When I was a lad, the world went through another wave of Nostalgia. We as a society run from periods of “The past was evil; forget it!” to “The past was kind of funny” to “Some of the past was really cool” to “The past is kind of funny” to start again with “The past is evil.” The part of pop culture we look back on shifts, generally focusing anywhere between twenty and fifty years in the past. I have written elsewhere about how sad it is for me to recall some of the things which were high-priced collectibles once but which are now a dime a dozen because the generation which was nostalgic about them has largely died. This puts me in the odd position of being nostalgic for bygone nostalgias.
In any case, back in my boy days, I walked and talked among people who actually remembered the early days of the American comic strip, who would reminisce about Lulu and Leander, Foxy Grandpa, or And Her Name was Maude. I could actually read these comic strips in magazines published just for the nostalgia market. So when I came to infest the world of antique postcards, I recognized several old friends, and picked up a few new ones.
One of the popular themes for comic strips was the One Gag Strip. In this method, the characters would perform variations of the same joke every time out. The fun was in seeing how the characters got into, and out of, the same sort of situation. Foxy grandpa ALWAYS turned the tables on his nephew’s plots,. The mule Maud would ALWAYS defeat the farmer’s attempts to make her do something.
At the top of this column, we see Mr. E.Z. Mark, who every week would fall for a scam and lose his temper violently as a result. WE may see the trap early on, but he would always fall for it. This was the work of F.M. Howarth a cartoonist who despite an early death in 1908 created two classic comic strips, as he also invented the perennially thwarted lovers Lulu and Leander (a pioneer of Big Head Cartooning.)
Mr. Jack was a (married) tiger about town, rather past middle age but still trying to make time with the beautiful women he passed. In his day (hinted at here) he made many conquests, but the gag here was how every week he would be punched, tripped into a puddle, or otherwise humiliated by the women he was making up to. He was the work of Jimmy Swinnerton, who created a dozen or so comic strips in his day, often for children’s newspaper supplements, and he is sometimes credited as being the inventor of the comic strip. His most popular and longest running strip involved a clueless little boy named Jimmy, and Swinnerton was able to live to see this revived in numerous nostalgia waves, as he lived until nearly 100.
Then, as now, the point was to make up a character who would be instantly recognizable and followed by readers (several newspapers which pioneered daily comic strip s as opposed to the Sunday comics, spread these strips throughout the paper instead of having a comics page, because the publishers knew people would venture anywhere, even into the ad sections, to follow their heroes.) Alphonse Mutt, originally A. Mutt, began as a one gag panel cartoon and then became a .strip. Every week he would play the races, lose, and go grumbling home. The cartoonist picked actual horses that were running in races the day the paper appeared, and once chose a longshot which won, meaning suddenly everyone had to buy the paper, hoping lightning would strike twice. A. Mutt eventually teamed with an escapee from an asylum, a short little man who thought he was boxing champion Jim Jeffries, and the long-running strip “Mutt and Jeff” was launched. Bud Fisher held onto the copyright to the characters, made his own animated silent cartoons starring the duo (in which he also appeared, often splattered with ink by his own drawings), and eventually owned his own stable of racehorses, one of whom did win the Preakness Stakes, while another of his horses, Mr. Mutt, finished second in the Belmont.
We have already discussed the work of illustrator, cartoonist, comic strip star Frederick Burr Opper, who created a huge phenomenon in Happy Hooligan, who started as just one of a number of unlucky tramp characters, but took the world by storm to such an extent
That there were several spin-offs from the strip, including a strip starring comic Frenchmen Alphones and Gaston. Opper also drew And Her Name Was Maude and was known for his editorial cartoons (one of which, in 1894, actually uses the phrase “fake news”.) He might be the first cartoonist to have a memorial service broadcast over the radio.
Not every comic strip artist who achieved popularity achieved lasting fame, however. Paul Branson was a nature artist at heart, and his more realistic work was produced for paintings or as illustrations for children’s books. As a cartoonist, though, he chose the Lilliputian mode (societies involving tiny creatures coexisting with us continue to this day, by way of the Tinies, the Littles, and others.) HIS society was entirely made up of bugs, and started as panel cartoons, becoming comic strips as time went by. These were clipped by fanatic readers who found his insects much more companionable than the ones they ran into in the three dimensional world.
There were other cartoonists who did the same sort of thing, of course (we have not even brushed against the many Katzenjammer kids and Buster Brown postcards), and there were similar phenomena in Europe. But I have given you a taste of it at least, in hopes that one day you will reminisce about this column (which will mean that you have topped me by being nostalgic about someone who was being nostalgic about nostalgia.)