Monday, November 29, 2021
Obscurity of the Day: Mr. Straphanger
Does Mr. Straphanger really qualify as an obscurity? Well, let's put it down as at least an honorary member of the club. It was the only Sunday comic strip offered by the Detroit News, and as such you could reasonably guess that it would garner little interest from newspaper editors, who'd rather work with more established sources for their syndicated material. But just from my collection I can offer a list of major papers that took it: Milwaukee Journal, Washington Star, Boston Post, Brooklyn Eagle, El Paso Herald, Dallas Morning News, etc.
I hate to admit that newspaper feature editors might actually be able to recognize superb art when they see it; they so rarely show such taste. But maybe in the case of Burt Thomas' Mr. Straphanger their normally sleepy eyes for once were forced open. The strip was seldom very funny, which is odd since Thomas' earlier work impresses me in that department, but the quality of his art, though also not as sumptuous as early in his career, is still impeccably clean and beautifully executed.
The term 'straphanger', now almost forgotten, once was a colorful term for a suburban commuter, typically an office worker who had to shoehorn themselves onto public transportation at the same rush hour as everyone else in a city -- hence they rarely found a seat, but hung onto the overhead straps in the streetcars and buses. Mr. Straphanger seems to me a little well-heeled for that sort of lifestyle, but his actual position at the office he frequents is never (that I've read) made clear, and in the later years of the series he spent much of his time trying to strike it rich through various schemes.
Mr. Straphanger has a family -- wife, teenage daughter, young son -- but they are barely supporting players, mostly there as window-dressing. The comic generally has the titular star, sometimes along with his canine companion, Elmer, getting into outlandish situations by his own devices. The strip also had a little continuity -- the top example here is from a set of strips about him losing Elmer the dog, for instance. Later in the run the continuity came much more to the fore, in my opinion to the detriment of the humor.
Burt Thomas was the Detroit News' well-regarded editorial cartoonist, and so Mr. Straphanger wasn't really his bread and butter, but it may be that the character originated on the op-ed page. Some histories state that Mr. Straphanger was originally a character used in his editorial cartoons to represent the commuting people of Detroit versus the 'traction trust' that was railed against in most major cities at one time or another.
The Mr. Straphanger Sunday page began on February 26 1922* and ended sometime in 1932, almost certainly on April 10 1932**, a page that appears to be a sort of farewell, with Mr. Straphanger finally striking it rich in a strip titled "The Fade Out". However, the strip was advertised in the 1932 E&P Directory which comes out around August, which would seem to indicate it may have run longer. Unfortunately I ran out of time with the Detroit News microfilm in the Library of Congress before I could find a definitive end date.
After the original run of the strip ended, some of the material was resold to World Color Printing. They seem to have only bought the tail end of the strip's run. They began running Mr. Straphanger on May 20 1934, and ended on February 17 1935* with "The Fade Out", which makes a strong case for it being the end of the original series as well.
PS -- In the 1931 E&P Syndicate Directory the strip is listed as a daily and Sunday feature. I think this was a typo as I've never seen a daily version of the strip.
* Source: Detroit News
** Source: Monroe Morning World
*** Source: Mexico Intelligencer