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

For Once, Flowers You *Can* Pick!

« Any claim to fame I might have I owe to diligent swiping right and left and staying sober at the drawing board. »

I’ve already talked about cartoonist Don Flowers (1908–1968): see Don Flowers, Sadly Neglected Cartoonist, although I wish I had given it a snappier title. I’ve been slowly ripening (like a pear, that subsequently falls off the tree with a wet, squishy thump) for a follow-up, but biding my time until I finally receive my copy of Glamor Girls of Don Flowers (2006, Fantagraphics). That goal is now (nearly) realized, and since spring seems like the perfect time for this sort of post, shall we strap on our travelling gear and fly back to the beginning of the 1930s?

To recap, Don Flowers created the alliterative Modest Maidens (later renamed into Glamor Girls) for AP Newsfeatures in 1931. The ‘modest’ epithet in the title may seem like a misnomer, or a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the girls’ open-minded mores, but as comic historian-cum-cartoonist Coulton Waugh aptly observed in his The Comics (1947)*, a book acknowledged as the first comprehensive analysis of comic strips*, « sexy they are, and yet, despite every display, somehow they always do remain modest maidens. » This is something one often encounters in cartoon depictions of female pulchritude – the standard male audience seems best attracted to women with a sort of innocent sexuality, borderline unaware of the effect they are producing despite making a calculated effort to produce it. In other words, however disrobed these maidens may be, they are never vulgar or sexually purposeful; they’re not doing, they’re being done to.

The batch of images in my previous post about Flowers focuses more on the usual scenarios – women dating rich guys, alluring dancers in various states of undress, and so on – so today’s array is in a slightly different vein.

An interesting aspect of Flowers strips is that they often feature an interaction between several women with nary a man in sight; and not only that, but they’re not even discussing men.
Even when barefoot, these girls hold their feet as if they were still strapped down in some extravagant heels. On the other hand, high heels deform the foot over time, although nobody wants to be reminded of that in this context.
And what’s wrong with spinach, pray tell?
What the full published page of Glamor Girls looked like (November 29th, 1959).

Much has been said about Flowers’, well, flowery line (and ‘by much’, given that his popularity distinctly waned over decades, I mean ‘not really a lot’). It reminds me mostly of Hank Ketcham‘s style, he of Dennis the Menace fame. For example, add a little scruffy kid in the corner of this strip, and see what you think:

In the meantime, Waugh puts Flowers in the clan of Pattersonites, artists who followed the footsteps of illustrator Russell Patterson (1893-1977). « The Flowers girls [are] a long-legged creation. They have a a real rhythm running through them; they are, in this respect, somewhat more relaxed and graceful than the Patterson product, although the pattersonites can claim a vitality and sparkle on their side. » I would say that the Patterson girls have stronger wills, an independent streak that you can see in the slightly insolent look they give the men who ogle them. For comparison’s sake, the following three are by Patterson:

Sometimes self-defense is necessary.

~ ds

*You can read in full here; the first edition from 1947 goes for a lump sump of money these days. There is an affordable reprint from 1991, but it cannot beat the original cover:

Tentacle Tuesday: Lurkers in the Newsprint

Greetings, tentacle aficionados! Phew, this post started out as just a couple of images and spun somewhat out of control. My thanks to co-admin RG for cleaning up, re-arranging and even colourizing the following scans and photographs. Today we gaze at cephalopod apparitions in newspapers strips from the 40s and 50s. There are actually few things I like better: there is something comforting about the smell of an old newspaper (even if we have to imagine it!), the aesthetic appeal of yellowed paper, the concerns of imaginary characters who lived so long ago and yet who seem so close to us. Irrelevant to the modern age? Not at all. Look past the technological trimmings and you’ll find people who have lived and loved and struggled much like we do today. On a lighter note, the techniques of fighting off tentacles haven’t changed much, either!

Flash Gordon, created in 1934 by Alex Raymond for King Features Syndicate to compete with the Buck Rogers newspaper strip, was immensely popular, witnessed by both its longevity – the strip continued all the way into 2003 – and multiple licensed products on offer for starry-eyed kids who wanted a spaceship or ray gun to call their own. Raymond left in 1944 to join the US Marines, and Austin Briggs, who up to that point was drawing the Flash Gordon dailies (introduced in 1941 to capitalize on the popularity of Raymond’s Sunday strips), switched to drawing Sundays, the dailies now cancelled. The following is from August 18th, 1946, art by Austin Briggs.

In 1951, King Features reinstated the Flash Gordon dailies and put Dan Barry in charge, famously assisted by Harvey Kurtzman and Harry Harrison on scripts, and a bevy of ghost-drawing writers.

The following are two Flash Gordon dailies from 1954. These reprints hail from Flash Gordon: Dan Barry Vol. 2: The Lost Continent, which collects dailies from October 26th 1953 to October 29th 1955.

Frank Robbins created Johnny Hazard for King Features Syndicate in 1944. What I find impressive is that the strip continued, with no other writers or artists involved, all the way until 1977 – contrast that with other newspaper adventure strips from around that time. Robbins must have been a powerhouse. To quote from the no-longer-updated (its creator, Donald Markstein, died in 2012), but still kindly maintained by relatives Toonopedia, « … Unlike many fictional two-fisted adventurers, [Johnny Hazard] matured — not as quickly as real people, but after a third of a century or so, he was quite gray at the temples. And a third of a century was as long as the strip ran. It was popular enough at first, and ran far longer than most post-war adventure strips, but the times were against it. Newspaper editors were more interested in daily gags than continuous stories, and Johnny Hazard succumbed to the trend in 1977. Robbins went to work for DC Comics, where he drew Batman, and Marvel, where he drew The Invaders, and never again created his own feature. » Eventually, Robbins is said to have retired, moved to Mexico, and devoted himself to painting – where he remained his death in 1994. This daily is from July 1951.

Prince Valiant is one of those newspaper strips institutions that most readers will have heard of, though some, kind of like me, may be uncertain about about the who, the when, and the hows of it. It was created by Canadian Hal Foster (1892-1982) – who, while illustrating the Tarzan newspaper strip (more about this a little further down!), developed a craving to work on his own oeuvre. He pitched his medieval adventure idea to William Randolph Hearst, who was so impressed that he even gave Foster ownership of the strip. It’s still ongoing (after a little more than 4000 Sundays!) This magnum opus has been credited with plenty, as the « greatest contribution to English literature in the past hundred years », « the pinnacle of comic strip adventure storytelling »,  and so on. I feel a little bad for being bored to tears by it, but as the Russians say, ‘и на старуху бывает проруха‘, more-or-less directly translated ‘even a crone can blunder’, or in other words, even Homer nods. The following Sundays are from April-May 1941 – spending two nights in a well, instead of trying to fight off the octopus, is an interesting approach, and I’m sure both man and animal were immensely frustrated.

I promised to say more about Tarzan – ah, the very, very long-running Tarzan strip. Started in 1929 with an adaptation of Edgar Rice BurroughsTarzan of the Apes illustrated by the aforementioned Hal Foster, syndicated by the United Feature Syndicate, it went on (and on…) all the way until 1995, with quite the cast of different artists over the years. The following Sunday is from the Burne Hogarth years, and is part of a story cycle called Tarzan and N’ani, which was published between December 14th 1947 and May 9, 1948. As for Hogarth, he seemed to hold the distinction of being the only artist with two runs on Tarzan: he drew the strip from 1937 to 1945, and again from 1947 to 1950.

The Adventures of Smilin’ Jack, distributed by the Chicago Tribune Syndicate, ran from 1933 to 1973. I know that doesn’t sound as impressive because all strips discussed so far had crazily long runs, and yet: Smilin’ Jack, as it came to be called a little later on, lasted a good fifty years, which is partially explained by this strip’s motley cast of endearing supporting characters, but also by the realism with which Jack’s flying adventures were depicted – Zack Mosley, the creator, was an aviation enthusiast and licensed pilot with a true love of everything aeroplane. The following three dailies are from November 1956. You’ll be happy to learn that Mosley, upon retiring at 67, spent the rest of his days flying his own plane.

Created by George Shedd, a former Al Capp assistant, for the Post-Hall Syndicate, Marlin Keel ran between 1953 and 1954. Very little information about it survives – from what I understood, Shedd first wrote and drew this newspaper strip by himself, and later relinquished the illustration to assistants. Most notable (and what seems to be motivating rare collectors) is the involvement of Alvin Carl Hollingsworth (1928-2000), one of the few African-Americans working in the field at the time, who started by helping out (not sure to what degree) and became the official illustrator of Markin Keel towards the end of its run. Hollingsworth, who’s often mentioned as Joe Kubert‘s classmate at NYC’s High School of Music & Art – a fact that, albeit cool, underplays Hollingsworth’s talent and career – seems to have always maintained an interest in painting. Later in life, in the 1970s, he abandoned the comics field in favour of becoming a (fine) painter – you can see some of his paintings here. This is the original art for a 1954 Sunday strip.

The octopus may be off-camera, but my appreciation of Bob Montana made me include this strip in today’s roster. That’s right, it’s not my fault! This is an Archie daily from July 24th, 1953.

I hope you enjoyed this walk down history’s lanes and byways!

~ ds

Just Visiting: Daniel Pinkwater & Tony Auth’s ‘Norb’

« You know, I once took a ride in a Volkswagen convertible driven by Harvey Kurtzman, with fellow passengers Terry Gilliam and Robert Crumb. Had we been smacked by a garbage truck the history of humor and popular culture would have been slightly changed. Interestingly not one of us had the slightest interest in any of the other three. Except, I am pretty sure we all hated Kurtzman, but who didn’t? » — Daniel Pinkwater

This post was originally going to be an interview. Having belatedly discovered Norb (1989-1990), I got in touch with Daniel Pinkwater (who better to ask?), intending to pepper him with questions, but he was so very helpful, providing me with all the background material I could have desired, that his prediction that « … since I have nothing to add, you may not need to formulate any questions for me » … came to pass. And so I gladly yield the floor to the sterling Mr. Pinkwater.

Tony Auth was a brilliant artist. He had an important day job as editorial cartoonist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. I think it was his first job, which he held for decades, and he was a Pulitzer Prize winner. We talked about doing ‘something’ together for a couple of years. Tony wanted to do a daily/Sunday newspaper strip, so we did that. Every day we’d remind one another, ‘keep it stupid.’ The fact was, we had no idea how stupid a commercial strip needed to be.

Stroke of luck, Denny Allen, who was temporarily in a position of influence at King Features had approached me years before about doing a strip. We met the power elite at King Features. I won’t characterize them except to say that the concept of stupid did not elude them, nor would it have been likely to. We negotiated for, and received a substantial advance from King, covering two years. I understand this was unheard of in the highly competitive rat race with a great many submissions coming in every day from marginally talented cartoonists.

So we went to work. My part was utterly easy. I would write the dailies and the separately plotted Sunday strip every Saturday while watching Dr. Who. Tony was putting in long hours in addition to his job at the newspaper. The strip launched in something like 70 papers, and I was told this was a big launch and unusual for the times.

We started in the vacancy created when Bloom County ceased production. The response from readers consisted entirely of actual hate-mail, letters saying it was hoped we would die, crude drawings of tombstones and daggers dripping blood. The only piece of positive fan mail I remember came from Jules Feiffer. A few papers dropped the strip, some in response to outrage from readers for whom the comics page was their literature. The typical letter read, ‘I hate NORB, it makes me feel stupid.’ Fair enough, I thought.

I understood that as few as 10 negative letters were enough to spook a paper into dropping a feature. My wife did a bit of research and discovered that all new strips have it rough initially, but if one survives two years it becomes un-droppable, and it is the editorial staff who get the threatening letters. Interestingly, Tony, who was a fair-minded political cartoonist, and got abuse all the time, (he’d had his office trashed by the right and the left at different times over the same issue, for example), and didn’t mind it, regarded the comic strip as the product of his heart, and was hurt by the unfair criticism.

So, at the end of the first year, Tony, exhausted by working two full-time jobs, depressed by the evidence that nobody seemed to like the strip, unwilling, as I was, to follow the advice from the comics/humor expert at King Features, let me know that he was not having any fun. ‘So, shall we quit?’ I asked. Since he was carrying 90% of the weight, I didn’t feel it should be my call. King was delighted to kill the strip because that meant they wouldn’t have to pay us the second year’s advance, and apparently they thought that saving money was the same as making money.

Exactly a year after the strip stopped appearing the fan mail started to come in, ‘Where’s NORB?’ ‘NORB was my favorite comic.’

NorbDailies01A
A pair of dailies from the first week, whereupon we meet our protagonists and our protagonists meet.

NorbDailies02A
From week two. It’s lovely that Mr. Pinkwater opted to bring along a character from his Snarkout Boys novels (The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death and The Snarkout Boys and the Baconburg Horror), Bentley Saunders Harrison Matthews, aka Rat Face aka Rat. She fits right in. That kind of freedom is among the foremost perks of owning your work.

NorbDailies03A

NorbDailies04A
A four-day sequence, to give you a better sense of the strip’s flow. I love how the alien armada is basically pixelated. Spoiler: They won’t get very far with their plan of conquest.

NorbCollectionRectoA
Front cover of Mu Press‘ collection of the Nord dailies, published in 1992. To quote the late SF luminary Vonda McIntyre in her INTROdadaDUCTION: « When [Mu Press] decided to reprint NORB, I jumped at the chance to write this essay. Only then did I discover that writing it didn’t mean I got to reacquaint myself with the Sunday strips… it meant I got to see the daily strips, which I didn’t even know about, for the first time. »

NorbDailies05A
Now and then, Pinkwater would drop out of the narrative, go into meta-textual mode and engage the critics in an entertainingly passive-aggressive fashion. I do prefer the plot-driven strips, however… as does Rat. « Problem, Norb-Baby. Humorous adventure with a touch of satire is out this year. I don’t know where to put you. » (07/13/1990)

NorbDailies06A
« You’ll pay for treating my employer like a baked ham, you evil person! ». Don’t worry, Norb’ll be okay: « Explain. Were you sliced like a radish or not? » « Oh, I was! But it was in the future. »

NorbDailies07A
Anything goes, in the most winning sense. The noble Norse warriors were soon to realize that at Trump’s, you simply can’t out-chump the boss.

NorbDailies08A
Norb is an exemplar of the narrative strip that doesn’t take itself seriously: while the story proper is intriguing, any individual fragment is quite entertaining on its own.

NorbSunday01A
Never having been reprinted, the Sunday strips are rare as hen’s teeth, and those who possess them presumably clipped them out of their local paper back in the day. Foresight! As is often the case with King Features continuity strips, Sundays and dailies feature separate storylines.

NorbSunday02A
Several years ago, Norb was featured as the Obscurity of the Day on the excellent Stripper’s Guide blog. There you’ll find a handful more of these gorgeously-coloured (aside from all their other evident virtues) Sundays, and more dirt about Norb.

NorbCollectionVersoA
Et pour conclure, Auth’s back cover illustration from the Norb collection.

« It’s pretty clear that you take the whole subject of comics and cartooning a lot more seriously than I do. » Guilty as charged. Thanks for your most kind coöperation, Mr. Pinkwater!

This post is dedicated to the memory of Mr. Tony Auth (1942 – 2014).

-RG