Wednesday, November 28, 2018
Obscurity of the Day: Fatty Spilliker
George H. Blair produced a number of comic strips for the Boston Globe, but the one that became his bread and butter, and ran for over a quarter of a century, never had a title. It had a consistent cast and locale, but Blair could not bring himself to put one character, or even the name of the family, up there in the title bar. Instead, as you can see in the samples above, the headline always related to the day's gag and only mentioned character names in passing.
The strip to which I have assigned the name Fatty Spilliker began on November 24 1901, introducing a family that would eventually be known as the Hoobleys, but were then called the Goodwins. The star of these early strips was the trouble-courting pre-teen daughter, Kitty. She was every bit the match for Buster Brown in hellraising. She had a brother, a little younger than she, a well-behaved kid named Danny. That poor kid often suffered along with her, pulled along to trouble in her wake.
The earliest strips called her Kurious Kitty, thus tantalizing future researchers that this would be the name of the strip. But Blair tired of that, and Kitty lost her descriptive title after only a handful of episodes.
Mom, dad and grandma were present in the strip but were rarely named. An older sister was there, too, but she was soon married off, leaving the strip. In 1902 Uncle Henry came on the scene, and he became a sometimes co-star. An officious-looking gent, he was a great foil for Kitty's pranks. He was soon followed by hayseed Uncle Zeke, who owned a farm next door. This character opened the door to gags involving farm animals, always a rich vein for naughty kid pranks.
On March 22 1903, Kitty brought home a stray mutt, who was named Percy two Sundays later. Percy threatened to take over the strip, starring in gag after gag that year. But eventually Percy had to be content to be a member of the troupe, not the star of the show.
Blurring the lines even further, Blair started giving his other running characters cameos in the strip. Mister Dusenberry moved into the neighborhood in 1903, and thereafter his own strip disappeared. Absent-Minded Abner also made occasional appearances, but his own strip kept running for many years, albeit at a much curtailed frequency.
It wasn't until 1904 that Blair finally found himself a character who he'd offer star billing, if not in title at least by frequency of the starring role. Fatty Spilliker showed up out of nowhere on April 17 1904, nonchalantly acting as if he'd been part of the show from the beginning. As far as I can discern there was never an explanation as to where he came from, where he lived, or if he was somehow related. He was just sort of .. there. He wasn't the stereotypical dim-witted fat kid so often seen in this sort of strip. What defined him, beyond the typical Buster Brown-inspired shenangians, is that he thought he was a lot smarter and worldly-wise than he really was -- not dumb, mind you, but not the mastermind he believed himself to be. Fatty Spilliker concocts lots of ingenious schemes that generally blow up in his face, but sometimes he does get a good one over on Uncle Henry, his most common foil.
All the characters were now finally in place, and the strip basically ran on auto-pilot for the ensuing twenty-four years. What was already a somewhat dated looking strip in the 1900s looked ludicrously antiquated by the 1920s, and the writing was just as creaky twenty years after it debuted. It certainly didn't help that the strip was demoted to a third-page format at the beginning of that decade, and then further miniaturized to a quarter-page format. By October 28 1928, when it breathed its last still untitled gasp, I doubt that it was missed by many Globe readers.
While it is true that Blair never assigned a running title to the strip, that didn't stop some anonymous syndicate from assigning it one when they made an attempt to distribute old episodes of the series in the mid-1920s. They called it Fatty Spilliker's Troubles, a perfectly serviceable choice. Speaking of syndication, by the way, the Globe did attempt to syndicate this strip and Ed Payne's Billy the Boy Artist, but never managed to interest more than a few clients.
PS: In my book I list this feature under the title Percy and the Hoobley Family. Why I chose that title as the primary one I don't know except that Percy the dog does get title billing a lot, despite Fatty Spilliker clearly being the star of the show. The second edition, if and when it comes, will have this strip listed as Fatty Spilliker.