By Guest Blogger Charles A. Coletta, Ph.D.
The comic strip is a uniquely American art form with a long tradition in our culture. Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 propaganda cartoon, Join or Die, depicting a severed snake, is the earliest known pictorial representation of a colonial union produced by an American colonist. Paul Revere was another early American cartoonist, whose Boston Massacre print was an effective piece of war propaganda. The 1870s saw the beginnings of the humor and cartoon weeklies, the most popular being Puck, Judge, and Life. By the 1890s, media barons like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer were using comic strips to boost their newspapers’ circulation. The Yellow Kid, created by Richard F. Outcault of Lancaster, Ohio, was the first massively popular newspaper cartoon. It helped make the Sunday comics color supplements a necessity for millions of readers. Mickey Dugan, “the Yellow Kid,” was a bald gap-toothed boy with oversized ears who hung around the New York City slums wearing an oversized yellow nightshirt. He was embraced by readers and soon was appearing in advertisements and on a mountain of merchandise. The Yellow Kid and Buster Brown, Outcault’s other immortal creation, led the cartoonist to be called “The Father of the Comic Strip.” His work was popular with both adults and children. He is recognized for establishing the popularity of the newspaper comic strip as both an artistic and commercial form.
The comic strip is characterized by a narrative sequence told in a series of images, featuring a continuing cast of characters, and the inclusion of dialogue or text within the frame. During the early years of the twentieth century, a number of popular strips made their debut, including Little Nemo in Slumberland, Brining Up Father, Krazy Kat, Gasoline Alley, Mutt and Jeff, Barney Google, Harold Teen, and Thimble Theatre. The 1920s was an era when the comics pages were filled with both humor and serialized adventure strips that captivated the public imagination.
One of the most popular comic strips debuting in the 1920s was Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie (1924-2010). The strip, which is structured in long, novelistic narrative arcs, begins with the plucky orphan being adopted by Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, a rich industrialist. Annie occupies a bleak world and is continually traveling the country during her long separations from her adopted father. Sandy, her faithful dog, is her only constant companion. Harold Gray was ultra-conservative in his political beliefs and his stories are filled with capitalist ideology that held hard labor and rugged individualism were the only means to climb the social ladder.
Sidney Smith’s The Gumps (1917-1959) was one of the first strips to introduce long-running storylines. It concerned bald and chinless Andy Gump and his sensible wife Min. They were a middle-class couple who often faced money problems. In 1922, Andy ran for Congress, which allowed Smith to poke fun at modern politics. Smith’s most acclaimed storyline was “The Saga of Mary Gold” (1928-29) which depicted the death of one the strips most beloved characters. When the young woman succumbed to an extended illness, newspapers were flooded with calls and letters from distraught readers.
Gasoline Alley (1918-present) by Frank King was a favorite among many readers for its gentle humor about small town life. It began as a comic strip about chubby bachelor Walt Wallet and his neighborhood friends repairing their old jalopies, but the focus shifted on Valentine’s Day 1921. Walt discovered an abandoned newborn on his doorstep, whom he named “Skeezix.” One notable feature of this strip was that its characters aged in real time as the narrative continued. Over the decades, Skeezix grows up, graduates high school, joins the Army in 1942, marries, and becomes a father and grandfather.
Several popular comic strips of the 1920s featured young women coming of age during the Flapper Era. Fritzie Ritz debuted in 1929 and told of a beautiful brunette with many suitors. In 1933, the strip was transformed by the introduction of Fritzi’s niece Nancy, who quickly became the focus. Tillie the Toiler (1921-1959) was a secretary, stenographer, and part-time model. Winnie Winkle (1920-1996) was another young woman who served as the breadwinner for her family. In 1937, she married Will Wright and the strip focused on their life as a married couple. Will joined the Army in 1941 and disappeared, leaving his wife pregnant. Winnie was the first war widow in comics and coped with the problems of single motherhood.
Adventure strips were found throughout the comics pages during the 1920s and beyond. Among the most notable were Buck Rogers, Tailspin Tommy, Wash Tubbs & Captain Easy, and Tarzan. Buck Rogers (1929-67) was a “space opera” whose hero awakes from hundreds of years in suspended animation to find America fighting for its independence after four hundred years of Mongul domination. Tailspin Tommy (1928-42) was the first strip devoted to aviation. Tommy Tomkins and his wisecracking mechanic Skeets Milligan had numerous airplane-based adventures. Washington Tubbs II was a short, bespectacled Midwestern grocery clerk who longed for a more exciting life. He began wandering the globe searching for treasures and encountering numerous statuesque beauties. In 1929, Wash met a mysterious soldier of fortune who called himself Captain Easy. The duo’s adventures continued until 1988 when their strip ceased publication. The Lord of the Jungle first appeared in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1912 novel Tarzan of the Apes. He transitioned to newspaper comics in 1929 where he enjoyed a successful run for many decades.
One of popular culture’s most enduring characters to emerge from the newspaper comics pages of the 1920s is Popeye, the sailor. Elzie Segar’s Thimble Theatre began in 1919 with its main protagonists: Olive Oyl, her brother Castor Oyl, and suitor Ham Gravy. The trio embarked on a series of harebrained schemes. On January 17, 1929, they encountered a craggy-faced, one-eyed sailor who was intended as only a bit player in one narrative. However, Popeye soon captured the attention of readers who responded favorably to his strength, uncouth manner, and innate decency. In some respects, Popeye prefigures the rise of the superheroes a decade later.
Comic strips were an important mass entertainment during the 1920s. They were an integral part of American life for adults and children. Many of the most prominent characters began appearing on the radio, in staged adaptations, on movie screens, in popular songs, and advertising. In many ways, the comics creators and their work defined the era by providing a fascinating look into nearly every aspect of American life.
Charles A. Coletta, Ph.D. is an associate professor at Bowling Green State University in the Department of Popular Culture. He specializes in comics and cartoons, as well as being a frequent guest lecturer at the Hancock Historical Museum’s Brown Bag Lectures.