Saturday, April 30, 2016

100 Years Ago in the Funnies

After so many installments of war and turmoil, Slapstickback Saturday this week takes a lighter look back at the papers 100 years ago today by turning to the Chicago Sunday Tribune funny pages.
I must apologize, however, for the casual racism running rampant in the cartoons of the day.

We start with "Hans und Fritz," one of the iterations of Rudolph Dirks's Katzenjammer Kids strip. In the April 30, 1916 episode, the captain essays to deliver a chimpanzee to the "cannibal chief" by motorcycle. "I take him der chimp for a present, und dot's der finish of der monkeyshines," he exposits. "Maybe der chief von't know vitch is vitch," chortles Hans. Or Fritz. I don't know which is which, either.

Dirks was 7 when his family emigrated from Heide, Germany to Chicago; in the 1890s, he moved to New York to begin drawing "The Katzenjammer Kids" for the Hearst's New York Journal (soon followed by his younger brother and fellow cartoonist, Gus). He parted company with the Journal over his request to take a year off to travel to Europe with his wife. Hired by Pulitzer's New York World, Dirks had to go to court to win the right to continue drawing his characters under the new title here.

"Hans und Fritz" would soon be renamed "The Captain and the Kids" as America entered the war and things German weren't considered so funny.

Dirks is credited with one of the innovations in the above strip that you may not even have noticed: the lines behind a moving object to indicate speed.

I know next to nothing about Penny Ross and her cartoon, "Mama's Angel Child." Gus the chauffeur credits axle grease as the hair tonic that gave him his long locks. Hilarity ensues.

You will notice that each of these cartoons fills a full page in the Sunday color funnies section. Mind you, those pages were a good deal larger those of than any newspaper you'll find on the newsstand today; broadsheets shrank during the shortages of World War II, again in the 1970's, and even further in the 21st Century.

"Bobby Make-Believe" was drawn by Tribune cartoonist Frank O. King. Current events intrude on the funny pages yet again with Bobby's fantasy of fighting off marauding Mexicans.

King came to the Tribune in 1909 from the Minneapolis Times, drawing a series of short-lived strips including "Bobby Make-Believe." The premise and pacing take their cues from Winsor McKay's "Little Nemo in Slumberland," but are more down-to-earth than McKay's wild flights of hallucinogenic fancy.

In addition to "Bobby Make-Believe," King was drawing another full-page cartoon for the Sunday Tribune at this point, "The Rectangle," a black-and-white collage of cartoons connected only by a common theme. In 1918, the collage included the first installment of "Gasoline Alley," which would go on to be a multi-generational saga and King's claim to greatness in the comic strip pantheon.

Finally, "Old Doc Yak" by Sidney Smith, starring a talking goat, is based on a character Smith had created for the Chicago Examiner from 1908 to 1911. In this episode, Smith employs Frank King's speed lines as Yak pursues a speeding motorist.

In the last weekday episode of "Old Doc Yak" on February 10, 1917, Doc Yak and his family moved out of their home, wondering who would live there after them. Smith answered the question on February 12, as Andy and Min Gump moved in to stay for the next 42 years. "Old Doc Yak" continued only on Sundays until June 22, 1919; in his final appearance, Yak sold his car to the Gumps, and with it his page in the Sunday funnies.

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