Saturday, March 17, 2007
Obscurity of the Day: Pop Culture
Among the oddities that regularly try to insinuate themselves onto the comic page are those that profile celebrities. This type of feature first arrived in the 1930s when a number of features stirred together the Believe It Or Not formula with that of the Hollywood gossip columns. The most successful of those features was Screen Oddities, but there were plenty of others.
The genre has been mined plenty of times since then, though thankfully it seems to have all but died out in recent years. Pop Culture was one of the latest of these features that I know of, and it introduced the minor wrinkle of including a quiz about the profiled celebrity.
Steve McGarry produced the feature from October 5 1992 through November 29 1995. The illustrations were all realistic depictions cribbed from photo images rather than caricatures as was previously the norm for these features, and thus calling Pop Culture a cartoon is a misnomer. Its only right to being covered here is the fact that it was marketed as a feature to be printed in amongst the daily comic strips.
McGarry's other comic strip title was "Mullets," which he worked along with NCS president Rick Stromoski and ran for only a year.
It began May 22, 2005 and is weekly/Sunday feature. About a year ago McGarry told me it was running in the N.Y.Daily News and the Tampa Tribune. These days it is running in my hometown paper (Stockton Record) in their Sunday entertainment tabloid section running top to bottom and four of the five columns wide and in color.
Friday, March 16, 2007
Obscurity of the Day: Mr. Baffles
Norman Ritchie (who signed all his work 'Norman', with long tails on the Ns) was a fixture at the Boston Post for decades, but to my knowledge Mr. Baffles was his only continuing feature. It ran only during 1906, and I don't have exact dates as yet because my research is not yet finished.
Mr. Baffles concerned itself with lampooning Boston life, especially the politics of Beantown. Norman showed an unexpected flair for design in his Sunday pages, and it's too bad for us that most of his time at the Post was spent in producing somewhat run-of-the-mill editorial cartoons.
Thursday, March 15, 2007
News of Yore: Rudolph and John Dirks Profiled
By Jane McMaster (2/25/50)
"You may say go out and watch kids to get ideas. But if you do, you'll find they're not a bit funny," says Cartoonist Rudolph Dirks. "John didn't give me any ideas for the strip, and no other child did either. You only get ideas like this—" His head was on his hands in a deep-thought pose.
John, the artist's son, doesn't mind too much about not being an original of the hellions in "The Captain and the Kids" ( United Feature Syndicate ). For now that he's come of age, his role is considerably better than that of "subject matter." He's assistant to his father on the Sunday page and draws "The Captain and the Kids" comic books.
John is 33, and his father is, variously, "38 years old," "old as hell," or "come back in 10 years and I'll tell you." Rudolph Dirks became cynical on the age subject when he found artists he'd grown up with listing themselves in art catalogues as "age 38." "I think professional men lie as much about their age as women," says the cartoonist, who has had several exhibitions of his paintings, is also proud of some golf trophies.
Same Old Firecrackers
The age of "the kids" themselves is less of a mystery. Rudolph Dirks created them for Hearst's New York Journal in 1897 where they cavorted under the heading, "The Katzenjammer Kids." In 1913, the creator, after a legal battle, took his comic children to the New York World under title of "Hans and Fritz." Subsequently Mr. Dirks' Sunday page was re-christened "The Captain and the Kids" and was distributed b y UFS. (Through the court ruling, Hearst retained the title "The Katzenjammer Kids" and King Features distributes that page, drawn for many years by the late H. H. Knerr. Doc Winner is present artist.)
Mr. Dirks has been at drawing board during virtually the entire history of the modern comic strip. From this vantage point he assays: "The comic strip business has changed terrifically, but humor hasn't changed. Slapstick is still as good as it always was. I use the same old squirt guns, the same old firecrackers."
There have, of course, been some innovations in his comic. "The kids" had both Mama and Papa at the start, but Papa got dull and had to be dropped. Conversely the Captain, introduced as an incidental character, caught on and stayed.
Once Cartoonist Dirks tried to make a 90-degree turn in the page. The wide popularity of R. F. Outcault's "Buster Brown" strip in the old New York Herald, dealing with a nicely dressed little boy, led Mr. Dirks' Journal editor to suggest "prettying up" the kids. So, dropping the rough stuff (a bull throwing a kid over the fence was normal for the strip), Mr. Dirks did "one page showing two nice little boys and a nice little mother. It was terrible. Not funny at all. I had to get rough again."
He still, apparently, feels a little resentment toward the late "Buster Brown" strip. The character, he says, actually did worse things than his own kids did. "Buster Brown was a little low life but dressed well," says Mr. Dirks.
Through the years, however, the rough-and-ready of Mr. Dirks' strip has become more reasoned. "The kids have to deserve something they get," says Mr. Dirks. "Otherwise the reader is liable to feel sorry for them. And that would spoil the humor. Justice is the thing."
The dialogue comes naturally to Mr. Dirks. Born in Holstein, Germany, and coming to this country early, he "was raised in a family that talked just about that way."
And personally, he hardly ever feels sorry for the kids. "If you can think of anything new to paddle them with, let me know," he says.
His son, through wide commercial art experience, has gained a flexible style that equips him to keep "the kids" as they are. "People like the strip for what it is and has been," he says. "You can bring in something new only within the limit of the established characters and framework."
He points out that the strip is "timeless in time." The characters look about the same way they did at the start. And timely topics are hardly ever used. "The kids have simply been shooting firecrackers for 50 years," says John. He adds that the strip is actually "spaceless in space" too. The setting is generally the imaginary Squee-jee Islands.
They Don't Know Him
After graduating from Yale, John started making the rounds of magazines and sold his first cartoon to Collier's. "It was bought strictly on gags. The name hasn't helped much. In fact, frequently the people who buy my stuff don't know who I am." He says his "father made quite an effort to give us (he has a sister) an interest in oil painting." But despite considerable study, John always preferred humorous drawings.
After working up from private to captain in the Army Engineers during the war, he resumed his freelance work. About 1947, he became his father's assistant. His work consisting mainly of comic books. But now the younger Dirks presents rough layouts of pages—one a week. "Some are acceptable, some are not," says young Dirks. His father always does his own meticulous inking.
"I've got to admit he's an expert," says John Dirks of Rudolph Dirks. "But he doesn't do much talking. I could be the elevator boy. If my layout's no good, he says so, and is very much to the point about it. He's not the 'Well, son' type who puts his arm around you and lets you down easy."
But the elder Dirks has respect for his son's work. "I think he's going to be a better comic strip man than me because he's a better golfer," says Rudolph Dirks, succinctly.
Labels: News of Yore
I met your blog some months ago and I'm enjoying every new posts since.
I'm making a work about the Katzenjammer Kids, and I was wondering if you knew where I could find some strips drawed by Mike Senich (1976-1981) and Angelo DeCesare (1981-1986)
I'm afraid samples from those years are very tough to find. Wouldn't swear I even have any in my collection.
I’m glad to hear from you! Unfortunately, my book has been published in France six month ago (it is already sellout):
Here on amazon
However, I’d like to see some strips of your great father and I’d be very delighted If you could send me some scans at my email: jumontserrat [at] yahoo [dot] fr
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
News of Yore: More 1950s Paranoia
Caniff Answers Editorial On Opinions in Strips
To get on with the pro and con as to political comment in comic strips (E&P, June 10, p. 38) Milt "Steve Canyon" Caniff also replied to a recent Denver (Colo.) Post editorial. The Post was against political expression by cartoonists and suggested the Steve Canyon comic strip "seems to have fallen into the hands of the Nationalist China lobby."
"Asia in general (and China in particular) has long been the scene of operations of Canyon and company," responded Mr. Caniff. "The area was chosen because it has always spawned adventure and intrigue. To shift from that portion of the globe because a war has taken place between exponents of opposing political faiths there would be an act of dissolution on the part of a writer of fiction, since conflict as a background, is the salt and essence of all escapist adventure."
Next to love, in reader appeal. said the cartoonist, are: "(a) In peacetime, the desire to escape from the humdrum cares of whatever commitment holds one in bondage, (b) In time of war— be it cold or hot—the destruction of the known enemy is far forward in the reader's consciousness ...
"In the light of the foregoing, the present situation in Steve Canyon is allowable as entertainment . . .
"Facing the physical facts of the Communist government now incumbent in China, would you have me align my characters on that side? Opposition to Red Chinese rule does not make me the creature of the Nationalist lobby; it arrays my thinking with that of quite a few Americans who feel that the place to stop the intruder is at the post of the watchdog in the yard, not inside the house."
The Post had also objected to "Little Orphan Annie" by Harold Gray for "its expression of rugged individualism and the 'devil take the hindmost attitude'." "Gasoline Alley and Mary Worth have been guilty, too," said the Post. "Skeezix has been caught uttering words of anguish about socialism, and even Terry (of Pirates fame) has tried to sell us a bill of goods about far eastern politics from time to time."
Capp's Position on Strip Opinion Draws Dissent
By Jane McMaster
Managing editor James S. Pope of the Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal, and Editor-General Manager H. R. Wishengrad of Press Features disagree with cartoonist Al Capp's recent statement that opinions belong on comic pages. Mr. Capp recently responded to a Denver (Colo.) Post editorial which had objected to philosophizing in strips. (E&P, June 10, p. 38.)
"I want to warn you in all friendliness that the editors of the country are getting aroused about the use of comic characters to speak the social and economic and political philosophy of the artist," Mr. Pope wrote to the United Features cartoonist. "It could easily be whipped into a real battle now, and I would sorrowfully be arrayed against you and my favorite people, the Yokums."
Mr. Wishengrad wrote: "I think the Post is right and Al Capp, whose tongue and wit are as razor-sharp as his art, is dead wrong."
"For example," continued Mr. Wishengrad, "if Al insists on the right of political comment for himself in cartoons, why shouldn't every reporter covering a fire or City Hall have the same right in every story he knocks out? And why shouldn't someone hired to write a column on how to get jobs, or how to fix things around the house, or how to take care of your health, inject his political views into his column?
"Injecting those views into a comic strip is taking unfair advantage of newspapers which certainly never would have hired the strip if it started out that way," Mr. Wishengrad concluded.
Mr. Pope wrote the creator of "Li'l Abner":
"You speak of comic artists being 'thinking Americans' and you refer a good deal to Mark Twain; but neither idea is very relevant. The artists should be thinking Americans indeed. They should think constantly how they can entertain their public through the enormous forum given them by the newspapers. They should think about human nature, about social foibles, about romance and adventure and laughter. These are their proper materials. Their field is as wide as the earth, and I'm hanged if I see why any of them want to bother with the contentious artificial area of political and economic ideas, or any controversial issues whatever.
"The first responsibility of a good editor is to label his propaganda," continued Mr. Pope. "The editorial page is recognized as a place where the editor expresses private opinions. People read them as such and are not indoctrinated unawares. Political columnists likewise are easy to identify and guard against. But all the rest of the paper should be free from propaganda. Nowhere is the reader's guard down, mentally, as on the comic page. . . . Popular characters such as Li'l Abner and his family have wide appeal, and this cannot be prostituted to the selling of your ideas or mine. If we haven't the power to express and sell them straight we have no right to sell them as Yokum-hokum."
"Li'l Abner" was not singled out for objection in the Post editorial. Mr. Capp said he wrote the Post merely to defend a cartoonist's right to be a thinking human being.
[ And so we get to the heart of the matter. All the comic strip bashing really has little to do with the Red Scare or character merchandising or the safety of our precious youth. No, it's newspaper editors having hissy fits over cartoonists having the ability to voice an opinion - any opinion - in their strips. It just irks these tin-plated dictators that a mere comic strip has more power than their precious editorials to interest, and perhaps even sway, the newspaper-reading public.
How dare Al Capp or Walt Kelly or Garry Trudeau intrude on their little feifdoms and, without their express permission, say something, even couched under the guise of satire, that doesn't fit the editor's own philosophy. And those self-righteous editors know darn well that if they do what they really want -- cancel the features -- the outcry among readers would be a tidal wave compared to the ripple in the bathtub that would ensue were they to shut off the spigot of their own editorial pronouncements. -- Allan]
Labels: News of Yore
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
News of Yore: 1950 Insights on the Comic Strip Biz
The ASNE morning session April 22 1950 was devoted to a discussion of the question, "Are We Making the Best Use of Our Comic Space?" Felix R. McKnight, Dallas Morning News, was chairman of a panel which included: Milton Caniff, creator of "Steve Canyon;" Al Capp, "Li'I Abner;" Leslie Turner, "Wash Tubbs;" Norman Isaacs, St. Louis Star-Times; and James S. Pope, Louisville Courier-Journal. A digest of the discussion follows:
Mr. McKnight: I came today to get a few answers about comics. I am afraid that too many do not know the answer.
I cannot speak for the rest of you, but I took a recess from rather exhaustive budget discussions to come to this meeting. I would suspect, however, that there are others in this room who have been giving their operations more than a casual eye the past few months.
Romance for Reporters
Most of the romance in the newspaper business now belongs almost exclusively to the reporters. Editors must keep an eye on page 1, the other on mounting costs and space limitations born of one factor, production costs.
So it is that comics have become something more than just a brief interlude of so-called amusement each day. Comics to me as an editor mean about $60,000 in my budget and close to ten columns of very precious space in every edition, space that also must be counted in those same dollars and cents.
It means that in most American newspapers comic pages, through insistent circulation department demands and similar shouts from the public, now consume more reading matter space than opinion-molding editorial pages.
Shouldn't we be considering seriously what we are trying to do with that space? The primary purpose of comics is to entertain, but are there different levels of entertainment? Can we—or should we try to do anything more than entertain? Can comics, perhaps, effectively perform some other service, too? Is there any truth to the charge of some critics that there is too much blood and crime, too much sex for juvenile appetites?
Good questions to be answered, and today we hope to dive in head first and come up with concrete conclusions. We want it clearly understood that, regardless of the course this discussion might take, we are discussing an over-all problem and not endorsing or condemning individual features.
Some 70 million readers are daily entertained by approximately 100 cartoonists in this important field. In searching around for concrete material for the discussion, I came upon a piece written by the Baers, "Comic Cartoonists," that proved up rather pertinent points. One concerned the ever-present problem child, the crime strips.
It was their contention that to get around the censors (or their own consciences) the writers and producers of crime strips assume that, if the guilty man receives his due reward in the end—either being killed by a G-man or going to jail — the story is justified. Meanwhile, however, scenes are carefully laid to show children how clever crimes are planned and committed.
To the juvenile or the adolescent mind, the Baers contend, the endings of crime strips are inconsequential. All that the child understands is that the tough guy is exciting and has exciting adventures. The murderer or thief may even become almost a hero to the child. The juvenile mind, contend the Baers, absorbs only the thrills of the story.
No writer of a comic strip, crime comic strip, today can ignore the recent agitation against these cartooned crimes and criminals.
A Public Indictment?
Four out of every five adults read comic strips, in addition to the children. It is a huge slice of this American way of life. It is a tremendous responsibility the American cartoonist and editor now carries. And it is probably time for both of us to face up to it. Let's not kid ourselves about this matter. Producers of comic strips and complacent editors have some thinking to do, or we will face a public indictment charging dereliction of duty.
Lest it be said that I stand only as a prosecutor, I hasten to say that some comic strips and their artist creators have done exceedingly fine jobs in the field of entertainment. Some function rather nobly as good public servants in the furtherance of worthwhile projects. And some actually inject humor into the so-called funny papers of today.
We, as editors, are also to blame for much of the agitation. Frankly, I think few of us are qualified judges of comic strips.
I am going to call on an artist to open the discussion. Leslie Turner, the artist who draws "Captain Easy," in early 1949 did something which 600 American newspapers and a good part of the public acclaimed. He created, in an expert manner, a tremendously successful episode on Alcoholics Anonymous in "Captain Easy."
He did exhaustive research to get authentic material and the response was terrific. Today we have asked Leslie Turner to give us a ten-minute slide presentation of that alcoholic episode which demonstrates, rather powerfully, that a comic strip can be a potent instrument for the public good.
Mr. Turner: (Slide pictures of continuity.) The continuity ran 16 weeks in the newspapers. I'd like to point out that this was written in the spring of 1949, when mounting objections to certain comic books had many of the newspaper comic strip artists on the defensive. I wanted a human interest story with a strong appeal to women, that would help answer this criticism. Obviously, my problem was to unite Cathy with her father and bring about his rehabilitation. But so far, I had not committed myself definitely on what Gig Wilty's weakness was to be. If he had been just a bum or a weakling, it would have been hard to make his sudden rehabilitation convincing, and would have lacked novelty. An alcoholic, on the other hand, could be a fine person, basically, who was temporarily down. I had known several cases intimately, and I thought I saw dramatic and human interest possibilities, as well as opportunities for a really constructive effort, so I made my decision at this point.
At first I was afraid only of the taboo on liquor as a subject for comic strip narration. Later, after I had studied my material, I feared the presentation of certain facts, necessary to understand the character, might make dull reading. And while I was thoroughly sold on the good that Alcoholics Anonymous was doing and felt it was an uncontroversial subject that deserved publicizing, I knew that first of all I had to get an interesting story together.
Problem of Alcoholic
Another problem I had was to avoid offending either wets or drys, and to create sympathy for an alcoholic even on the part of those whose natural inclination is anything but sympathetic to anyone who uses liquor. So I had to make it clear that the alcoholic (in contrast to the average drinker) does not always drink from choice, and thus cannot quit on his own initiative without the right kind of help. And this information had to be put across without the sacrifice of narrative interest.
When it came to gathering my material, I first went to the secretary of an AA group in my home town of Orlando, Florida, and got an armful of pamphlets and books, pamphlets from the Yale Plan on Alcoholism, from the Yale Laboratory of Applied Psychology, from the Alcoholic Foundation, from doctors and ministers. Later I interviewed a number of AA members.
I soon saw that the subject was too complex to boil down for a comic strip without sacrificing much that should be said for a clear understanding. But there was a possibility that the smattering I used might create sufficient interest in a few to make them dig deeper for themselves. And the greatest compliment that I had on the handling of the chief character, Gig Wilty, was the large number of AA members who wrote to me asking if I weren't a member, too.
Wolf Girl's Diet
Chairman McKnight: Our second artist guest is a pretty good-sized chunk of America. He is known the world over and he has gained this reputation through phenomenal success of perhaps the most original comic strip in all history. He has introduced many an idiom into the English "slanguage" and he has entertained millions with his Dogpatch doings.
Not even in rugged Texas have we acquired cannibalistic tendencies. So it was that a few years ago even our toughest Texans winced a couple of times when they saw one of Al Capp's characters, the muscular Wolf Girl, casually grazing on the posteriors of some of her victims.
We are not against good sirloin out in the cattle country, but the Wolf Girl's lusty appetite was a little too much for our strong readership in the Bible Belt. The letters promptly piled in and I promptly baled them up and sent them along to Mr. Capp. Apparently the same reaction had set in, even in the vegetarian sectors, for the Wolf Girl soon changed menus.
Mr. Capp: The reason I draw a strip like "Li'l Abner" is because there is an atmosphere in America today that makes me afraid to do any other kind of strip. The kind of strip I could have drawn twenty years ago, the kind of strip I could have drawn even ten years ago is impossible today. Ten years ago I lovingly blasted the pants off of big business, big labor, big political windbags. Ten years ago I could lovingly kick whatever was kickable in American life, and nobody screamed that I was attacking the very foundations of American life—everybody just laughed. Twenty years ago Will Rogers could say, "America never lost a war or won a conference" without being damned as undermining public confidence in this Republic. All we did was laugh at what he said, love him for saying it and ruefully admit that he was right.
Fifty years ago Mark Twain could attack the hypocrisy of certain established American moralities. He could ridicule whatever was ridiculous in American Government. He could ask for pity for the helpless and the inarticulate. He could call a fake a fake, even if it was an important fake. All that happened to Mark Twain was that he was beloved, honored and made rich.
Mark Twain could not exist today. Will Rogers could not speak today as he spoke twenty years ago. I'm afraid to draw the kind of comic strip today that I drew ten years ago because I'm afraid that America is losing its most precious freedom - a freedom more unique and truly American than all other freedoms. I call it the Fifth Freedom, the freedom of Americans to laugh at themselves. As one who is in the business of laughter, I think that a nation that is willing to laugh at itself is a nation confident in its strength, its future and its rightness.
We have not lost that freedom here. We mustn't lose it. We mustn't lose the confidence in our rightness, our decency, and our strength that we as a nation had when Mark Twain, Artemus Ward, Petroleum V. Nasby, Tom Nast, Finley Peter Dunne, George Ade, Will Rogers - that whole great tradition of magnificent, shrewd, hard-hitting, hilarious American humorists looked at America, loved it, kicked it in the pants where it needed kicking, and were beloved for it.
These delightful and disrespectful and useful citizens didn't have to be afraid that, if they created a Shmoo, a perfectly ordinary li'l animal that both laid eggs and gave milk, both grade A, of course; a li'l animal that tasted like chicken when it was fried and came out steak when you broiled it, that this poor li'l critter would be suspected by labor of being an attack on the honest workingman (Capp, that black-souled capitalist) or an attack on big business by Capp, that dangerous liberal. They didn't have to be afraid, like I am, that if a character in "Li'l Abner," who eats regularly, owns his own business, employs people, turns out to be a stinker, it is a concealed attack on free enterprise.
What in thunder are we nervous about? We're a great and strong and good nation. We're so rich in strength and greatness and goodness that we can afford the luxury of laughing at ourselves. Let's not bankrupt our humorists. Let's not take away from them the privilege of making fun of the ridiculous and wonderful things that constitute American life.
Honestly, I'm so scared of offending anybody in the present atmosphere of American humor that I won't kid anybody at all that's real or can be twisted into meaning. I am so scared that I created a whole mythical world, that of Lower Slobbovia. I did that to protect myself. It's safe to kid them in Lower Slobbovia because they ain't.
Let's not so terrify our humorists that they don't dare poke fun at anything except Slobbovians, California weather and Bing Crosby. Let's give America back to 'em. And don't be afraid that the humorist has any bias - social, political or ideological. If he had any bias, he couldn't be a humorist. The humorist is a free-wheeling soul. He finds his fun in the entire American scene, in the highest places and in the lowest, in all kinds of people and ideas and groups and ways of being. The humorist finds the ridiculous wherever it is and laughs at it, and we laugh with him. And we're better for it. We're stronger for it.
America is one of the last countries where we can still enjoy the Fifth Freedom, the freedom of laughing at ourselves. Let's not lose that freedom, because, without it, the other freedoms aren't any fun.
Chairman McKnight: There is case No. 1 for the artists. The first batter up on the editorial side is one of the country's most able editors - a man who has devoted much of his life to sane editing and constant work for the betterment of the American press.
Mr. Pope: In this animated comic strip Marse Felix has whomped up for you, I suspect the only part I can play is that of a fine old Kentucky gentleman- Weakeyes Yokum. I stumble through this comic business with my hands out in front of me, bumping into hillbillies, heroes and gangsters, without being too sure which is which. As a matter of fact, the only way I can tell Daisy Mae from Three-Gun Carson is just simply a matter of arithmetic.
I queried a group of top editors around the country to see if there was a comic strip problem and what they thought it was. I am going very briefly to run over for you the problems that seem to be on their minds and quote one or two of the comments.
No. 1 is the matter of sex.
Somewhat to my surprise I found less concern about the treatment of sex in comic strips than I expected. Perhaps one of my correspondents had the answer because he seemed to think that sly and smirking references to sex and dude drawings had been greatly improved during the last few years, maybe by the weight of editorial and public opinion.
That may be perfectly true. I might say it doesn't quite satisfy me. I think maybe we are all afraid of seeming prudish if we complain about sex in comic strips.
I believe Mr. Caniff has been quoted as saying that they draw for the eye not of the managing editors, but of the circulation managers. Maybe one trouble is (and I don't mean this about Mr. Caniff at all) that they draw for either of us. God knows this group is beyond redemption. I don't think any comic strip can hurt us. But there is a time when boys and youngsters are supposed to have some reverence for females of the opposite sex.
I don't want to injure anybody's fun, but I still think there is a point we have to watch. Those kids in their teens are going through a period in which they are trying to find out about this explosive business and what it is all about, and sex is pretty tough on them. I just do not think we should make it any harder on them.
One of my correspondents said, "I really think comics have improved along the sex line. There was a time when the drawing was pretty extreme and we had to throw out some material in the bedroom line. Our worst offender is Al Capp. He seems to take delight in putting over a double meaning."
The second problem I ran into, of course, is that of torture and murder. One editor said: "I'd rather leave the gangsters, gun molls and murderers to radio."
I'm sure he'll make room there for television. I think television, with its facilities for realism, is going to put us out of the torture-murder racket, and I'm glad. All artists will have to resort to more originality and imagination in that field. Another editor said: "I think the crime and violence comics are the worst. We carry no crime or detective strips." That really surprised me. It is an immensely successful newspaper and I had an idea you had to carry crime and detective strips to be successful.
Here is the sleeper problem, to me at least - propaganda.
I expected some passion about one type of propaganda - an artist trying to peddle his own personal opinions through his character - but I found (and I was surprised at the extent and fervor of the feeling, in many cases) a sort of uprising against all propaganda in comic strips for any purpose.
The worthiness of the cause seems to be irrelevant. The idea is that they do not think propaganda belongs in a comic strip. The artist thinks that his characters belong to him and he can promote anything he wants, but the editors who will look calmly on while the hot-blooded Brooklyn girl tries to rape Li'l Abner and feel no compunction for their readers when the crudest sort of physical torture is being inflicted, will blow their tops completely if they see a torch being held up in a comic strip for, say, a cancer fund or any kind of propaganda at all.
I think that is something that they should think about. Here is a sample:
"Our comic and adventure strips have gone sour when their creators start carrying a torch or delivering a great message. When Ham Fisher or Al Capp undertakes to publicize a venture or movement unconnected with the continuity of his strip, he falls flat on his face. Example: 'Notice in a Palooka strip that Tonite on behalf of the Runyon Cancer Fund, Humphrey Pennyworth and H.F. will discuss the coming Joe Palooka - Humphrey title fight on the Jack Smith Radio Show'."
Another says: "The artists seem to think they're better than the newspapers they serve. A group of them will get together and decide to support a bond drive. The bond drive is all right, but it's up to the individual paper what it does about drives."
My own complaint is a little different than those. I do not like to see my comic friends commercialized. I do not like to see any of them recommending some soap flake or some breakfast food.
The last point I have is this, and it is more or less a summary: "Comic strips should be comicker."
Here is a comment of the managing editor of a top national newspaper:
"I am in favor of anything that will bring comics back to the funny pages. Readers want it, too. I have proof in our latest Continuing Study Survey. Our No. 1 comic is a daily humorous panel about women, but no accent on thighs or busts. No. 2 is a clean but amusing account of daily domestic trials. No. 3 is a perennial, corny but still funny (Mutt and Jeff). The killer-dillers were close behind these."
A Sunday editor's seminar at Columbia showed 42 percent of comic-strip readers want something light and funny; 24 percent, just over half, prefer adventure, like Canyon, Tracy, Terry, etc.; only 12 percent prefer tear-jerkers like Orphan Annie; and 12 go for slapstick. Li'l Abner, I suppose, is slapstick, but actually no label will hold it. Its appeal goes far beyond that of the conventional slapstick.
I guess what I actually resent about comics is that the artists are so much smarter than we are. We have all these polls that show that comics are so popular. We have to deal with life, with no limitations; yet we haven't been smart enough to take that material and find the technique for presenting it in a way that will compete with these ersatz drawings of people who go through rather wooden motions. I think we ought to worry about it. I would like to see ourselves getting a little closer to being the smart guys.
Mr. Caniff: I think we know our trade and one of the reasons I think we know our trade is because of the way we came into it. I wasn't so conscious until this morning when I looked at the people here how much I had reached my present job by way of picking the brains of men like you.
Our job is with you because it is a fact that we are not just people sitting in New York drawing pictures for you to syndicate and to pay us for, but to use us as local cartoonists. The minute we forget the fact that we are local cartoonists engaged in selling your newspapers, then we have missed our point altogether, because there is just no excuse at all for a low-priced or a high-priced comic strip being in the newspaper unless it sells tomorrow's paper. It is true of the cliff-hanger thing; it is true with Li'l Abner or Blondie. We have to try to get the nickel for tomorrow's paper or we have not justified our existence.
Never in the history of the newspaper business has the feature been as important as it is now. Our function of holding interest is to offset the fact that the news flash is no longer important. You do not sell extras on the street as you once did. The television news-reel has taken away the headline qualities of the newspaper's pictures. It becomes necessary for us to appear in the paper to hold the reader's interest. We are the liaison between you and your reader in the twenty-four hours between his purchases of your newspaper. That is what we attempt to do.
I do not attempt to attribute to the comic strip qualities they do not deserve. No comic strip has ever come close to that of a given news story or that of a given picture on a given day in human interest, but the greatest story or the most vivid photographic beat finally runs its course and, though well remembered, sooner or later ceases to have value to the publication as a certain holder of circulation.
It always gives me pleasure to hear some latter-day Anthony Trollope complain that "one cannot travel about America without encountering the veddy same little pictures in each newspaper."
Far from indicating assembly line thinking, it demonstrates the unity of basic markets that has enabled motor car manufacturers in Detroit to produce cars with interchangeable parts, obtainable at the remotest filling station 3,000 miles away without payment of duty, where gasoline and oil are chargeable on a credit card good in any state in the Union.
The sectionalized and localized differences in reader interest seem negligible when one considers that no syndicate has a written a rule or style sheet to guide the new cartoonist.
Granting this initial interest and his obvious value to the individual newspapers to which his feature is sold, the cartoonist is bound on his part to produce an entertainment device that is a vaudeville of attractions. Great humor strips such as "Blondie" and "Li'l Abner" seldom need more than the one facet to recommend them, but, as with any novelist, we who do the narrative cartoons have the use of all the human emotions to vary the fare and make ourselves valuable to individual clients in each city. It does not matter why the person buys the strip - for humor or for adventure or for escape or for the pleasure they get out of it - as long as he pays his money and we cause him to pay his money we have justified our existence in your newspaper.
Mr. Isaacs: I think there is a good deal wrong with comic strips. I do not say all comic strips - and I do not even say many comic strips. But I think there is enough wrong with enough comic strips to be a matter of grave concern to all of us here.
I speak for scores of my colleagues, many of whom have talked with me earnestly in the corridors adjoining this room and in some of the other retreats in this building. They are all concerned. Most of us devote about 10%, more or less, of our total news content to comic strips. That is a tremendous proportion given over to one, single type of presentation. Monopoly cities, of course, can get away with less space, but in competitive newspaper situations, it is generally true that the percentage runs higher - in some cases as high as 12%.
I suppose that is the greatest endorsement of comic strips possible. We consider them vital and necessary. Among the people here who have talked to me, one of their big complaints is that the comics are no longer funny. That has been answered in part today by the observations of what the people want being an adventure or escape comic strip. I am willing to agree. But the biggest complaint seems to center around the fact that in many comic strips the function of editorship has been surrendered to the syndicate and to the comic strip artist.
Mr. White on this platform yesterday during his magnificent picture demonstration spoke about prudery in news picture judgment, and I agree with him on many, many points; however, what is true in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles or St. Louis is not necessarily true in Sedalia, Missouri, or Crawfordsville, Indiana. These daily newspapers in cities of that size and larger cities are not edited by prudes, but I think it is fairly safe to say that the readership is not as sophisticated.
What recourse has an editor in these small cities or in even some of the larger ones when he thinks that the comic strip artist has gone over the line? He writes a letter to the syndicate. The question is: How is that letter treated? Usually he gets a nice placating answer saying that they are taking it up with the artist and that they hope to do something about it, but what they do with it, of course, is file, fumble and forget.
I think all of us are interested in the problem of the youngsters. The comics in many instances are their first introduction to mediocrity. Somehow, in some way, we are going to have to do something about this mental marijuana we feed our kids.
I am glad that Milt Caniff was on this panel because I can say that he is one comic strip cartoonist with a real sense of responsibility. I hope that Milt can convey to his fellow cartoonists in their society the need for some kind of responsible editing. Unfortunately, there are not very many in the cartoon business with that attitude, because we have other cartoonists about which I have written a good many letters which have been filed, fumbled and forgotten.
It seems to me that too many newspaper editors in this country and too many newspaper cartoonists are shutting their eyes to the agitation in many responsible organizations about comic strips, and I am not talking about comic books. I think many of you know about the diligent efforts made by the Criminal Law Section of the American Bar Association to come to grips with this matter. A good friend of many of us here is James V. Bennett, Director of Prisons of the Federal Government, who serves as Secretary of the Criminal Law Section of the American Bar Association. He is here in this room today. Jim has spent years studying this whole general problem and he sent me a letter and a lot of material showing the kind of things that are going on in the country. I would like to read a part of Jim's letter to you.
He says that he has heard debates on the same issue and lots of times there is a good deal of banter and wisecracking to put across the ideas of the comic strip cartoonist, which usually is to the effect that kids are pretty realistic people and are not taken in by the stuff they read in the comics, nor do they try to imitate the sort of things that are depicted in the script.
Here I quote directly:
"My feeling is that the best sort of answer to this type of approach is that some comic strips are in no sense harmful and give the young reader an escape from the sometimes stuffy and not infrequently sordid stories appearing in news columns, but to insist that the comics be carefully chosen, given careful editorial scrutiny, be not used as a propaganda medium as is frequently the case (e.g., "Little Orphan Annie"), and keep out of them realistic blood and thunder that can be imitated by young people. I think that the comics are very vulnerable on the point that none of them I have ever seen are really character-building, contain any attractive characters that the young person can hero-worship, or have any literary value. Most of them are trash from the literary standpoint, usually contain very little humor and not infrequently are a mark and measure of editorial and news standards."
It seems to me what the comic strip artist in America has to realize is that we and he are a team, that we deserve some voice in the editing or at least that we deserve an earnest hearing. What we need is a reform on the editing level. Newspaper cartoonists, generally speaking, have to grow up, and I think we have had enough of what amounts to a very bad case of progressive retrogression.
Richard Clarke, New York Daily News: I want to take exception to one of Mr. Isaacs' comments. He says that letters of complaint about comic strips are filed and forgotten. I cannot presume to speak for syndicates generally, but I can speak for one and we do not get many letters; not as many as we should get. But when we get them, we see that they go to the artist and we make a few editorial comments ourselves if we think the complaint is justified. As I said, we do not get enough letters and I think the editors who have thoughts on these matters would help us a lot if they would take a little more time to write.
Paul S. Walcott, Greenfield Recorder-Gazette: Would it be in order to ask for an expression of sentiment here on the question that was raised with respect to these commercial promotions. Do they help the strip or not?
Chairman McKnight: We will have a show of hands first on the "Li'l Abner" characters sold commercially as dolls by those who object.
[There were three.]
Chairman Mcknight: Now a show of hands by those who object to the use of "Li'l Abner" characters in advertising campaigns.
[There were approximately 40 to 50.]
Chairman McKnight: On the first issue you are out in the clear. On the second one it is fairly well divided.
Labels: News of Yore
You have a lot of interesting notes in your blog, I really enjoy it!
I work with comic strips in Brazil, and I´ve just started to translate it to english in this blog:
Thanks for your time,
Monday, March 12, 2007
News of Yore: Blondie, Donald Duck, Others Found Objectionable
Comics Ratings Bring Comment About Taboos
By Jane McMaster (2/11/50)
"Cagney can push a grapefruit in a woman's face in the movies, but it couldn't happen in the comics," says Ward Greene, editor and general manager of King Features Syndicate. "Though Maggie has landed a lot of crockery on Jiggs' head, he has not struck her once."
Mr. Greene was talking about the unwritten code of the comics, the taboos. He claims the modern comic strip business has done an excellent job, tastewise. The reason for it, he says, is a sort of reverse pyramid of authority: the artist, respectable and frequently married, draws a strip; above him are the syndicate editors, who look for and delete boners and errors in taste; and above them are 1,800 newspaper editors, whose children read the comics too. And there are the readers who tell the editors who tell the syndicate when their sensibilities are offended.
All Prompted by Survey
What brought up the whole subject was the publication in the February Parents' magazine of the survey findings of a Cincinnati committee, which evaluated 555 comic books. The committee found 165 without objection (A); 154 with some objection (B); 167 objectionable (C); and 69 very objectionable (D).
"Blondie," a home comic, got a "B" rating, meaning some objection. So did "Mickey Mouse" and "Donald Duck." The "objectionable" or C list included books featuring such popular newspaper strip characters as Dick Tracy, Li'l Abner, Hopalong Cassidy, Steve Canyon, Terry and Bugs Bunny.
About 97 of the comic magazines featured newspaper comic characters, the majority of these consisting of reprints of newspaper strips. A breakdown of the 97 is: 34 without objection; 31 with some objection; 26 objectionable and six very objectionable. This gave a total of 67% of comic books featuring newspaper characters deemed suitable for children—or about 10% cleaner than the average run of comic books surveyed.
The Cincinnati group had "some objection" to comics having: poor art work, printing and color arrangement; poor grammar, underworld slang; undermining in any way the traditional American folkways; the presence of criminals even if they are not shown as enjoying their crimes; grotesque, fantastic creatures; the over-realistic portrayal of death.
The group classified as "objectionable": criminals and criminal acts made attractive; women as gun-molls, criminals and the wielders of weapons; any situation having a sexy implication; persons dressed indecently; crime stories even if they purport to show that crime does not pay; characters shown bleeding, dead or attacked by animals; anything with sadistic implication.
An exaggerated degree of things objected to rated a "D" or "Very objectionable" score.
Advertising Director Peter E. Fitzsimmons of the United Feature Comic Group (United Feature Syndicate), wrote to the Rev. Jesse L. Murrell, survey committee head, for details of the ratings. The inquiry resulted in winning an "A" for Fritzi Ritz Comics. One reviewer thought the art work was in bad taste, but Mr. Murrell said: "I do not feel that this is true and I believe it is in the spirit of our committee to change this evaluation to 'no objection.'"
Mr. Murrell's letter continued: "In the case of Sparkler Comics, Tarzan gets a low rating because of the fact that animals are after him and attacking him. There's a frightening experience which the child goes through which may crop out in his dreams or in later life. Concerning the Captain and Kids, our reviewers thought the dialect in this story rated 'some objection.'"
UFS officials remind that Tarzan has always been chased by animals and "the Kids" have been talking in dialect for many years.
'B' For 'Blondie'
Mr. Greene, who is still wondering about "Blondie's" B, charges that the findings "reflect an undiscriminating, unintelligent and fanatically biased survey of comics."
Comics Editor Harold Straubing of the New York Herald Tribune Syndicate says "It's a terrible thing if pressure groups out of ignorance push comic books back even as much as 10 years because they are so valuable as a means of communication and learning." He added that "nobody bothers to investigate the person who is criticizing; when it comes to the comics, every Carrie Nation who waves a hatchet makes everybody tremble."
Mr. Straubing points out the taboos are making inroads on the freedom of both artist and syndicate editor. "Our villains must be American villains to avoid charges of discrimination," he cites as one taboo. A mythical kingdom had to be "made up" for the background of some villains in "The Saint."
While syndicates are responsive to legitimate criticism, they say they frequently receive far-fetched complaints. Sometime, they even act on these. A pig named "Luther" in a King strip was displeasing to a lot of Lutherans. The name was changed. When a scientist in "Little Annie Rooney" advocated a knowledge of the stars and nature, complaints came in saying that praising science was praising Communism. A rejuvenation machine in one strip brought in a reader reprimand that the only place where one can be rejuvenated is in Heaven. A garden of plenty in "Uncle Remus" seemed somehow, to some readers, communistic. King got a complaint when "Skippy" prayed once, but Ward Greene thinks a prayer is a good thing now and then. One is scheduled by another King character shortly.
[And if this 1950 article isn't chilling enough -- "praising science is praising Communism"!? -- wait until tomorrow, when I'll present a bigger and scarier dose of 1950s witch-hunting. And keep in mind that what might seem quaint or even Luddite in these 1950 articles hasn't really gone away. Just replace the 1950s bugaboos of juvenile delinquency and Communism with today's terrorism and religious fundamentalism, and you wonder if we've really made any progress.]
Labels: News of Yore
Sunday, March 11, 2007
Obscurity of the Day: Sammy Stahl
Joe Cunningham began his occasional newspaper syndication career with the eminently forgettable Sammy Stahl in the Philadelphia North American Sunday comics section. The feature ran from March 1 through November 22 1914.
Sammy was a gadabout cut from the same cloth as H.A. MacGill's Hall-Room Boys. His life, like theirs, was a fiction of wealth and privilege built upon constant lying and Machiavellian scheming. The subject's handling in Sammy Stahl wasn't so much funny as chilling in light of the fact that Cunningham often didn't give Sammy any comeuppance for his sins, as in the sample above. In short, a pretty poor excuse for a comic strip.