Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Early Days with the NEA

When I first ran into the comics in the pages of the Winnipeg Tribune (which ran from Jan. 28, 1890 to 1976) I thought I had come across a treasure trove of early Canadian cartoonists. There were literally thousands of them, full pages of single-panels and comic strips by unfamiliar names like Steel, Joe Doyle, Grue, Marcus, Meek, and Leet. Turns out I was dead wrong, what I had found were the earliest syndicated comics of the NEA syndicate based in Cleveland, Ohio.
The Tribune featured one cartoonist I knew of,
Walter Allman, famed for his popular strip “Doings of the Duffs.” His first strip appearing in the Tribune was in 1912, six-panels titled “They All Fall For It.” This was followed by a single-panel, “The Great Canadian Home.” Condo’s “Everett True” and other of his illustrations for the joke pages were also much in evidence.

[*Top illustration by Godwin May 7, 1911.]

Allman’s was not the first Tribune comic strip, there were numerous strips by Grue (Johnny Gruelle), Leet, Meek, and Joe Doyle. “Can You Beat It ?” and “Peter the Pesky Parrot” were anonymous one-off strips from 1910. The stereotypical weekly, “Good Night !!!” by Marcus, was also early, appearing in 1910, with a tall, lanky, tiny headed, big-footed comic strip black man for the hero. He was one of those perennial innocents who, on a whim, got caught up in troublesome situations. These appeared sporadically, about five in total.

Leet (*Frank R. Leet, who illustrated some of Don Marquis' newspaper poems, and died at Cleveland, Ohio 8 December 1949 at the age of 68) who had been appearing on the Tribune's sports page since 1909, drew a strip, in that quaint scratchy style common to the times, about a Mutt-like character named “Lubb,” that same year. Another weekly by Leet was “The Joy Family.” In 1912 his style changed for a nicely drawn strip about a boy named “Gripsack Si.” This one showed more of an Opper influence and lasted a few years. One of NEA’s most popular strips was “Hector the Inspector” begun circa 1910 and drawn by F. S. King.

[*F.S. King, Nov 23 1911]

[*Oct 20, 1911]

[*May 7 1911]

Most strips up to this point appeared on a page titled Laughs For Readers of the Tribune” every Saturday. Many were published without recurring characters. King, Leet and Grue were the most prolific strippers. The longest running Tribune strip was “Excuse Me !” drawn in a simple bulbous style by M. Myer. It ran daily from October 28, 1911 till March 27, 1913. There were a large variety of anonymous characters including a talking dog who commented on the japery going on around him. Again his style owed something to Opper. The strip became funnier as it aged and was replaced by a similar strip “O. U. Chump,” by Gosh (not to be confused with the later twenties strip “Charlie Chump” in the Toronto Telegram) which proceeded to May 13, 1913.

The rival Manitoba Free Press comics and cartoons during this period were more familiar titles such as Buster Brown, Little Nemo, and Happy Hooligan. They published the big names , McCay, Outcault, Opper and Dirks. It’s not surprising that Winnipeg would be on the NEA salesman’s route. Winnipeg, Manitoba was a meeting place for Canadian Pacific and Canadian National railroads. To enter the United States trains went through Duluth, Minneaopolis/ St. Paul and Chicago. The Winnipeg Tribune cartoonists came from the Midwestern United States. “Gripsack Si” appeared in Des Moines, Iowa and Fort Wayne, Indiana, while some of Leet’s single-panel cartoons can be found in the Indianapolis Star.

[*Leet 1912]

Most, perhaps all, of the Winnipeg Tribune comics were syndicated by the fledgling NEA syndicate, begun in 1901 by Robert F. Paine and William B. Colver of the Cleveland Press, who started the Newspaper Enterprise association supplying features exclusively to newspapers in the Scripps-McRae (later Scripps-Howard) chain. In 1909 the service was expanded to newspapers outside the chain under the management of A. M. Hopkins. It was in 1909 that the Winnipeg Tribune began publishing the cartoons of Leet, Gruelle, Allman, Gosh, Myers, Marcus and Condo.

[*Leet 1912]

[*Grue Mar 26, 1910]

[*Leet, Jun 18, 1910]

[*Grue, Sept 23 1909]

[*Myers, Nov 12, 1912]

*Thanks to John Batteiger for the update on Frank R. Leet.

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