Thursday, October 01, 2009


Obscurity of the Day: Philly Peno and Koko

The early newspaper comic strip was a steaming, stinky soup of racial stereotyping, and if you follow this blog long enough you can bet eventually it'll feature a strip that will offend your ethnic group, no matter what it might be. Today we have one that goes after the Filipinos. Now you might think this is a rather obscure ethnic group in the U.S. to be picking on, but keep in mind that we had ourselves a little jingoistic war in the 1890s that put us sort of in charge of that nation all the way over on the other side of the globe. The Philippines were very much in the news in the 1900s and a smattering of comic strips did their part to promote disharmony between the peoples of the two nations.

I think Frank Crane, the creator of Philly Peno and Koko, thought he was terribly clever for coming up with the title. It was done for the Philadelphia North American, y'see, so the Philly part has a double-meaning that ... okay, it's not funny or clever at all, but I think it tickled him. The strip ran from February 18 to May 27 1906 -- perhaps after four months someone in the bullpen finally told him that it was a pretty lame bit of punnery.

As you can see from the samples, the strip didn't comment on the recent wars or really have anything to do with the Philippines particularly. Last I checked they don't have giraffes there, anyway. What we have is a mischievous kid and his pet monkey doing some pretty standard turns on the jungle theme, a favorite genre in the early days of newspaper strips. Other than some interesting panel design the strip has nothing at all to recommend it.

Tip of the hat to Cole Johnson for the samples. And if you hope to see more anytime soon from Cole's collection take a moment to send some positive thought waves to his computer -- it's been giving him fits lately.


I'm looking at these pages wondering if there's a little Feininger influence here ... Any thoughts?
Hi Hugo --
This feature slightly predates Feininger's strips in the Chicago Tribune, but I suppose Crane might have seen Feininger's work in European publications. But do I see a resemblance? I'd have to say not terribly much.

Crane was generally not very interested in unusual camera angles or page design in his other strips, so he was certainly influenced by something on this strip; if I had to guess at the influence I would look to McCay's new strip Little Nemo, started mere months before.

Stereotype double trouble: not only a Filipino brat but a "Chink" cook. What I find most interesting is that the monkey can talk but the kid can't (or doesn't choose to, anyway).

As you suggest, Crane seems simply to have dropped an ethnic character into a generic strip using settings and jokes he was already comfortable with. Certainly he made no attempt to research the Philippines (I lived there as a kid and I didn't see a single giraffe).
Thanks Allan. I suppose I saw the Feininger influence due to the seafaring nature of the first sample. If there is any at all, I agree, you can't see it ... but whether that's due to lack of intent or lack of talent I don't really know.
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