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.
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.
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.
One of the longest lasting marriages in comic strip history began on March 27, 1908 when Bud Fisher’s wildly popular A. Mutt comic strip anti-hero meets a character who soon became his companion until the strip finally sputtered to an end in 1983.
As told by Jeffrey Lindenblatt in the NBM reprint of early strips, A.Mutt had a whirlwind start in the five months from its brilliant inception to the introduction of Jeff. Bud Fisher was a self-taught artist who talked his way onto the the San Francisco Chronicle in 1906. He worked his way up from layouts in the art department to spot illustrations around news stories to regular caricatures in the sports section. Here is where Fisher sold editors on an idea for a daily strip that would top the sports section with betting neophyte A. (Augustus) Mutt’s uninformed picks to win one of that day’s horse races. The next day’s strip would include Mutt’s winnings, losings and mood after the real world results.
A.Mutt was an instant hit, but its Chronicle run lasted only 26 days. The strip attracted the attention of no less than notorious newspaper staff raider William Randolph Hearst, whose rival San Francisco Examiner battled the Chronicle for circulation. As he had done so many times in his “Yellow” newspaper war with Joseph Pulitzer in New York a decade before, Hearst drowned Fisher in cash and the promise of national syndication to lure him to the Examiner less than a month after A.Mutt launched. Eventually Fisher would leave Hearst too for a much more lucrative syndication deal that became a model for decades of lavishly paid cartoonists.
Fisher’s final A.Mutt for the Chronicle appeared on Dec. 10, 1907, but that last iteration had one very important (and lucrative) addition – “Copyright 1907 by H.C. Fisher.” In Lindenblatt’s telling, Fisher accompanied the artwork to the printing department that day and before the printing plate was struck added that copyright note that led to his being one of the wealthiest cartoonists of his and subsequent decades. Until his death in 1953, Fisher benefited from gushers of revenue from licensing, theatrical and syndication deals that saw Mutt and Jeff on just about anything willing to pay Fisher royalties. There were a number comic strip millionaires during the golden era of newspaper circ wars, but few were as showy and press savvy about that’s wealth than Fisher.
It is under Hearst’s banner that A.Mutt moved quickly away from racing track picks, added Jeff and because a buddy strip that also introduced extended continuities. Alas, the sad anachronistic later decades of Mutt and Jeff strips obscured its earlier, genuinely witty, edgy slapstick years.
But in its early years the strip was indeed gritty. In fact, Mutt meets Jeff in an asylum, one of many incarcerations for him. This time he meets up with multiple cases of delusional inmates, including a diminutive fellow who fancies himself boxer Jeff Jeffries.
While the strip soon evolved beyond its origin as a sports cartoon, it carried with it to mainstream comics pages the sharp-tongued banter, slang, and snide irreverence that typified much of sport page cartooning. Mutt and Jeff took on politics, lampooned public figures, poked at social pomposity, and even ventured down to Mexico in the 1910s to engage with Pancho Villa.
Mutt was also among the first of a staple for the comics pages – the hapless schemer. Always looking for a buck, failing at the serial jobs he tries, the early Mutt conspires with Jeff (who is usually more flush) just to score a much-needed meal. Well evolved from the early simpletons of comics like F.O. Opper’s Happy Hooligan’ and Ed Carey’s Simon Simple, Mutt was like Harriman’s Baron Bean and Goldberg’s Boob, the American always on the make but falling short, working the angles unsuccessfully at the margins of America’s booming modern economy. The rising middle classes at whom 20th Century newspapers generally were aimed seemed to delight in the misfired ambitions of characters like Baron and Mutt, later Moon Mullins, Bobo Baxter and to some degree Andy Gump. It is a figure that extends into Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Chester Riley and Ralph Kramden. Failed ambition is often leavened ironically with empty bravado and inflated self-confidence. It is light satire of America’s core tropes: social and economic ambition, masculinity, mobility, looking for the main chance.
The candor of Mutt and Jeff is in full display in 1918 when the duo scheme to dodge the draft.