Thursday, December 24, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

⭐ Christmas In Toonerville

by Rick Marschall

Fontaine Fox had one of the most distinctive drawing styles in American cartoon history. It changed little through the years; in his early days in Louisville and Chicago, he bucked the trend of cartoonists who often drew with details and crosshatch-shading. His work was not minimalist, exactly, but handsomely streamlined, clean, uncomplicated.

He drew humor cartoons, political cartoons (Republican, anti-Progressive), and book illustrations. He illustrated an arts-and-crafts book for Volland in Chicago; and two of Ring Lardner’s early books. Syndicate pioneer John Wheeler, whom I knew, liked Fox’s work and syndicated Toonerville Folks (through the Wheeler Syndicate and the Bell Syndicate) from 1913 until Fox retired in 1955.

Toonerville Folks was the formal title of the daily panel and the Sunday page. But most people knew his work by the iconic trolley and the town-full of characters he created: The Toonerville Trolley That Meets All Trains; Mickey (Himself) McGuire; The Powerful Katrinka; The Terrible-Tempered Mr Bang; Asthma Simpson; et al.

For the run of that feature, Fox’s work took on its most characteristic aspects – characters with large heads and wispy bodies; a slight bird’s-eye view of all scenes; dialog lettering floating without benefit of speech balloons; occasional circles instead of panel-squares or rectangles; and the oddest genre scenes since Bruegel – random characters reacting, kibitzing, smiling at the reader. A glorified stick-figure world.

His creation was wildly popular, more in small-town papers than big cities, for that is the world he re-created. The feature inspired reprint books, cartoons, movie shorts, a now-collectible tin wind-up toy, and other licensing and merchandising. The son of comedian Joe Yule starred in Toonerville movies as a kid – and, enjoying success as Mickey (Himself McGuire), took the stage name of Mickey Rooney instead of Joe Yule, Jr.

Fox himself was as wiry and wizened as one of his characters, with a white moustache that flapped as he talked. But the curmudgeon persona was a pose: he really was kindly and friendly and warm.

At the end of his life Fontaine Fox split his time between Greenwich, Connecticut and Delray Beach, Florida. After his retirement and death I got know his assistant, then retired too, Arthur Clark of Stamford, which is the next train stop up from Greenwich. He shared stories, artwork, memories, and trivia (such as knowing when a drawing was Fox’s, and not the assistant’s, there would be precisely seven diagonal lines over the “F Fox”).

I visited him often, and would never ask for original art or memorabilia, but he did make gifts or trades of some things. Once I made the mistake of telling Art Wood about him, and before two days had passed, Art called him and sweet-talked him out of most of his archives.

Art Wood had a way of doing that, as persuasive as a successful used-car salesman. Many, many cartoonists told me a similar story – that they sent their life’s work to Art, and after the fact wondered how or why. In the beginning he pledged that things would wind up in a museum in Washington DC. When I went to college in DC I got to know Art well and he recounted this story with a wink; and “his” collection was enormous.

Eventually, and ironically, he actually did open a museum – not with the National Cartoonists Society, which by then fielded complaints from cartoonists who thought they had been snookered – but via a foundation he set up. I eventually was President of that Museum and Gallery, and sat on the board of the Foundation. Its own foundations were not solid, and I will share that story, here, down the road. One episode I recall concerns the original Buster Brown page where the Yellow Kid appeared as a character. It was displayed prominently in the Gallery, and I learned when I met R F Outcault’s daughter (yes!) that she loaned it to Art for a show and despite many pleas for its return, it remained in his collection.

Back to Mr Clark. At an earlier time he traded me some pieces he said he knew I would appreciate. There were sketches, Christmas cards, and one panel each of the Toonerville characters, all by Fox.

I share here a letter that Fox wrote before he moved to Greenwich, when Manhasset, on Long Island, was his northern pied à terre, or whatever they called it back in Kentucky. He explained to the designer of the Dutch Treat Club’s annual program book why he missed a deadline. Of most interest is Fox’s whimsical letterhead – revealing, for the first time many fans might see, the actual name of the Trolley skipper: Dan Withers. Silas Tooner was owner of the line.

Then… ‘tis the season. A random group of Fox’s Christmas cards. He sent these out, sometimes as post cards, always hand-colored, to friends.

Don’t let the “humbug” scowl fool you in the auto-portraits. The old Fox was spry and kindly to the end, great fun, and with a twinkle in the eye that his simple pen lines could not quite capture.


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