Monday, May 28, 2012
Obscurity of the Day: Miki
It is the nature of the newspaper comics business that if a new feature catches on big, me-too features will follow. And there's at least a slightly more practical reason for the practice than might at first meet the eye. It is easy to dismiss imitation features as the product of people trying to make a quick buck off of someone else's good idea, and that's certainly a big part of the strategy. But there's also the factor of newspaper features being sold under exclusive contracts. For example, let's say that Ripley's Believe It or Not is a big hit (that's not much of a stretch). Now let's say the San Francisco Chronicle has bought the exclusive rights to it in their market. The other San Francisco papers, not to mention Oakland and other surrounding cities, are frozen out. So when another syndicate comes along with a similar feature, and practically every other syndicate did jump on the 'odd facts' bandwagon tout de suite, those papers are downright eager to counter the Chronicle's popular new feature with something similar.
Nowadays, when only a few markets like New York and Washington have multiple newspapers, the exclusive contract is a very minor factor, and consequently you don't see many outright copycat features anymore. But back in the day, me-too features fulfilled a pretty important role in competitive markets.
So I said all that so that I could say this: here's a feature that takes "me-too"ism in a weird direction. Miki is a bald-faced attempt to copy Crockett Johnson's great Barnaby, of that there can be no doubt. The weird part is that Barnaby was never a particularly successful strip -- speaking, of course, financially, not artistically. Why would you market a copy of a strip that runs in, oh, let's be charitable and just say less than a hundred papers.
Misguided as it seems, the syndicate, George Matthew Adams Service, wasn't exactly saddled with a long list of big-selling features in the mid-40s, so maybe a strip that had a chance to sell in a few big markets because of the copycat angle seemed worth it. If that was the idea, I guess the few papers they did sell on that basis (for instance, the Brooklyn Eagle in the NYC market) seem to have made it worthwhile to the tune of a five year run. The strip debuted on March 26 1945 and ended on July 1 1950.
Me-too features are rarely memorable, for obvious reasons. Hobbled from the start with the mission of duplicating another feature, the cartoonist not feeling any sense of ownership, what can one expect? If not outright disaster, certainly a pedestrian feature. So was Miki one of them? Sadly, very much so. Everything that made Barnaby great was missing from Miki. The great characters, the magic and whimsy, the nostalgia for childhood -- all utterly missing from Miki.
Creator Bob Kuwahara worked on the strip under the pseudonym Bob Kay for political reasons; but also, I'm guessing, he was content to not be identified with it. At the end of World War II, the American newspaper reader was not going to take kindly to an Asian name on the comics page, and that probably suited Kuwahara just fine in this case.
Miki seems to be embarrassed of itself. The doppelgangers for Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley -- Miki and Uncle Harry -- are entirely devoid of personality, which is no great loss because they appear in the strip as seldom as possible. The setup to the typical story has Miki learning of a problem, telling Uncle Harry about it, and Harry does some magic that will fix the situation eventually. That business is usually transacted in a matter of two to three strips. Then the story, with Miki and Uncle Harry now offstage, goes on for weeks.
If Kuwahara was trying to spotlight his other characters, Miki's parents and a buddy, Mr. Morris, in lieu of Miki, that would be understandable. They, at least, weren't created as knock-offs. The problem is, though, that they don't have personalities either. They all seem to sleepwalk through the stories struggling to appear even one-dimensional. They seem like disgruntled actors who are trying to be fired from the production. Maybe this was Kuwahara trying to kill the strip. If it was, he was certainly using slow-acting poison.
NB: Sorry about the missing art on the sample strips. They came from the Youngstown Vindicator, which trimmed the strip bottoms in order to fit more on a page. Unfortunately I have no runs from a paper that printed the strips complete.