Sunday, November 11, 2012

Pigging Out on Jimmy Swinnerton - A Rare 1912 Color Sunday

James Swinnerton had a remarkable appeal in his  screwball drawings of dogs and children. Here's a very rare color Sunday page from 1912 that features plenty of hilarious kids and pigs, plus a great bulldog. Robert Beerbohm has published several letters from old-time cartoonist Ernie McGee, who points out in one letter that the dogs in a comic authored by another cartoonist (I think it was Dirks) were drawn by Swinnerton. McGee said that no one could render a funnier bulldog, and Swinnerton was occasionally asked to "guest-star" in a fellow cartoonist's strip by drawing in some of his bulldogs.

This scan is from my own paper collection. The comic itself is extremely fragile and fell apart as I scanned it. I'm happy to be able to preserve these treasures. Hopefully more folks will come to appreciate the greatness of Jimmy Swinnerton and the works of his fellow screwball masters shared on this blog!

Little Jimmy by James Swinnerton August 18, 1912
(from the collection of Paul C. Tumey)

Even though it's not named as such, this page is part of Swinnerton's long-running Little Jimmy series, sometimes spelled as Little Jimmie. Jimmy's often tasked by his father with minding the baby, or going on an urgent errand. Jimmy is easily, always, and inevitably side-tracked, and the result is often comic chaos.

The scene in panel 8, where the father sees what he thinks is his baby playing with the piggies is screwballism par excellence. This sort of set-up is exactly what Milt Gross would recreate about 25 years later. In Gross' case, the father's panic would be hugely exaggerated, with hair standing on end, hat flying into the stratosphere, and the entire body stiff as a board in shock and three feet off the ground. With Swinnerton, even though the comic exaggeration is several notches below what we tend to expect in screwball comics, the basic framework for this exaggerated humor is solidly present.

Swinnerton's story is fascinating. He started out as one of the very first newspaper cartoonists in New York, working for William Hearst, also a close friend. Swinnerton was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1906, and Hearst -- in great concern -- paid for his relocation to the arid desert out west. What a journey and a huge cultural shift that was for "Little Jimmy!" Swinnerton learned to love the west and spent weeks hiking and sleeping under the stars. he kept drawing his cartoons and would wait for trains to pass by when we came upon a track. He'd hand his cartoons to the train conductor, who would get them back to Hearst in New York. The very cartoon we share today may have undergone just such a cross-country journey.

Swinnerton's cure worked, and he lived until 1974. He shared his love of the desert, luring many fellow New York cartoonists to the ancient canyonlands. Swinnerton was the guy who introduced George Herriman to the desert and, as such, is probably responsible for the magical landscapes of Krazy Kat. 

Swinnerton started out as a charming cartoonist who could spin out screwball and slapstick with layers of disarming cuteness. After a while, his work became more spiritual and lyrical, and he integrated the desert and American southwest into his cartoons. He was highly sympathetic to the various American Indian cultures he experienced first-hand. Here's some breathtaking Little Jimmie dailies from 1933, in which Jimmy and his kid and animal friends have somehow migrated to the southwest:

Click here to hear a great rare 1963 audio interview with Swinnerton about his life and career.

Just wait till we get home,
Screwball Paul

1 comment:

  1. It's sobering to realize how many comics are over 100 years old now! That they still communicate something vivid to us, despite all the societal changes of that century, is remarkable.

    The world pictured in this Swinnerton comic is Victorian, pre-war America--a place that was still very much rooted in the 19th century. These comic strips offer us a way to briefly enter that world and appreciate its difference to ours.

    I've gotten some of the best history lessons of my life from reading old comics--it's certainly an entertaining way to learn!