Tuesday, March 21, 2017


Obscurity of the Day: Cartoonagrams

In 1914 James Keeley bought the Chicago Record-Herald and Inter Ocean newspapers, and he renamed the conglomeration of the two as simply the Chicago Herald. He also livened the paper up considerably, first adding some black and white comic features, then a full fledged color comics section.

Among the first wave of new features was Charles A. Ogden's Cartoonagrams, which debuted on December 13 1914. The feature offered up a newspaper version of a very popular Vaudeville routine, the chalk talk. In the typical chalk talk routine, an artist would draw as he talked to the audience. Sometimes the routines featured simple sketching, but some were more creative. A favorite ploy was to begin drawing one thing, and then as the entertainer continued drawing and talking, unexpectedly have it turn into something else entirely. This was Charles Ogden's favorite trick, and his Cartoonagrams featured often wildly inventive turns on this idea. Reading his strips is about as near as we can get to seeing a real old-fashioned chlk talk, a form of entertainment that has disappeared so entirely that there exists hardly any record that they ever did exist.

Cartoonagrams ran until May 6 1917 in the Herald, and it was syndicated though it is rarely seen elsewhere. Sadly this was Mr. Ogden's only known newspaper feature. If he did live chalk talks as well, he never made much of a splash, which is surprising considering how creative he was. Perhaps his stage presence wasn't up to snuff, or his drawing suffered in front of an audience.

PS: if you're wondering about that headline on the top example, here are Mollie, Waddy and Tony.


I own several volumes of the old Federal School and Art Instruction, Inc. mail-order art courses. Even the 1945 edition offers a number of chalk-talk tutorials. The lessons combine step-by-step visuals with patter and presentation suggestions.

I wonder, though, if chalk talks were still relevant in the late 40s. But then the Art Instruction course seems always to have been a decade or so behind the curve. The 1945 course is heavy on examples from the 20s and 30s. The cartoon styles pictured are likewise early-20th century. In fact the entire project seems like a hodgepodge of stuff canvassed from founding father Charles "Bart" Bartholomew's buddies. Still interesting, though.
The chalk talk survived, sort of, as a cartoonist's parlor trick.

In Segar's Sunday Popeye pages, there's a stretch (volumes 5 & 6 of the Fantagraphics books) where Sappo drops continuities in favor of John Sappo doing very simple chalk talk tricks as if to an audience -- usually writing a word or name and building a face from it.

In the 50s Mooseketeer Roy Williams knocked out similarly simple words-into-drawings on the Mickey Mouse Club, sometimes to illustrate a song the kids were performing. The accent was on speed.

I dared siblings to challenge my own skill (My wise guy older sister wrote "antidisestablishmentarianism" in small script. I made it the hair sticking from under a wide-headed guy's hat). I can't have been the only kid thus inspired.
Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]