Monday, October 05, 2009


Obscurity of the Day: Deems

The Al Smith Service was a small syndicate that produced material for weekly papers. Smith, better known for his many years of work on Mutt & Jeff, ran the company as a sideline. He got into the syndicate business in 1951 and managed to keep it going after practically all the other weekly syndicates had long ago bit the dust.

Syndicates that produced material for weekly newspapers were never a particularly lucrative business. Small papers paid small rates, often under $10 per week for a whole menu of features. Worse yet, the weeklies had a well-deserved reputation for not even paying those small bills, so syndicate owners were just as busy in collections as producing material.

Al Smith offered an entire weekly page of material, including upwards of a half-dozen comic strips. At rates of $5-10 per client you can imagine how even with a large subscriber base the contributors were paid a pittance. Smith, however, managed to put together a stable of excellent cartoonists that made the offerings of other weekly services look pretty dismal.

One of those fine features was Deems by Tom Okamoto, a Japanese-American cartoonist who went by the name Tom Oka on this strip. Okamoto was an animator with Disney before World War II, then was put into a relocation camp for the duration. I don't know if he continued in animation after the war, but I presume he did (animation buffs, a little help?).

Okamoto opted to do the strip in pantomime, a genre that most cartoonists consider the hardest type of feature to produce on an ongoing basis. Okamoto, though, seemed to have a wonderful knack for it. His pantomime gags rarely seem stale or trite, and he came across with a lot of real winners (I particularly like the last sample above where he adds a delightful twist to the old 'painted into a corner' gag).

How hard is pantomime? Jim Ivey once told me that he had a long-standing order from a well-known cartoonist responsible for such a feature. He begged Jim to gather every pantomime strips he could find, no matter what feature or what subject, and send everything to him with bills for whatever he felt was fair. The cartoonist was that desperate for pantomime gags that he could mine for his feature.

Anyhow, back to Deems. The strip was a charter member of Al Smith's syndicated weekly page in 1951 (and after all these years I'm still trying to determine the exact start date of the offering). Deems was such a standout that Smith also tried to sell it as a daily, something he very rarely tried. The daily offering went on until 1955, but I've only found one paper that ran it daily, the Pasadena Independent, and then apparently only for a short stretch in 1952.

Deems was a part of the Al Smith weekly offering until 1980, a run of thirty years. Quite a few of Smith's strips were in re-runs by the 1970s, and I don't know if Okamoto's strip was one of those. However, if Okamoto did actually produce the strip for daily frequency from 1951-55, the backlog for the weekly would have been enough to keep it going with new material even if Okamoto never put pen to Bristol board again after that year.


From LA Times 1/8/1956

"Soon to make its bow in newspapers across the nation is a new cartoon strip by a 39-year-old El Monte artist, Tom Okamoto.

The strip was deemed best of 480 ideas submitted during a recent contest sponsored by United Features Syndicate. UF liked the series so well it rewarded Tom with a$5000 cash prize and signed the artist to a five-year contract. Tom says he'll use the money to build a house on a lot which he already owns in Pasadena.

A former Disney artist, Tom now free-lances as an advertising designer in Los Angeles. He's married and has two sons.

The strip idea has to do with American Indians, whom he got to know during his service with the Army.
Hi Bill -
Thanks for the info, I guess Okamoto didn't go back into animation.

By the way, the strip referred to in your quote is "Little Brave".

Yes, Tom Okamoto actually had three cartoons, but only Little Brave and Deems were his more known ones.
Looking it up, Tom Okamoto died in 1978, so if Deems did continue until 1980 it was either in repeats or Okamoto drew big enough backlog to run two more years.
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