Wednesday, January 11, 2023


Toppers: Old Doc Yak


The Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate was a johnny-come-lately to the world of toppers, but when they finally caved in to peer pressre in late 1930, their cartoonists behaved much as those at other syndicates and many just revived one of their old strips as the new bonus attraction. 

Before Sidney Smith became one of the most widely known and richest cartoonists in the world for his huge smash hit The Gumps, he had already been a mainstay in the Tribune Sunday section for years with, among other features, Old Doc Yak. The strip starred ... yes ... a yak. But Doc had very few yak-like properties; his schtick was mainly speeding around in his jalopy, Old Number 348, trying to collect on his doctoring bills, coming up with money-making schemes, or jousting with his son, Yutch.

Despite Old Doc Yak being a Tribune reader favorite, in 1917 Smith came up with the idea for The Gumps, and he felt so strongly that it would be a big success that he actually had Old Doc Yak lose his house to The Gumps when they took over the daily strip. In 1919, with The Gumps obviously the wave of the future, Yak sold his Old Number 348 to them in his final Sunday. The virtual handshake to turn over the reins to the new kids in town was completed.

 So when Smith was called on in 1930 to add a topper, Old Doc Yak was taken out of the mothballs Starting with the Sunday of December 7 1930, half-hearted strips like that above were grudgingly added. They certainly didn't have the magic of the original Doc Yak strips, and Smith used his clout with the syndicate to finally dump the topper a little over three years later. The last Old Doc Yak topper ran on February 25 1934. Until long after Smith's death The Gumps Sundays were never again saddled with toppers. 

If Old Doc Yak sounds intriguing to you (the original, not the topper), head on over to Barnacle Press, where they have a substantial collection of Old Doc Yak strips, including the dailies which are (IMO) the most fun.


Hello Alan-
For many years, I've heard that most of the Chicago Tribune characters were devised by Colonel Paterson himself, and the artists just followed instructions, whether they had much interest or not, but would be guaranteed strong backing by the powerful syndicate. That would explain so much mediocrity over there.
Could the Gumps have started out that way, and that's why Doc Yak had to give up his home and belongings in what seems almost like a surrender ceremony?

My time machine's on the blink again, so who can say. But Smith was an unadulterated comic genius, no two ways about it, and if Patterson had the idea for a comedy - adventure - soap mashup that's all well and good but in lesser hands than Smith's it probably would have gone nowhere. In fact it did, because there were somewhat Gumps-like strips earlier on that rate only obscurity status.

In fact I've always been a little mystified by Goulart, Horn et al claiming that The Gumps was groundbreaking, the first continuity strip, etc etc. In fact there was darn little continuity in the strip early on, and it followed a path well worn by other 'family' strips that employed light continuity. Seems like it's more that it rang a bell with the Trib readers, and was available just as the Trib syndication sales force was waking up and beginning to knock on doors.

Obviously, the ChiTrib strips often would gravitate to sudsy continuities after establishing themselves as gag-a-days at the start. Guess Roger Bean was the first daily soap opera family melodrama, but the Gumps was the first really well distributed big syndicate one, and that changed the comics world. It was a new and exciting formula, especially for editors, as it proved a compelling hook to sell tomorrow's papers with. Note that Toots and Casper was changed to become a knockoff of the Gumps beginning in the early 20s.
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