Major Hoople is a legend in his own mind. The contrast between Hoople's imagined heroism and his considerably more humble "real" life as an overstuffed blowhard layabout is the essential comic engine that Gene Ahern drove nearly every day for 14 years on Our Boarding House (1922-36), and then for another 17, with Room and Board (1936-53). Within this comic formula, Ahern devised endless variations. One of the richest, and a personal favorite, are what might be called The Alvin Stories.
Alvin, nephew to Major Hoople and his wife Martha, is the perfect foil for the Major's self-aggrandizing Falstaffian boasting. The pie-eyed boy hangs on every word, encouraging the Major to concoct one improbable, fantastic adventure after another. From feats of absurd bravery as a soldier, to Paul Bunyan-like achievements as a logger, to Olympic athlete (see an example here), to genius inventor, to intrepid world explorer -- the Major's (and Ahern's) capacity for imagined adventures is richly entertaining. Essentially, the fantasy worlds of Major Hoople are the structural inversion of the actual fantastic world of Foozland that Ahern would explore in his multi-year comic strip masterpiece, The Squirrel Cage.
The formula of The Alvin Stories is simple, but richly entertaining. First, the Major spins his wild yarns to Alvin's delight. Alvin -- who believes every syllable the Major utters -- then asks an innocent question, and the Major sputters out some excuse, realizing he has painted himself into a corner, his bubble burst. Often, there's a hint of pathos in Ahern's comic, even as we laugh at Hoople's buffoonery.
In today's example, the Major imagines Jujuwok, an impossible South Seas island that sinks into the ocean every night. The payoff is in the silly drawings of walking fish and web-footed cats.
|A classic Alvin Story" episode of Gene Ahern's Our Boarding House -- March 22, 1931|
(Collection Paul Tumey)
How wonderful it would be to have an uncle capable of spinning endless imaginative yarns. One wonders if the Alvin Stories were perhaps an inspiration to a comics master of the generation after Ahern, John Stanley, famous for his Little Lulu comics. Filling monthly comic books, Stanley created a variation in the Lulu adventures in which Lulu, forced to babysit her bratty little boy neighbor (or sometimes simply ward off his swaths of destruction), makes up a series of wildly imaginative stories. These stories are stream-of-consciousness wonders, and some of my favorite comics. Could it be mere coincidence that Lulu's little boy neighbor's name is also Alvin?
For more on John Stanley's Alvin stories, be sure to visit Stanley Stories, the blog of my pal and colleague, Frank Young, by clicking here.
The Goldberg Variations
In earlier articles, I've mapped the artistic connection between Gene Ahern and Rube Goldberg's penchant for building wacky cartoon inventions. Ahern also walked in Goldberg's footsteps across pulpy Sunday pages to exotic and improbable lands, such as the one above. In his long-running Sunday comic, Boob McNutt (1918-1934), Rube Goldberg (whose very name means "mountain of gold") visited a wacky South Seas island in "Boob's Ark" (1931-32), his longest and most ambitious continuity. The story arc of "The Ark" spans two year's worth of Sundays, with the first several months occurring on a jungle island populated by strange animals.
In this sequence, for example, we encounter the gong-tailed bumpzozzle:
|The gong-tailed bumpzopple, from the 1931-32 Boob's Ark continuity in Rube Golberg's Boob McNutt comic.|
That's Mike and Ike (They Look Alike) in the bottom tier.
July 5, 1931 (Collection Paul Tumey)
Of course, the idea of visiting a bizarre land filled with invented creatures is not something that originates with Goldberg or Ahern. The concept stretches back much further in comics. For example, we see it in Walt McDougall's breathtaking 1904 Queer Visitors From The Marvellous Land of Oz comics (in that variation, the strange land was the United States, as the Oz characters visited our world!). Pete Maresca's jaw-dropping book on McDougall's Oz comics is highly recommended.
Even before the Oz comics, McDougall spun elaborate tales of exotic lands and queer creatures in his Good Stories for Children newspaper stories,featuring both his prose writing and illustrations. Here's an example from my collection, featuring the unforgettable spookissimus:. This is a huge image, so you can read the werra werra tiny print -- so give it time to load.
|Walt McDougall's astonishing Good Stories for Children featured surreal, beautifully screwball imagery|
August 24, 1902 (Collection Paul Tumey)
Going back further, the concept appears in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. And in Dante's Inferno. And Homer's Odyessey. In other words, the concept of travels to imaginary lands populated by strange creatures is probably as old as storytelling itself.
A real life, true version of this tale is detailed in art critic Robert Hughes' book, The Fatal Shore, in which exiled criminals land on the shores of Australia and discover a world of bizarre natives and odd creatures (the kangaroo is a pretty fantastic critter, when you think about it).
Ahern's and Goldberg's variations on the exotic land concept are uneven and not always successful. However, I applaud their willingness to take chances and follow their own creative impulses. When they do manage to pull it off, the result is a refreshing and delightfully screwball experience.
Hat is Tall,
Gene Ahern's Icthyological Screwballism
Rube Goldberg's Amazing Boob McNutt's Ark: The Man-Eating Biffsniffle
Ohio State University's page on Walt McDougall, with many great scans