Tuesday, September 8, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

A Black and White Orphan’s World…

and Gray Too. 

by Rick Marschall.

When I was in my mid-teens I wrote a fan letter to Harold Gray. Already a long-time comics fan, I loved Peanuts and Pogo and other strips in the daily papers. And I was enough of a collector to savor Happy Hooligan and Krazy Kat and obscurities like Slim Jim. I devoured Prince Valiant, and appreciated learning words like “Synopsis” from its weekly episodes.

But it was something else with Little Orphan Annie. It was accessible, mirroring the news, yet somehow seemed remote. Harold Gray created a world like no one else did – it was commonplace, or meant to be, but still inhabited by characters who were real and symbolic at the same time.

I didn’t realize it yet, but Gray was in the rare creative company of John Bunyan (The Pilgrim’s Progress) and Petrarch and Dante, creating characters for the personification of literary and allegorical qualities. Yes, in a comic strip. It was one thing that set Harold Gray apart.

Doorways always opened to darkness; ceilings and skies were enclosures, not open avenues, as Donald Phelps has noted. Gray was the only strip artist of whom I am aware who made every day’s strip a different day of action – no conversations nor fights that would last over days of strips. Roy Crane extended some fist fights over a week of installments, which were wonderful, but Gray’s self-imposed strait jacket was a greater challenge.

I can go on and on – and have, in an entire issue of the old NEMO Magazine; and a chapter in my book America’s Great Comic Strip Artists – but prior to my ability to analyze, I was awestruck by Harold Gray’s mastery of the form in Little Orphan Annie.

So I wrote him a fan letter, and he confirmed what many now know from dozens of “fingerprints” – Gray was a great businessman too, a consummate promoter. That he and his wife traversed the continent every year is a testament, not to wanderlust or restlessness, but to his twin muses related to map-locations across small-town America. He was a restless genius, hungry for story inspiration; and he revered the spirit, the values, of the America he met on every mile of those automobile trips.

As a promoter, if I use the proper term, he immediately put this young fan on his Christmas card list. Every year until he died I received a Little Orphan Annie Christmas card – not commercial cards you could buy in stores – color, card stock, personal greetings from one of Harold and Winifred’s homes in Westport CT or La Jolla CA. Taking care of business.

More interesting than any notes to me is a letter I reproduce for you here. There is much that is revealing about Gray and Annie! And even more “between the lines.” This is a letter to his editor at the New York News- Chicago Tribune Syndicate, Mollie Slott.

The letter is a masterpiece of diplomacy, and provides great insights into Harold Gray. For instance there are politically incorrect comments on union members and strikes. At this time, the New York City papers were suffering through a prolonged and crippling work action; and not for the first or last time, universal predictions of newspapers having to go out of business were fulfilled. Shorter hours and longer vacations became moot on unemployment lines.

Gray is withering in assessment of the strikers. His love of “common people,” referenced above, is nuanced. Common agitators were a different species, to him.

But after establishing common ground with Slott in the note – and more of the same, recalling “good old days” and the shifting tastes of local editors – Gray shared details of syndicates’ histories, sales practices, and comparisons with Hearst’s King Features. Of vital pertinence to comics scholars.

Through it all are plaintive comments to his syndicate chief about his treatment, something bittersweet to behold. Minimal contact; missed opportunities; a recognition that a star of the syndicate has become, to an extent, a wheel that must squeak in an attempt to be oiled. For the benefit of all, like “in the good old days.”

Not much changed, not by this letter, anyway. When I joined that syndicate as Comic Editor a dozen years later, Harold Gray and Mollie Slott were both gone. But no less a star than Chester Gould was pleading for promotion and... attention. He felt that Dick Tracy was being ignored by the sales force. Bob Reed and Jack Minch were in charge then – but not in charge of being civil to their stars. Chet was so desperate that he designed his own promotional ads and brochures, about new villains and new stories. I have his campaign suggestions somewhere, but Reed and Minch not only declined to create basic promotional pieces… they ignored Chester Gould outright. If Chet had not called me directly when I joined the syndicate about this state of non-affairs, I never would have known. Disgraceful and sad.

A genius should not have to resort to the words by which Harold Gray closed a letter to Al Capp we recently shared here:

“Sometimes I get disgusted with the whole dam business. But it’s a living, eh?” 





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