the unique tone of Segar’s strips. The panel walls often mark the edge of the characters’ world, showing little awareness of the action outside of the panel or even in their own previous panel.

In fact, Segar is also artful in his use of panel timing — that is the implied time and unseen action that occurs between panels. Consider the Sunday strip below, which demonstrates in tight succession how Segar uses panel timing to pull off a great animated joke followed by a different use of panel timing to stage a verbal joke. The Goon’s pursuit of Winpy in the third row, especially panels two and three, sets up and pays off with a sweet bit of bit of animated business that lets us imagine the funny part, Wimpy zipping out to the horizon in fear of the Goon’s downward thrust. And the final panel of the row illustrates the gag with Wimpy in full terrorized flight. The next row brings Wimpy into the hand of woefully stereotyped cannibals and a verbal gag that uses panel gaps to provide the setup (panel two), extra beat (in a half-sized panel three) and punch line in an expansive panel four. Fans of Thimble Theater will recognize the added wit of turning one of Wimpy’s signature quips on himself. In an ongoing gag, the perennially self-absorbed (and hungry) Wimpy invites characters to a duck dinner. “You bring the duck,” he typically tells them.

Segar liked to work with contrast, comparing action and abrupt scene shifts to make points about character. In many ways Wimpy is the main character of the Plunder Island story, even if he certainly is not the hero. In fact we see him at the height of his opportunism and self-interest. Geezil’s revulsion towards him (he could “kill him to death”) is a major thread in the epic. He romances the repulsive Hag in order to access her cache of hamburger. And he unfairly divvies up the plunder in the end. In many cases, Segar contrasts him to Popeye’s simple morality.

In the 1930s, and after Popeye’s arrival to Thimble Theater, Wimply seemed to stand in for the roles occupied by Olive and the Oyl family through much of the 1920s. In those earlier strips, Olive, friend Ham Gravy and especially brother Castor Oyl were often at each others’ throats and onto some scheme for wealth. Popeye came into this tribe as a folksy moralist whose fists took proper aim at the pompous and the venal. In the 30’s, however, the Oyls receded and Wimpy seemed to carry Segar’s ambivalent view of human nature.

But Segar was also a sentimentalist. His cast of flawed connivers and selfish backbiters usually find the limits of their own moral trimming. In the Plunder Island adventure the Sea Hag demands Wimpy show his loyalty to the villainess by beheading his best friend Popeye. His inability to murder Popeye leads to another absurdist deception. Popeye’s head pokes through a hole in a barrelhead to fool the Hag into thinking Wimpy has done the deed. The ruse is inevitably broken of course when Popeye can’t keep himself from laughing at the sight of Wimpy romancing the Hag.

Which brings us to yet another sentimental turn in the Plunder Island sequence – Segar redeeming both Alice the Goon and the Hag herself. Popeye is poised to do in the Goon once and for all when Alice’s Goon child calls out for his “Mama.” Popeye melts at the scene and leaves mother and child Goon in loving embrace. Likewise, the Hag is setup as an anti-feminine villainess, as repulsive inside as outside. And yet she proves easily romanced by Wimpy’s fake advances, becomes a scorned lover when betrayed, and seems genuinely wounded when Popeye chuckles at the site of this romance. Segar is compelled to have his duplicitous cast find their consciences somehow and even give emotional depth and sympathy to his villains.

All of Segar’s talents for absurd situations, wild physical violence, and a cast of truly self-absorbed characters offset by a folk moralist helped make Thimble Theatre a remarkably self-contained world. It had its own weird cadence and tone. The violence was often spontaneous and eccentric. And this well-animated action was in stark contrast to the extensive terse dialogue between antagonistic characters that Segar posed like static, limp marionettes in narrow tightly staged panel sequences. Segar’s characters often looked like they were conversing in a closet, cut off from any environment. And yet, the Popeye character was very much a creature of the Depression. In comic strips and in the Fleischer Brothers’ wildly popular cartoon iteration, Americans responded to Popeye’s ready fists and no-nonsense response to the pretensions and empty authority around him. Clearly he channeled widespread frustration Americans deservedly felt towards the institutions, social classes and supposed progress that had failed them. Popeye quick anger, righteous fists, wry asides and responses to more “civilized” landlubbers echoed the class and social tensions of the Depression. He embodied a populist response to the age that also took shape in John Steinbeck’s fiction, the scholarly interest in American roots music, humor and culture. And on some level, Segar himself understood this connection between his slapstick hero and the culture. He resolves one of his greatest storylines with Popeye depressed despite his wealth and revived only by relieving the poverty around him.

Notable Books: Gross-ed Out

Gross Exaggerations: The Meshuga Comic Strips of Milt Gross

I would consider this oversized collection of the zany scribbles of Milt Gross a companion volume to my favorite book of 2019, Paul Tumey’s Screwball. It further revives our appreciation of artists like Rube “Boob McNutt” Goldberg, Bill “Smokey Stover” Holman and Gus “Sherlocko” Mager whose fame has faded as their madcap gag humor fell out of style. With The Sunday Press’ Gross Exaggerations: The Meshuga Comic Strips of Milt Gross we get a sustained immersion in a single artist who was the face of madcappism through the 20s and 30s in strips like Nize Baby and Count Screwloose. As the full title suggests, the book underscores Milt Gross’s cultural contribution of bringing Yiddish language, dialect and humor styles into mass media, perhaps in ways that no other more “serious” medium could. Peter Maresca’s Sunday Press continues to impress with its use of multiple critics to surround each of its reprint volumes with several contextual lenses through which to appreciate the art.

Milt Gross was widely known to 20s and 30s Americans, and frequently reprinted. But you haven’t seen him like this, arguably at his “Grossest.” The 13×17 scale gives us full Sunday pages as they were experienced. I found myself appreciating Gross’s use of implied action between panels to drive the humor and heightened sense of pace. For this alone I am grateful, and it helps make the case for this class of reprint. As well, the reproductions are as impeccable as they are instructive. They reveal the deliberate and functional quality of Gross’s seemingly frantic line work.

But this immersion in his work also surfaces Gross’s satirical eye. While many of the domestic family strips of the 1920s gently poked at the gender, sexual and generational politics of post-war life, Gross blows up the family unit altogether and pits all members in perennial warfare, with the inept, resentful pop in the lead. Gross brings into the 1920s the tropes of the first decade of bad boys in comics. Most strips end with a spanking or the threat of violence, and mama advising her husband, “not the head, Morris.” Moreover, Gross kept his strip and its comedy steeped in the frantic energy of the city when his peer comic artists were moving to the growing American suburbs. And Count Screwloose flees the asylum weekly but only to witness the inanities of everyday “sane” America. This is enough to send him back to his more lreliably delusional pals in the hospital by nightfall.

Gross Exaggerations is a welcome invitation to revisit a master of purposeful screwballism and consider its artistry.