Sunday, November 3, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –

A Lifetime of Opper-tunities.

A matted original drawing of Happy Hooligan, drawn for cartoonist (Bugville Life) and animal illustrator Paul Bransom.

By Rick Marschall.

I have written, recently here, of the early wellsprings and touchstones in a Crowded Life working and wandering in the comics vineyards. My father’s encouragement; my family’s indulgence; the blessings of friendships and mentoring from professional cartoonists when I was young – even to meeting some of the Founding Fathers of the art form.

A real Opper comic book, 1911.

Dirks, Swinnerton, Goldberg, Hershfield, Charles Payne, Frank King, and other greats were still alive when I began drawing, collecting, and “interviewing,” which developed from marking time once I was in their studios and presences. Natural curiosity led to natural questions.

But one cartooning great was not alive, and that fact was a literal regret to me, because F. Opper was the cartoonist whose work attracted me the earliest – almost before I could read – and was cartooning I copied, and cartoons that made me laugh. Opper died in 1937, 22 years before I was born, so the miss was as bad as a mile. He was born in Madison, Ohio, in 1857, and already in his teens he was professionally cartooning in New York City.

Leslie’s Weekly; then Puck for two decades; then the Hearst papers with countless comic strips and editorial cartoons for more than a subsequent 30 years. He illustrated many books for the top humorists of the day, including Bill Nye, Mark Twain, and Eugene Field. I can – and will – write more about Opper, here; and some of you know that I am in the process of writing a major biography of him.

One definition of hero-worship, not to mention foolish immaturity, can be my early attraction to his work (my father had an early anthology of old material, Cartoon Cavalcade, and I found other sources) that manifested itself in a fantasy. Before I knew that he no longer lived, I imagined calling on him. Did he live, in this dream, in a normal suburban home like the cartoonists I was meeting in the New York area? No… I imagined that Frederick Burr Opper would be seated on an elevated chair, almost a throne, at the end of a long room. Royalty? Yes – that was my conception: how I viewed him, and his deserved place.

Kids in school wondered why I always drew a tramp on chalkboards, one with a tin can for a hat; and “who is Fopper?” (I guess I never forged the period strongly enough after the “F.”) Well, that’s how it went. Among my first questions to Hershfield and Goldberg and the others were What was Opper like???

My tattered, surviving cover to a custom Happy Hooligan comic book – “All New Stories!” Opus from my twelfth year.

I even re-created – or, rather, created – a Happy Hooligan comic book, as if the strip were still running, or as if anyone cared, but it was complete with cover promo copy. Forty-eight pages, reviving Happy, Gloomy Gus, Montmorency, Maud the Mule, Alphonse and Gaston, et al. I think I was 12 when I embarked on the self-delusional enterprise. It was not to make money, of course; it was paying homage, but subconsciously honing the cartooning, character, storytelling chops.

I eventually met his granddaughter Nellie Anna, a delightful lady who counter-signed a portrait I did of Mr Hooligan. Late in life she married my old friend the Socialist political cartoonist Walt Partymiller. And I met Frederick Burr Opper III, a distinguished and reserved gent who also worked for Hearst, as a diplomatic correspondent.

Enough of that. Some of Opper’s footprints here. I hope he generates among the uninitiated some appreciation of his genius – the innocent mayhem, the native humor, the superb craftsmanship, such as flawless anatomy beneath his casual lines.

My “Opper Wall” down the staircase – the Hooligan drawing and several of the Opper Sunday-page originals in my collection.

As Hallowe’en approaches, and I write this, I wonder why I never did trick-or-treating as Happy Hooligan, fastening an old soup can to my head. I was a Kid; and I was Happy enough; but I was never Krazy. There are limits.


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