Your Stripper's Guide host has been interviewed for a PBS documentary about Robert Ripley
, and the program airs tonight at 9 PM on most PBS stations. For all I know I may have ended up on the cutting room floor, but it promises to be an interesting show whether or not yours truly makes an appearance. Be sure to tune in!
To whet your Ripley appetite, here's an essay I wrote about the Believe It or Not man, which ended up not being used on the American Experience website. It's written for a general audience who might not know anything about Ripley, but I think I brought a perspective that you comics scholars might find interesting.
The Shocking Truth about Robert Ripley
As a cartooning historian, I could tell you some fascinating
(to me) minutiae about the man that undoubtedly won’t appear in the documentary,
but that would probably just make you click away to greener pastures. I really
would like you to stick around for a moment, so I’m going to be rather daring.
I’m going to tell you the unvarnished truth about Ripley.
Now I’m not trying to be shocking, or flippant, or
disrespectful. Really I’m not. Before I make my statement, I would like to
point out, with all modesty, that I am a fellow who has devoted a good portion
of his life to studying newspaper cartoons. I’ve written a somewhat
authoritative book on the subject, and have earned a name for myself in the
small (okay, tiny) community of newspaper cartooning researchers. Therefore, I
make the following statement none too lightly, and with some expertise to back
Okay, here we go. The fact is, Robert Ripley
was not much of a cartoonist. Yes, despite making millions off that art form,
and becoming a household name, I’m telling you, as a cartoonist the guy was just
barely adequate. In New York City
in the 1910s, where Ripley planted his cartooning flag, there was no shortage
of artistic talent. There were plenty of cartoonists who were more proficient
in both drawing and writing than Ripley, though many of them pounded the
pavement to no avail. The closest some of them ever got to a paying art gig was
drawing flowers on dinner plates for a crockery company.
Now you needn’t take my word for it. You can look at the
historical record. With all the chutzpah of youth, Ripley came to New York after a less than stellar start to his
cartooning career in San Francisco.
New York City
the place to be for a cartoonist – the home of the most important (and
most numerous) newspapers in the country. There were no less than 15 mainstream
daily papers being published there in the 1910s, all vying for the attention,
and pennies, of the man on the street. Now you’ve undoubtedly heard about
yellow journalism, and how newspapers competed for readership in those days by
out-scandalizing each other. News stories were overplayed in the most shameless
ways, all in order to attract curious readers.
While sensationalism was a big seller, cartoonists were
almost as important. If you enjoyed Rube Goldberg, you bought the Evening Mail. If Mutt and Jeff tickled your funnybone, you bought The New York American. Every newspaper
had its stars, though some shone brighter than others.
Ripley, to his credit, managed to get a cartooning gig in New York right off the
bat. But it was at the Globe and
Commercial Advertiser, a newspaper so low on the totem pole of popularity
that it sold mostly because it was offered for a penny, cheaper than most other
papers. The Globe tried to follow the
example of the more prominent New
York dailies, and succeeded only in looking like the
pale imitation that it was. The Globe’s
cartoonists were second-raters by necessity. If a cartoonist showed up in The Globe
and developed a following, he would have been quickly whisked off with an offer
of better pay and greater exposure at a
bigger paper. Cartoonists didn’t work for The
Globe unless their services were not in great demand.
Ripley was low man on the totem pole even at The Globe. His beat was mainly sports
cartoons, which was a specialty that was already on the wane. Sports cartooning
was a big pull for newspapers only while the art and science of newspaper
photography was still being developed. Once newspapers could regularly offer
shots of boxers and baseball players in action, the handwriting was on the wall
for the sports cartoonists. Although they still had a following, in the 1910s
and beyond their space and audience was steadily eroded by the cheaper and
easier expedience of photography.
Evidently, Ripley’s work at The Globe was not so exceptional as to make waves in New York City. Ripley toiled
in relative obscurity at The Globe
for over a decade, and then left only because the newspaper itself was merged
into non-existence. He landed at the Evening
Telegram, a paper that had a good reputation, but he never really got a
foothold, and barely made it through a year there. By 1924, Ripley suffered a
fate that would have had many cartoonists looking for a new career. He was reduced to working for a second-rate
newspaper syndicate for a cut of the minor earnings to be had from selling his
wares to out of town papers.
So now you might be thinking that it must have been about
then that Ripley came up with Believe It
or Not, his life turned around, and he lived happily ever after. Oh, but
not so. Not at all. Because Ripley was completely oblivious to having caught
lightning in a bottle. He created Believe
It or Not way back in 1918, long before his fortunes took some of their
According to some versions of the story, on that fateful day
in 1918, his editor had suggested to him the idea for a cartoon about freakish
sports records. But let’s give Rip the benefit of the doubt and say it was his
own eureka moment. We may as well, because although the idea was in his lap, he
evidently hadn’t a clue what to do with it. I think it is appropriate that we now
invoke that famous line – Believe It Or
Not – for this amazing fact: after that first cartoon, the second
installment of Believe It or Not did not
see print for another ten months! And after that, often months would continue
to go by without a new installment of the sensational cartoon.
I’m not going to give away any of the twists and turns that
led to Believe It or Not becoming a
multimedia sensation, and Ripley becoming arguably the richest newspaper
cartoonist of his era. Suffice to say that Ripley, although he didn’t quite do
everything in his power to keep it from happening, seemed unaware of the
goldmine he was sitting on, and he had to be led by the nose into the promised
land of money and stardom.
Now that I’ve made my case, you may well be thinking that
I’m trying to run down this poor guy. Blah blah, not much of a cartoonist, yada
yada success was the result of dumb luck, blah blah most anyone else in the
same situation would have done as well or better than Ripley. Okay, I admit I
did give the guy a pretty serious goosing.
But here’s the thing. What I didn’t mention is that Ripley
had one quality that is quite rare and amazing, and it is that quality, in my
opinion, that led to his fame and fortune. Now when I say what the quality is,
most of you are going to roll your eyes, and say “Oh, please!” And if I hadn’t
studied Ripley’s life and personality, I promise you, I’d be in the same pew.
Here it is: Ripley’s secret recipe for success was simply
that he believed in himself. From the moment he woke up in the morning, until
the moment he fell asleep at night, he knew that he was destined for big
things. He knew that however dark it might seem, that the sun was just beyond
the horizon waiting to shine its light on his face. He believed in himself to
the core of his being, just like all those cheesy self-help gurus tell us we
Ripley had no great ability, no great work ethic, no
dazzling intellect, and I have no doubt he was told that many, many times. New York is not a kind city, and the New York newspaper office of his era was no
place for people who couldn’t handle criticism. Even outside the newspaper
office, Ripley must have been a constant target of derision. He looked goofy,
he dressed badly, and he had a speech impediment. Most of us would be hiding
under a rock if we were in his shoes. But not Ripley. He took it all in stride,
secure in the blissful knowledge that he was Special.
Ripley had no Tony Robbins tapes, no visits to the
Maharishi. He seems to have had little or no spiritual life, his interest in
religion being mostly a fascination for odd or bizarre rituals he could use in
his cartoons. No, it seems to have been
something in his upbringing, something incredibly positive and self-affirming, that
stuck so deep in his psyche that no amount of evidence to the contrary could
shake the belief he had in himself. Ripley knew that he would end up one of
life’s big winners, and he just sat back, enjoyed the ride and waited for the
inevitable to happen – and it did.