Boop-Oop-a-Doop Like It’s the Thirties!

« Her surname, a familiar catchphrase of the time, was inspired by the inter-lyric expostulations of a nationally famous Paramount Pictures songbird, Helen Kane. ‘Boop Boo a Doop!’ was the chant she sang in her sweet, high-pitched voice, a flippant raspberry to the jazz age. Somehow these nonsense syllables seemed to embody the spirit of the waning days of the twenties… »

I think everybody knows Betty Boop, though probably not that many have seen the original cartoons from the 1930s. She was ‘created’ by Max Fleischer orchestrating a team of animators – as with any gestalt creation, one can argue about who was responsible for what until one is blue in the face, but it has been convincingly argued (by Bill Blackbeard, for example) that Grim Natwick was the actual creator, probably with a stable of other animators.

In 1930, Betty, then still nameless, made her first appearance in (the pleasantly weird) Dizzy Dishes as a supporting character, as a seductive canine anthropomorph with dog ears and human curves. She acquired more personality once she was matched up with Bimbo, another doggo, in Bimbo’s Initiation (1931) – which is an even stranger cartoon, a tale of hazing by a bunch of creatures with pulsating buttocks and candles on their heads pursuing Bimbo with chants of ‘wanna be a member? wanna be a member?’, to which Bimbo always responds ‘no!’ to get sent to yet another chamber of tortures. I would suggest not psychoanalysing that too closely. Watch for the grand WTF finale:

By 1932, Betty, who now had a stable position as Bimbo’s regular girlfriend and a name to call her own, had jettisoned her dog attributes, floppy dog ears quite seamlessly transformed into big hoop earrings. Though she was a’booping from the very beginning, she acquired her hallmark Boop surname with Betty Boop Limited (1932). The aforementioned Helen Kane* was not pleased, and there were, as Blackbeard explains in his introduction to Betty Boop’s Sunday Best: The Complete Color Comics, 1934-1936 (Kitchen Sink Press, 1995), ‘threats of lawsuits, various legal manœuvres, and demands for creator royalties, all without result‘.

In 1933, Hearst’ King Features Syndicate started negotiating terms for a Betty Boop comic strip, and in 1934 the strip, drawn by Bud Counihan, appeared. However, this was not exactly the same unhinged, hip-jiggling Betty of earlier years. King Features wanted to appeal to more conservative audiences, and Betty’s sexuality was toned down a notch. The animated Betty didn’t fare much better – as usual, guardians of Moral Purity™stuck their fingers in the pie, and from June 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code kicked into effect, forcing Betty to leave behind her carefree flapper days to become either a career girl, or some generic housewife.

Oh, but there was still plenty fun to be had. Besides, the comic strip Betty was not quite as smothered – while the latter was nursing babies and whatnot in a long dress, the former was still running around in her risqué red number, occasionally even kissing men and living the life of a spoiled movie star. Here are a few Sunday strips – thanks for co-admin RG for scanning these unscannables.

Sunday strip from March 1935. Counihan’s tigers are consistently adorable.
Sunday strip from 1935, and a few different perspectives on Betty’s legs and derrière.
Sunday strip from 1935. That’s a more fun version of a police line-up…
Sunday strip from 1935. Mentions of nudism come up more often than one would expect (and yet Betty is never particularly undressed, at least not by modern standards).
Sunday strip from 1936. In the later years, Betty’s indomitable aunt Tillie monopolized much of the action. She may have not had Betty’s sex appeal, but she was kind of fun to watch – a generous woman (also generous with her fists in cases of disagreement). Have I mentioned the tigers?

Blackthorne Publishing, known for their reprints of classic titles, issued three 72-page collections of Betty Boop reprints, comprising a mix of dailies and Sundays.

Blackthorne Comic-Strip Preserves nos. 1 and 2 (both published in January 1986). Covers by Bud Counihan.

There are a lot of modern conversations about the meaning of Betty Boop**. Was she but a sex symbol, bent to the lascivious male gaze that created her? Or perhaps an early example of a feminist icon, in control of her own sexuality? Her combination of innocence and feminine wiles actually reminds me of Sally the Sleuth (see Here Comes Sally the Sleuth… and There Goes Her Dress!), as Betty effortlessly runs around half naked, thwarting rape attempts without losing an ounce of her cheerfulness. These questions mostly address a pre-1934 Betty, as her identity in the public eye seems to have been formed in those few years of unhinged actions and symbolism… as well as BB merchandise in the 1980s, as she was rediscovered by makers of all manner of goods (note that it was still her sexier form that was used on cups, lamps, t-shirts, keychains, and whatever else you can think of).

From recent attempts to revive the character, Gisele Lagacé and Roger Langridge‘s comic series comes to mind – more as a traumatic experience rather than a pleasure, despite being hyped as ‘insanely entertaining‘. Langridge is a WOT favourite, but in this case even his script cannot save Lagacé’s insipid art (‘Lagace’s art is amazing. Her characters emote in ways I didn’t think two-dimensional cartoons could.’ says The Court of Nerds) or the flat colours by Maria Victoria Robado (who normally opts for colourful images, so I’m thinking that the drabness was imposed upon her by the artist). At least some of the covers of this 4-issue series were nice…

Betty Boop no. 4 (January 2017), cover by Roger Langridge.

*In recent years, it has come out that Kane was probably aping the act of black vaudeville performer Esther ‘Baby’ Jones.

**See, for example, The Forgotten Black Woman Behind Betty Boop.

~ ds

Hallowe’en Countdown VI, Day 30

« It is a privilege to be the master of destinies, and director of every urge and event in the lives of such a group of folks. They may be dream folks, but the responsibilities are real because I know these characters are real to many thousands of readers. » — Frank King

This post is but a simple sequel: a couple of countdowns ago, I shared some of Frank King‘s Halloween and Autumn-themed Gasoline Alley Sundays… but it turned out that, King manifestly being a fiend on the topic, there were more of these placidly poetic beauties. And so here are some of them.

The November 30, 1921 strip.
The October 21, 1923 strip.
The October 28, 1923 strip.
The November 1st, 1925 strip.
The October 29, 1933 strip. Horsepower!

Pray note that, as these were originally published at a rather gigantic size — especially if you compare it to the lilliputian space allotted in newspapers for today’s comic strips — I consequently posted these images in a larger format than is my custom. And so, open in a separate tab to get the larger (and fuller) picture!

-RG

Purr for Paul Murry!

As co-admin RG recently pointed out, we are in the middle of a move, which is not terribly conducive to long, contemplative posts, so I suppose this one could be called a bit of filler. I (for one) am always happy to look at some pretty pin-ups, and no labyrinth of boxes is going to stand in my way.

If you’re at all interested in Dell or Gold Key comics, you’re likely already familiar with the work of Paul Murry (1911-1989), whose Disney characters regularly appeared in their pages between 1946 and 1984. His life followed an interesting path – a farmer in his native Missouri, he started working for the animation department of Disney Studios in the late 1930s, then branched out into Disney’s comic department in 1943, working on newspaper strips (Uncle Remus and His Tales of Brer Rabbit in the mid-40s, the fun Buck O’Rue in the early 50s) and the aforementioned Dell/Gold Key Disney imprints.

Murry also drew girlie cartoons, and quite good ones, too. Working in animation yields handsome artistic dividends, but one might also say that Murry, with his discerning eye for dynamic anatomy, was made for it. Here’s a batch of them from the 40s and 50s.

… with the exception of this one, which is from the 30s, and ‘attributed’ to Murry – good enough for me.
Smiles no. 25 (spring 1948) – ‘Posner Murry’ is one of his aliases.

You can peruse more images at the Sekvenskonst blog (including a sequence of Murry Monday posts!)

Random fact of the day: in Russian, cats make a ‘murr’ sound (pronounced like ‘moo-rrr’, with a rolled R at the end), and that explains the title of this post.

~ ds

Combing My Hair With a Can-Opener and Other Oddities: Rube Goldberg in His Pre-Machine Days

« — Pickin’ flowers, Lucy? — No, you simple-minded piece of cream cheese – I’m filling the coal scuttle with apple sauce. »

My first exposure to a Rube Goldberg machine was through The Incredible Machine, a DOS game from 1993. I didn’t know at the time who Goldberg was, but I really liked the idea of setting up a chain of events triggering one another in the most convoluted-yet-satisfying of ways.

The machine was of course named after Rube Goldberg (Reuben Garrett Goldberg, 1883-1970), cartoonist, inventor, sculptor, et j’en passe. Given his lasting contribution to culture, it is interesting to consider that in the early days of his career, when he was a struggling cartoonist, Goldberg almost changed his family name to hide his Jewish roots – ultimately deciding that he couldn’t live with himself, had he followed his colleagues’ counsel. ‘Then I realized it was idiotic to even consider such a thing; that I would be ashamed of it all the remainder of my life; and that, if a man’s achievements are no bigger than the sound of his name, it doesn’t much matter what his name may be‘, he later wrote.

While Goldberg had a degree in engineering and worked for a short while for the San Francisco’s Water and Sewers Department (which perhaps honed his sense of the absurd, if anecdotes about a city’s treatment of sewage are anything to go by), his ambitions lay in the direction of cartooning from a very early age. His first comic, after a couple of years of being a sports cartoonist, was The Look-A-Like Boys, published at the beginning of the century (1907-1908) by the World Color Syndicate. In parallel, he was also working for the New York Evening Mail, for which he created the short-lived Reincarnation, a goofy, modern-day take on historical characters. His next attempt at a series is what initially made him famous (after which he went on to even greater fame): he produced around 450 Foolish Questions between 1908 and 1910; the very first one, published on October 23, 1908 was prosaically titled ‘Foolish Question No. 1’. Questions remained as witless as ever, but the answers got kookier and more surreal over the years!

Comic Monthly no. 10 (1922). Other issues of Comic Monthly offered reprints of contemporary strips, like Polly & Her Pals, S’Matter Pop?, Little Jimmy, etc.

FQ continued all the way into 1939 with plenty of enthusiasm from readers (who started sending in their own daft questions). It even inspired a song by Billy Murray. Here are some postcards:

In 1909, Goldberg expanded the FQ world into a Sunday strip, Don’t Some People Ask the Biggest Fool Questions?, which collected previously published strips by grouping them into tiers (and occasionally padding this format out with new artwork). In 1912, he went on to unleash the madcap inventions he’s remembered for today upon the world in the shape of The Inventions of Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, A.K., then shifted to political cartooning (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948) in 1938, and then recycled himself as a sculptor in the 1960s. Truly a life filled to the brim with adventure!

The examples below have been scanned from Foolish Questions & Other Odd Observations (Early Comics 1909-1919), published by the wonderful Sunday Press in 2017. I highly recommend it; abounding in bonus materials, it also has two introductions for the price of one, namely one by Goldberg’s granddaughter Jennifer George, and another written by comics historian Paul C. Tumey (author of the equally magnificent tome, SCREWBALL! The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny – read a review of it by Eddie Campbell* here). Goldberg’s sense of the absurd is truly a delight, and I dare you to not giggle while perusing these.

~ ds

* Another WOT favourite that we never really got around to talking about. I will, however, refer you to this interesting discussion about comprehending/perusing comics, in which Cambpell conjures an entertaining mental image, relating to his appearance on TV to talk about why ‘some people just can’t read comics’: « My blather would have been mercifully cut because I launched into an insane mimicry of a theoretical middle-aged woman in tears from not being able to interpret the TV guide. »

There Oughta Be a Law Against Copycats, or Else They’ll Do It Every Time!

In the beginning of time… or rather the end of the 1930s, which may feel like a similar thing to some… there was Jimmy (James) Hatlo‘s They’ll Do It Every Time, a popular King Features newspaper cartoon with an impressively long run (1929 all the way until 2008, although no longer under Hatlo’s direction since 1963 due to Hatlo’s fairly early demise at 66). Hatlo, a sports cartoonist working for The San Francisco Call-Bulletin, stumbled upon the greatest success of his career by accident – scrambling to fill a void left by a shipped-yet-misplaced package of cartoons that for some reason didn’t make it to the office in time*, he drew the first couple of strips as a bouche-trou, only to find himself with an instant hit. The old problem of running out of ideas was creatively solved – Hatlo asked his readers for suggestions, and the readers, « brimming with seemingly small observations about mundane yet captivating matters, but lacking a way to tell anyone outside their own circles of friends about it » (as Bob Green described it in his Wall Street Journal epitaph A Tip of the Hat to Social Media’s Granddad), were happy to oblige. Hatlo acknowledged every submission with a ‘tip of the Hatlo hat’ – the thrilled reader would get his or her name and hometown displayed prominently in the bottom right corner of the strip.

* Jimmy Hatlo—Man of Many Hats, a detailed article by Ed Black I wholeheartedly recommend, offers another version of this story: « His managing editor, Edgar T. ‘Scoop’ Gleason, was frantic: He had a hole to fill in his comics page when Hearst abruptly ordered him to pull Billy DeBeck’s Bughouse Fables so it could run in the Examiner. Gleason prevailed upon Hatlo to produce something, pronto. »

Strip from sometime in August, 1931 (exact date unknown).
Strip from May 31st, 1939. 
Strip from January 27th, 1943. The character of Little Iodine, born in the pages of They’ll Do It Every Time, « the embodiment of all brats I knew… naughty as hell — and still likable », according to Hatlo, spun off into her own strip, which ran from 1943 to 1983. La petite Iodine, a French translation, first appeared in Saturday editions of Québécois weekly La Patrie in 1945 and 1946, and also made it into some other Québec newspapers later on, where co-admin RG eventually came across it in his youth.
Strip from March 8th, 1943.
Presumed November 30th, 1945.
Strip from August 7th, 1961. 

Some twenty years later, in 1948, a ‘blatant’ knock-off – There Oughta Be a Law! – was launched by the McClure Newspaper Syndicate, disturbingly similar in look and tone to the strip it was imitating. It was created by writer Harry Shorten and artist Al Fagaly. Whereas Hatlo’s strip brought him fame, There Oughta… didn’t do much for its creators – though Fagaly (creator of Archie ComicsSuper Duck) needed no padding on his already impressive (with more to come) résumé. Just like with They’ll Do It Every Time, Fagaly died in 1963 (it was a bad year for cartoonists, it seems), and Warren Whipple took over the illustration duties. Interestingly, Whipple is supposed to have also worked on TDIET at some point (according to this source, and Wikipedia, which copy-pasted it), though I can’t find more information about it.

After a respectable run of 36 years (it ended in 1984), There Oughta Be a Law sank into relative obscurity. One could argue that Hatlo could have sued, had he sufficiently resented the copycat strip – maybe he was too cool a cat for such austerity, maybe imitation is flattery, or They’ll Do It Every Time was sufficiently well-established and popular enough not to have to worry about competition. Hatlo certainly set it up for success, evidence of which is how it ran like a well-oiled machine long after his death. Upon reflection, I prefer the art of TDIET – crisper and more dynamic, it immediately grabs the eye, making these strips enjoyable not only for their humorous observations, but also for their style. I will, however, note that Fagaly had a really fun signature. What do you think, reader?

All of the below strips are circa the 1950s.

I had to include this one, as I am appalled somebody could be unfamiliar with borscht. No, I’m not going to provide a link, look it up yourselves.

~ ds

H. M. Bateman’s Absurdist Pieces of Astonishing Design

Henry Mayo Bateman (1887-1970) was a British cartoonist now frequently described as ‘the most innovative cartoonist of his generation’. His main claim to fame is the ‘The Man Who…‘ cartoons; as it often happens with when the popularity of a creation goes far beyond what the artist originally had in mind, Bateman himself was ambivalent about it, and felt constrained by its acclaim. Be as it may, a lot of his cartoon collections (most of them hopelessly out of print) are named according to this template: Man Who Drew 20th Century (1969), The Man Who Was H. M. Bateman (1982), H. M. Bateman: The Man Who Went Mad on Paper (2012)… The one I have in my collection broke away from this mold –it’s a French collection titled Mimodrames, with all text inside, including the titles of cartoons, in both French and English. Strangely, the French cartoon captions seem more à propos than the English ones.

Case in point: this was called ‘Prisoner when arrested clung to the railings‘, which in French was translated to ‘Le protestataire qui se cramponna aux grilles à l’arrivée de la police‘, and yet protestataire is more like ‘protester’, not ‘prisoner’, which I think is more fitting.

Bateman seemed to be predestined for his career; having decided at the ripe old age of 13 to dedicate his life to becoming an artist, he spent all his free time drawing and sold his first cartoon at 14 (!) Though his father was adamant that his sole male offspring should follow his footsteps and become a respectable businessman, Bateman’s small yet steadily increasing income from his cartoons and the growing demand for them by halfpenny weekly comic papers finally forced his pa to grudgingly agree to his son pursuing a career in art. Bateman was 16 at the time.

‘The Man who filled his fountain pen with the hotel ink’

Bateman continued to sell cartoons throughout his studies; by 1906, his work was in demand by many publications much fancier than the inexpensive comic papers he started out in. Percy Venner Bradshaw, fellow artist and founder of the Press Art School, meeting him that year for the first time, found a ‘quiet, shy, delicate boy who was much more interested in colour than in line work, and who could only with difficulty be induced to talk about either‘. A fitting description of a man who appeared quiet and reserved, who felt things more keenly than his peers or his colleagues – a swift glance at his best work dispels an impression of similarity between him and the rowdier cartoonists. Not that Bateman couldn’t be funny – but something lurked behind the chuckle, some dark cloud lingering over his characters. As Anthony Anderson (not the American actor, nor the British murderer; all I was able to find out about him is that he’s listed as an editor of many books) notes in the introduction to Mimodrames:

 « The more one examines his drawings the more one feels that, despite his conservatism, Bateman’s sympathies lay not with the offended but with the offender, a sympathy for the underdog, the little man. Indeed, in many of his cartoons, especially during the war, the little man was often Bateman himself – a clear self-portrait. »

This sensitivity comes loud and clear through Bateman’s writing as well – to quote, for example, his description of a medical examination undergone in 1916, when conscription for WWI was in full swing:

 « In company with other doubtfuls, I was made to hop naked and submit to a bombardment of tests before a glaring army doctor sternly ordered me to ‘go away and get some clothes on’, as if I was responsible for appearing before him in that condition. And in return for my afternoon’s exhibition I was handed an unhealthy looking card bearing the magic symbol of C.3. I had done what I could to convert myself to cannon fodder. I just wasn’t fit for it. »

This description reminds me of Brel’s Au suivant (for those who don’t speak French, Scott Walker’s Next).

‘The Maid who was but human’, or ‘La bonne avait de l’humour’ (something like ‘the maid had a sense of humour).
‘The Man who broke the tube’

I would also be remiss in failing to mention his work for satirical magazines Punch and the Tatler (the famous ‘The man who…’ cartoons ran in the latter, often in glorious colour double-page spreads). According to Anderson, Bateman became the highest paid cartoonist in Britain around the 1920s and 1930s.

‘The editor of a yellow newspaper receiving news of a horrible murder committed in circumstances of the most revolting atrocity’

Bateman’s dearest ambition throughout his life seemed to have been to become a serious, dedicated painter. When he was 46, he set his lucrative career aside, and went to Spain and France to paint. Anderson ends the introduction with the nicest epitaph I’ve read in a while:

« He spent the next three decades gradually shedding more and more of his old life, retiring to a small house on the edge of Dartmoor, travelling extensively and on his own […], always with his sketch books, his paints and his fishing rod. He became peaceful, solitary, content. He died on the island of Gozo in 1970, still painting every day, living in a small hotel with very few possessions but in the room with the finest view. »

Another source mentions that Bateman fought long and hard with Inland Revenue, so perhaps his self-exile to Gozo, an island in Malta, was not as poetic as it sounds. I wasn’t able to find much information about that, other than his obvious dislike of taxmen (exemplified by cartoons such as The Income Tax Official in Hades) – but taking periodic stabs at the taxman is a traditional cartoonist sport, so it doesn’t really prove anything.

‘The Income-Tax Worm at Work’

These were some of my favourite Bateman pages, I hope you enjoyed them!

~ ds

Oh, the Places He’s Been: Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss!

« Theodor Geisel spent his workdays ensconced in his private studio, the walls lined with sketches and drawings, in a bell-tower outside his La Jolla, California, house. Geisel was a much more quiet man than his jocular rhymes suggest. He rarely ventured out in public to meet his young readership, fretting that kids would expect a merry, outspoken, Cat in the Hat-like figure, and would be disappointed with his reserved personality. » — Susan Cain

Today, we honour Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991), born one hundred and eighteen years ago and better known under his nom de plume of Dr. Seuss (one of several, such as Dr. Theophrastus Seuss, Dr. Theodophilus Seuss, Theo LeSieg, L. Pasteur, D.G. Rossetti, and Rosetta Stone. The man loved a good pseudonym.) And no, he wasn’t actually a doctor, though he contributed to more people’s well-being than most physicians could dream of. His alma mater, Dartmouth College, did bestow upon him an honorary doctorate, in 1956. Furthermore, it renamed, in 2012, its medical school (fourth oldest in the United States, founded in 1797) Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth in recognition of the good man’s financial contributions over the years. Cool, uh?

Moreover, « Geisel’s birthday, March 2, has been adopted as the annual date for National Read Across America day, an initiative on reading created by the National Education Association. »

It certainly did in my case — when I wanted to learn English as a kid, his books were the ones I reached for. Results!
Geisel’s cover for Judge‘s March, 1933 issue.
A sample of his 1930’s magazine work. Dang — now I can’t get that song out of my head.
And another. Teetotallers may not know (or they may know too well, hence the abstinence) that DT stands for the latin delirium tremens, or alcohol withdrawal-induced delirium. As for these beasts, you’ll have cause to worry if you should See Them Everywhere, and not merely aboard Goah’s Ark.
« Long before his success as Dr. Seuss, Theodore Geisel (Dartmouth Class of 1925), designed advertisements for Flit, Standard Oil Company’s wildly popular spray-pump insecticide which later contained DDT. Over the course of 17 years, Geisel’s humorous advertisements helped make Flit a household name throughout the 1930s and 1940s. At the time, liberal spraying of pesticides around people, animals, and crops was highly encouraged with little regard to potential environmental impacts. » [ source ]. This particular ad hails from 1930.
Given the scope of Geisel’s genius and the length of the ad campaign, there are many, many highlights.
More like ‘Bug Game Hunter’!
Over the years, these ads came in every format.
A 1941 poster for Flit. The casual, harum-scarum use of dangerous chemicals may seem quaint to our jaded modern eye, but it goes on, all right. Personally, I cringe when I encounter ads for Procter and Gamble’s Febreze, for instance. Seems a tad irresponsible to me, given the risks.
This is the opening installment of Hejji, Geisel’s very short-lived (April 7 to June 23, 1935, twelve episodes in all — read them all here) Sunday comic strip, the man’s sole entry into the syndicated comic strip arena, preceding by a couple of years the publication of his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937). Hejji was oh-so-briefly published by William Randolph Hearst’s King Features Syndicate. Fickle, fickle!

« In these pages Dr. Seuss was already introducing us to his wonderful talent for creating unusual and delightful creatures. Hejji and his master “The Mighty One” would meet many an odd creature like Bearded Bees, Wombats, and the great Pitzu bird. All of these would be encountered in the attempt to impress the object of “Mighty One’s love, “The Fair One”. Unfortunately, as the legend goes, Seuss was let go during great depression job cuts by William Randolph Hearst. Of course Seuss would later go on to create his extraordinary children’s books including Cat in the Hat, and The Grinch that stole Christmas. Hejji pages are some of the rarest and most sought-after on the comic-strip market. Printed exclusively as Tabs and only carried in a few newspapers, their rarity is as great as the popularity of their creator. As a result, each and every page carries the highest premium. » [ source ]

In 1982, Darmouth College commissioned none other than Everett Raymond Kinstler to paint this portrait (oil on canvas) of his esteemed colleague.

-RG

Here Comes Sally the Sleuth… and There Goes Her Dress!

She’s audacious, savvy, and she’s always cheerful. Here she is, the infamous Sally the Sleuth by Adolphe Barreaux*. First things first, to give us a timeframe: this strip was published in “pulp” magazine Spicy Detective Stories between 1934 and 1943, then moved to Speed Detective Stories in a new format** until 1950 then, finally, to Crime Smashers until the comic’s demise in 1953.

Sally the Sleuth features a tightrope act that’s not that easily achieved: fearless, self-sufficient Sally is so adept at spotting (and landing into the middle of) trouble that she frequently requires outside help to be rescued in the nick of time, with the role of the rescuer oft being played by her boss, the Chief, who usually bursts in through the door. What’s interesting is the way this rather typical damsel-in-distress set-up does not take anything away from our sense of Sally as a take-charge, go-getting kind of gal. She does not hesitate to bat her eyelashes or flash a gam when needed, but she’s neither the usual femme fatale archetype that appeared so often in contemporary comics, nor the innocent-yet-gorgeous victim. When captured, she spits (sometimes literally) in the face of her would-be killers; when she gets rescued, it was because she left instructions with Peanuts, her kid assistant, or schemed to leave the Chief enough clues to locate her if she hit a bad patch.

Strategic panty drop! Page two from “Tourist Trade” (June 1938, Spicy Detective Stories).

It may surprise a modern reader that an American comic from the mid-thirties (1935! consider this number again if it hasn’t sunk in yet!) should be so casual about a topless female when present-day consumers of culture freak out at the very sight of a nipple (and that goes for male nipples as well). Of course pulp magazines and comics weren’t read by staunch defenders of High Morals and Propriety, but it was nevertheless a hugely popular medium, and Spicy Detective Stories, where Sally got her débutante ball, certainly abounded in unclad women in tales of booze, butchery and concupiscence.

The cover of Spicy Detective Stories no. 4 (June 1935), in which The Tiger’s Lair (see below) appeared.

Which brings me to my next point: tension created by the play between the predictable and the unforeseen. Sally always, always ends up in a state of advanced déshabillé. That is an enjoyable given. Much like panties drop to the floor if a woman should be carrying celery, Sally’s dress and underwear fly off at the gentlest of tugs. However, just how it is accomplished varies wildly from week to week. One wouldn’t think that were so many interesting ways of getting accidentally undressed. And these stories are harsh, no doubt about it: scenes of torture and murder vary from the comparatively sedate (getting whipped, slapped, shot) to sensationalist (death by venomous snake or spider) to viscerally uncomfortable (cannibalism with more than a dash of necrophilia, being boiled alive, impalement).

The complete “The Tiger’s Lair” (June 1935, Spicy Detective Stories).
Sally’s stoicism as she’s about to be carved up is nothing short of miraculous. Page two from “The Sewer Horror” (December 1937, Spicy Detective Stories).
Page two from “Murder Mania” (April 1935, Spicy Detective Stories).
Page two from “The Missing-Models Mystery” (April 1937, Saucy Detective Stories).

Though of course it’s the nudity is sexualised, I love the ease with which Sally does it, completely unperturbed by having a bare chest whether she’s surrounded by hoodlums, talking to her boss, or racing through a crowded hotel. There’s a certain innocence in it, as if we were watching a frolicking Dedini nymph. Despite being so frequently assaulted, she does not at all come off as a victim.

Some top-rate lassoing from Peanuts! They’re trying to make it look like a suicide, but I’m not sure why a woman would want to jump off a roof naked. Page two from “Love Nest Loot” (September 1935, Spicy Detective Stories).

Earlier-day Sally (1934-1943) is supposedly ‘ditzy and naive’ (source), but I think one should not mistake cheerfulness or pragmatism for naïveté. She navigates the seedy parts of town with aplomb and talent, efficiently following clues, taking on many roles to infiltrate criminal organisations or simply glean information. Sally may have to rely on the Chief to extricate her from yet another predicament, but he is a sort of handsome stock figure with little personality, mostly sitting around his office and agreeing when Sally says ‘I should investigate this!’

Page two from “Coke for Co-eds” (January 1938, Spicy Detective Stories).
Sally also doesn’t judge other women; her moral compass is firmly pointed to bringing all manner of crooks to justice, but she’s a no-nonsense kind of girl when it comes to standards of female behaviour. Page two from “Sin Ship” (October 1936, Spicy Detective Stories).
Page one from “Toy of Fate” (January 1937, Spicy Detective Stories).

Sally the Sleuth has historical importance, if only for the panel borrowed by Frederic Wertham for his Seduction of the Innocent report from a Sally the Sleuth: Death Bait (1950) story. In the wonderfully written introduction to the Sally the Sleuth Collection, comics historian Tim Hanley goes a step further, saying “without Sally the Sleuth, there would be no Superman. Without the pulp heroine with a penchant for solving crimes in a state of undress, there would be no Batman either.” It can be (and has been) argued that he is giving this strip too much credit***, but there will be no argument that Sally is an important figure. Because I’m a philistine, what’s most important to me… is that it’s a great read.

~ ds

* As far as Barreaux, born Adolphus Barreaux Gripon, is concerned, there are much better places to read about his biography than on this blog, mostly due to the fact that biographies kind of bore me. I specifically direct you here for a detailed biography, and here for more information about Barreaux’ mixed heritage and the variety of genres he illustrated.

** This post only includes strips from the earlier, 1934-1943 version, because I by far prefer it to what came later, although I may be in the minority. The art got arguably better once Sally moved to Speed Detective stories, and stories also got longer, allowing for more elaborate plots. However, Sally was now some sort of international spy, travelling to ‘exotic’ countries and having to contend with native Hula dancers, superstitious savages in Indian jungles, Nazis, Japanese master-minds, and so on. She got disrobed less frequently, but the charming innocence of the strip, despite its violence and simple but effective art, is what makes Sally so appealing to me.

*** Hanley has been clearly reproached for this by some readers, and so elaborated on his blog:

My introduction begins with the grandiose claim that there would be no Superman without Sally the Sleuth, but it’s true. Long before Harry Donenfeld launched DC Comics, he was a publisher of pulp magazines that featured lurid crime stories. Sex was a major focus, and the dirty stories were a popular product. In 1934, Adolphe Barreaux convinced Donenfeld to expand outside of prose and add some comics to his books, and the “Sally the Sleuth” strip in Spicy Detective was their first attempt. It proved popular and more followed. Eventually, Donenfeld got into the comics game full time in the late 1930s, first with Detective Comics and later with Action Comics. Once Superman and Batman took off with young readers, more series followed and the comic book business became Donenfeld’s priority. But it all started with Sally.

Topper the World, Ma: Bill Holman’s Spooky the Cat

« A black cat crossing in front of a person signifies that the animal is going somewhere. » — Jack Oakie

Oftentimes, tackling such a milestone as Bill Holman‘s Smokey Stover (1935-1972) comic strip is simply too daunting a task. Judging from the evidence (and evidence of absence), I’m not alone in being so cowed: despite the feature’s undeniable and pivotal importance, there hasn’t been a reprint collection solely devoted to it* since 1985, when San Diego Comic-Con founder Shel Dorf and Blackthorne Publishing issued a humble volume in their Comic-Strip Preserves series. Humble it was, but packed to the rafters with Holman’s delightfully surreal wit and screwball genius. A mere 72 pages in the comic book format, but hours of reading, thanks to the astounding density of their contents.

If one were to take Wikipedia at its word, one might loudly rejoice at Hermes Press’ 2012 release of Smokey Stover and Spooky the Cat: The Collected Sundays. But, as an Amazon reviewer archly quipped, circa 2017, « It’s difficult to write a review when the book has not been published. » The ensuing five years have not improved the panorama one bit.

Well, I’m not going to explore Smokey Stover on this occasion… but will instead sneak a squint at its equally delightful ‘topper‘, Spooky the Cat. Since you rightly might ask:

« A topper in comic strip parlance is a small secondary strip seen along with a larger Sunday strip. In the 1920s and 1930s, leading cartoonists were given full pages in the Sunday comics sections, allowing them to add smaller strips and single-panel cartoons to their page. »

An ad from the syndicate promoting Smokey Stover (and its topper); it saw print in trade magazine Editor & Publisher’s August 21, 1937 issue.
From Sunday, June 27, 1937.
From Sunday, January 24, 1943.
From Sunday, Fooly, er, July 20, 1941.
From Sunday, July 4th (of course!), 1948.
From Sunday, September 12, 1948.
From Sunday, February 19, 1950. Ah, one of the classic cartooning archetypes: the hobo, complete with trusty polka-dot bindle and stick (which technically makes him a ‘bindlestiff’).
From Sunday, July 6, 1952. I could swear Holman meant to call the man Prof. Larynx, but then he wasn’t what you’d call a spelling whiz.
From Sunday, July 20, 1952. Incidentally, Spooky’s fez-sporting owner is Fenwick Flooky. There — now you’ve been introduced.
From Sunday, July 27, 1969. Gotta love a guy who’s kind to his animal companion, not to mention resourceful in doing so.
Sorry, date unknown! However, its original art was thus dedicated to a peer by the artist: “To my genius friend Alpo Q. Jaffee, fire-ever – Bill Holman ’76“.

The credibly devoted student of the comics would be ill-advised to underestimate the size of Holman’s footprint in the field: were they still around, it’s a cinch that Basil Wolverton, Jack Cole, Boody Rogers and Harvey Kurtzman would be quick to confirm Holman’s influence on their work. And that’s just some of his more-or-less contemporary peers.

Well, Kurtzman did in fact explicitly go on the record on that point, in the course of his introduction to the Blackthorne collection:

« Those outrageously outrageous and the nonsense words that appeared in no particular place for no particular reason. ‘Foo!’Notary Sojac.‘ Could it be that that’s what inspired me to ‘Potzrebie‘ and ‘furshlugginer‘? Was it Holman’s technique, those ‘tchochkas‘ in all corners of the panels? Picture portraits, with the portraits come to life, jumping out of their frames? Could that have been what inspired us to fill our MAD Magazine panels with those nonsensical details? Could that have been it?

I think so, Bill Holman. I think that you stamped my young, impressionable, brain with your indelible ink. So ‘Foo’ to you and many more ‘Notary Sojacs’, Bill Holman. You made me what I am today, I hope you’re satisfied. »

A clear Spooky prototype, down to the tail bandage, from Judge‘s January, 1935 issue.

-RG

*I may be too old-fashioned to quite take into account print-on-demand reprint collections, but let’s face it, sometimes that’s all you get.

Anton’s Spivs and Scoundrels, Baronesses and Beezers

« I was told a couple of bishops had given up Punch when I started drawing for them. » — Beryl Antonia Botterill Yeoman

Ever since I featured my very favourite of her cartoons, way back in October of 2019 — how different the world was then! — I’d intended to return to the topic of Australian-English cartoonist Beryl Antonia Botterill Yeoman (1907-1970) for a more sustained and substantial look… and now I have.

The Anton nom de plume has a rather storied history: at first — their professional collaboration began in 1937 — Beryl and her brother Harold were a two-headed cartoonist who signed ‘Anton’. In 1949, Harold dropped out of the partnership, owing to the rigorous demands of running an advertising agency, and thereafter Antonia and Anton were one and the same, a left-handed (not by birth or choice, having lost two fingers on her right in her teens), female cartoonist in a decidedly male-dominated field.

All of today’s selections first saw print prior to 1952 in the august pages of Punch (1841-2002); it’s entirely possible that Harold had a hand in some of them.

Ah, that reminds me of a certain song: « And tomorrow’s show will say / what they left out yesterday / And that gives me one good reason I should live. »
In case you’re puzzled, this one requires knowledge of a certain English nursery rhyme, which went:
Jack Sprat could eat no fat,
His wife could eat no lean;
And so betwixt them both,
They lick’d the platter clean.

Should you find yourself down Somerset way, drop by The Crown at Wells, a 15th century inn (featured in 2007 in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz!) that houses Anton’s Bistrot, whose venerable walls are adorned with some choice Anton original art.

This must be the place — order us a couple of pints, won’t you?

-RG