Thursday, January 22, 2009


Obscurity of the Day: Otto Auto

Gene Ahern was proving to be a great catch for NEA in the second half of the 1910s. He not only produced very funny comics in copious quantities, he also did his own column and even helped out with spot cartoons.

But Gene hadn't yet hit his stride as a newspaper fixture. In 1919 in his strip Squirrel Food, which was a pretty close copy of the look and humor of Rube Goldberg's strip, he introduced a new character, Otto Auto, on February 28. Originally Otto was a sprite who inhabited the background of the strip. Otto's schtick was that he drove his car like a bat out of hell and wouldn't let anything or anyone slow him down.

Despite being relegated to the background, Otto quickly became the most popular feature of the strip. On July 20 Squirrel Food was renamed Otto Auto and the mad driver became the star of the show. Ahern made a daily game out of Otto's driving exploits, inviting readers to submit ideas for how to stop Otto's car. Every day Otto would encounter readers' traps and ambushes, and every day Otto would successfully avert them.

This period of the strip was, for my money, one of the funniest slapstick sequences ever committed to newsprint. I know I read an extended reprint of it somewhere but I'll be darned if I can remember where it was. Nemo? StripScene? Hopefully someone will remind us of where it appeared, and I heartily recommend you find a copy and enjoy it yourself.

All good things must come to an end, though. Ahern knew that trying to make Otto Auto a series endlessly plying this single joke was a mistake. So it came that Otto's car was finally stopped and the strip moved to a garage where Otto and his second banana Clem traded jibes as fumbling mechanics. Our samples today are from this era of the strip. Otto Auto continued in this vein until February 6 1921, when the strip was replaced by Crazy Quilt, another obescurity that we'll cover one of these days. It wouldn't be until later in 1921 that Ahern would make his most lasting contribution to newspaper cartooning in the form of the classic panel cartoon Our Boarding House.


I think the publication you're remembering is Richard Marschall's Screw Ball Comics. It came our in 1985, and was sub-titled the first Nemo annual--and the last unfortunately. About 48 pages with some nice Nut Brothers, Smoky Stover, Rube Goldberg, Milt Gross, early Dr. Seuss. Probably still findable.

Tom Pendleton
Hi Tom -
Just checked, it's not in that publication.

This comment is about two years too late, but I am just now seeing it. You might have been thinking of Nemo 25, which has a great article about Gene Ahern's early comic strips.
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