Saturday, December 1, 2018

A Crowded Life in Comics – Charles M Payne

by Rick Marschall

TOP: Color post card announcing CM Payne’s Sunday page, ca. 1900, when he joined a reorganized merger of papers. When Payne left Pittsburgh he was succeeded on the staff by a young Billy DeBeck.

Charles M Payne – “S’Matter, Pop?”

Serendipity, initiative, and geography were responsible in my early days as a fan of cartoons and comics – which were my earliest days overall, for I had the “bug” from the start – to meet many cartoonists.

With no offense meant at the time to Mort Walker and Dick Hodgins and Dik Browne and other idols of the funnies, my biggest thrills were meeting Rube Goldberg, Harry Hershfield, Rudolph Dirks, Russell Patterson, Ken Kling, and other pioneers. Frankly, the big cartoonists of the 1950s and ‘60s were in awe of the legends, too.

An old-time cartoonist was rescued from obscurity about that time. My friend Vernon Greene (who had drawn The Shadow and drew the daily Bringing Up Father when I was  young, and who took me under his wing) somehow learned that Charles Payne was still alive, and living in New York City. He invited him to a meeting of the National Cartoonists Society. Monthly meetings, well attended and well organized, were held at the legendary Lambs Club on West 44th Street, as I have noted here.

Charlie Payne became an instant hit. In his 90th year, but upright, spry, funny, and clever, he danced with the hat-check girls and regaled everybody with stories of the old times. “Old times?” Born in 1873, he joined a paper during the first Bryan campaign, and began cartooning in the first decade of the century. For the Pittsburgh Post he created a Sunday page about hillbilly woodland creatures, Coon Hollow Folks, later titled (perhaps when he switched to the Gazette-Times) Bear Creek Folks. His style was whimsical, and even the aggressive characters were rather silly and sentimental. His drawing style, while in these strips a bit reminiscent of Uncle Remus illustrator J M Conde, was set from the start – minimalist, few backgrounds, bursts of action, and (unique for the time) frequent eye-contact with readers.

He moved, or was lured, to Philadelphia (the Inquirer) then New York City around 1912, where for Pulitzer’s New York World he created a few strips like Honeybunch’s Hubby (which he revived through subsequent decades) and the immortal S’Matter, Pop? This strip was nominally a domestic strip; or nominally a kid’s strip; there was a mother in the household, seldom seen. Almost every gag focused on the interplay between Pop and his sons Willyum and the baby whose only utterance was “Sk’booch”; and the mercurial neighborhood roustabout Desperate Ambrose, always in some fantasy pose, dark but innocent.

Through the years the strip subtly changed titles – Say, Pop!, Nippy’s Pop, and others – and venues: the World; New York American; back to Pulitzer’s World and its syndicate; Bell Syndicate. He kept drawing the page into 1950 (he claimed to me, but I have seen no examples later than the early ‘40s), but, forever ambitious and creative, he drew funny features, including his old forest folk, for early comic-book companies. To the end he prepared samples of strips for syndication… full of his old-timey humor and slapstick, unfortunate anachronisms by that time.

His later attempts included a semi-realistic G.I. Daddy, about returning servicemen; and a hillbilly strip filled with charm and character and rural accents (title forgotten) that would have become a classic. His style, especially in S’Matter, Pop?, was even more sparse: few backgrounds or props; very thin lines for the characters; sometimes with enormous sold-black splotches immediately behind characters, to set them off, or fill spaces.

The minimalism pushed Payne toward surrealistic touches, not the formal silliness of George McManus’s interacting picture frames, but odd wall hangings, strange lamps, and bizarre throw-rugs. All charming.

And, as I noted, he was charming to a new generation of cartoonists at the NCS, where some of the big names of the day did not even know about S’Matter, Pop? Dapper. A jokester when prodded. Dancing with distaff members, who he insisted call him “Popsy.” He took to me and was generous with memories, and some old scrapbook items like vintage proof sheets and such.

He wrote an elaborate letter to me, proud of his 90th year, and confident he had found secret of a long life, something he called Reason 7. He was sure that he could sell his story to Reader’s Digest. The letter was written on a hand-made letterhead with the Reason 7 logo, and an oval cut-out photograph of himself, smiling and youthful.

He enclosed a couple of “old sketches” he “dug up for me.” Bless his heart, they were not old, but drawn specially on shirt cardboard – and, believe me, more special for it. I will reproduce the charming letter, part of which explains the charming drawings. Reproduced here, too, are those “old” drawings produced in the last year of his life.

Charlie Payne charmed everyone he met, just about, but his daily life was not charming. He lived in severe poverty, in Harlem. I will quote from his last letter to me, written in a scrawl that would not reproduce well, on small note-paper:

A year ago, a negro mugger slipped into the elevator here behind me – the first thing I knew he was there he was swing [sic] both fists on my jaws and broke both of them in 4 pieces.

They had me spotted as a rich guy. There was three of them, the police learned (I don’t know how) one at half up and one standing at top door, 6th floor, in case another tenant rang the bell. The muggers idea was to kill me as they always do. He picked me up and went through my pockets and dropped me like a rag, and ran out when the automatic elevator door opened and ran out and down the stairs at the right of elevator.

NOW GET THIS: I hopped up before the automatic door closed and ran to the nearest apartment, messing the place up with BLOOD. That was the first time I found out that I could not be knocked out! Boxers can be knocked out wearing 5-oz gloves. Not so long ago in a light weight fight a fighter was knocked on the ropes and got less of a beating than I got but he never came to, and died....

“Pop” Payne – “Popsy” to the girls and to the end – died less than a year later, in 1964. He had outlived the Biblical forecast of a full life (“three score and 10”) but he might have continued more years, we will never know, drawing, dancing, and charming everyone, just about, who met him. Fifty years of his trademark animals and kids are his legacy, and our treasures.


1 comment:

  1. I have come across a poster size drawing on heavy board (looks to be repurposed board) of a S’matter Pop cartoon. Does this have any value?