Sunday, September 8, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –

A Mock Feud In the Pages of Puck.

by Rick Marschall.

Show business, sports, and politics are replete with stories of feuds. I say “stories of feuds” because many of them are manufactured for the public’s attention if not enjoyment. There are, of course, bitter and long-running rivalries that have poisoned the wells of comity, certainly within families. In other spheres of life, self-interest or self-preservation usually triumph.

The old Jack Benny-Fred Allen “feud” attracted listeners and gossip for years, but the radio comedians were friends. Likewise W C Fields and Charlie McCarthy; but it is difficult to stay angry at a piece of wood for too long.

And we remember Ralph Kramden’s threat (in The Honeymooners) to a momentary opponent: “When I see you walking down the street, move to the other side!” And Norton’s response: “When you walk down the street, there ain’t no other side!” Somehow the perfect squelch, the mot juste, resonates more than love lines do.

In the supposedly staid Victorian Era, there was an example of “inside jokes,” sarcasm, camaraderie, and a mock feud that is funny today. I will share brief details here.

Puck Magazine commenced as an English-language weekly in 1877, a few months after founder Joseph Keppler launched the German-language edition. It became America’s first successful humor magazine, although dozens had existed, with varied acceptance, since the 1840s. Puck featured lithographic color cartoons – an attractive wrinkle – on its front, back, and middle-spread pages; usually political themes. The bulk of the cartoon work, including black and white social cartoons on interior pages, soon fell to Frederick Burr Opper.

Opper (1857-1937) was a workhorse of incredible talent and native humor who followed Keppler from Leslie’s Weekly, and known to comics fans today as the creator of many seminal comic strips around the turn of the century into the 1930s (Happy Hooligan, etc).

Almost from the beginning, the fecund H C Bunner was the mainstay of Puck’s editorial columns. He wrote the paper’s editorials and provided ideas to cartoonists; he signed poems and funny stories, and contributed many anonymous works; he recruited and trained a host of talented humorists for the succeeding generation. Unjustly neglected and forgotten today, Bunner was a master of the short story in the manner of Frank Stockton (another forgotten genius). The American short story of the day was a wonderful genre, now scarcely commemorated by limp rose petals tossed toward O Henry and Saki, but whose ranks were populated by clever writers like Bunner.

Many of Bunner’s books were in fact collected short stories originally written for Puck, and illustrated by Opper (and, chiefly, by C J Taylor).

In 1884, amidst the fury of the nation’s most contentious Presidential election, Cleveland vs Blaine, Opper and Bunner conducted a sideshow for readers through a mock feud. The national election was in fact mightily influenced by the “Tattooed Man” cartoons in Puck, depicting the Republican Blaine stripped to his skin, on which was festooned his many political scandals and sins.

The editorial fusillades that season mostly were Bunner’s, but the cartoons were Keppler’s, Opper’s, and Bernhard Gillam’s. Opper, relatively young, drew cartoons that sometimes were less than polished. In a letters column – “Answers For the Anxious,”  probably manufactured within the offices – notice was taken of an awkward cartoon by Opper of politicians attempting to stop a water wheel at a mill.

Puck’s reply (surely written by Bunner) thanked the reader but also criticized his spelling and grammar. Opper the cartoonist, however, was defended with faint praise.

In the next issue, “the artist” responded, angrier at the Editorial Office’s weak endorsement than of the critical reader. And the following week, the Editor shot back in mock dudgeon, stating that it was barely worth the time to wallow in matters concerning mere mortals – cartoonists. In subsequent weeks Opper fired his shots through cartoons more than words.

It was grand fun. Claiming the dignity of an Oxford Union debate, it spilled itself before readers like a barroom brawl. As I say, grand fun – no reader would have thought otherwise. But, again, in the stuffy Victorian era, such entre-nous peeks behind the curtain of kidding and elbow-poking sarcasm was rare. Still fun.

Some day, somewhere, I will reprint all the exchanges, insults, and mock threats. Here, however, Opper’s drawing of the theatrical “truce.” Naturally, he cannot keep himself from depicting H C Bunner (with fair accuracy, trademark cigarette and pince-nez specs)  as a coiled viper; and himself as an artiste crowned with a laurel wreath.

Original art from my collection, first the half-finished pencil sketch; and the “finish” as it appeared in the happy pages of Puck through the Summer and Fall of 1884.

RM 52

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