Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Nov Shmoz Ka Pop? Gene Ahern's Mysterious Foozland in The Squirrel Cage

Welcome to SCREWBALL COMICS, the new blog by Paul Tumey! 

Do you like your comics filled with hi-octane mixes of nutty comedy and sublime surrealism? If so, then here's a new blog to dish it up! And, as the followers of my other comic art related blogs -- Cole's Comics and Comic Book Attic (with Frank Young) -- know, I'll be offering up some tasty commentary and informative notes, as well. 
I can think of no better subject for our SCREWBALL launchpad than a look at some prime examples of Gene Ahern's legendary surreal Squirrel Cage (1936 - 1953).

Here are three examples from at least a two-year Sunday and daily continuity in which Ahern explored an imaginary place called Foozland. These examples extend the surrealism of screwball comics into territory few others have ventured. This is an extraordinary continuity in Ahern's long career in comics. George Herriman had his "Tiger Tea" continuity in Krazy Kat, and Gene Ahern had "Foozland" in The Squirrel Cage.

The Squirrel Cage by Gene Ahern - April 22, 1945 
Above: Reality is torn down and reassembled in the mysterious world of The Squirrel Cage. "I'll put a spell on his meat block" is a dreamlike obscurely risque reflection of Ahern's mind -- he worked as a meat-cutter and in fact was discovered as a cartoonist by the cartoons he made on butcher paper - he did put a spell on the meat block... with his pen and the magic of comics. Look at how the narrative shifts in the last two panels. The Great Wizard of Foozland has disappeared into the Earth in the 7th panel and the continuity extends for two more panels with the baffling appearance of an icebox and a midget Eskimo. The last two panels could be from any time and place, before or after the previous narrative. The connective tissue is the link between the icebox and the meat. This is pretty neat stuff, folks!

The Squirrel Cage by Gene Ahern - June 16, 1945 
Above: Mythologically, this strip falls somewhere between Bibilical culture and modern cartoonist Ben Katchor's imaginary cities. Surreal details such as this episode's blue tree, strange costumes, and and underground river that gushes from a man-made opening are both the visual background and the conscious focus of The Squirrel Cage. Nothing is explained, but everything has an internal logic that the citizens of these ever-shifting landscapes know all-too-well. 

The Squirrel Cage by Gene Ahern - June 23, 1945
The water is the boat. This episode follows the strip above from the 16th with no apparent continuity other than a picaresque journey through the odd Foozland. Both the main character and Ahern swim the stream of consciousness whose waters shape to give form to ideas. Always the hitch-hiker (Ahern's strip spells it with a hyphen) asks his nonsense question, "Nov shmoz ka pop?"

Who in the Foo was the guy that made this nutty strip?

That's what I asked myself when I first stumbled upon these windows into another reality. 

Squirrel Cage creator GENE AHERN with unidentified elephant
and his 1920s and 30s comic strip star, Major Hoople

How is it possible that stuff like this was ever published in mainstream papers? It's otherworldly weirdness is enough to shake one's very conception of the world of our forebearers. If stuff like The Squirrel Cage appeared in mainstream American newspapers in 1945, well: there must have been some pretty cool people back then!

And why in the world isn't there more of Gene Ahern's work available in print and on the Web?

Gene Ahern (1895-1960) created a number of screwball comics, including Squirrel Food, Otto Auto, and The Nut Brothers (Ches and Wal). His most popular creation, Our Boarding House, was a toned-down version of his screwball approach, being a character study of a puffed-up old eccentric windbag, Major Hoople. 

Ahern had a hit with Hoople, scoring a 14-year run at the Newspaper Enterprise Association syndicate (NEA) from 1921-36.  Here's a rare bio of Ahern at the height of his fame that appeared in a 1934 issue of Literary Digest, with a photo and drawing of Major Hoople done especially for this article.

From Literary Digest June, 1934

Just two years after this article appeared, the rival King Features syndicate hired him away1936 at twice his already considerable salary (note in the article above that Ahern made enough to collect the art of old masters). Gene took over the moribund Room and Board for King Features, a copy of his old NEA strip. To make matters even more conFOOzing, someone else had created Room and Board before Ahern got to it, and the strip was a copy of Ahern's Our Boarding House! In future posts, I'll look at the strip before and after Gene Ahern was lured to it.

Even though it was business as usual with the main strip, and Ahern was confined to to his tried-and-true formula, you can't keep a good nut from cracking, and Ahern created the brilliant, enigmatic Squirrel Cage as a topper for the Sunday Room and Board. For those that don't know, a "topper" was a second strip created by the same artist. This allowed some newspapers to just print the main strip and save space for advertising , and others to devote a whole page to the artist, depending on how popular their work was to that paper's readership (or how few ads they had sold!).

Here's a couple of 1937 Squirrel Cage episodes that show the surrealism developing in the first year of creation. It ain't Foozland, but it's close!

The Squirrel Cage by Gene Ahern - February 7, 1937

The Squirrel Cage by Gene Ahern - Jan 3, 1937

The above examples of Ahern's strip are very different from the three 1945 examples. 

As this example from a couple of years later demonstrates, Ahern had clearly hit a wellspring of lyrical surreal comedy. If he wasn't in Foozland yet, he was slouching towards it.

The Squirrel Cage by Gene Ahern - March 5, 1939

This next example, from a couple of years later, in 1941, shows the strip's main plot device circa 1939-41: two guys trying to get rid of the little hitch-hiker.

The Squirrel Cage by Gene Ahern - Jan 26, 1941

I have one more example, again from approximately a couple of years later into the strip's run, in 1943:

The Squirrel Cage by Gene Ahern - November 16, 1943
Perhaps the above example is a fluke, but it seems to me the strip had drifted into the doldrums by this time. And then, something brilliant happened... Ahern decided to journey to an imaginary land shaped entirely by free association and subconscious thoughts.

Then: Foozland

The Squirrel Cage by Gene Ahern Jan 28, 1945
Somewhere between 1943 and 1945, Gene Ahern seems to have stepped fully into his dreamworld. Apparently, the little hitch-hiker tried for at least 8 years to get a ride, or an answer to his question, or perhaps both. The Squirrel Cage -- and presumably the hitch-hiker -- lasted for another 8 years, until the strip ended in 1953.

The Squirrel Cage by Gene Ahern Feb 4, 1945

I am currently researching when the mysterious Foozland continuity started, and how long it ran. There is nothing like it in comics!

One clue I have right now is this scan of an Ahern Squirrel Cage original dated November 16, 1947 in which the little hitch-hiker crosses frontier of Foozland into Skoobozia:

The Squirrel Cage by Gene Ahern - July 6, 1947: The latest Foozland episode found to date
Thus, the Foozland continuity ran at least until July 6, 1947, probably longer. And, sadly, that's where the trail currently ends.

The little hitch-hiker (who was the model/inspiration for Robert Crumb's Mr. Natural, by the way) often says much more than "Nov shmoz ka pop?" In the above strip, we not only get more of his bizarre Slavic-tinted muttering, but also an English translation!

In my last Foozland example, from Oct 26, 1947, I can't make out the year. However, the comic is readable. 

In this episode, the Pied Piper knocks on the door of the Keejee of Foozland and offers to rid the land of rodents for ten zinkas. He winds up flushing out a quintet of music-loving middle-aged men. In the next-to-last panel, the unhappy Piper says "I can't convince them this is a job I am doing." The strip reads like a dream metaphor for a cartoonist's life.

I am currently digging around for more examples and information on Gene Ahern's fascinating Foozland story. Hopefully, in time, I will turn up more to share. If anyone out there has additional examples, please contact me at paultumey@gmail.com.

By the way, long-time seller of great comics, Ken Pierce, offers a "fanzine" style collection of 36 Squirrel Cage Sunday strips. I  think these are pre-Foozland, but I'm not sure. I recently ordered it and will review it in a future post. In the meanwhile, if you are interested, here's a link to Ken's site. I've ordered from him for years and can vouch for his service and the quality of his products.

Many acrorns of thanx to I Love Comix, which supplied the 3 sublime 1945 examples of The Squirrel Cage and introduced me to Foozland!

In the coming months, we will explore Gene Ahern's career and work, along with many other masters of SCREWBALL COMICS!

All text copyright 2012 Paul Tumey


  1. Great post! Can't wait to track down more of Ahern's work. Also can't wait to see what else you have in store for screwball comics!

  2. Fabulous stuff! I love the old screwball funnies, which just showed that our grandparents and great-grandparents weren't as square as we thought, especially if they dug these crazy comics.

    I will be linking you to Pappy's. Much luck to you with this incredible and wonderful blog.

    1. hey Pappy - thanks very much for your comment. I'm late in responding, but very appreciative. According to Google's stats, your link is working very well -- lots of folks have visited through your link!

  3. Have you got the Nemo extra large special screwball edition? I don't know if the Squirrel Case is in there, but it would surprise me f it wasn't. If you get around to the work of smokey Stover, I have a set of Spooky Sunday strips from a Chicago comic book sized Sunday Section.

    1. Hey Ger,

      I'd love to see and share those Spooky strips you mentioned. In some ways, I like it as much as Holman's Smokeys!

  4. Thanks everybody for your comments and Foo! Jim, I have lots in store for this blog! I'm just getting started! I've been preparing for a year, so there's lots of cool stuff to roll out, including material that I think will be brand new to most of the world. Lots more Ahern to come. The guys was totally amazing. And yes, Ger, I do have the Nemo Annual (the only one). I will hit you up for the Stover scans at some point. I have a big pile myself! The Nemo is what inspired me to take an interest in screwball comics, many many years ago! I recently reread it and yes, there are 3 Squirrel Cage strips in it. I didn't share them yet because they are rather muddy scans (the book is 25 mustard jars old!). Papppy thanks for the link. Your link to Coles Comics has brought me many visitors and I think you, sir!

  5. Thanks for giving me Ahernia. This is a great presentation, Paul!

  6. Your are welcome, Bhob! Thanks for all your great Woodwork!

  7. My mother, the late Mrs. Frances M Shipley (1912-1992), had a collection of nonsensical expressions she popped out at us kids when she was in a playful mood. Having grown up in a German neighborhood in Chicago, she tended to give such things a German flavor. So I remembered her saying "Nov schmatz kaplop" and remembered that it came from a Sunday cartoon strip, but could not remember what the name was. After Googling around a bit, I came across your delightful blog, and know now that it was "NOV SHMOZ KA POP?" from The Squirrel Cage. Thank you! - Glenn Shipley, age 74, Chicago