Saturday, May 01, 2021


Herriman Saturday


January 31 1910 -- In a comic strip that initially has you thinking that Herriman is actually going to come out on the right side of a racial question for a change, he pulls the rug from under us in the final two panels. Turns out he's just mocking boxers who are willing to take on Sam Langford.


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Friday, April 30, 2021


The Wheeler-Nicholson Syndicate, Part XVII (Conclusion)

Based  on the evidence at hand, The Syndicator's last issue was for material intended to appear August 29 to September 4 1926. The Wheeler-Nicholson syndicate seems to have ended its business at or near the same time.

Here are two short items from Editor & Publisher that serve as the proof. In the September 4 issue (concurrent with the final week of The Syndicator) we find that Oscar Hitt, the syndicate's number one cartoonist, has left the company:

Oscar Hitt, formerly with Wheeler-Nicholson and the New York World Syndicate, is now handling his own comic feature. Associated with him is Maurice Workstel, art critic.
While that item isn't conclusive, by the November 27 issue there is no room for doubt in this short mention:

A.L. Brandt, formerly with the Wheeler-Nicholson Syndicate, now defunct, has joined the sales staff of United.

It's too bad that no publication I've found published a real post mortem about Wheeler-Nicholson, because that would make for fascinating reading, but the evidence in E&P, while terse, is definitive.

It seems almost incomprehensible that Wheeler-Nicholson's The Syndicator lasted a mere eight issues, but all evidence seems to point to that being true. Even if the concept was not the most brilliant to come down the pike, and the material lackluster, if it is true that the service was offered for a practical pittance, why did it not have even a slight brush with success? 

But maybe that assumption is wrong. Perhaps the company could not in fact offer the material as cheaply as they claimed in their advertising. With investors being asked to shell out real money, labour and materials in service to producing The Syndicator, the syndicate may have had no choice but to over-reach on their prices. If that were true, it makes perfect sense that there were few takers. NEA and other blanket services were already pretty inexpensive, so if Wheeler-Nicholson couldn't compete on price, their wares were certainly not so fabulous as to make up for that. 

There's also the possibility that Wheeler-Nicholson had the ability to produce the needed mountains of material snatched away. The blanket service had already imploded once at the beginning of January, so why couldn't that happen again? Investors, apparently primarily production plants, might have had Wheeler-Nicholson on a very short leash. After eight weeks they could have expected to see a stack of signed client contracts. When that stack came in too short, the plug was pulled. Alternatively, it could have been the creative personnel who pulled the plug. The company might have made promises to pay them once eight weeks of material had been produced and distributed, and they failed to come through. 

If the Major had intended, as I believe he did, to leverage The Syndicator into a newsstand magazine, perhaps he could not pull that off in the very short time he had to put the plan into action, or his bid for newsstand distribution was rebuffed in some way that made it obvious to his investors that the plan was not going to work. It could well be that the plug was pulled not because the syndication wasn't immediately profitable, but because the other and more important phase of the business plan turned out to be a dead end. Could it be that what the Major learned from this experience were the lessons he needed to make his next foray into the newsstand magazine field, almost a decade later,more fruitful?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

There is quite an irony to the timing of Wheeler-Nicholson, Inc.'s demise. I have to thank another of my brilliant readers and fellow researchers, Jeffrey Lindenblatt, for pointing this out to me. 

If the company had held on just a mere half a year longer, a veritable wink of an eye in business, the syndication business was going to have a shake-up, one that could have offered a blanket service like Wheeler-Nicholson's a road to financial success. In April 1927, the New York Telegram, one of the ever-struggling second-tier papers in New York City, was sold to the Scripps chain. Scripps was the parent company of NEA, and so the newspaper contracted with NEA to provide their blanket service. In order to boost sales of the Telegram, NEA was instructed to consider this client paper to be on an exclusive contract encompassing a huge area around New York City. 

NEA's blanket service, used by many small papers in the environs of New York City, was suddenly cut off. These client papers were all of a sudden in a frenzied search for material to fill their now empty pages. If Wheeler-Nicholson had managed to keep up their service until April 1927, they would have been able to sign a slew of clients in the New York - New Jersey - Connecticut area, easily enough to put Wheeler-Nicholson on firm financial footing.

Here's an example from the Yonkers Statesman of the sea change that happened in April 1927, all but one strip had to be changed from one week to the next:

That's the end of our series about the Wheeler-Nicholson syndicate. If you come across any new information, you know I'm always eager to hear about it!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

Index to this Series:

Part I (introduction)

Part II (first stirrings of the syndicate)

Part III (Vivian Vanity first series; defection of N. Brewster Morse)

Part IV (Great Mystery and Adventure series)

Part V (1925 text features)

Part VI (Hot Doggerel; Joe Archibald sports feaures; the January 1926 implosion)

Part VII (new series of Vivian Vanity; capital increase)

Part VIII (1926 E&P Syndicate Directory advertisement for The Syndicator)

Part IX (1926 E&P Syndicate Directory list of Wheeler-Nicholson features; syndicate backers)

Part X (The Syndicator text features)

Part XI (Oscar Hitt: Ambitious Ambrose, Wally and his Pals, Hi-Way Henry, Uncle Eph)

Part XII (M.A. Dunning: They Never Do This But Once, Maggie's Yiddish Moe)

Part XIII (Joe Archibald's features in The Syndicator era)

Part XIV (Afonsky's editorial cartoons; On The Links)

Part XV (Squirrel Food; Mike O'Kay; Looney Land)

Part XVI (A.B. Chapin cartoons; Fables in Slangwidge; College Comics)

Part XVII (syndicate end and conclusion)

Thanks, Allan! A most informative series, with many questions to think about.
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Thursday, April 29, 2021


The Wheeler-Nicholson Syndicate, Part XVI

 Coming down to the wire here on Wheeler-Nicholson, Inc. We have only to cover three more features today, and then tomorrow a final wrap-up. 

First off today we cover a real oddity (an oddity amongst oddities, I suppose). In amongst the sporadic editorial cartoons by 'Meetrich' and sports editorials by Joe Archibald, I found two cartoons by A.B. Chapin, apparently intended for op-ed pages by the syndicate even though the cartoons are clearly non-topical humour. Odder still, Chapin at this time was gainfully employed by the Autocaster Service to produce a weekly frequency feature of exactly the same sort of cartoons. 

Since the Autocaster feature was a weekly, perhaps Chapin was free to shop around his wares to other syndicates as well, and I guess that could explain this. But a relatively high-profile guy like Chapin selling individual cartoons to Wheeler-Nicholson? Hmm, doesn't readily pass my smell test.

Anyway, here they are:

Next we have our final strip offered by Wheeler-Nicholson, called Fables in Slangwidge. Obviously the title is trading on the very popular George Ade book Fables in Slang -- to the point of copyright infringement --  and the material in this strip has got it's 1920's hipness turned up to the max. 

The author of this attractive strip was Jack Wilhelm, whose delightful drawings were, at least at this point in his career, not matched by any facility in writing. These strips about the young generation of the Roaring 20's are rather painful to read. But then this is his first known cartoon feature, so he's forgiveably wet behind the ears.

The flapperdom subject really appealed to Wilhelm, and his next two features, Meet The Misses and That Certain Party, both for McClure, would be more of the same except with somewhat improved writing. 

From what I can gather from the scattershot printing of Wheeler-Nicholson material, I'd guess that Fables in Slangwidge could have been a short-term series. Or perhaps I misunderstand -- maybe the reason it is seldom seen is that Wilhelm's wispy lines were really hard for these small papers to make into decent printing plates, and they often gave up. As it is, I had a heck of a time finding halfway legible samples to reproduce here; most looked like someone dumped mud all over the plates. I used to think there was only about one week's worth of this strip, but I did manage to find a sample that is numbered 24, so unless that is a red herring, the strip made it a minimum of at least four weeks:

Finally, we'll cover an oddball feature that strangely enough was also the only one to outlast the syndicate. Somehow the Major got a contract for reprinting cartoons from a very minor magazine titled College Comics, the poor cousin to College Humor. These magazines established agreements to reuse cartoons from college humour magazines, a very popular campus publication genre of those days. Wheeler-Nicholson ran a selection of these cartoons each week under the banner title College Comics. The typical ration might have  been about four cartoons per week, it's hard to tell. Newspapers were free to cut the individual cartoons apart and run them separately, which many did. Here's some samples:


The interesting thing about College Comics, and the reason I left it for last, is that it did in fact outlive the syndicate. It seems that Cosmos Newspaper Syndicate liked the idea of this sort of feature. Not hard to believe since the contract presumably gives the syndicate carte blanche to reproduce as much as they want from that humour mag -- one low price for a mountain of material. So as Wheeler-Nicholson was winking out of existence, the contract for College Comics presumably got sold or leased as one of their assets, and thus was born Collegiate Fun, basically the same idea but with lots more text material. Note in the masthead the credit to Wheeler-Nicholson, and that it now states explicitly that it is by permission of College Comics magazine. This feature didn't last very long even at Cosmos, presumably because the source magazine itself succumbed in short order.

I've got 15 Fables in Slangwidge strips that are different than the five you've posted, so there were at least 20 in total.
I'm pretty sure the College Comics panel titled "Two Hardy Perennials" is a very early S. J. Perelman.
Signature seems a little off from others I've seen, but I agree, that certainly looks like his work. Thanks for pointing it out!
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Wednesday, April 28, 2021


The Wheeler-Nicholson Syndicate, Part XV

 More cartoonists from Wheeler-Nicholson's The Syndicator period today. First we have Squirrel Food, a small one-column panel that seems not to have been intended for the comics page; at least it's used elsewhere in the paper whenever I see it, primarily as a hole-filler. The idea is derivative of Bughouse Fables, the Billy DeBeck panel showcasing people who say and do bizarre things, and to some extent Rube Goldberg's Foolish Questions. The cartoonist, known only as 'Heck', does a perfectly creditable job on this small panel, offering up pretty consistent chuckles or at least smirks. Too bad Heck wasn't producing more for the syndicate.

I'm guessing that this Heck person is the same guy who later produced Figurin' Sam for the Boston Record. The styles aren't too far apart, and they both exhibit a very well-developed funnybone. They also both favour the byline "By Heck."

Next up we have Mike O'Kay*, sort of a bright spot on the line-up because although the art is just barely professional, at least the idea is one that hasn't already been through the wringer. Granted, setting a comedy strip in the back woods with an outdoorsman as the titular funnymaker is of questionable merit, but at least we can assume that this is something worth judging on its own two feet, not by comparing it to some much more famous feature. 

Mike O'Kay is credited to 'Roberts', and unfortunately I don't have a clue who this might be. Could it be W.O. Roberts, who did a weekly strip called The Life of Christ the next year, or Paul Roberts, who later did a local panel for the Philadelphia Record? I doubt it. Anyone have an idea?

* really, that's the name, though in my samples here the newspaper couldn't seem to get the right title with the right strip

Last but definitely not least today, we have Looney Land, a panel cartoon offering outlandish animals described in humorous poetry. This, for my money, is the best strip or panel offered in Wheeler-Nicholson's The Syndicator. The cartooning is delightful and so is the poetry -- and regular readers know how rarely I positively review comic poetry. It is not technically proficient, granted, but it is bouncy, fun and has genuinely witty wordplay.

If this panel had been produced a decade or two later, we'd be rolling our eyes and accusing cartoonist Jim Navoni of trying to channel Dr. Seuss. But of course the good Doctor hadn't yet produced anything for the world at large to see in 1926, so the accusation is baseless. Perhaps we should accuse Geisel of copying Navoni?

 Navoni was also slated to produce Charley the Chump according to the E&P listings back in June. Unfortunately that strip appears never to have seen the light of day. 

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Tuesday, April 27, 2021


The Wheeler-Nicholson Syndicate, Part XIV

We've got more cartoonists to meet from the new crop that started with The Syndicator, but we need to take a quick second look at our workhorse of 1925, Nicholas Afonsky. Theoretically, he is still with the syndicate, churning out increasingly shorter adaptations for the Great Mystery and Adventure series. By the way, despite advertising to the contrary, that series and Vivian Vanity may not have been included in The Syndicator. My impression is that they were still distributed as standalone features -- I say this because you don't very often see papers that run The Syndicator material also running these two series. 

My initial guess was that Afonsky produced those Great Mystery and Adventure series adaptation quickly, and was already gone by the time of The Syndicator. The fact that he supplied editorial cartoons to The Syndicator under his old pseudonym of Meetrich I assumed to be reuse of old material, since the cartoons are of the 'evergreen' variety. However, in the very small number of these I could track down, one lone example puts that idea to rest. The top cartoon below is a reference to the Cristero War in Mexico, which didn't get going until mid-1926.



Let's get back to the comics page. Our next feature is On The Links, a golf strip by Dic Loscalzo, a cartoonist who thought enough of his strip that it was published ... I'm guessing self-published ... in book form. The book, which seems to be just slightly less scarce than hen's teeth, is 48 pages, which certainly seems to mesh nicely with my belief that The Syndicator ran for eight weeks. 

On The Links is another strip that didn't garner much favour from small-town Wheeler-Nicholson subscribers; it is seldom seen perhaps because the golf mania had not really taken hold in these parts of the country. Or, maybe it was just kinda awful. Here are some samples that show there was some intention of an ongoing storyline, but I've seen so few that I'd be guessing to offer any sort of synopsis:


The Walter Donaldson song "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby" dates from 1925, so that's at least one very close tie (as if the Prohibition ref wasn't enough) to the time period. Something of a knockoff of Rollin Kirby's "Mr. Dry." The others are, yes, pretty banal and evergreen.
The "European Shopkeepers" squeezing the "American Tourist" suggests the cartoonist (or his boss) just came back from a trip in a bad mood. What fraction of any general newspaper's readership would find that pertinent?

Makes me think of the Onion's mock editorial cartoons, nominally created by an irascible jerk positioning all his personal grievances as national issues.
DBenson's question is a good one, re what fraction would get the "tourist" crack, especially in the pre-jet era. My guess is a surprising fraction, owing to the fact that literally millions of Americans had experienced France just a few years before in the war, and it had left a mark on them (cf: "How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree)?") The chiseling European hotelkeeper was a stock gag for a long time.
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Monday, April 26, 2021


The Wheeler-Nicholson Syndicate, Part XIII

 Today we'll take a second look at Joe Archibald's cartooning work for Wheeler-Nicholson. Unlike most of the rest of the 1926 crew, he'd been at Wheeler-Nicholson practically from the beginning, producing various sports series. We looked over his 1925 series in Part 6 of this series. At that time his series were Champions Past and Present, Lest We Forget the Old Time Stars and The Muscle Movie

In The Syndicator era, all of these series continued. You have to wonder how much material was just reused, when, for instance, samples of The Muscle Movie still bear 1925 copyright, and copyright years seem to be suspiciously absent from the other features. Here are some samples of his old series that ran in 1926:

Archibald was also tapped for additional sports material. His new bread and butter sports feature was titled Doing the Sporting Thing. This is definitely not recycled material, because the information is up to date as of mid-1926. It could be run with or without the text block.

In addition to Doing the Sporting Thing, which focused on capsule bios of sports stars, Archibald was also supplying a true sports editorial cartoon, but either clients weren't interested, or it was rarely produced. Here are the only two examples I can find:

If this weren't enough, Archibald was also given his first and only non-sports assignment for Wheeler-Nicholson, a panel cartoon for the comics page. His feature was titled Why Boys Leave Home, and it's pretty standard Briggs/Webster sort of thing, this one focusing on memories of the less fun aspects of being a kid:

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