Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Goofy Trees of Walter Hoban's Jerry On The Job - A Month of Paper Scanned Dailies

Screwball Sunday

A full-blown screwball comics essay by Paul Tumey on the occasional Sunday!

Here's a month's worth of dailies of the great but forgotten screwball comic, Walter Hoban's Jerry On The Job. These are all large paper scans from my own collection. I've re-touched the scans, but, much like restorers of music taken from old 78 rpm records leave in artifacts of the aging process, I've taken care to show you the beautifully browned paper, torn edges, and wood pulp fibers of these 87s (these comics are from 1924 -- eight score and seven years ago).

Looking at first- and second-generation screwball comics is an exercise in bringing the past into the present.

On the one hand, we have the timelessness of the comedy. As long as we humans wrestle with our egos and battle physical reality, screwballism will remain accessible, no matter how old it is. A Keaton buster, or a Jerry flip -- it's still funny to us -- that is, if you go for that sort of thing. (Not everyone does. More on this in a moment.)

On the other hand, we are indeed looking at material generated from an earlier time. A time when racist jokes were an integral part of popular entertainment. A time when certain words had different meanings, and when slang that is meaningless today was common. Also a time when newspaper comics were much more central to people's entertainment than they are today.

Nonetheless, screwball comics are pretty great and remain appealing to our modern tastes,

"The Blots" were identical African-American twins
who worked  with Jerry at the railroad office. As with most
comics of the time, the racism in the depiction of such
characters was socially accepted.
Still -- it's time I called attention to the elephant on the bookshelf: if screwball comics are so great, why aren't they more popular? Why don't we have reprint collections of Boob McNutt and Milt Gross' Count Screwloose? How have we gone through a golden age of comics reprinting and appreciation without discovering Gene Ahern's brilliant Foozland continuity?

More than one friend has given me a Three Stooges DVD because they know I like "that sort of thing." I accept graciously, but wish there was a way to effectively explain that just because I laugh watching the side of a house fall down around a stoic Buster Keaton, or Stan Laurel rip Oliver Hardy's suit in a silly fit of pique, I wouldn't automatically find every old slapstick comedy funny. To me, it isn't much fun watching middle-aged men mechanically poke and hit each other. "What's the difference?" they might ask.

Indeed. To them, there IS no difference. It's all roughhouse slapstick.

Similarly, I suspect many folks see screwball comics as crude, unimaginative humor. In answer, I'd show them some of Walter Hoban's drawings -- graceful, funny, weird, provocative freeze-framed moments of time -- and then if they didn't get it -- well, there'd be nothing else to do but back-flip out of the panel, leaving behind my pocket watch, dickey, and spats.

Twenty years before Tex Avery's cartoons.

Screwballism is an acquired taste for many people, I'm discovering., What's always been funny to me isn't to most folks. Audiences in the 1920s and 30s, when screwball comics hit their peak, had a daily dose of the stuff. They were educated consumers of screwball comics. They knew enough to appreciate that the flip takes Walter Hoban drew were artful in comparison to the average comic's plop. When The Marx Brothers argued over why a duck and declared they didn't believe in Sanity Clause, people were primed to get the humor and to laugh.

Here's the question I ponder: was a screwball strip like Jerry On The Job as weird in 1924 as it seems today? Keep in mind that we are talking about a generation that embraced a squinty-eyed, grizzled old sailor as a beloved character. The generation that raised screwball comics to an art form was also the  generation that went through the horrors of one World War, slid into economic depression and the nightmare of a second, unimaginably terrifying and evil war.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the first cartoonist in America to become a millionaire was a screwball cartoonist: Rube Goldberg.

Walter Hoban created Jerry On The Job over a weekend when his paper, The New York Journal, needed a new comic strip. The comic started December 29, 1913. Hoban wrote and drew Jerry On The Job for the rest of his life, approximately another 25 years. He created and drew other amazing screwball strips as well (such as Needlenose Noonan), but Jerry was the through-line in his life's work.

In some artfully smart subconscious way, Hoban's Jerry seems to give shape to the alienation and suppressed anxiety of the lost generation. Just as Shulz's Peanuts is so much more than a gag strip about little kids, Hoban's Jerry has a lot to offer the faithful reader. Hoban was an accomplished artist. More than that, he was an accomplished cartoonist. Check out this first half of a particularly artful Jerry daily:

Any modern comics reader is familiar with this device. In 1924, the masterful use of such a concept was less common and more extraordinary. At the time, the only other cartoonist I know of who was interested in breaking time up on the page like this was the celebrated Winsor McCay, a friend of Hoban's (he was present at a a special cartoonists-only screening of McCay's first animated film, Gertie The Dinosaur.) Here, Hoban is acknowledging that a comic strip's panel is a unit of time. By placing two sequential images of Jerry -- first walking, and then losing his hat to the wind -- against the same background, Hoban is playing with the depiction of space and time in comics.

Play is the operative word in discussing Walter Hoban and Jerry On the Job. At other times, instead of extending the landscape background across multiple sequential panels, Hoban did just the opposite:

In the panels above, elements in the background mysteriously shift without explanation. A pair of overflowing wastepaper baskets morph into a cartoon cat. A window appears. Jerry's position and pose are exactly the same. Herriman's Krazy Kat was not the only place that backgrounds shifted in surreal fashion. We see it in Smokey Stover, Milt Gross, Jack Cole, Basil Wolverton, George Swanson, and Gene Ahern. In fact, when one looks at screwball comics, the surreal-background-shift becomes so common, it's almost one of the defining elements of the screwball comic genre.

Jerry On The Job was also possibly the first strip to inject funny signs in the background, yet another hallmark of screwball comics:

And, of course, there are the astonishing flip-takes or "plops."

As we see in my little visual essay, Hoban either invented or codified most of the prime elements of screwball comics. Therefore, Walter Hoban's comics can be seen as both classic screwball comics and prime influence on the genre.

Hoban's work also offers intriguing unique elements. As my friend and fellow comics historian Carl Linich has pointed out, Hoban had a thing for terrifically twisted trees. Every once in a while, for no reason at all, a preposterous tree appears in the background of a Jerry episode. The twisted trees of Walter Hoban are things of beauty, and a signature element of his work.

Another wonderful aspect to this strip is the wacky character designs of Jerry and the other children. Jerry is comically tiny. Hoban sometimes shows us the world from Jerry's worm's eye view -- which is also a view of powerlessness from the inside out. Consider this characteristic panel, where Jerry is asking his uncaring, busy and irritable boss for a raise:

Perhaps the most consistently unique aspect to Jerry On The Job, though is the seemingly endless depictions of Jerry falling flat, or sailing through the air like a tossed ball. These drawings are a kind of visual poetry, with an intensity and cryptic inner meaning that points to something beyond the gag.

"Bringing Back Father," a viciously funny parody of George McManus' strip originally appeared in Mad 17 (1954).  The collaboration between Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, and Bernie Krigstein depicted the real side of spousal abuse.

In a similar way, Jerry's abuse is sometimes as disturbing as it is funny. He often asks his boss for a raise and then is beaten, slapped, insulted, and thrown out of the office headfirst. Unfazed, Jerry siometimes went back for seconds and thirds in the same day! Hoban's humor had a distinct edge to it, such as in his Discontinued Stories, which fatalistically slaughtered a new cute cartoon animal every week.

I've discovered that, if you've never seen Jerry before, it's not possible to get much from reading just a few random strips. Therefore, I'm posting a full month plus run of the daily strip from October, 1924 for your enjoyment and edification, oh devout student of screwballism. I hope you'll take the time to read and absorb the twisted treats of Walter Hoban's Jerry On The Job -- it's great stuff!

I left this one whole, so you can see the clipped strip context. Panel four: twisted tree.
Sept. 26, 1924

A germophobic millionaire. Hmmmm.....
Sept. 27, 1924  

Jerry is never one to play it safe...
Sept. 29, 1924

Mr. Givney was Jerry's first boss, and still owns the railroad in 1924. This sentimental strip may have been a in-joke announcement of an anniversary cartoonist dinner of sorts for Hoban and the strip.
Sept. 30, 1924

The strip below is a particularly elegant example. Hoban's pacing is similar to Charles Shulz's, who also used large, round-headed kids as his main characters. That's a pretty surreal umbrella stand in the last panel.
October 1, 1924

October 2, 1924

October 3, 1924

October 4, 1924

October 6, 1924

 We skip a day, because there was no daily for Sundays. Ain't that a kick?
October 7, 1924

October 8, 1924

October 9, 1924

October 10, 1924

October 11, 1924

You could say this next one is a comic stripe.
October 13, 1924

As you can see with the bits of surrounding text, Jerry was tucked into the printed page like a tile in a mosaic. 
October 14, 1924

October 15, 1924

October 16, 1924

October 17, 1924

October 18, 1924

The second and fourth panels of this episode offer more visual koans on falling down.
October 20, 1924

October 21, 1924
 Nice cat and twisted tree in panel four. I admire Hoban's cartoon animals a lot.
October 22, 1924
October 23, 1924

Hoban was also a good writer. He enjoyed slinging slang and cleverly twisting sentences around in a sort of verbal version of his trees. In some other comic here, Jerry says that being broke is his "favorite thing to hate." Here, money is as "scarce as feathers on a snake." 
October 24, 1924

October 25, 1924

October 27, 1924

October 28, 1924

 Here's the background shift example I used in my visual essay above, in context. Love that sleep balloon in the first panel, too.
October 30, 1924

October 31, 1924

Hope you enjoyed this mega-post -- it pretty much claimed my Saturday! If so, leave a comment or drop me a line.

This blog needs readers! Please spread the word!

By the way, the creator pages are a work in progress. That's why Walter Hoban's not on the list yet, and why some of the other pages are pretty sparse. Rome was not built in a cornmuffin, girlies.

I'm going away on spring break vacation with my partner and our kids next week. When I return, I'll have more to share from (and about ) Ving Fuller!

Screwballistically Yours,
Tall Pumey


  1. I'm not much of an influencer in the social network, but I absolutely enjoyed this, especially when you pointed out the ways Hoban would play with the backgrounds across panels.

    Your comment about the Stooges vs Keaton echoes a similar point Michael Phillips made quite nicely in the Chicago Tribune:

  2. Thanks so much for your comment, Chris. I put a lot of research work, production work, and thought development time into these posts. It's nice to know you are out there.I'd rather have a few thoughtful readers like yourself than a legion of superficial glancers. I appreciate you and a few others making their presence and support of this blog known. Thanks for the link on the Stooges article. It's very well put and totally gets at the problem. I almost have removed my comment on Stooges vs. comedy artists, because I didn't want to sound like a snob. Reading this article helps me stand firm and I decided to leave that bit in my article above!

  3. A (very) minor quibble: I think that Oct. 12 should be replaced by Oct. 13 .

    Otherwise, I very much enjoy your blog.


    1. Dear G. Heinlein,

      Good catch. The correction has been made. Thank you for the encouragement -- it means a lot to me!

      Paul Tumey