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. »
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 Comics‘ Super 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.