Saturday, September 5, 2009

Gene Byrnes (1889-1974)

I always had a curiosity about the life of Gene Byrnes, whose fame rests more on his 1950 book Complete Guide to Cartooning than his own considerable skills as a comic artist. As a cartoonist he is not numbered among the greats but his comic strip Reg’lar Fellers once appeared in enough papers to earn him an annual income of $50,000 in 1928. His best work was done in the twenties, in the strip Reg’lar Fellers, on which he owned the copyright. Gene Byrnes dashed off looking style was deceptively simplistic with its loosely penned little figures, often fitted into a vignette, and a few carefully spotted blacks. An Oakland Tribune reporter, Helen Hilliard, watched in awe as Byrnes scribbled out a drawing in his office in Carmel, California, in 1923.

“I sat and watched Gene Byrnes draw a cartoon of himself for me. And I marveled as I watched. How anybody could sit down off-hand, take up pencil and paper, and start right off on a picture. When I had asked him for a photograph he had looked rather dubious. He had his doubts if he had any pictures of himself. “But,” he continued, “I can make that all right.”

“A soft drawing pencil appeared magically in his fingers, and deftly he began to trace various figures on a square of drawing paper. As I looked on the lines gradually began to take shape until I could see the faint resemblance to a man. The pencil suddenly disappeared and its place was taken by a pen. This he dipped in India ink and with big swift strokes blotted out the penciled lines with streaks of heavy black. A small paint brush put on the finishing touches. And lo and behold! there was the picture all finished, showing Gene Byrnes, cartoonist, with two “Reg’lar Fellers” on the top of his desk.”

Reg’lar Fellers was a touching humor strip, based on real characters. It was popular with kids and their parents. Byrnes understood the appeal of childhood to both sets of readers, the kids who were living through childhood, and the nostalgic adults who were remembering their own lost youth. He was popular with the feature writers and could bend their ears about kids for hours.

“Every grown man is really a full-sized kid. He keeps one corner of his heart -- if he is real and human -- sacred to his boyhood days. Just listen in on a pair of old cronies meeting after years of separation.

“A boy’s doings are as important to him as a man’s are to a man. A boy gathers marbles by the score when he only needs a few. A man gathers grocery stores, factories, railroads -- evidences of success or power just as a kid gathers oodles of postage stamps, marbles, baseball equipment -- it is the kid spirit.

“And, for every kid stunt or characteristic you show me I’ll show you one similar among men. The speaker at a banquet is similar to the kid who can tell whoppers back of the woodshed. The bunch assembled at the Rotary, Kiwanis, or Commerce club is the grown-up, organized gang that used to hold sessions in the hayloft. A banker hanging out an ‘In Conference’ sign and sneaking away to the golf pasture is the grown-up kid playing hookey.”

Gene Byrnes was born on the Upper East Side of New York City in 1889. He took his first job when he was 14 years old, as an office boy at McClure’s magazine, then went to work for his father, a harness maker. Byrnes started a business for himself, as a horse collar-maker. He changed trades and ran a shoe repair shop in Brooklyn, where he introduced electric shoe repairing to the city, and sold insect exterminator.

A broken leg endured in a wrestling match landed Byrnes in a hospital bed in 1911. Byrnes recalled that it was while hospitalized he began copying cartoons out of the newspapers to while away the time. Once recuperated from his accident Byrnes continued studying cartooning. One day the famous cartoonist Winsor McCay saw some of his work. He sent Byrnes to the New York Telegram offices with a letter recommending him for a job.

“The editor looked him up and down and inquired if he had ever had any experience on a newspaper before, and whether he could draw sports cartoons or not.

“Oh, yes,” replied Byrnes confidently. “I worked on the sport staff of the Kansas City Star for four years.”

Sheer bluff, but it got by, and the editor engaged him on trial.”

He soon had a regular job at the New York Telegram at $40 a week drawing sports cartoons. The owner of the Telegram also owned the New York Herald. A newspaper article in 1923 stated that Byrnes first Indian ink production was a one panel comic first distributed by the McClure syndicate and later by the International Cartoon Co., titled “Things That Never Happen,” begun in 1916. Byrnes owned the copyright. Byrnes signed the strip until at least 1930 but by 1939 the cartoonist was B. Link. For this effort he received $10 to $12 a week supplementing his income from a day job as a hotel clerk at $25 per week.

His next comic strip was “It’s a Great Life if You Don’t Weaken” from 1917, which introduced the “Reg’lar Fellers” characters. They were next used in a 1919 New York Telegram Sunday page titled Wide Awake Willie leading to a change in title to Reg’lar Fellers and greater success for the artist. The Herald Sun Syndicate handled the Sundays and the Bell Syndicate the dailies and by 1923 the strip was appearing in 137 newspapers. Eventually that circulation was to reach the unheard of number of 800 subscribers, making Byrnes a very wealthy man.

Kids were enthused with the characters of the strip. The cast line-up in the beginning included Jimmy Dugan Aggie Riley, Puddn’head, his little brother Pinhead, Bump Hudson, Frankie, Daisy, Alex, Beano, the dog, Jimmie Dugan Jr., and a cat named Lucky Tom. The popular character Blabbermouth was added about 1928.

“A great many people have asked me, at some time or other whether or not my characters in the comic are taken from real life. They certainly are. “Shorty Cook,” for instance is George T. Cook, president of the George Cook Nut and Bolt Works of Kansas City; “Bump Hudson” is a thriving dentist of New York City. “Beano Golden” is a well-known architect of New York, and the redoubtable “Pudd’nhead Duffy” is none other than one Warren J. Duffy, an oil promoter of Fort Worth, Texas.

“Blabbermouth” the yarn spinner, awful talker, braggart of the gang, is a real kid, too -- but, of course, except that he lives in New York City, I’d rather not identify his original.”

A reporter asked Byrnes, in 1928, how he got his ideas:

“Just set the kids my chums and I were down in modern ‘scenery.’ For by-words change and so do the things with which boys play. Kids are still kids, but the old swimming hole is gone; the movie theatre is hero. The wanderings through the woods are gone; but there’s the auto trip. We used to make windmills, stilts, and dozens of other playthings. Now kids have scooters, roller skates, electrical toys, and other new things.”

“They tell me Reg’lar Fellers helps the public to keep its heart young. I hope so, for I get a lot of real fun planning and drawing these cartoons.”

The writing of Reg’lar Fellers was planned backward. Byrnes would come up with the ending first and then work out the rest of the cartoon. His wife got “a lot of fun watching my face as I draw them, for I smile with the kids of pen and ink, gape with them, and all but shout their dares or boasts -- so she says.” He deliberately avoided the use of violence, crime, crudity or suggestive references in his gags. He did “not care to emphasize toughness, lack of refinement, pernicious mischief, or disastrous or damaging practical jokes -- or even a climax bringing any more than a temporary bruise on the feelings of a boy, a hurt that will soon heal.”

As they grew older Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer and many of the other alumni of the Our Gang comedies appeared in the Reg’lar Fellers movie produced in 1941. An NBC radio show based on the comic strip even replaced the high ranking Jack Benny show in the summer of 1941. Reg’lar Fellers was perennially popular in the comic books beginning with Cupples and Leon reprints in the twenties, reprints in Famous Funnies, and issues by Dell, DC and Standard publications.

In 1947 Byrnes was in the news again.

“It all started when Stanley and Betsy Baer. Creator of The Nebbs, protested to the Bell Syndicate that they did not want their strip to appear in the Communist paper, The Daily Worker. Then Gene Byrnes, creator of Reg’lar Fellers, asked that his work be withdrawn from the paper.

The Communist paper agreed to the withdrawal of The Nebbs, but declared it would stand on its contract with the syndicate to continue Reg’lar Fellers. Byrnes countered with a threat to fill his feature with anti-Communist propaganda until the paper would be glad to call it quits.

Meanwhile John N. Wheeler, president of the Bell Syndicate which distributes the features is in a spot. While he does not see eye to eye with the Baers and Byrnes, he is trying manfully to get The Worker to drop both strips. He said, and probably he’s right about it, that the “more material that shows American life as it is” that we can get into the Communist papers will help the fight by so much.

And he added, “We feel anytime we can sell our features, intended for publication in capitalistic newspapers, to a Communist publication it is a worthwhile propaganda achievement…” Gluyas Williams, whose cartoons on Americana are also carried in The Worker, shares this view. And we are inclined to go along with it.

In fact, we’d like to see Pravda or Izvestia make a deal with King Features to carry Blondie. The Russians might thus sneak a look beyond the Iron Curtain at American home life.”

In the forties Byrnes began publishing various how-to books on cartooning, beginning with A Complete Guide to Drawing, Illustration, Cartooning and Painting published by Simon and Schuster in 1942. The books was credited to Byrnes and A. Thornton Bishop. Not having seen a copy I have to wonder if it was not the same book as A Complete Guide to Cartooning, a vastly influential book published by Grosset and Dunlap in 1950. Other Byrnes texts on cartooning were Cartooning For Fun and Money, New York: By-Mail Corporation, 1951, and The How to Doodle Book published in 1970.

Reg’lar Fellers came to an end in 1947, by then produced by a number of ghosts including comic book artist George Carlson. Byrnes retired in the sixties and lived on until July 26, 1974, when his heart gave out.

By modern standards Reg’lar Fellers is an innocuous strip, charming in a nostalgic sort of way, but unlikely to cause a stampede by publishers in search of hardcover reprint material. A reporter in the Indiana Tribune in 1935 had this to say:

“A critic once stated that “Zip,” “Blooey,” and “Blam” were the essence of American humor if the comic strips were taken as a criterion.

Perhaps that’s the reason that “Reg’lar Fellers” is so refreshingly different. Slapstick has not been made a poor substitute for real humor, and that may be why this comic strip is today one of the newspaper world’s outstanding features.

In “Reg’lar Fellers,” Gene Byrnes has created a beautifully drawn strip, true to life, with a chuckle in the action and a laugh in every “balloon.” Popularity tests conducted by some of the nation’s largest newspapers show that “Reg’lar Fellers” leads all other comics in popularity.”

*Thanks to Don Kurtz for providing the scan of the autograph sketch by Gene Byrnes.

1 comment:

  1. i believe i am related to him. my dad talked about him in the thirties as did my mom. i always wondered about that.i am originally from long island. born 1927. the internet is great for getting an idea about things like this.william byrnes is my name.