Monday, April 24, 2017
Obscurity of the Day: Useless Eustace
I'm fascinated by H.T. Elmo, whose main claim to fame I guess is that he gave Jack Kirby his first big break in cartooning. I'm more interested in his entrepreuneurial acumen, though. While he was syndicating grade B content to a very small list of weekly newspapers in the 1930s, he was also selling his wares to other venues. He seemed to have had a gift for selling to trade magazines, and produced strips and panel cartoons for several of those publications.
In the 1940s, he shrugged off the Lincoln Newspaper Syndicate for some reason, and started the Elmo Newspaper Syndicate. This syndicate also marketed mainly to weeklies, and most of the material for this syndicate was produced by Elmo himself, often under pseudonyms, with some help later on from Ruth Roche and Jerry Iger. What's really impressive is that Elmo managed to sell the same material for decades (yes, decades!) after he produced it. This was a guy who must really have known how to sell.
Useless Eustace was one of his flagship features of the new Elmo Features Syndicate. As far as I can tell, Elmo produced this strip from approximately 1941 to 1946. I've never seen an example in print before 1942, but the strip numbering would seem to make 1941 the logical start date, unless Elmo banked a big batch before he started syndicating. The highest numbered strip I've found is #272, giving weekly newspapers about 5 1/4 years worth of material to run.
Early on in the run, Useless Eustace was signed 'Jackson' (through #48), though it was obviously Elmo at the helm. Elmo signed as 'Hank' Elmo for a short while, then went by his real name on the strip, thus signalling that it was one of the offerings of his syndicate of which he was most proud.
The character Useless Eustace started out as a hillbilly in the mold of Snuffy Smith, but that aspect was dropped after 40 or 50 strips, and Eustace became more of an everyman. He did join the wartime military for awhile, and was stationed in Japan after the war for a short batch of strips. I'm surprised Elmo did that, because those current events-based strips weren't resellable later. Elmo must not have been thinking ahead in those days.
After the initial run came to an apparent end in 1946, the reselling began. In many cases, syndicates trying to resell their material fall flat with very few clients. Elmo, on the other hand, seemed to be able to sell his offerings better in reprint (perhaps because he offered bargain basement prices). In the 1950s, he added a few new offerings, mostly from Jerry Iger and Ruth Roche, but all the material was continually resold well into the 1970s, when these strips must have looked awfully outdated.