Wednesday, December 28, 2016


Obscurity of the Day: Al Burtis Panel Cartoons

When the Associated Press decided to form a daily comics division in 1930, they did a pretty fine job of putting together an attractive line-up of features, though they certainly didn't have a Who's Who of cartoonists in their stable. One of those unknown cartoonists was Al Burtis, whose off-kilter humorous sensibilities and stylized art burst onto the scene with the rest of the AP page of comics on March 17 1930.

Burtis' panel had a number of running titles, including Secrets of Success, Intimate Revelations, Comfortable and Fat, Contemporary Comment, Momentous Errors, and Modern Improvements. There was also a running character, Mr. Oswald Plump. No matter the days' title, Burtis' wacky sense of humor set him apart from the run of the mill. I think of him as a raw-boned version of Milt Gross or Virgil Partch. He generated his fair share of clunkers, but plenty of the gags had a lovely sense of anarchic zaniness that were just as enjoyably weird as they were funny.

Burtis' art can look a little klunky at first blush, but a closer look is rewarded with some fascinating and unusual details. Some of the eyes, for instance, are drawn with the pupils on little stalks. The feet are drawn like sleek rowing sculls. The cross-hatching, when used, can sometimes define an entire scene. And some of his characters look like a collection of over-filled balloons.

I guess Burtis wanted to try his hand at a comic strip and the AP went along with the plan. On June 4 1932 his panel cartoon ended and the next Monday his new strip, The Dillys, began. There was some spillover from the panel cartoons, as Oswald Plump was one of the featured players, along with a family of pickle packers. We'll talk more about The Dillys when it gets its own Obscurity of the Day treatment, but suffice to say that it was pretty full of nutty mayhem, but the need for continuity did seem to keep Burtis' imagination a little more grounded, which is unfortunate in my opinion.

These two features constitute the only work by Al Burtis that I know of. Which is a shame, because I think he was a pretty tremendous talent. In trying to figure out what happened to him, I can't find anything definitely about him -- there's an Al Burtis who was a notorious drunk in mid-state Pennsylvania, a tennis player in Philly, and a newspaper publisher by that name out west, but no indication that any of these guys is our Al Burtis. In fact, the name may well be a pseudonym -- there is a Pennsylvania town by the name of Alburtis, and maybe our cartoonist was just paying homage to his hometown. Maybe Alex Jay will weigh in on our mystery man...

Thanks to Cole Johnson for the sample scans.


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