Friday, March 15, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Ketcham If You Can

by Rick Marschall

This week is the birthday of Hank Ketcham (March 14, 1920, in Seattle), and we will light a few candles here for the creator of Dennis the Menace.

He was attracted to cartooning early, as goes the story of many greats. He was an animator, first for Walter Lantz, then on famous features with Walt Disney. In the Navy during World War II he created a pint-sized sailor in cartoons and they made their way from service publications to the Saturday Evening Post. Half Hitch was a hit, and Hank’s entry to post-war success as a magazine cartoonist.

In 1951, as the legend goes, his exasperated wife staggered into his studio and said “Our son, Dennis, is a menace.” Serendipity. A character was born… and did not grow up to be a monstrous success for a generation in the funnies, comic books, merchandising, licensing, a TV series. He didn’t grow up, but he did become all those things.

I had a lot of contact with Hank through the years, from fan letters to serving as his editor at Publishers Newspaper Syndicate. He was blessed with a large number of incredibly talented assistants on and off on his projects, panels, and pages. It was one of my tasks as syndicate editor to scout for new talent on his behalf. He was a tough taskmaster, even through his genial writer / assistant Fred Toole, back in Carmel CA.

At the time Hank lived in Geneva. When I was a kid I would hear cartoonists wonder if Hank was high-hatting everyone by living in Switzerland. But I could tell there was a lot of jealousy there. He tightly controlled and directed Dennis the Menace and, believe me, was exacting before, during, and after taking on assistants. He bought gags, too, for as little as $10 per; but he inspired the best writing and artwork, and he self-edited superbly.

My friend Dick Hodgins Jr ghosted the revival of Half Hitch as a strip for King Features, and he attested to Hank as a taskmaster. So did Bob Bugg, whom I knew in Connecticut, when he did the Dennis Sundays – ironically “closing the circle,” because in the 1940s it was Bugg’s style that inspired Hank’s own. The stateside right-hand man Fred Toole was a Christian, and so was Hank, and simply a great guy at every level of contact.

Hank died in Carmel in 2001. His last two assistants are friends who have carried on Dennis the Menace – friends with each other, friends of mine, Christians too… and (after close scrutiny and coaching by the master) terrific legatees of the Ketcham look: Marcus Hamilton on the daily panels; Ron Ferdinand on the Sunday pages.

In my mid-teens I used to hang around John Severin’s studio, and the reserved but earnest cartoonist enjoyed delivering virtual courses, one-on-one, impromptu. He would take down Heinrich Kley books from his shelves, and discuss the drawings; he would give me pointers on anatomy, faces, hands. More than once he pulled out a thick folder of clips of Hank Ketcham’s work. He repeatedly enthused about Ketcham’s lines, yes; but mostly about his eye. What I mean is this – “Ketcham knows what to leave out! He can suggest elements, like kitchen faucets, or things hanging in a garage, and draw the bare minimum… but when you see the drawings you are there!” And he shared clip after clip, some with his own copies in the margins.

Hank, Marcus, and Ron have done sketches for me, too; and I share them here. The Ketcham drawing was an inscription that John Province secured for me; Marcus’s was done during a visit to his studio in Charlotte; and Ron’s is one those terrific annual specialty drawings he produces.

Then… one last keepsake: a photo of two great cartoonists before their names were boldly on our maps of Crowded Lives. Visiting my home in Weston CT around 1982 or so, and in my office, I photographed Jim Scancarelli (before he joined Gasoline Alley, which he has shepherded lovingly and superbly), and Marcus Hamilton before Dennis. How Marcus got the gig is a story in itself: during his illustrator days around 1993 he was watching The 700 Club and Hank Ketcham was a guest. Ketcham mentioned that he was (still!) looking for assistants… and the interview continued.

Marcus knew that his friend Scancarelli had Ketcham’s phone number; he called to Carmel; and soon was flown out for a unique audition. Days in the studio with Hank, sketching, copying, drawing, inking… receiving pointers and “how-to” lessons… and  sketching, copying, drawing, inking, until Hank was happy. Marcus has been drawing the daily Dennis panel ever since.

Captured by the camera down at my desk, we can also see originals on the wall, including the first Pogo; the first and third Blondies; a Harold Gray specialty piece; a Raymond X-9, and such things. (Jim in the first photo; smiling Marcus on the phone.)

Hank, Bugg, Toole, Hodgins, Hamilton, Ferdinand… not a menace among ‘em.

NOTE: In the premier issue of the revived, expanded, full-color NEMO Magazine there will be a feature by Ron Ferdinand and Marcus Hamilton about Hank Ketcham’s style, his instructions and tips to them, and side-by-side examples of Hank’s roughs and finishes.

Also: A Short Conversation with Cartoonist Ron Ferdinand (Dennis the Menace) HERE


Monday, March 11, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –

More About Google (Barney, That Is)

by Rick Marschall

We got good response from last week’s essay on Barney Google, from our Yesterday’s Papers Editor John Adcock who remembered his mother’s fondness for the eponymous song; from John Rose who directs the course of Snuffy Smith’s adventures today; and from… Google, or Facebook, or whichever member of the Big Brother League put a hold on Sharing of the article.

Race? Religion? Politics? No boxes were checked, but that means little to Big Brother or Blinky.

Nevertheless time marches on, at least in the Papers of Yesterday, and the little gray cells of memory in this crowded life.

The fond memories of John’s mother made me dig into the archives of another collecting specialty, vintage comics-related songsheets. I have about 200 of these, I guess; and a few can be pinned on Billy DeBeck, the comic genius who created Barney Google, Spark Plug, Snuffy Smith, Sunshine, Bunky, and a cast of thousands.

Google with the Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes” arguably is the most famous comic-character related song. In 1923 Billy Rose and Con Conrad composed it, and it was a popular tune performed and recorded in new versions until at least the 1950s. In those days, cartoonists and syndicates did not profit from such productions – it was regarded as promotion, rather, until the early 1930s – but DeBeck profited in other ways. America sang and whistled this song, and still does, even if Spark Plug the horse is virtually forgotten.

The lyrics are:
Barney Google, with his Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes.
Barney Google had a wife three times his size.
She sued Barney for divorce,
Now he's living with his horse.
Barney Google, with his Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes.

– and about three dozen other verses added through the years. A partial list of those who performed and recorded the song:

Georgie Price, 1923; Great White Way Orchestra (vocal: Billy Murray), 1923; Ernest Hare & Billy Jones, 1923; Frank Williams,1923; Missouri Jazz Hounds (vocal: Arthur Hall), 1923; Haring's Velvetone Dance Orchestra (instrumental), 1923; Selvin's Orchestra (instrumental), 1923; The Badgers (instrumental), 1923; Harry Blake and Robert Judson, 1923; Ed Smith, 1923; Master Melody Makers,1923; Thomas & West,  1923; The Georgians (instrumental), 1923; Les Steven's Clover Gardens Orchestra  (instrumental), 1923; The Two Gilberts, 1924; Charlie Ventura & His Bop For The People, 1949; Joe “Fingers” Carr and Pee Wee Hunt, 1956; The Andrews Sisters, 1958; The Sauter-Finegan Doodletown Fifers, 1958; Frances Faye, 1959; Mitch Miller and The Gang, 1962. There are also recordings by Mel Blanc (on the piano!), Spike Jones, Eddie Cantor, The Firehouse Five, The Buffalo Bills, and Dorothy Provine. Gyp Rosetti sang it before getting murdered in the last episode of Boardwalk Empire. I will suppose that Dave van Ronk, Leon Redbone, and R Crumb have performed it too.

Billy DeBeck was prolific. Several strips and many characters. When he discovered the dialects and traditions of Appalachia, he became a virtual expert and scholar on the ways and words of those mountain folk; Snuffy Smith speaks in authentic, not stage-words. DeBeck did invent phrases that entered the English, or rather the American, language: “Sweet mama,” “horsefeathers,” “heebie-jeebies,” “hotsy-totsy,” “doodlebug,” “time’s a-wastin’,” and possibly “Great balls o’ fire.”

I never met DeBeck, but through the years have stories about the colorful cartoonist. From Fred Lasswell, of course, who succeeded him during World War II. From Zeke Zekely, assistant on Bringing Up Father. And from Ferd Johnson, who drew Moon Mullins for years. These three artists were the assistants of, respectively, DeBeck, George McManus, and Frank Willard. When the “big boys” would golf or carouse, the assistants did the work… and then golfed and caroused themselves.

Ferd remembered DeBeck as a “dapper little guy.” To complete the circle from the previous column, I share a self-caricature of DeBeck from when Barney was just about “hitting” in Chicago… when he transferred his own mail-order cartooning lessons to the aegis of the Chicago Academy of Fine Art. Many “name” cartoonists were to study there, and, later, teach there. One of the last was a cartoonist I knew in the ‘70s, Art Huhta.

OK, let’s share a gallery of the dapper little guy’s great creations, via songsheet art. The first, however, is not by him, despite the signature. Pirate cover art for a stage show.

The rest of the songsheet covers are roughly if not precisely chronological:

As part of a continuity – featuring a secret society whose password was “OKMNX” (which turned out to mean nothing more than “OK; ham and eggs”) – Debeck and King Features offered membership cards. The response was so great that applicants received letters apologizing for delays.

A great legacy. But songs and songsheets were just a part. In my Crowded Life, I also have skimmed the surface, as a collector, of toys, figurines, board games, reprint books, and more delightful effluvia. Sometime to be shared here. Time’s a-wastin’!


Saturday, March 9, 2019

Friday, March 8, 2019

Sunday with Hal Foster –

Star Weekly
May 29, 1965

Sunday, March 3, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –

With the Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes

(Barney and Snuffy; DeBeck and Lasswell)
Christmas Sketch - DeBeck Barney and Bunky, 1930s
by Rick Marschall
One of my collecting specialties is the Sketch. There is as much charm, and insouciant skill, in a lightning sketch as there is, or can be, in a finished work of art. As an artist I am often happier with my preliminary work than my finishes; I say that I tighten up, but a lack of ability is the likely culprit, daring me to show work to the world.

So I have several albums of sketches, quick-draws, caricatures and self-caricatures, “roughs” and “comps.” Some are ancient; some were done for me.

I will share some sketches by Billy De Beck here; and work of his successor Fred Lasswell too.

1930 Drawing of Barney Google on DeBeck stationery
Billy De Beck was a cartoonist’s cartoonist. His earliest work, in Pittsburgh, seemed professional from the start, unlike his contemporaries whose work we see in retrospect followed natural evolutions from amateurish to polished. His early political cartoons owed something to J H Donahey of the nearby Cleveland Plain Dealer. Especially his background shading and the types of pretty girls both drew.

While he yet was scarcely known, DeBeck launched a correspondence school for aspiring cartoonists, replete with lesson books of “action sketches.” Little advice, except to copy his drawings. An odd practice – in the ‘teens and ‘20s many cartoonists started similar mail-order “schools,” but, curiously, many of the cartoonists were rank, and clearly needed lessons themselves. (I will be doing a book for Fantagraphics on these correspondence courses.) But… among the many, DeBeck’s books were useful – polished, mature, worthy of study.

He graduated from political cartoons to strip work in the late ‘teens in Chicago. After several false starts, he created So This Is Married Life, then Take Barney Google, F’ r Instance. Soon the tall featured character lost half his size, lost his shrewish wife, acquired a race horse named Spark Plug… and literally was off to the races. Barney Google became, and remained, one of America’s most popular strips until DeBeck’s early death in 1942, aged 52.

Those early “DeBeck School” lesson drawings presaged his lifetime style. While still drawing political cartoons that were a little stiff and formal, in these published sketches he drew with a loose pen, fluid lines, and lively exaggeration. This “look” became the visual trademark of his art. Barney (and the later Snuffy Smith when the hillbilly walk-on dominated the strip) was forever a melange of action, reaction, motion, crosshatching and detailed shading.

Envelope of DeBeck, 1930
I recently acquired a sketch Billy did for a fan in 1930. Its charm – particularly its curiosity – is the cartoonist’s stationery. The letter page embossed with his solitary signature is typical enough.  But the envelope reminds me of the business cards of Newman and the Postmaster General in a Seinfeld episode – the return address is “DeBeck, New York.” Maybe the postmen knew all about him; he was a celebrity.

DeBeck Christmas Sketch, 1930s
I share, then, two Christmas greetings DeBeck drew. Sketches, as loose and charming as one could wish.

We can fast-forward to a photo of me and Fred Lasswell, who succeeded DeBeck on the strip (after a wartime fill-in by Joe Musial); just as the terrific John Rose carries on today.

Photo of Fred Lasswell and Rick Marschall, 1995, making fashion statements
 during the US Postal Service’s 100 Years of the Comics celebration. 
Fred and I were at an event celebrating the US Postal Service’s issuance of 20 stamps commemorating the centennial of the comic strip. The year was 1995, almost (gulp!) 25 years ago. Barney Google was one of the stamps’ stars, and Fred attended events with the Yellow Kid on his tie. As I was the USPS’s consultant for the project (providing many images; an 11-city speaking tour; writing the 100-page book they produced, etc) I invariably wore a tie with the Yellow Kid, hand-painted by Robin Doig of San Diego Comicon fame).

We are showing off the ties in the photo – not really a competition between the Yellow Kids, since they each were in a tie – under which, on a subsequent visit, Fred drew a portrait of ol’ Snuffy. A good ol’ sketch, dadburn it; good enuff fer me!


Friday, March 1, 2019

Comic Advertising –


Boston Globe
June 18, 1950

Fred Meagher (1912-1976) HERE

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Sunday with The Chicago Examiner

        SWINNERTON & OPPER         

 March 28, 1919 


Sunday, February 24, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –

The Origin of the Collecting Bug

Cartoon by Orlando Busino about the Marschall Move from Connecticut.
by Rick Marschall

… or at least my variation of the bacilli.

This is not ancient history, but for the fact that I am ancient. The “origin tale” of how I fast-forwarded to a collection of comics, art, magazines, newspapers, and comics ephemera that fills a house, eight storage units, and corners of friends’ and relatives’ odd spaces.

When I was in first grade, I was already drawing cartoons at a feverish pace for my own enjoyment and, no doubt, the annoyance of neighbors and relatives. I had drawn as early as the first day I discovered which was the working end of a pencil and that it was not intended to probe electrical outlets.

My father was never a cartoonist, never even attempted to draw that I saw. But he was an inveterate cartoon fan. As a teenager he read and saved the cartoon weekly Judge magazine (ironically, when we moved from Ridgewood, Queens, in New York City, to north Jersey, he sold his collection despite transitioning to a larger space that could house them). On Sundays he bought a dizzying array of newspapers, just to read all the funnies he could. Some papers’ main sections he never opened.

We subscribed to the New York Times, the only comics apostate; and the local Record out of Hackensack. (Eventually I was a Record newsboy, and I requested a route that included Al [Mutt and Jeff ] Smith’s house, though it was half an hour by bike, and required me to take more than 100 houses in between.) But Dad subscribed to the Sunday editions of the New York News, the Journal-American, the Herald-Tribune, and the Mirror. Back in New Jersey, we took the Newark Star-Ledger, the Newark News. He induced my uncle to save the funnies of the Long Island Press; an old army buddy saved the Atlantic City Press (which carried all the NEA strips), and friends in Philadelphia saved the color funnies of the Inquirer and the Bulletin.
By the time I was 10, thanks to my father, I probably tracked more comics than Editor and Publisher’s annual syndicate issue. Dad also went to out-of-town newsstands in Manhattan and routinely picked up funnies from far and wide – Chattanooga was exotic to me because its Times bore a resemblance to The New York Times (it also had been founded by Adolph Ochs)… but overflowed with color comics: the only paper I discovered that ran a Standard and Tabloid color section every Sunday. So I had them all, and still do, from black-and-white Sunday sections of newspapers whose unions had not yet bled and struck them to death, to garish Rotogravure sections so shiny I could comb my hair by them.

One can see how my comics and collecting appetites both were nurtured. Of course I saved all these funnies, and was a prototype of the Hoarder of current cable-TV celebrity. My mother used to mutter that her house was turning into the Collier Mansion – that era’s disparagement of collecting, an invidious comparison to a Manhattan brownstone inhabited by two eccentric brothers and such an accumulation of ephemera that callers (eventually, first-responders) could scarcely gain entry. I politely declined the compliment, because I did not save things indiscriminately. For instance, gum wrappers were beyond my ken. At least most of them. Or some of them. Theoretically.

Anyway, my father continued to enable this addiction. When I left home for college – and every day until he died – he dutifully cut the daily comics, too, from the papers where he lived, and saved them with the Sundays for my next visit. Needless to say, he read every comic, and liked discussing them all. The ones that made him laugh out loud most often were Bob Montana’s Archie and Dick Brooks’ Jackson Twins.

So I built a respect for otherwise “normal” people who liked comics, or certain comics, and liked them obsessively. My father-in-law knew the details of every one of Prince Valiant’s adventures. My boss in my first political-cartooning job (William Loeb, HQ’d at his chain’s flagship paper, The Manchester (NH) Union-Leader, used to take time to call me or write notes discussing plotlines in Steve Roper or the gags in Hagar the Horrible. Occasionally Charles Schulz called my house, to do no more than pick my brain about an old strip, or chat about – often venting – contemporary strips.

Cartoon by gag cartoonist Herb Green about the Joy of Moving a Collection...
The collection grew to such a size that it has become a logistical nightmare to move it when I move to new houses. More than two 4-foot moving vans. It is something of a splendid distraction – for a fan, a good problems to have? – but for my cartooning friends, a bit of a subject for merriment.

A couple of drawings, here, done by friends Orlando Busino and Herb Green, when we moved from Connecticut to Pennsylvania. Moving van gags, even almost 35 years ago...


Monday, February 18, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –

The Other Crime-Strip Cartoonist Gould  

( Red Barry’s Creator )

IDW Publishing, 2016
by Rick Marschall

I have elsewhere told the story of Will Gould and Red Barry. In the first incarnation of Nemo magazine I ran a full daily episode of the hard-boiled detective strip. For Fantagraphics Books in 1989 I expanded the look back in a paperback compilation of four Sunday stories. The nascent revival of Nemo will reprint a number of Will’s garish, Expressionist, tabloid-infused Sundays.

That book also featured an essay I commissioned of Walter Frehm, Will’s admiring but frustrated assistant.

So I have written of Will Gould and Red Barry; and I shall write more of Will and Red, but here I will share a little story about meeting the cartoonist.

I am calling him “Will” here not just because I knew him, but to carefully differentiate between two cartooning Goulds of the 1930s who specialized in detective comic strips. Chester Gould and Will Gould even had another connection – having struggled in the Hearst bullpens of the 1920s. Chet had knocked around the King Features bullpen; drawn Fillum Fables, one of several attempts to topple Ed Wheelan’s Minute Movies at its own game. In a final move he voluntarily drew up episodes of Plainclothes Tracy for the Chicago Tribune, and the rest is history.

Will similarly knocked around – the Bronx Home News; the New York Daily Graphic; the New York Mirror; King Features Syndicate.  Along the way he drew sports cartoons, race-track comic strips, gag strips, illustrations.

Their similarities pretty much ended there. Chet was a WASP; Will (and his brother Manny, a pioneer animator) Jewish. Chet was preternaturally ambitious, even after he was at the top of his game and fame; Will always had a chip on shoulder, a punk attitude of the pool halls and race tracks he haunted. Chet hired assistants to help him with guns, polygraph machines, and backgrounds; Will hired his assistant so he could play golf more often.

Assistant Frehm recalled how Will Gould was practically suicidal, as a “working” cartoonist, after they moved to California, forever late with deadlines and creative with excuses.

The birth of Red Barry, as I said, has and will be told elsewhere. Frustrated that Chet Gould slipped away from King Features and created a big hit – unlike, say, E C Segar, who toiled on the plantation for a decade before Popeye entered the world – KFS President Joe Connolly (and his comics adviser Lee Falk) swamped the field with not one but four rivals.

Secret Agent X-9 was created, with Dashiell Hammett as the writer and, after Will Gould’s art seemed inappropriate, young Alex Raymond as artist. Gould’s own submission Red Barry was launched (one wonders whether the “Gould” signature upped his chances). The local Boston strip Pinkerton Jr was transformed into Sergeant Pat of the Radio Patrol. And, in a junior-league version of Hammett’s X-9, the pulp mystery writer Edgar Wallace was invited to script Inspector Wade, drawn at first by Lyman Anderson, later a close friend of mine who attended my daughter’s baptism.

I have gum-shoed from memories to history. The future Nemo profile will tell the full story; and share full stories. How I first met Will was connected with Bob Weber Sr., creator of Moose (now Moose and Molly) and my first trip to the San Diego Comics Convention, 1976.

A drawing of Moose and Chester Crabtree done for me recently by Bob Weber.
Bob, one of the most colorful of cartoonists, and a cartoon fan himself, loves meeting cartoonists, talking about cartoons, even to the extent that his own deadlines frequently are threatened. In Mort Walker’s reminiscences he told stories of Bob feverishly inking dailies on the train from Westport CT to New York; or inking them in a friend’s speeding car; or finishing the lettering on a counter at Grand Central Station, all to deliver them “on time” to King Features.

Comicon was no different. Bob flew from New York, so not to miss the event; I took the train from Chicago, an interesting excursion, and we met up in San Diego. Sort of. Bob was so late with his strips that he spent almost the entire week in his hotel room, readying them for Special Delivery.

Oddly, or appropriately in Weber-World, Bob was as free as a lark after Comicon. So we snaked our way up the coast for a week, visiting cartoonists, bookstores in Los Angeles (I scored a run of CARTOONS Magazine from the ‘teens at Cherokee) and, basically, watched the clock tick down until Bob was late again on Moose.

Somehow Bob had gotten to know Will Gould, then living in retirement, I think in Santa Monica. It was an apartment or motel, or a former one-or-the-other. Sort of like the modest place that the retired Stan Laurel lived in, also in Santa Monica. So it was easy for Bob to arrange a visit; especially since Will asked us to pick up some groceries before we arrived.

I was coached that Will likely would be a little prickly – or, if not, outright grouchy. That he would pretend to be bothered about “the past”… but in fact loved reviving memories and legends. He was everything that Bob forecast. The grouchiness added to the long afternoon’s colorful memories. Will talked about his brother; he answered questions about the King bullpen and Hammett – who supposedly consulted with him about continuity writing, but wound up preferring to get drunk together – and how he was the first to bestow the nickname “Schnozzola” on Jimmy Durante.

In Will’s telling, it was not enough to brag about originating the famous moniker. He had to complain: “I never got a penny for it!”

Drawing of Red Barry that Will Gould did for me.
Bob pulled out items from his own bag of tricks. He is the most versatile kidder, bluffer, teaser; and his hulking 6-foot-5 (or so) size keeps people from challenging him. Straight faced, only slight smile. I have watched him flummox clerks and wait staff, and have swiped many of his routines.

So, before we left Will’s apartment that day, the cartoonist wanted to share something from the top shelf of a closet, and he asked Bob to get it down. As he did, Bob said, “Will, if you weren’t so extremely short, you could get this yourself.”

OK, maybe you “had to be there.” But Bob knew how to tease and get a rise out of Will – who was not extremely short. He was extremely old, so it was a reasonable request. But, oh, did Will explode. Even as we left the second-floor apartment, after a nice afternoon, Will Gould was still hopping and shaking his fist: “You big hick! I am not extremely short!” Bob laughed for a couple days… as a matter of fact, still does.  The humor was not in “short,” or objecting to the favor, but the use of “extremely.”

On my subsequent solo visits to Will, he remembered that closet-shelf bit too, but without Bob Weber’s chuckles. When all was said and done, however, Will Gould was the type of guy who used to populate Tin Pan Alley, speakeasies, betting parlors, and corners of tabloid newsrooms – he was the “type” because he was one of them – and was kind of happier kvetching than kvelling.

The “edge,” if it can be called that, contributed to the edginess of Red Barry – a lost masterpiece of hard-boiled crime and violence in comic-strip context, of action and extreme characterization, pure film noir, or as close as the comics ever got, including in the hands of Will Gould’s buddy Dashiell Hammett.

Friday, February 15, 2019

DAILY MIRROR comic strip series index — Now Available in 2019 Update

Can You Beat It?, Jack Monk, Mar 20, 1937
The DAILY MIRROR comic strip series index has now been updated until January 26, 2019 (previous version was done a year ago, on February 3, 2018) and there were some changes in the Daily Mirror’s comic strips line-up during 2018 after the previous update, so now the newspaper has even less strips...

Also new is the addition of the two old strip-like features by Jack Monk from 1936 and 1937 (“Can You Beat It?” and “Behind the Scenes...”). These two comic features are now included in the Index because of the artist’s significance and also because they have never before been referenced with any dates, even partial.

DAILY MIRROR comic strip series index 1904-2019

Sunday, February 10, 2019

A Crowded life in Comics –

The Cat Who Walked
( Otto Messmer )

A sketch that Otto drew for me. So many coincidences in my Crowded Life in Cartooning – I later visited Joe Oriolo, who managed Felix after Otto’s retirement. A high-school crush of mine, Janet Ralston, later a TV news anchor, had dated Joe’s son.

IT WAS SERENDIPITY, for a young fan of comics and cartoons, to grow up in the New York City area, as I did. I wrote sincere fan letters to cartoonists out of the region, and usually received gracious responses; and some of those letters resulted in invitations that, thanks to my indulgent parents, often led to visits.

Among the long-distance replies to fan letters, I received letters and signed artwork from the likes of Charles Schulz, Frank King, Gluyas Williams, Bill Freyse, Lank Leonard, Crockett Johnson, and Jack Kent.

But closer to home, in New York City, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Long Island, the streets and woods were full of cartoonists. Those who were not available for the world to discover in phone books – O halcyon days – like Rudolph Dirks, John Bray, and Gardner Rea, the cartoonists I did know as a young guy, were happy to make invitations. Like a happy game of telephone, cartoonists recommended me to friends and associates they knew.

Evidently I was just on the right side of Pestering to merit this networking. Indeed I tried to be polite, and I unconsciously honed my interviewing skills, wanting to do more than stare admiringly at my heroes and assorted legends.

One day my initial mentor, Al Smith of Mutt and Jeff, told me about a cartoonist who lived in nearby Fort Lee NJ, with his daughter. Maybe I didn’t know his name, but surely I knew his work – Otto Messmer of Felix the Cat.

Surely I did. I knew his work on the King Features strip, because he eventually was allowed to sign it; but his longtime work in his amazing style stretched back to the 1920s in my collection of old funny papers. And I was aware of his pioneer work in animation.

I even had examples of cartoons he signed in the ‘teens, for the New York World comic magazine Fun; and for Judge.

… which items I brought with me, you can be sure, when I visited him. Otto was as a gracious as any of the cartoonists I met, and immediately invited me to visit when I called and introduced myself. Fort Lee is at a terminus of the George Washington Bridge (and has a fascinating history itself, “America’s First Hollywood,” where many early movies such as The Perils of Pauline serials were filmed, before the studios moved to Astoria, Queens; and Long Island; and then California) and was close enough to me parents’ home that frequent visits were comfortable. And comfortable visits were frequent.

Photo of Otto Messmer at the drawing board during one of my visits. 
I HAD CAMERAS and sketchbooks in hand, but I regret never taking notes nor recording our conversations. Curse my foggy memory, but had stories of cartooning even before he met Pat Sullivan, of Felix in the early days (maybe before Sullivan himself – see what I mean?), of a train ride with Walt Disney and their wives, discussing early conceptions of Mickey Mouse…

Otto was kind, gentle, and modest – every one of the characteristics to the nth degree. It was evident there was no “shadow of turning” in him, no embellishments of what was a fabulous career. Most of that career was spent in anonymity, signing Suillivan’s name, or none, to his work for decades.

Except for some forgotten footnotes, rather momentous to the histories of comics and cartoons, I have a passel of memories of a modest genius, generous with his time and friendship. A retired cartoonist living in his daughter’s house.

Behind the kindly smiles and his self-effacing memories, there sat the man who created one of the century’s iconic animated heroes, favorite of generations of children. He spun stories of whimsy, comic adventures, and plots that were both vivid and hilarious in ways that could exist on the screen and comic pages.
Otto Messmer’s artwork – anonymous, as usual – 
during the glory days of Felix. 
I THANK GOD for the Good Neighbor Policy among cartoonists during my youth!


Friday, February 8, 2019

Sunday with Hal Foster –

Vancouver Sunday Sun
April 24, 1954