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When the Comics Migrate from the Funnies

January, 2004
By Diane DeBlois

Polls agree: Americans turn first to the ‘funny pages’ of newspapers. Since the 1890s and the feud between New York titans Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, newspaper publishers have understood this attraction and vied for the most popular of the comic strips. Given the enormous commercial potential of reader loyalty, it’s no wonder that the very first comic strip character soon migrated from the newspaper to ephemera.

The comic strip, as we have come to know it, had antecedents in European humor magazines, such as Punch; or in the Swiss (Rodolphe Töpffer), German (Wilhelm Busch), or French (Georges Colomb) picture stories that combined text and image to tell extended narratives – or even in cave paintings. But the American artist Richard Felton Outcault is recognized as the true inventor of “the comics.” In 1894, his large cartoon “Feudal Pride in Hogan’s Alley” appeared in the humor magazine Truth– featuring a bald-headed, night-shirted kid. His “Hogan’s Alley” debuted the next year as a regular feature in Pulitzer’s New York World. And, in 1896, the Yellow Kid appeared in his definitive form in “Hogan’s Alley,” and Outcault was lured away to Hearst’s New York Journal, taking the Kid with him.

The Kid (actually named Mickey Dugan) was the first of that hardy breed: the comic character who was instantly recognizable (the yellow nightshirt), adaptable (he made sarcastic commentary on everything from new-fangled inventions to corrupt politicians), and winsome enough to sell products (he appeared on illustrated music sheets, trade cards, key chains, etc.) But Outcault abandoned Hearst and the Kid in 1898 and, after a few false starts, came up with an even more durable character, Buster Brown. From his first appearance in the New York Herald’s Sunday comic supplement of 4 May, 1902, the fresh-faced boy and his talkative bulldog Tige were a huge success. Hearst lured Outcault away for a second time in 1905 where the pair became “Buster and Tige” in January 1906. The Kid’s commercial possibilities were slightly hampered by his foul mouth and slum neighborhood; Buster Brown’s possibilities were endless. Outcault set up a booth at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and sold rights to the character to any manufacturer willing to pay the fee. Buster’s and Tige’s faces on labels, brochures, and other pieces of advertising ephemera sold more than fifty products from candy to whiskey. The longest lasting were shoes (The Brown Shoe Company of St. Louis) and children’s clothing (Buster Brown Textiles of Wilmington, Delaware). Even before the fair, George Warren Brown had made a deal with Outcault and his Buster Brown Shoe exhibit won a Double Grand Prize. The shoes were promoted after 1904 with touring midgets dressed as Buster Brown putting on shows in theaters, stores and even, in 1943 on radio and, in 1951, on television. There still is a line of Buster Brown shoes, and all kinds of garments are still being manufactured by Buster Brown Apparel, Inc., of New York City, which also runs the Buster Brown Museum. And we all honor the comic character when saying: “Wait a minute, Buster!”

Cox Brownies were an even earlier example of the phenomenon of comic characters selling merchandise – but their creator, Palmer Cox, did not favor the relatively crude drawing and broad humor of the newspaper comic strip and introduced his cunning imps via St. Nicholas children’s magazine in 1882. Just a year later the Brownie band were advertising a soap called Ivory introduced by Harley Procter. Cox understood the economic advantage in licensing and strove to copyright even specific advertising vehicles – such as a booklet “Little Grains for Little People” which he then sold to both Hawley & Hoops and Willimantic Cotton. Under Cox’ copyright, McLoughlin Brothers produced a set of toy blocks in 1891 (followed by puzzles, portrait cubes, Nine Pins, and Palmer Cox Original Brownie Stamps – all illustrated with the Brownies) – the first toys made from an author’s comic characters with his direct involvement and to his profit.

Successful comic characters were often imitated in the world of ephemera – from Cox Brownies to Mickey Mouse – to ‘rip off’ their advertising clout. But one famous example illustrates that a particular comic strip style could piggy-back popularity with an advertising icon. Grace Gebbie made her name with comic strips for the Philadelphia Press:“Bobby Blake” and “Dolly Drake” of 1900, “The Terrible Tales of Captain Kiddo” of 1909, “Dottie Dimple” of 1910 under her married name Wiederselm; and then “Toodles” 1911 and “Dolly Dimples” 1915, under her second husband’s name – Drayton. All characters (Drayton called them Roly-polys) were chubby and dimpled and looked, apparently, like the illustrator as a young girl. In a 1926 interview: “I was much interested in my looks. I knew I was funny. I used to look in the mirror, and then, with a pencil in my round, chubby fingers, I would sketch my image as I remembered it. My playmates were always delighted with the results – and they always recognized me.” But Drayton is really best known for her instantly recognizable – but presented as anonymous – drawings of the Campbell Soup Kids, introduced in 1904. These Kids have survived – a little taller and without some of their baby fat – but still obviously Grace.

In 1931 several Sunday Special editions across the country featured “Comic Stamps” with portraits of comic strip characters which readers were supposed to cut out and collect. The feature promised: “More new and rare comic stamps every Sunday in the Comic Weekly.” Calling these ‘stamps’ “rare” fit in with the conception of what was valuable in stamp collecting. The ‘stamps’ had no denomination and therefore represented no monetary exchange – merely calling them “stamps” implied their collectability. “New and rare” also referred to the fact that some of the comic characters pictured were “new” but some had disappeared. “Blondie” had just appeared in 1930 but Harry, from “Silk Hat Harry’s Divorce Suit” had last been seen in 1929 and Snookums from “The Newlyweds” in 1918. Many of the characters depicted were very old favorites: Hans and Fritz from “The Katzenjammer Kids” had been around since 1897, “Happy Hooligan” since 1900, “Krazy Kat” and Ignatz Mouse since 1910, “Elmer” since 1916, “Barnie Google” since 1919. Others like Tim in “Tim Tyler’s Luck” and “Skippy” were newcomers, both appearing in 1928, and Dave of “Dave’s Delicatessen” was introduced in 1931.

The next year the comics fledged from newspapers into their own new medium: the comic book or, as the first were called, Funnies on Parade, and Famous Funnies. From 1929 to 1930 George Delacorte had published 36 issues of The Funnies in tabloid format with original comic pages in color, becoming the first four-color comic newsstand publication. Color had been the selling point for the Sunday comic supplements of newspapers and it successfully made the transition. The color of these first comic books is worth examining, because it almost defied the genre. The comic drawings were sent to an engraver as black-and-white line art. A team of colorists would then specify a certain color mix of the four basics, by number, for each delineated area, which would be translated into print by using dot screens known as benday dots (for Benjamin Day, a New Jersey printer, who patented shading mediums for chromolithographers in 1879). Comic book color is thereby flat, crisp, brilliant, and predictable.

In the early 1930s, a New York company called Eastern Color Printing had been reproducing tabloid-sized reprints of Sunday comics for the Ledger syndicate as promotional giveaways. In 1933, one of their salesmen, Max Gaines, got the company to reduce the size to a tabloid folded in half and sold hundreds of thousands of copies to companies like Wheatena, Canada Dry, and Milk-O-Malt. He decided to test the market by printing a ten-cent price on a run of reprints for Dell Publishing Company and trying them out at newsstands. The idea was a hit, and Famous Funnies Number 1, the first issue of the first monthly comic book, hit the stands in May 1934. Gaines was soon running his own comic book empire: Popular Comics and then Educational Comics.

The comic book, as a separate publishing genre, took off like wildfire. In 1935, the sixth issue of the tabloid-sized New Fun became the comic book-sized More Fun, the first to publish original material. Mickey Mouse Magazine began in the same year, to become Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories in 1940. “DC” scored a huge hit in 1938 with the first appearance of Superman (writer Jerry Siegel, artist Joe Shuster) in Action Comics number 1. The 1940s introduced the weird, the wonderful, the supernatural, the military – continuing in the ten cent “read them till they fall apart” format. In 1950, Bill Gaines, who had inherited his father’s comic book company and would change Educational to Entertaining Comics, introduced a series of particularly well-written and drawn titles: Tales from the Crypt, Weird Science, Weird Fantasy, etc.

In 1952 Gaines and his editor Harvey Kurtzman premiered the satiric comic book, Mad– a powerful stylistic influence on the underground comic book movement of the 1960s. In the spring of 1954, the moralistic political crusader Fredric Wertham published a book Seduction of the Innocent– which effectively stifled the exuberance of comic books. Reinforced by public campaigning, Wertham’s theory was that the youth of America were being corrupted and weakened by exposure to comic books. He called upon Senator Joseph McCarthy to investigate – and so the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency attacked “the comic book problem.” In October, the major publishers banded together for self-preservation and created the Comics Code Authority – adopting, in their words, “the most stringent code in existence for any communications media.” The year before the code, one billion comic books were sold in the United States. The year after was a disaster – horror comics were dead, superheros were curtailed, some publishers simply folded, and the survivors went back to the softer themes of westerns, love and silly-animal formats. Only Dell comics (who by then published Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories, Looney Tunes, etc.) refused to carry the comics seal of approval – believing, correctly, that they had protective clout with both circulation and content.

To save Mad, Gaines changed the format with number 24 to a black and white magazine on slick paper. Mad’s mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, is a comic character who evolved from ephemera. The jug-eared, gap-toothed, freckle-faced goofball face had appeared in advertising as early as 1895 – complete with the catch phrase: “What, Me Worry?” as early as 1905. “The Kid” sold mince-meat plum pudding in his earliest image and, by 1905, appeared holding miniature farm plows in J.B. Lyon’s printing company’s sample book of typefaces. There was a rash of ephemera with the image around World War II; selling Cherry Sparkle in 1924, on Happy Jack soda labels in 1939; promoting patriotism on an envelope design 1943 to 1945; stumping for Roosevelt’s third term in 1940; mascot to Bob Adamcik’s Cafe near Schulenburg, TX throughout the 1940s. Mad editor Harvey Kurtzman had seen a comic postcard from about 1910 and a drawing of the face appeared in the first magazine issue. The name Alfred E. Neuman had appeared in Mad and other Educational Comics as a joke picked up from Henry Morgan’s radio show who had, in turn, stolen it from Alfred Newman, a Hollywood musical director. Apparently, it was the readers who first linked the name and the face (which was definitively drawn for Mad by Norman Mingo).

The comic book format, begun as giveaways for advertising, was often co-opted for promotional productions written and drawn expressly for manufacturers. The genesis of this genre was Gaines’ Educational Comics with its series of Picture Stories from the Bible,…from Science,…from American History,…from World History. Soon there were comic book versions of how to plant corn with your International Harvester tractor, etc.

Since these pseudo-comic books were often produced as educational tools; and if the public, old and young, would buy products advertised with comics: then why wouldn’t they buy ideas if presented the same way? One of the most important intellectual concepts of the 20th century – the splitting of the atom and its consequences – was taught through such comic books.

The earliest of this genre that we have seen predated the dropping of the atom bomb in 1945. The comic book was called A Third World War Can Be Prevented Now! prepared by the staff of True Comics magazine, and distributed by The Church Peace Union and World Alliance for International Friendship Through the Churches, based in New York. The text strongly supports the United Nations charter which had been signed June 26 at a conference in San Francisco. A little over a month before Hiroshima.

The first we have seen dealing with the bomb’s aftermath was based on a 1948 exhibit called “Man and the Atom” that appeared in Central Park in New York City. The 1949 Learn How Dagwood Splits the Atom! by Joe Musial, prepared with a foreword by Lt. Gen. Leslie R. Groves and the cooperation of cartoonist Chic Young, was published by King Features Syndicate, and so other cartoon characters – such as Popeye and Mandrake the Magician – also appear. A blend of science, propaganda, and reassurance, the “comic book” ends with a quiz and Bernard M. Baruch’s 1946 plea for peace.

Walt Disney, instead of a comic book, produced a large, hardcover volume: The Walt Disney Story of Our Friend the Atom by Heinz Haber in 1956 – linking the project with his “Tomorrowland” both at Anaheim’s Disneyland Park and on television.

Then, in 1959, a comic book called The Mighty Atom appeared, based on a cartoon Technicolor motion picture of the same name, and copyright by Reddy Kilowatt. The comic figure with the lightbulb nose and the lightning limbs was a registered trademark in the United States – licensed only to Utility Companies (see Ephemera Bits, page 18). In the comic, printed by Western Printing & Lithographing Co. in Poughkeepsie NY, Reddy romps through all the possibilities of peaceful atomic energy and ends with a copyright song: “I’m a real live wire and I never tire, Yes Sir! I’m a red hot shot.”

In 1973, Southern California Edison company commissioned a comic book The Atom, Electricity and You! from Custom Comics in New York City. Reddy doesn’t appear, but the message is similar – acted out by animated adults and youths attending an exhibit of the same name.

Artist Leonard Rifas satirized such comic books with one of his own in 1976: All-Atomic Comics with a more malignant lightbulb-headed character presenting the darker size of atomic energy. A second printing in 1977 “is dedicated to the native peoples of America on whose tribal reservations 90% of U.S. uranium is located.” The format is similar to the “straighter” propaganda: animated young folk are taken through science exhibits, and then asked questions about how they’d like their future to evolve.

Other formats used comic characters to teach lessons. In the early 1950s, the Albany NY Times-Union, and other newspapers in the country, distributed “Lucky Safety Cards” against drawings for cash awards up to $5,000. Among the scenarios illustrated on the cards, involving comic strip characters such as Jiggs & Maggie, Popeye & Olive Oyl, Mutt & Jeff, were accidents in the kitchen, the playground, and on the street accompanied by cautionary text.

Comic characters are naturally co-opted as mascots. In World War II, they became combat insignia and were embroidered on combat jackets, and otherwise incorporated into promoting the esprit de corps of specific fighting units. In 1942, Hearst Publishers Inc. produced sheets of what they called “R.L. Robbins Postamps” – gummed and perforated seals with combat insignia featuring characters such as Dumbo and the singing chipmunks. The artist, Robert Lash Robbins, took over the printing in 1943 – forming the Postamp Publishing Co. and producing an album in which to collect the seals. A foreword points out that combat insignia of this type originated with the All-American Air Squadron, recruited from the Lafayette Esquadrile in the spring of 1917, who chose a profile of an Indian head as their icon. All units of the 103rd Aero Squadron used the Indian Head insignia until Captain Eddie Rickenbacker took command of the new 97th – and used the insignia of the “Hat in the Ring” – from the popular political gesture of entering the fight.

Enduring comic strip characters appeared in several guises as ‘nose art’ on American bombers in World War II. The fashion in personalizing military aircraft traces to Italian aircraft deployed to Tripoli in 1912. Walt Disney painted personal art on the canvas sides of his World War I Red Cross ambulance in France – so it is ironic that his cartoon figures started (unauthorized) on so many bomber noses in the next war. Even the What Me, Worry? kid appeared painted on a bomber.

This unauthorized use of comic characters is more offensive to the military brass (who regularly still, order it painted over after combat) than to the artist/creators of the images. Such patriotic imitation rarely sparks trademark feuding. But, for over a hundred years, artists have done well to not underestimate the commercial value of their cartoon figures once they migrate from the funny pages.

Gascoigne, Bamber: How to Identify Prints, Thames and Hudson 1986
Horn, Maurice: 100 Years of American Newspaper Comics, Random House 1996
Lambiek: Comiclopedia, 9/25/2003
Morgan, Hal: Symbols of America, Penguin Books 1986
Overstreet, Robert M.: The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, Avon Books 1996
Reidelbach, Maria: Completely Mad: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine, Little, Brown & Co. 1991
Rickards, Maurice Encyclopedia of Ephemera, Routledge 2000
Valent, Gary M: Vintage Aircraft Nose Art, Motorbooks 1987.

Diane DeBlois, partner for twenty three years in aGatherin’ with Robert Dalton Harris, specializes in manuscript and printed ephemera. She writes on ephemera for several publications in the paper and stamp collecting fields and for the Journal of Commercial Archeology. For more information on ephemera, contact The Ephemera Society of America, Inc., Box 95, Cazenovia, NY 13035.