Monday, February 15, 2021
Toppers: Nicodemus O'Malley
Unlike most cartoonists working for King Features, Ad Carter, the creator of Just Kids, seemed to know almost exactly what he wanted to do when the syndicate decreed that all Sunday pages would have topper strips added. On May 16 1926* Just Kids gained a topper that would last until the strip eschewed toppers altogether almost two decades later.
The topper was titled Nicodemus O'Malley (originally titled Nicodemus O'Malley's Uncle for the first two episodes) and it took one of the minor players from the main strip and simply moved him into a starring role on Sundays. Nicodemus was a younger kid than the rest of the gang, always getting into scrapes and trouble. His uncle was there to keep him in line and offer sage advice.
The relationship is a little murky. Nicodemus was, as best I can tell, the nephew of Mush Stebbins, the star of the main strip. Oddly, though, when Mush played the wise uncle in the topper, he was fitted with a bowler hat and never that I've seen referred to by name. Maybe this was a different uncle than Mush? I dunno.
It's relationship to the characters in the main strip notwithstanding, the dynamic between the two was very much like that between Skippy and Sooky in Percy Crosby's Always Belittlin', a topper strip to Skippy that debuted about six months after Nicodemus O'Malley.
The tiresomely fomulaic strip had little to recommend it until a decade later, when suddenly Ad Carter woke up to the fun he could have if he injected a fantasy element. On March 29 1936** the strip was retitled Nicodemus O'Mally and his Pet Whale Palsy-Walsy, taking little Nicodemus to the seas, riding on the back of his new-found friend all over the world. The strip finally gained visual interest, a sense of fun, and much better gags. I hope it is not too much of an insult to Ad Carter, but it makes me wonder if this burst of creativity speaks to a ghost coming on board.
In the 1940s topper strips started to fall out of favor with newspapers. They had the excuse of wartime paper shortages, but the primary reason was that those third-page holes made good spots for advertising. Ad Carter, probably recognizing the futility of putting a lot of effort into toppers, dropped Palsy-Walsy and the whole fantasy element on August 18 1940***. The topper remained, but went back to its boring old self, now with a slightly more mature Nicodemus and no uncle in sight. The topper drifted along for almost two more years, appearing in fewer and fewer papers, until Carter decided to give up on toppers altogether. The last Nicodemus O'Malley topper ran on April 19 1942***.
* Source: Columbus Dispatch
** Source: Sandusky Register
*** Source: Montana Standard
Labels: Topper Features
Mush was originally the star of his own series, "Our Friend Mush" in the waning days of the Philadelphia Inquirer syndicate. Do you think there was any problem with, at the time, confusion over who owned the character? I know that eventually, the strip reverted to using his name, as in your post of 14 March 2006:
Having said that - I was wondering if you knew of a strip (or longer comic) I saw as a kid in 1975. It appeared in some kind of "annual" or a yearbook that my ma picked up at maybe a garage sale in Nashville that summer, for something to entertain me at the hotel we stayed at that summer. Anyway, one particular comic stayed with me, and it involved a girl who...excuse my hazy memory ...was sort of a detective? Our heroine was decidedly frumpy, a bit chubby, possibly bespectacled, and, what I remember most - rode around on a penny-farthing bicycle. Her name may have even BEEN Penny Farthing. It was drawn in the semi-realistic, linear comic style common to the late 60's/early 70's, and if I recall correctly, colored in a two-tone (black lines with brown or sepia coloring) print. Unlike my other childhood books, this one unfortunately disappeared somewhere, likely recirculating back into the realm of garage sales. Again, apologies for the foggy memory, but the one element I can definitely ride on is the Penny Farthing.
Thanks for the cool site, and I hope you can help. It's a mystery almost 50 years in the making.
The description that e r offers, the "annual", the coloring, and the character all point to some British publication, wouldn't you say?