Monday, September 17, 2012
Obscurity of the Day: Mickie, The Printer's Devil
Calling Mickie the Printer's Devil an obscurity really isn't fair to the feature. Though totally forgotten today, back in the 1920s in most small communities Mickie was a well-known little fellow. Decades later, though, information about him has been hard to track down.
First of all, an explanation of the title. A 'printer's devil' was a kid apprentice who helped out around a print shop. His duties typically involved sorting type, cleaning machinery, sweeping up and so on. The origin of the term is murky -- some contend that the boys were so dirty from all the ink that got splattered on them that they looked like little devils. Others prefer the explanation that since the kids spent lots of time sorting and disposing of the hellbox contents (term for a box of pied type) that the devil title went along with that somehow.
Cartoonist Charles Sughroe, who spent time as a printer's devil himself at his father's newspaper, came up with Mickie as a character who could gently remind newspaper customers to pay their bills on time, to make use of classified ads, to call in local news, and so on. He took the concept to the editor of Western Newspaper Union, a syndicate that supplied material mostly to rural newspapers, who immediately saw a winner and snapped it up.
At the time Mickie was a panel cartoon. Sometimes titled Mickie the Printer's Devil, but more often the shorter Mickie Says, the feature seems to have debuted in January 1918. This panel cartoon bedeviled my research for years, because I assumed that the panel had to have grown out of the comic strip. I could never figure out why I consistently found Mickie Says panels much earlier than any strips. In reality that was exactly as it should be. It wasn't until Alex Jay found an article from American Printer & Lithographer telling the history of the feature that I was set straight (you'll see that complete article tomorrow). The panel cartoon, by the way, does not get its own listing in the Guide because I have never been convinced that it was produced and distributed at a definite regular frequency, or that the art wasn't frequently re-used.
The comic strip version of Mickie is itself hard to track down because, for reasons unknown, of the multitude of papers that ran Western Newspaper Union material, and the Mickie Says panel cartoons, comparatively few ran the strip, at least at first. In the Guide I cite a start date of February 4 1921, but since then I've managed to push that date back to August 28 1920, and I have little doubt that the start date could well be nudged back even a little farther with additional research.
The 1920s were the glory years for Mickie the Printer's Devil, when hundreds, perhaps even over a thousand small town and farm community papers ran Mickie the Printer's Devil. At some point WNU even seems to have offered the strip as a daily, as it can be found running that way in a few papers. Whether this was a function of using up the backlog of weekly strips, or if Sughroe was actually producing daily material, is unknown.
By 1930, though, Sughroe seems to have gotten a little tired of his strip. The drawing quality took a downturn and the strips become text-heavy on a regular basis (in fairness, Sughroe was never averse to filling up an occasional strip with a lot of text). He also might have been stretched too far, as he was now also producing the strip Such is Life for WNU. Starting around 1930 the number of papers that run Mickie drops precipitously, and it doesn't seem to be because they have dropped the WNU service. Maybe WNU started charging extra for some features, including this strip, or maybe Sughroe was no longer producing the strip on a regular basis. It's hard to tell; the record is unclear. In any case, the last paper I can find that seemed to be running the strip on a regular basis last printed it on December 8 1932. The Mickie Says panels, on the other hand, were printed (almost certainly reprinted) for years to come. I've seen them running well into the 1940s in small papers.
I won't ask you for an appraisal, since I plan on running the plates on eBay and have read your contact FAQ ;) -- but it was nice learning a little about the items.