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Classic Strips and Storylines

By: Michael Taube
May 21, 2019

eading the comics in newspapers and magazines used to be one of life’s great pleasures for children and adults. Alas, we’re witnessing a gradual decline in readership due to a significant decrease in the amount of print space made available to the funny pages.

Not only is this situation unfunny, it’s a crying shame. Some comics flourish online, but the loss of its original medium won’t warm the cockles of the hearts of traditionalists. Fortunately, there’s still time to revitalize interest—and the best place to start is to revisit the model utilized by the great comic strips of yesteryear.

The cartoonist’s key to success was to maintain the readers’ interests, either through daily gags or compelling storylines, so they would keep coming back. As Martin Sheridan wrote in Comics and Their Creators (1944), “Most important of all factors is the comic strip artist’s success in his knowledge of people, places and things. He is expected to please everybody. He may not get a laugh out of them every day, but if he can furnish a humorous tidbit that will amuse readers a few times a week, he will find his work on the success side of the ledger.”

Older strips had the opportunity to “grow” over the course of a calendar year. Characters would interact with one another, go on adventures, face different situations and mishaps, and succeed or fail at the task at hand. Loyal readers would wait with anticipation for the next daily strip, and full-color Sunday funnies, to find out what happened next.  

In 2012 the Library of American Comics launched a book series entitled Library of American Comics (LOAC) Essentials, which reproduces an entire year of a classic comic strip. Each page contains one daily black-and-white strip, which creates a unique shape and design for the 4.25” x 11.5” hardcover volumes. Ten different strips in twelve volumes, with introductions by well-respected comics historians and authors, have been released to date. (I reviewed Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 for the Washington Times in 2013, and Vol. 3 for the Washington Post in 2014.)

Dean Mullaney, LOAC founder and Essentials series editor, suggests this format “allows us at least in some small way to have an experience similar to what newspaper buyers had fifty to a hundred years ago—reading the comics one day at a time.” Indeed, that’s the best way to interpret this project and, hopefully, reignite interest in daily/weekend strips.

Volumes 1, 6, and 12 examined the entire run of George Herriman’s Baron Bean from Jan. 5, 1916 to Jan. 18, 1919. It’s regarded as “one of Herriman’s richest and funniest creations, second only to Krazy Kat,” his most well-known strip, according to Jared Gardner’s Vol. 1 introduction. The hilarious misadventures of Baron Bean and his short offbeat sidekick, Grimes, had a Mutt & Jeff-type feel to it almost from day one. The “bogus baron,” as he was delightfully called by Gardner, occasionally resembled a cartoon version of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, although “Herriman’s own tramp…is something of an inverse of the big-hearted and generous Tramp…the ‘Baron’ counts on his fictional title to serve as credit for a nobility he rarely displays.”

Gardner notes in Vol. 6 that Herriman had realized by Baron Bean’s second year it was “not finding the audience that Krazy had secured.” Undaunted, the experienced cartoonist began to experiment with concepts like “identity games” to build his audience. He explored what it means “to be a ‘Baron’ if you are, in fact, dead broke and living in a country without an official aristocracy,” and if the “baron in question also happens to be of decidedly low breeding, an inveterate gambler with less interest in high culture than even Jiggs in George McManus’s Bringing Up Father?” 

There was also a push to get the strip “moving at a frenetic pace right up to the very end.” Baron Bean and Grimes picked up many new careers, from secret agent to newspaper editor. “The bizarre combination of hucksterism and domesticity, of frenetic movement and paralyzing stasis, of outsized passions and mundane objects of desire,” writes Gardner, “made for an exciting strip.” But the formula didn’t work, and the strip came to an abrupt end. That’s unfortunate, since it should have been a great success.

The remaining volumes of LOAC Essentials (to date) have been one-off examinations of classic strips and storylines.

Sidney Smith’s The Gumps is the subject of Vol. 2. This middle-class human family first appeared in Feb. 1917 as the new tenants of a house abandoned by his previous anthropomorphic strip, Old Doc Yak. The strip would “pioneer the open-ended serial,” according to Gardner, and the “trials and tribulations of its family and friends were front page news and breakfast table conversation in households across the country.”

Volume 3 focuses on Cliff Sterrett’s Polly and Her Pals. Bruce Canwell’s introduction suggests the Perkins family, which included flapper Polly, her Paw Sam’l, Maw Suzie, and Japanese servant Neewah, “was likely inspired by Sterrett’s experiences and observations of life in rural Maine.” It had a unique Surrealist feel with geometric shapes, wild curves and angles, and bizarre color and black-and-white patterns. Unfortunately, the strip struggled to maintain a steady audience, and Sterrett’s talents were always “underrated.”

V.T. Hamlin’s Alley Oop is studied in Vol. 4. The adventures take place in the kingdom of Moo, featuring Oop, his girlfriend Oola, and Dinny the dinosaur. The LOAC collection deals with the introduction of Dr. Elbert Wonmug's time machine that took the characters to different historical periods, as well as the Moon. As Michael H. Price writes in the introduction, “Alley Oop combined many popular and personal interests: slapstick comedy, boisterous high adventure, science fiction, as well as Hamlin’s fascination with prehistory.” The 87-year-old strip is still running, and remains popular with its fan base.

Volume 5 concentrates on Harry J. Tuthill’s The Bungle Family. This strip debuted in 1918 as Home, Sweet Home. The main characters George and Josephine Bungle were “perpetually involved in a seemingly endless succession of small-minded squabbles,” Paul Tumey writes, “punctuated with shameless scrambles for the riches and status that would allow them to claw their way up from their lower middle class purgatory.” The gag-a-day strip never had a punchline, but was rather “just a slow, steady boil.”

The other collections are intriguing, too. Vol. 7 looks at Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes, as illustrated by Hal Foster and Rex Mason. Vol. 8 is a brilliant overview of Herriman’s masterpiece, Krazy Kat. Lyman Young and Alex Raymond’s long-running adventure series, Tim Tyler’s Luck, is dealt with in Vol. 9. Norman Marsh’s Dan Dunn, the focus of Vol. 10, had a “resemblance, in both appearance and modus operandi, to Dick Tracy,” but eventually became a very good detective strip with its own identity. Edwina Dumm, one of the earliest female syndicated cartoonists, is the subject of Vol. 11 with her superb “Cap” Stubbs and Tippie, which “captured the innate warmth and wonder of child and the trials, triumphs, and elasticity of family.”  

All in all, readers get a sense of what made the older comic strips great. Some had an endearing innocence, like The Gumps and The Bungle Family, that people could relate to. Others contained great adventures, like Tarzan of the Apes, Alley Oop, and Tim Tyler’s Luck, which provided some well-needed fantasies to counter society’s harsh realities. Still others were brilliant, zany, and outside-the-box, like Baron Bean, Krazy Kat and Polly and Her Pals, which allowed the imagination to run wild.

The future of LOAC Essentials is extremely bright. The thirteenth volume will examine Alfred Andriola’s Charlie Chan this summer, and it’s a project that could theoretically go on indefinitely. As long as our interest in comics in newspapers and magazines doesn’t continue to wane, that is.