Monday, July 09, 2018
Obscurity of the Day: Billiken and Bobby
One of the more offbeat fads I've encountered is Billiken. A character who came to young artist Florence Pretz in a dream, she sculpted the vaguely Asian looking imp sitting on a sort of throne rather Buddha-like, and declared that he was "The God of Things as they Ought To Be." She began marketing the little sculptures in 1908, first taking Chicago by storm, then becoming a hit nationally and internationally. In addition to the little statuettes, the fad was parleyed into a number of products, including a Sunday comic strip series. For the most part the fad blew over quickly, but Billikens still retain their popularity today in a few places.
Billiken and Bobby was a sumptuously drawn fantasy of the Billiken character going on adventures with a kid named Bobby Jones. Bobby's father bought the child a Billiken statuette as a present, and Billiken comes to life and whisks Bobby away to various fantasy worlds. The series debuted on March 7 1909* (top example is the inaugural episode), and ran until September 19 1909**. The poems were credited to Bert Mann, and the art, which may have only been signed in the first episode, was by Tod Hunter (Todhunter?). Mr. Hunter is an enigma to me, but he certainly makes quite an impression with what is apparently his only foray into newspaper comic art.
Billiken and Bobby was at first copyrighted to The Billiken Company, but soon changed to credit one L.M. Berwin. I have no idea who this person might be, as that name does not come up in the Billiken histories I've read. The syndicate that distributed this series to papers is not officially credited, but I have a note that it was likely the McClure Syndicate; unfortunately I failed to say why I thought that was so. Looking at the tearsheets in my collection, I also find Billiken and Bobby strips paired with New York World and Hearst strips on the reverse, not just McClure material -- which in itself would not be proof anyway.
Like to know more about Billiken? It's a pretty interesting subject, and you'll find several really top-notch articles about it at the Church of Good Luck website. At Mondo Mascots they offer a good article on the continued popularity of the figures in Japan with lots of great pics.
The Billiken also has another newspaper comics connection; in the 1920s the Chicago Defender decided to create a sort of editorial mascot for their kids/comic page. Based on a Billiken statuette that perched on an editor's desk, they named their mascot Bud Billiken ... apparently not worried about copyright infringement. The Bud Billiken page became a Chicago institution, inspiring a Bud Billiken Club and an annual parade in Chicago.
Thanks to Cole Johnson for the scans.
* Source: Philadelphia Public Ledger
** Source: San Francisco Chronicle
I didn't realize until now that the name is a pun on "Billiken", which would have been well-known in Japan by then ("Ken" means "Dog" in Japanese, hence the pun)