Monday, May 22, 2017
Will the Real Bela Lanan Please Stand Up?
[Allan's note: Carlos Altgelt is a researcher currently working on an index of the long-running Argentine comic book Patoruzito. When trying to track down some comic strips he found in early issues, which he thought might be from the U.S., our paths crossed. I was able to ID one of the strips as Bela Lanan Court Reporter, but Mr. Altgelt was very curious about the background of the strip. I couldn't help much as I am woefully uninformed about the genesis and creators of this intriguing but quite obscure comic strip.
Mr. Altgelt was so fascinated with this unusual strip that he went on a mission to uncover its history. Amazingly, he was able to dredge up an impressively complete picture of the strip, its creators, and the story of its creation and end.
I feel greatly honored that Carlos Altgelt has written up the story of Bela Lanan and consented to having it appear here on the Stripper's Guide blog. Now, finally I'll shut up and let you learn the fascinating tale. Take it away, Carlos ...]
Will the Real Bela Lanan Please Stand Up?
by Carlos A. Altgelt / email@example.comMiki and You Be the Judge. And it is this last one which brought me to write the following article.
What happens is that when Toni Torres, owner of “El Club del Cómic” store in Buenos Aires asked me to write the index of Patoruzito, I knew I was in trouble because, at Toni’s suggestion, I had just published a book listing all the comic books edited by the legendary scriptwriter Héctor Germán Oesterheld (El Eternauta, Mort Cinder, Ernie Pike, Sherlock Time). There were over 400 issues, and I detailed each one of the strips that appeared in each number, the artists and writers, and its origins if foreign, including a color photograph of the covers. But while Oesterheld’s magazines carried an average of 5 strips per issue, Patoruzito boasted four to five times that amount and it ran for 892 issues!
|From Patoruzito #1|
The challenge was made, however, and I accepted it by first attacking the seemingly impossible to find origin of a strip titled Júzguelo usted. Impossible, that is, until Frank Motler put me in touch with Allan Holtz’s Strippers Guide. He was able to identify the strip as Bela Lanan, Court Reporter.
|Original US versions of the Bela Lanan story above - note the differing panel order|
Bela Lana, Court Reporter (a.k.a. You Be The Judge) was an American newspaper daily comic strip which ran from the mid-1930s to the early 1940s. It was written by Leopold Allen Heine, drawn by Robert Wathen and syndicated by Carlile Crutcher of Louisville, Kentucky.
In an era dominated by adventure, humorous and family life strips, Bela Lanan was one of the few non-fiction entries, along with strips like Rex Collier’s War On Crime and James Carroll Mansfield’s Highlights of History.
Practically forgotten today, what made it unique was its “hook.” Every week it presented a court case in six episodes where the reader, acting as judge and jury, was challenged to deduce the outcome. At the end of each weekly installment, the actual verdict appeared in a text column on a separate page.
The cases were based on actual legal suits, not only from the United States but from around the world. The characters’ names were changed, however, to protect the innocent so to speak. If one was interested, all one had to do was to send a self-addressed stamped envelope to the editor to find the true details of the litigation.
The strip was easily recognizable among the six or seven that appeared on each page in those golden days because the first panel, with a height 2½ times its width, always carried, not a drawing, but the title of the episode. This was preceded by the words “The Strange Case of…” (sometimes “odd” or “tragic” were used instead of “strange”). At the bottom of this first panel, the reader was reminded that the story was in six episodes and, below it, the number of the daily installment. With few exceptions, the title of the strip itself was shown at top left with the name of its writer as “L. Allen Heine” on the right.
The story of its inception is just as interesting as any of the cases themselves. It all began when Carlile Crutcher, recently graduated from Centre College in 1926, became the secretary and personal assistant to powerful judge Robert Worth Bingham, politician, diplomat and newspaper publisher of the progressive Louisville Courier-Journal. As a publisher, the judge championed women's suffrage, the League of Nations and labor unions. Soon Crutcher learned the ins and outs of the law as well as the publishing trade.
He developed an interest in copyright law and approached Harry Robertson, editor of the paper, with the idea of publishing a daily short column highlighting, in no more than 20 lines and headed by a single picture panel, the odd proposals granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Robertson accepted the concept and Freak Patents debuted on Monday, April 22, 1935, at the bottom of page 2 of the Courier-Journal. The texts were written by Crutcher, with line drawings by Thomas Harvey Peake, a local freelance writer and artist. It was copyrighted under the name Carlile Crutcher.
|First Freak Patents, 4/22/35|
|Last Freak Patents, 8/8/36|
The feature was readily accepted by the public, but soon Crutcher began toying with another idea based on real life. While searching for the odd patents, he came across a 62 year-old resident of Louisville, Lawrence S. Leopold and, through him, also met Leopold Allen Heine.
According to Stephen J. Monchak, in an article titled “How A Hobby Became a Feature Is Told” (Editor & Publisher magazine, March 30, 1940):
"[Heine] had in his possession a trunk full of manuscripts dealing with unusual law cases. The manuscripts were written in longhand by the late William Lanahan, a former Louisville reporter who became an itinerant newspaperman. Lanahan not only worked on newspapers in this country but abroad. He made a hobby of collecting tricky court cases. When he died he willed his possessions, including the manuscripts, to Mr. Heine. [He] began briefing the Lanahan manuscripts so the cases could be condensed into a six-day picture serial. (…) In order to get fresh material, Mr. Heine reads law cases continually and each 100 cases usually nets one suit that lends itself to dramatization.”
Enthused with this wealth of information, Crutcher convinced Heine to become the writer of a new daily comic strip, You Be The Judge. Robert Wathen, a local watercolor artist, was to be the illustrator. His son, Joe Wathen, said in a comment on this blog that his dad “found characters to draw into the strip by visiting bars in downtown Louisville” (August 5, 2009). Neither Wathen nor Heine had any experience in the comic strip field nor would they have any additional ones in the future. That, however, didn’t deter Crutcher from marketing it. To that extent, still employed by the Courier-Journal, he ambitiously launched the Carlile Crutcher Newspaper Feature Syndicate, nominally a news service but mostly dedicated to the distribution of the new comic strip, which made its first appearance on July 6, 1936. Its first installment was titled “The Burning of the Golden Gate,” not referring to the famous San Francisco Bay bridge, but to the sinking of a steamship of that name bound for Panama. The Wilkes-Barre (PA) Record was one of the few newspapers that carried it that day. Freak Patents continued for another month but on August 8 was published for the last time.
|Week 1 of You Be The Judge, 7/6 - 7/11/1936|
|Week 1 court decision|
Shortly after launching You Be The Judge, a Chicago radio station complained that they were using that title in one of their shows. Rather than argue, Crutcher asked the newspapers that carried the strip to change its title to Bela Lanan, Court Reporter and used this name to solicit further subscriptions.
In the 12th weekly episode, the one starting on September 21 1936, Heine gives a slightly veiled tribute to his mentor, William Lanahan. In the story he explains the reason behind the odd new name for the strip by narrating the story of Bela Lanan (recall that no real names were used in the strip). He tells us that Lanan/Lanahan was born in Budapest in 1881. That should explain the origin of the name ‘Bela’ since it was and still is a very common given name in Hungary, and perhaps was William Lanahan's real given name, anglicized when he came to the US. At any rate, ‘Lanan’ is not an anagram as many thought, but a shortening of the Magyar traveling reporter’s family name.
|Bela Lanan's biography in You Be The Judge, 9/21 - 9/26/1936|
Bela Lanan’s comic strip biography begins with Heine’s affectionate show of gratitude to his friend. He considers it a duty to tell his story, which was a source of inspiration for his writings. As told in the third episode, Lanan left Hungary at the age of 20 because, after being accused five years earlier of stealing a purse, he was a marked man. He tells his mother: “The courtroom has cast its spell upon me. The judge, the jury, the fiery prosecution, the heroic attempt of the defense. I can never be a great lawyer. My voice is weak, but I will be a great reporter. But never in Budapest! My friends, my arrest, they will not forget. I am going away!”
And so he does. He spends five years roaming “the rolling hills of Scotland, the lonely moors of England, the African veldt and the Australian bush” collecting all sorts of bizarre legal suits which were to appear decades later in the strip. We find him then in Bombay, India, where he has just reported an important case and he is told by the British Mercantile Office to go to Buenos Aires. The year is 1905 and, while the strip doesn’t mention it, it probably had to do with the Argentine revolution of that year.
He continues tramping the world, always looking for the odd judicial case. In 1916 he is in Verdun during the First World War. A piece of shrapnel hits his eye and his optic nerve receives a severe shock. He is blinded for life. He then emigrates to the United States, where he dies in California in the early 1930s.
In the words of Heine, he was “a man of strange make-up, odd, eccentric, a world traveler and—before he died—a recluse, alone and almost forgotten.” But he is quick to add that “he had the courage of his own convictions. He knew his weakness and he knew his strength—even at the early age of 20—and that’s something that many of us would like to be able to say. (…) His records are all that remain and they will unfold, from week to week, the strange and interesting, but sometimes tragic, revelations that came to this man of mystery. As Bela Lanan traveled, he collected these true stories, and saved evidence to prove that even the most unusual in his collection are true.”
The week after this dramatic introduction to the public, on October 5 1936, Crutcher applied for a trademark which was properly granted on April 13 the following year. By the end of 1936, six months after its debut, Bela Lanan was carried by 40 domestic newspapers.
Three years later, Crutcher changed his mind regarding the name of the strip and advised his local and overseas subscribers to use the name You Be The Judge again. The Wilkes-Barre Record reverted to the original name on April 24, 1939.
Then in May of 1942 Crutcher entered the United States Army Air Force and, in his own words, “thereafter found it impossible to manage the sale and distribution” of the strip. According to a 1956 legal transcript, the last distribution was furnished to domestic subscribers on September 4, 1942 (a questionable date since this is a Friday, and such dates are normally given as Mondays or Saturdays). Crutcher apparently never used the name or produced the strip beyond that time. In all 322 weekly stories would have appeared in the United States by that time. According to Crutcher, by that time only five domestic subscribers were carrying the strip and he didn’t publicly identify which ones they were. That makes it difficult to know the last time Bela Lanan, Court Reporter was published in the U.S. However, on the basis of the episodes that appeared abroad, specifically the Argentine magazine Patoruzito, which carried strips that most probably never appeared in the U.S., I estimate that the total number would have been 337, enough material to last until December 19 1942. I have been able to document the first 295 stories in U.S. newspapers (last appearance on March 1 1942 in the Longview (TX) News-Journal).
By the end of its run, 71 domestic newspapers—among them the Wilkes-Barre Record, Brooklyn Eagle, Abilene (TX) Reporter-News and Longview (TX) Daily News—and 21 abroad (one being the Lethbridge Herald of Alberta, Canada), had purchased the feature. Curiously, the Louisville Courier-Journal, professional home of Carlile Crutcher, never carried the strip.
Once World War II ended, Crutcher was released from the Air Force in January 1946. He soon found out that because of shortages of newsprint, newspaper publishers were a tough market for selling new strips.
|Samples of the Saturday Evening Post version of You Be The Judge, 1951-52|
In 1948, the Curtis Publishing Company began, in its weekly magazine The Saturday Evening Post, a one panel drawing titled You Be the Judge with a short statement of facts inviting the readers to solve the case. This brought in 1950 a lawsuit by Crutcher for infringement of his trademark. He lost the case because in the opinion of the court, “the plaintiff has failed to establish a right to the exclusive use of the name. (…) ‘You be the judge’ is an expression in common use, containing no element of novelty or fancy, and is by no means unique. For a name which is merely descriptive to have the protection of the law, it must be established that the name has acquired a secondary meaning identifying it with the goods.” An ideal case for a Bela Lanan series!
Carlile Crutcher was born in Jefferson Kentucky on November 9, 1906 and died on April 19, 1966 in Louisville.
Sources: Crutcher’s obituary from the Louisville Courier Journal (April 20, 1966, page 40); newspaper accounts and strips of that era; Allan Holtz’s online Stripper’s Guide articles; Argentine Patoruzito comic book (1945-1950); Lawrence S. Leopold family information from the1940 US Census; Crutcher v. Curtis Publishing Company legal suit (January 11, 1956); Trademark application #353,497 (October 5, 1936).
Personal notes: I wish to express my gratitude to Mr. Allan Holtz for his help in finding the original source of “Júzguelo usted” and his encouragement to write the preceding article.
I have compiled an Excel spreadsheet listing all the story titles for Bela Lanan, their running dates, and the newspaper sources in which I found them. Researchers wishing to get a copy of this list are invited to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org