Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Comic Science Investigation #1


by Chris Beneke

     COMIC EXPERIMENT. American comics of the early 1900s were rich with experimenters and experimentation. Within a decade or so, and certainly by the close of World War I, if not before, this experimentation had given way to a formula, based on strong characters and what-came-to-be-called sequentialism.

     Here’s how Sidney Smith began Old Doc Yak in The Chicago Tribune in February 1912, with Yak’s kicking his way through a miniaturized front page:

In my recollection of my first encounter with this strip, it was somewhat different: A single panel on the paper’s actual front page. The historical record does not seem to bear out this memory; this first installment seems to have been on an interior page.

     Chicago readers of the sports page of Hearst’s competing Chicago Examiner would have recognized Smith’s anthropomorphized goat (or goat-o-morphized man) as Buck Nix.

Chicago Examiner, August 9, 1908

The Buck Nix dailies in Blackbeard’s Smithsonian newspaper comics collection remain a highlight of that book. On my one visit to Blackbeard’s San Francisco Academy of Comic Art, seeing more Buck Nix was a top request: the Smithsonian seems to have presented the most interesting episodes, however.
     Smith’s goat predated his Examiner run: The goat had been a comic commentator in Smith’s editorial work for The Toledo News-Bee as early as 1907, some of which are collected in Yankee Boodle Army [HERE], published in that year and reprinted in 1928. Like so many other comic characters, Nix/Yak just grew.

The Toledo News-Bee, September 30, 1907

     In the 1912 Chicago Tribune, during his first week, Old Doc Yak used the tools and plans that Smith had drawn for him to expand his space, but an even more powerful tool, one specific to comics, balloons, enabled Yak to act seemingly independently of creator Smith. Balloons opened the words and thoughts of comics characters to direct reader observation, free of a creator’s traditional literary tools, like narration or explanation; balloons freed comic characters, at least seemingly , of a creator’s control. [Read HERE at Barnacle Press]

Chicago Tribune, April 24, 1912

     By week’s end, on Saturday, the strip had unfurled to occupy the page’s full width. The animal neighbors sharing this panorama with Yak would be featured in later dailies.

Chicago Tribune, unknown month and day, 1918
     A color Old Doc Yak Sunday page, usually centered around his car, followed a month later.
Chicago Tribune, April 13, 1918

     Old Doc Yak had built the space that would be his home for the next five years. Through Yak, creator Smith claimed his own regular space in the daily newspaper, a space that would outlast Yak, thanks to Smith’s later, more popular feature, The Gumps.

Film Daily, Nov 26, 1923

     Even the most disinterested newspaper reader that first week would have noticed the strip’s expansion from day to day. This novel debut might have attracted readers to the new feature.

Chicago Tribune, April 9, 1933

     Bud Fisher had begun the first daily comic strip, A. Mutt, in 1907, only five years before Smith’s inaugural Old Doc Yak stunt. Smith’s stunt might have seemed incomprehensible to that earlier audience. That Smith dared, and apparently gathered and kept his audience, shows how quickly those 1912 comics readers had developed expectations of what a comic is (or can or should be): One or more recurring characters performing in a series of panels, separated by borders, and “speaking” through balloons.

     Strong characters had been instrumental in popularizing and sustaining comics features since the Yellow Kid, a diminutive waif who addressed the audience through “speech” scrawled on his nightshirt, made the overcrowded Hogan’s Alley, a full-page single panel, a popular weekly destination, and his creator, Richard F. Outcault, thanks largely to merchandising the Kid’s image outside the Alley, wealthy.

     Audience expectations about a comics’ content and form, already in 1912, were also understood by publishers and creators, eager to attract the most readers and fans and perhaps partake in the success that Outcault and his papers had enjoyed. In the 1910s, daily strips would depend on the popularity of such recurring, recognizable figures. Daily features in the 1920s and 1930s would develop more insistent hooks: continuing stories that required a reader’s daily attention.

     Smith’s 1912 self-conscious playfulness about his medium, equating a physical space on a newspaper page with a comic character’s home, was revisited in 1917, five years later: Yak’s bear landlord evicts Yak and son Yutch to ready the space for The Gumps.

     This gag repeats again in 1919, two years later, when the Gumps take possession of Old Doc Yak’s car (and his 348 license plate) and assume occupancy of the Sunday page. The Gumps would henceforth rule both spaces, and make that car an even more famous comic icon. A car-less Yak eventually reappeared in a Sunday topper strip.

Chicago Tribune, June 5, 1911

     The editor, of course, ruled every space on every page, though he was seemingly invisible (or hiding?) and, unlike a paper’s comic characters, faceless

Chicago Tribune, Mar 9, 1912

     With Old Doc Yak’s 1912 debut in The Chicago Tribune, Smith plays off his readers’ expectations of sequentiality, then a novelty, but rapidly establishing its dominance within the American comics medium. Hogan’s Alley had debuted only 17 years before and the regular use of balloons, begun by Opper or Dirks, was only a decade or so old. Captions under comics panels had persisted for much of the 20th century’s first decade; The New Yorker sophisticates have still not given up this holdover from 19th century illustrated humor. 

Chicago Tribune, June 6, 1912

     The comic formula that Sidney Smith gently mocked in Old Doc Yak’s debut week, one or more strong characters contained in sequential panels, became the formula that made American comics a mass medium for the next two decades or more. Later, talking films and radio would put a huge dent in comics’ dominance of American storytelling media.

This formula yielded the formulaic, a bad enough outcome, but, worse, as comics became equated with sequentialism, the understanding of comics, past and present, became hobbled, let us hope not permanently.

     Today’s lesson: Comics take up space

Chicago Examiner, July 19, 1908


Non-sequential tendencies, despite being ignored, unnamed, or glossed over, persist within comics. Some early American comics more boldly exhibit such non-sequential tendencies and a few comics from this experimental era seem wholly non-sequential. 

Comic Science considers the visible, not the invisible. These early American non-sequential comics will be examined in subsequent essays: They will not be dismissed as “non-comics.”

Comic Science asserts that the better comics of tomorrow will be built upon non-sequential principles, and with non-sequential practices. Subsequent Comic Science investigations into early American comic strips and pages will elucidate these principles and practices.

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