Wednesday, November 06, 2013
Obscurity of the Day: Fenton (plus Clyde)
Long before Wiley Miller became a comics page star with Non Sequitur, his first attempt at comic strip success was with Fenton, which debuted from Field Enterprises on March 7 1983. It was not a painless birth. Fenton had first been accepted by the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate, but they sat on the strip for almost a year before Miller gave up and took it elsewhere. Eventually Field Enterprises bit, but they also sat on it for a year before releasing it. When Field did finally get around to offering it, the sales were pretty good. Wiley says that by the end of the first year he had over a hundred papers, not a bad start at all.
The strip deserved success. It offered a fresh voice, good art, and consistently nail-on-the-head sardonic humor. The titular star of the strip is an assistant to the mayor of Cynical Falls, but his real job is to be the town curmudgeon, a business in which he excels. His foils include his grandson, the mayor and the mayor's daughter, and the local monks (!). The tone is in the same vein as Non Sequitur, but Miller ties his hands a bit with a regular cast, a problem he remedied in his next strip.
I don't know the circumstances which ended the strip, but there are a few obvious possibilities. Wiley may have canned the strip when he got his new gig drawing editorial cartoons for the San Francisco Examiner, or there may have been friction problems when Field Enterprises sold out to Rupert Murdoch, and then quickly turned around to North America Syndicate.
The latest I can attest Fenton to running is December 22 1985.
But wait, there's more!
As anyone who was there at the unveiling of Non Sequitur's vertical Sunday orientation can attest, Mr. Miller is not merely an excellent cartoonist; he's also a marketer and inventor -- sort of a Thomas Edison of the comics page. His ideas on how to snag new clients didn't begin with Non Sequitur, though. As you see in the Sunday above, Fenton had an ancillary panel feature starring a horse called Clyde. Since that panel is copyrighted and dated separately, it is my assumption that Miller wanted to try selling it separately (a great item to take the place of a quarter page strip's title panel, dontcha know). I have not actually seen it running separately, but knowing Wiley that's what he was up to. Clyde debuted as part of the Fenton Sunday on June 2 1985.
The marketing savvy doesn't even stop there -- Clyde the horse ties into another venture of Wiley's. At the time, he also had a little cottage industry going with his wife, who attended a lot of horse shows. They offered note cards at the shows featuring horse cartoons. You don't have to guess if the horse in those cartoons was a dead ringer for Clyde. That wily Wiley, always thinking!