Monday, August 15, 2011


...The Rest of the Story

In early 1926, a future cartooning star was just another Southside Chicago teenager with dreams of the bigtime. One day he would be noted for his incredible drawing ability, but at the cusp of his twentieth birthday he was still wet behind the ears.

Elmer was lucky in that there were, in those days, publishers in his vicinity. And there was one that must have seemed particularly accessible to him. Elmer was a black man, and to walk into a 'white' magazine office looking to be published would have been an act of tremendous courage, if not just a downright waste of time. But the William B. Ziff Company was different. Not only did they publish a 'white' magazine (Ziff's), they also handled a lot of advertising accounts for black newspapers. Perhaps Elmer though he might get a gig doing ad layouts for those ... and maybe he did. If so, it doesn't seem to have made it into any accounts of his life. However, I can say that he did come away from Ziff having sold at least one item.

Ziff's Magazine, which printed grade-C humor and grade D short fiction, also printed cartoons. A lot of cartoons. Most of them were just clipped from other (better) magazines, but some were originals. Few of these were very good. Zim, who seemed to have a cartoon in any magazine that came off the press no matter how obscure was an exception, as was Nate Collier. But in the main the original cartoons were pure amateur stuff. So when Elmer walked in the door with his portfolio, his less than polished work was no barrier.  And neither was the color of his skin.

 It was in the spring of 1926 that Ziff's Magazine was renamed America's Humor, and the name change signaled a need for cartoons in even greater quantity. Perhaps because of this fact,  someone at Ziff's thought Elmer's work was deserving of a full page and a byline in the table of contents. Or if not deserving, at least a cheap way to take up a page in the 164 page monster of a magazine that was planned for summer release. 

It is no great stretch to assume that Elmer's page of jive-talking black characters was sold for no more than a couple of bucks, or perhaps was consigned free in exchange for the 'exposure'.

That 'exposure' did nothing for Elmer's career. He instead dropped out of trying to sell his amateur cartoons and enrolled at the Chicago Institute of Fine Art. He graduated from that institution as an artist to be reckoned with. Soon his work was appearing in major magazines and syndicated to newspapers. Elmer's artistry made him a well-to-do fellow, enough so that he eventually had the wherewithal to leave his home country, which did not really like well-off black men, especially those who specialized in drawing gorgeous white women. He lived in Switzerland for most of the rest of his life, where, as he put it, "Nobody starts looking as if they're thinking, 'Ugh, there's a nigger in here.'"

So here it is. Probably Elmer's first published work, from the first issue of America's Humor, dated Summer 1926.  And, as you may have figured out by now, Elmer later went by a classed-up version of his given name in print. He was known in the pages of Esquire, Playboy, and every newspaper that printed his Cuties cartoons, as E. Simms Campbell. And now you know the rest of the story ... with apologies to Paul Harvey for stealing his schtick.

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