Sunday, February 3, 2013

Roots of Screwball: The Lost 1904-06 Gus Mager Sundays (Part 2)

In 1906, Gus Mager was on the verge of something great.

Working mostly in weekday comic strips, Mager created two knockout Sunday comics: What Little Johnny Wanted, and The Troubles of Pete the Pedlar. These are unknown early high points of the form -- with sharp wit, superb cartooning, and a modernist use of artistic elements such as repetition, flattened planes, minimalism, and negative space. Their appearances were so brief, it's questionable that these comics had any influence at all, but nonetheless they are worth our study and appreciation today.

I'm proud to present in these articles 10 of these 11 wonderful rare comics, some from paper scans in my own collection and some excavated from microfilm archives of old newspapers.

It's hard to believe, but each of these great Sunday funnies lasted only a few weeks, and then Mager's modernist experiements, allowed to bloom in the larger space of his 1906 Sunday half pages, abruptly ended, as he continued to work in the more cramped confines of the weekday comics, producing his famous Monks series, among others.

In early 1907, Mager was at a crossroads. His Monks series, begun in April 1904 with the ever-changing titles (Knocko, Coldfeeto, Rhymo, Henpecko, Nervo,Braggo, etc.) was catching on in a big way. Here's a strip from later in the run (January 2, 1910) that showcases several of the monks.

Gus Mager's Monks strip from January 2, 1910
features several of his ever-rotating cast.

In his autobiography, Harpo Speaks! Harpo Marx talks about the popularity of the strip and it's notable influence on entertainment culture of the time:

Harpo Marx got his
famous stage name from
Gus Mager's comic strips.
In Rockford, the four of us and a monologist named Art Fisher started up a game of five-card stud, between shows. At that time there was a very popular comic strip called "Knocko the Monk," and as a result there was a rash of stage names that ended in "o." On every bill there would be at least one Bingo, Socko, Jumpo, or Bumpo.
   There must have been a couple of them on the bill with us in Rockford and we must have been making cracks about them. because when Art Fisher started dealing a poker hand, he said "A hole card for -- 'Harpo.' A card for 'Chicko.' One for --" Now that he'd committed himself, he had to pass "o-names" all around the table.
   The first two had been simple. I played the harp and my older brother chased the chicks. For a moment Art was stuck. Then he continued the deal. A card for 'Grouch" (he carried his dough in a grouch bag), and finally a card for "Gummo" (he had a gumshoe way of prowling around backstage and sneaking up on people).
   We stuck with the gag handles for the rest of the game and that, we thought, was that. It wasn't. We couldn't get rid of them. We were Chicko, Harpo, Groucho and Gummo for the rest of the week, the rest of the season, and the rest of our lives.
 (Harpo Speaks! by Harpo Marx.1961)

Knocko the Monk -- September 17, 1904 - poetic justice, no ifs, ands or butts...

As stated in part one of this Mager article, there can be no clearer screwball lineage than that between Gus Mager's comics and the Marx Brothers.

With a weekday strip that was such a hit, it's a mystery as to why Mager didn't extend it into a Sunday series, as well. Perhaps Mager's editors didn't want to monkey around with a winning formula. In 1913, when Mager left Hearst to work for Pulitzer, he finally did migrate his weekday series, now completely given over to an entertaining and sharp satire of Sherlock Holmes (and consistently titled Sherlocko the Monk) , into a weekday and Sunday series called Hawkshaw the Detective. His Sunday was a continuing story, where the weekday version was episodic -- the reverse of the usual treatment. It's also worth noting that Mager's Hawkshaw Sunday was an early example of continuity in comics, which didn't catch on in a big way for another ten years or so. Mager's career had some interesting creative choices.

Also, as stated earlier, it's my own theory that Mager was playing off the words "hippo" and "monkey" when he hit upon his naming scheme. As stated in a Cartoon Magazine article, "hippos and monkey were his favorites." However, according to a May, 1910 Bookman article, the original inspiration for Mager's "o-clan" came from James. J. Montague, a fellow Hearst staffer who wrote humorous verse, columns, and short stories.

Gus Mager, from a 1911 paper,
now established as the
"Monk" cartoonist
It is significant that the first of this clan to be pictured was "Groucho" [as far as I can tell, the first strip was called Knocko -- but Groucho may have turned up earlier ]. The idea for it came to James J. Montague, who did not hand it over to Mager until he had first extracted enough inspiration from the cloud which hung over the artist to give him the dark plot of a light verse.  (Some Figures in the New Humor, Bookman, May 1910)
Perhaps at some later date, I can find the original Montague verse that inspired Mager and in turn numerous Vaudeville performers, including The Marx Brothers.

In any case, the Monks weekday comics were a sensation. In late 1906 and early 1907, Gus Mager was  at a crossroads. He could continue to develop the charming, artful animal Sunday comics or he could pour himself into the Monks series, which was starting to climb the tree of success. He chose the ladder -- unh, that is -- the latter. And, sadly, as far as I can tell, except for a few lovely pieces of banner art for other strips, Mager abandoned this particular cartooning style and apporoach.

What follows, then, is a look at what could have been -- and briefly was. Mager's early Sundays are among hundreds of such experiments made with comics in the freewheeling days of early American newspaper comics. From the vantage point of more than a century later, we can see that Gus Mager was on to something, creating an early version of a visual storytelling style that would emerge into the mainstream of American culture some forty or fifty years later with comics like Crockett Johnson's Barnaby and the UPA animation studio's celebrated stylized cartoons.

What Little Johnny Wanted
Foreshadowing Sendak, Watterson, and even Eisner (a bit)

Calvin and Hobbes... the 1906 model
Running for only five consecutive Sundays, from September 30 to October 28, 1906, What Little Johnny Wanted emerges fully formed in both concept and execution. Mager has made considerable strides forward from his previous Sunday, And Then Poppa Came from 1904:

The first episode of Gus Mager's first Sunday comic, from September 11, 1904

Two years later, aside from a slightly different wording in the first episode, Mager is consistent in his presentation of What Little Johnny Wanted -- just one of many ways he has injected formalism into his work. His idea is both clever and a pure distillation of the form, since he is basically presenting in each episode a simple sentence: "What little Johnny wanted -- and -- what he got." Extracted from the comic as pure prose, the sentence makes little sense. As part of a graphic narrative, it works beautifully, offering a world of depth,, detail, and a wry commentary on the nature of child fantasy versus adult reality -- the two worlds that early American comic strips straddled.

September 30 1906 (collection of Paul Tumey)
By breaking the strip's theme sentence into two parts, with the first part also serving as the strip's title, Mager has created an unusual structure. The last part of the sentence, "and what he got," occurs in the last panel, with the same type treatment as the title, integrating the title into the fabric of the strip's story in a way that wouldn't happen again in comics until Will Eisner began to do this with his Spirit stories ion the early 1940s. Mager's choice of font style is masterful, with bold serif lettering that has the feel of something carved into stone -- as though this is a rock-solid truth that cannot be changed.

On the same Sunday the first Johnny appeared, Mager contributed the first of his brief spate of banner art drawn for other Hearst comics. Functioning as a sort of proto-topper, Mager's comic is a vignette from What Little Johnny Wanted  -- not lifted from any episode, but an original scene. Interestingly, Mager's signature is different than his usual cursive scrawl. This is the first appearance of the wide-eyed little girl.
And Her Name Was Maud banner art by Gus Mager featuring Johnny - September 30, 1906

In the next week's episode of Johnny, a wild animal is a friend rather than a creature to be vanquished.

October 7, 1906
Another very successful aspect of this strip is Mager's stylized drawings of people and animals. With Johnny as well as the Sunday comic that immediately followed, The Troubles of Pete the Pedlar, Mager found a way to draw the jungle animals he loved in clever new story structures. In Johnny, the animals are always part of his fantasy world, which occupies the first five of six panels. Mager's cartoons animals, both cute and wild aren't that far off from the animal-monsters in Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are (1963). In fact, Mager's Johnny and Sendak are thematically related, in that they both present an unsentimental and honest view of a child's desire for power and dominance. The fifth panel in the above example reminds me very much of Sendak -- and also introduces the little girl who appears in the next two episodes.

While the episodes of Johnny are structurally repetitive, each strip actually explores a different angle of a child's fantasy. In the next week's episode, Johnny is the uber-hero, effortlessly defeating buffalo, Indians, and a lion. In the end, we learn he was inspired by a dime novel adventure.

October 14, 1906

By presenting his figures in relative perspective with no background details, Mager creates in the above example a perfect cartoon. He's even removed the chair the angry man (Johnny's dad?) sits on in panel six. Mager has stripped out every extraneous detail, allowing us to see the world through a young boy's mind, where buffalo, Indians, and lions co-exist and things like chairs are unimportant and unseen.

Also on October 14, Mager's tigers-and-trees march across the banner for Richard Outcault's Buster Brown Sunday page.:

Buster Brown banner art by Gus Mager - Oct 14, 1906

Continuing the adventure theme the following week, Mager turns on the most visually detailed episode of the series, with a battle at sea. Johnny is the pirate raider, and the little girl from last week returns, charmingly hanging around the fantasy as an astonished observer of Johnny's prowess.

October 21, 1906 (collection of Paul Tumey)

Also that week, Mager drew the Buster Brown banner art. This time, it's not from Johnny's world, but instead a classroom with a stern hippo teacher -- one has to admire Mager's playfulness.

Buster Brown banner art by Gus Mager - October 21, 1904

In the last episode of the series, Mager brings one of the sanguine tigers from episode 1 back. This time, instead of an enemy to defeat, the tiger is an ally -- prefiguring Calvin and Hobbes, if only for an eyeblink in comics history. Still, perhaps the greatest aspect of What Little Johnny Wanted is the celebration of the richness and sheer, delightfully snarky kid-ness of a boy's fantasy world.

October 28, 1906

Also this week, Mager contributed the banner art for another Buster Brown Sunday page, with another cameo by Johnny, serving almost as a mini-version of the strip, this time. It's interesting that Mager's banner art has nothing whatsoever to do with Buster Brown. This is the last appearance of Little Johnny, and I'm grateful that the pie-eyed little girl is here, too. I love that she has a be-ribboned pet pig. Ah, if only Mager had continued Johnny!
Buster Brown banner art by Gus Mager - October 28, 1906

Sadly, What Little Johnny Wanted ended with the above examples. With this comic, Gus Mager was decades ahead of his time. Perhaps audiences of the 1900s weren't as ready to celebrate the psychotic fantasies of the common boy as they were in the 1960s with the sucess of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are and in the 1980s, when Calvin and Hobbes became a hit.

 After a short vacation of a week, Mager returned to the Sunday supplement with a new comic, equally formal in structure and eccentric in nature - The Troubles of Pete the Pedlar. In the third and last part of this series on Mager's lost Sundays, I'll share the Pete Sundays with some notes, as well as more of Mager's charming banner art comics for Buster Brown. In the meantime, here's a sneak preview:

The Troubles of Pete the Pedlar by Gus Mager - Novemeber 18, 1906

That is all,
Screwball Paul Tumey

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