Thursday, September 10, 2009

Rudy, Gus, and John Dirks

“It all began two score years ago. When the editor of the New York Journal turned to a young staff artist and said:

“Hey, Dirks! Draw me some pictures of kids. And make ‘em funny.”

From: “Und So Dey Iss in Der Moofies Now! “The Captain and the Kids,” Rudolph Dirks’ Forty-Year Comic Favorite, Is Making Its Screen Debut.” Corpus Christ Times, January 14, 1938.

Rudolph Dirks (1877-1968) was born in Germany, and moved to the US when he was seven, with his parents. The family lived in Duluth then Chicago where the elder Dirks practiced trade as wood-carver.

“I intended to follow my father’s footsteps but one week in the shop settled that. I almost cut off one hand.”

His brother Gus, author of the popular “Bugville” cartoons, inspired him to emulate him by moving to New York. He freelanced for a year or so, doing covers for Street and Smith “thrillers,” then got a job on the Journal.

In the early nineties the New York World adopted color printing for its revolutionary Sunday supplements and introduced the first color comic pages. The Journal took note and obtained the services of Rudolph Dirks, and asked to submit something along the line of Wilhelm Busch’s German comic max and Moritz, created the Katzenjammer Kids in 1897.

Pulitzer’s World warred with Hearst’s Journal and lured Dirks away. Hearst owned the title “The Katzenjammer Kids” so Pulitzer’s version became “Hans and Fritz.” With anti-German feeling s high during WWI the title was changed once again to “The Captain and the Kids,” and a daily appeared under the title “The Shenanigan Kids” with art by John Campbell Cory.

For the record, the kids, Hans and Fritz are Mamma’s kids, the Captain was not her husband but a boarder, and the Inspector was a mere truant officer, and no relation to any other character. Rudolph served with the American army in Cuba throughout the Spanish American War as a corporal. But he managed to send his drawings for the Sunday page regularly.

Rudolph Dirks brother Gustavus “Gus” Dirks, was born in Schleswig-Holstein, on the Danish border and shot himself in the head on June 10, 1902. He used a 38 revolver and did not survive. The suicide occurred in a studio on West Fourteenth Street, which was shared by three artists, Gus Dirks, Charles Sarka, and John Tarrant. Many of the headlines mis-reported the tragedy with news that the “Katzenjammer Artist” was dead. Dirks parents were living in Phillips, Wisconsin at the time.

Dirks was a good friend of the eccentric artist “Old Pop” Hart in the thirties. “Pop” was George Obery Hart, a sign painter, who was discovered by art critics when he was in his sixties and was lauded as the “American Gaughin.” It was claimed that he could mix colors in the dark. His popular canvases featured “cockfights, ravishing damsels in tropical courtyards and South Sea Islanders.” He lived for a quarter of a century in a 3 room shack in the woods atop the Palisades where “Walt Kuhn, the comic artist, and Rudolph Dirks repaired regularly to the Jersey shore, climbed to the hilltop and soaked their sorrows away in the beer of a nearby German restaurant with the then unknown eccentric who was “Old Pop”.”

Once Dirks and a group of American painters were sitting in a café in Munich when Pop’s name came up. One member of the party expressed the wish that “Pop” were with them. Dirks immediately sent a check to Hart in America and they were soon joined by “Pop” Hart. He had a little money left over which he spent on a top hat and a walking stick.

“At night, after “Pop” had gone to sleep, they would get the cane, remove the ferrule, saw off an inch of the stick and put the ferrule back. The stick grew shorter and shorter. One day in the midst of a walk, “Pop” stopped in his tracks.

“Fellows,” he said, “this is a wonderful climate over here. Do you know, I believe I’ve grown six inches since I came to this town!

Dirks was a member of the famous Kit Kat Club and played golf with a group of cartoonists residing in Ogunquit. Each year the winner of the golf matches was given the title “Big Boy.” The winner in 1938 was Robert Laurent, a sculptor. Rudy’s son John Dirks won the cup in 1939 and artist Richard Leahy in 1940. In 1941 it was the turn of Cliff Sterrett, cartoonist for “Polly and Her Pals,” while runner-up Rudy Dirks was given the consolation prize of a necktie.

Dirks was 91 when he died one Saturday night in 1968 at his Manhattan home. His son John Dirks, who had been helping out on the strip for 15 years said he would carry on with the “Kids.”

*Again the original sketch and the letter are from the Don Kurtz collection. The Dirks letter would appear to be in answer to a query by Martin Sheridan, author of the seminal 1942 book on comics, Comics and Their Creators.

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