Saturday, April 28, 2012

From Little Aherns Grow Mighty Jokes - The Nut Brothers

Gene Ahern Thursday

New Gene Ahern comics posted every Thursday!

Why is a goat in your bed like lace curtains on fire? Here's a selection of early finds and nice color scans from my own collection of Gene Ahern's classic screwball comic, The Nut Brothers, which asked -- and answered such questions. (For the answer to the above question, see the February 14, 1932 episode of The Nut Brothers, re-published below).

Best known for creating the often less screwy Major Hoople and Our Boarding House, Gene Ahern was actually one of the prime exponents of screwballism in American comics. His Nut Brothers presented a seemingly inexhaustible river of symbols with dreamlike connections -- a knight's helmet, a modified bicycle, a chicken, a huge pipe emitting soap bubbles, and a roller skate are combined as skillfully as images in a Dali painting. The corniness of the strip's nickel-matinee-bottom-billing-vaudeville-act patter hardly matters and, in fact, becomes a meta comment on humor itself. There can be no doubt that Ahern's Nut Brothers was a prime inspiration for Bill Holman's Smokey Stover. Eventually Ahern's Nut Brothers developed into something even greater -The Squirrel Cage (and Foozland).

According to comics historian Allan Holtz:

"Gene Ahern started this early version on 12/19/1921, then handed it off to Edgar Martin sometime in 1922. The two-panel Nut Brothers stacks ended 10/14/1922. 

You can see the full post, with additional information and examples of this strip at Allan's invaluable blog here.

The current Wiki article says The Nut Brothers fist appeared in Ahern's Crazy Quilt. Ger Apeldoorn has a few more details in his comment below.) Here's an example I've found, shoehorned into the magical mosaic of a 1922 daily comic page.
March 1, 1922

The following Nut Brothers are signed "Martin." This is probably Edgar (Abe) Martin a fellow NEA cartoonist-colleague probably assigned part of Ahern's workload as he developed what would become his most successful and best-known comic, Our Boarding House. Just two years later, in 1924, Abe Martin would create the long-running and popular comic strip Boots and Her Buddies (a comic concerned with women's fashions instead of screwballism -- although, come to think of it, perhaps there's a connection between the two, after all).

July 18, 1922

July 19, 1922

July 20, 1922

July 21, 1922

In late 1921, Ahern had a big hit with his new daily panel and color Sunday comic, Our Boarding House

About ten years later, the comic strip syndicates got the bright idea to break a cartoonist's "page" into two strips, so that the client paper could then boast of a section having 32 comics, instead of just 16, for example. Most of these "toppers" were fairly slight throwaways. For Ahern, however, these were a place for him to explore and cultivate his talent for screwballism. For his second strip, Ahern brought back The Nut Brothers as a "topper" to Our Boarding House in starting October 25, 1931 (thanks to Allan Holtz and Carl Linich for that information). A paper scan of that first Sunday color Nut Brothers is below. 

The Nut Brothers by Gene Ahern - October 25, 1931
(The first Sunday topper - From the collection of Paul Tumey)

Just to show you what the entire page o' Ahern looked like, I've scanned the November 1, 1931 page, with Nuts at the top and Hooples at the bottom. Obviously, Major Hoople's adventure relates to that year's Halloween, which demonstrates one of the many ways Ahern found to work his surreal streak into the more mainstream, "reality" based comic.

Screwball surrealism in two different contexts:
The Nut Brothers and Our Boarding House by Gene Ahern - Nov 1, 1931
(from the collection of Paul Tumey)
In another post on another day, when I have more time available and more information on this comic, I'll offer a more informative essay on the strip. Foo now, here's a selection of color scans mostly from early 1932, when Ahern began to pull out all the stops and reach dizzying new heights of wackiness -- just for the sheer joy of it!

Ches and Wal also appeared as wacky inventors in the 1936-39 episodes of Ahern's comic, The Squirrel Cage. You can see a hint of what was to come in this in the episode below, about a wacky way to cultivate bonsai doggies..
The Nut Brothers by Gene Ahern - November 29, 1931  

In the next two strips below, there is some racism. It doesn't seem to be integral to the humor, but just one more surreal element in the mix -- and as such functions as a sort of dreamlike reshaping of racism.
The Nut Brothers by Gene Ahern - February 7, 1932

The Nut Brothers by Gene Ahern - February 14, 1932
 Foreign Legion, American Indian, concert pianist, and Chinese philosopher -- all in one small strip. The concentrated dose of the dream of history offered by Gene Ahern's Nut Brothers can be overwhelming, at first, causing us to cling to the corny, gag-book jokes as if they were a raft in a whirlpool.
The Nut Brothers by Gene Ahern - February 21, 1932

The Nut Brothers by Gene Ahern - February 28, 1932

More on Ahern's masterful screwballism in future posts! Until then, I remain

Screwily Yours,
Paul Tumey, he said, sticking his bean out of a mailbox


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Birth of Smokey Stover - First Puffs (1935)

Smokey Stover Fireday

New Bill Holman comics posted every Friday!

Just foo you, girlies --  rare early Holman comics, including the very first Smokey Stover and Spooky in color paper scans!

Holman came to Smokey as a foo-ly developed cartoonist. By the time he created his classic screwball comic at the age of 31, Bill Holman had written and drawn his own syndicated comics for eight years from 1922-30 and then sold hundreds of gag cartoons to magazines during the next five years from 1929-34.

When he heard the Chicago Tribune - New York Daily News Syndicate was looking for a new Sunday page in late 1933, Holman (who was living in New York) took some of the firemen-themed magazine gags he had been selling (and also his jowly kitty) and fashioned them into a Sunday comic about screwball firemen, which took off, blazing.

Holman's first stint as a daily newspaper cartoonist, however, did not distinguish him as a notable cartoonist. I think this was in part because he was suppressing himself to be commercial. His first strip was an idiosyncratic funny animal strip first called J. Rabbit Esquire and then Billville Birds. Here's a couple of examples that show the characteristic Holman love for puns and background details, but very underplayed:

Billville Birds by Bill Holman August 9, 1922

Billville Birds by Bill Holman August 10, 1922

Then Holman tried a kid strip, Gee Whiz Junior. Again, it had touches of the Holman screwball approach, but in a subdued way. Here's a couple of examples:

Gee Whiz Junior by Bill Holman - Feb 1, 1924

Gee Whiz Junior by Bill Holman - Feb 2, 1924 - a slight $alesman $am flavor

We'll take a closer look at Holman's early comics in a future article. After several years on Junior, Holman moved into magazine cartooning where he began to find himself as a screwball cartoonist. As Holman said in an  interview with John Canemaker (available for reading at the official Smokey Stover/Bill Holman website):

"I was just being myself in my cartoons  -- that was the whole thing. I'd had quite a bit of experience at various papers and syndicates, and when you find that your stuff's appearing before the public in a big national publication, you get confidence." (John Canemaker, Millimeter - date unknown, circa 1970s)

Bill Holman's gag cartoons reached a far wider audience
than his earlier newspaper comic strips - Collier's Weekly Jan 28, 1933
We'll also take a look at Holman's magazine cartoons in a future post. Having finally developed his cartooning style and screwball sensibility, Holman seized an opportunity to take another dance on the stripper's stage. It seems that the fireman idea may have been suggested by News publisher Joseph "Captain" Patterson, who took as keen an interest in his syndicate's comics as William Hearst did in his line-up.

Here is an early, if not the first announcement/solicitation the Tribune-News syndicate circulated to newspapers for the comic. Note that the cat is already named Spooky. Note also the name of Arthur Crawford. Holman credited Crawford in some interviews as being the first to contact him about the opportunity to develop a new comic for the syndicate.

Here is the first Smokey Stover (here called simply "Smokey"), published March 10, 1935 in a nice paper scan, furnished by fellow screwball historian, Carl Linich (see his blog on Ahern's Squirrel Cage)

The first published Smokey Stover comic by Bill Holman.
A landmark in screwball comics. (March 10, 1935)
Scan supplied by Carl Linich from his collection

This example of strip is in the "tab" (tabloid) format, which was a smaller, full page format. I wonder if this was the first page that Holman drew on that chilly Indiana Christmas Eve, or if they perhaps selected from his built-up inventory a year or so later, to select an early, but solid first strip. In any case, as with most newspaper comic series, this first appearance is noticeably different from the high-octane insanity that most of us associate with Smokey Stover.

Another point to note in the comic above is that Holman draws his signature jowl-cheeked, tape-tailed cat in seven of the 12 panels. Holman was also inserting this kitty in his gag cartoons. Although the early Smokey comics lack the density of the later strips, Holman is already working to create multi-tracks of gags. In the strip above, we have the main gag about the chair legs, and then there's the funny business of the goofy cat, who is not an essential part of the joke at all, but still adds a lot to the comic.

Here's the second appearance of Smokey Stover (again, just called "Smokey"), from March 17, 1935. This example is in the half-page format, which uses fewer panels (3 tiers instead of 4).

The second published Smokey Stover comic - March 17, 1935
From the collection of Paul Tumey

Foo some reason, the image in the last panel reminds me of Don Martin's comics. Maybe it's the way the "honk" sound effects are drawn. There are a few items in the background, and Chief Cash U. Nutt is smokiing that wonderful two-bowl pipe in the title panel (the smoke from his pipe appropriately forms the title, creating a visual pun). Still, overall this comic is sparse and tame, compared to what it would become. It's not yet the "torrent of audacious gags" that the Tribune-News promised. Spooky appears in panels two and eight.

In the fifth Smokey Stover comic to be published, Spooky gets his own strip. Here, then, is the very first Spooky comic strip!

The first Spooky and the fifth Smokey. (April 7, 1935 )
Scan supplied by Carl Linich from his collection

I'd like to dedicate this post to a pal and fellow screwball, Carl Linich. 

If you are in New York this weekend (April 28 and 29), be sure to visit Carl's table at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) Festival

Smoked Links
You can find more excellent Smokey Stover and Spooky comics at the following links:

Smokey Stover Online (the official site by Bill Holman's nephew)

Pappy's Golden Age Blog  (reprints lots of great Holman comics! Thanks for the plug, Pappy!)

The Fireman Cometh - my first article on Holman with some more early Smokeys

No Claws For Alarm - my article reprinting and analyzing Holman's topper strip

My page on Bill Holman - just updated as of this post - many rare items not found anywhere else on this blog!

I hope you enjoyed this look at the birth of Smokey Stover and Spooky. In future posts, I'd like share with you more of Holman's early comics, and some of his magazine gag cartoons. Until then, you can find me in room...

Nix Nix 1506,
Paul Tumey

What's in that pipe, Bill? (1939)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Doc Syke by Ving Fuller: A Prescription For Surreal Silliness

Mixed Nuts Wednesday

In-depth looks at forgotten screwball classics every Wednesday!

Jumping gelatin! Here's a bunch of great comics and a few juicy details from the life story of screwball master Ving Fuller. Best-known for his long-running daily and Sunday screwball strip, Doc Syke (1944-60), Fuller also created and drew the first six months of the daily screwball comic Elza Poppin. I recently posted an article and selection of Fuller's Elza Poppin here.

In future posts, we'll look more at Ving's life story, his relationship with his brother Sam Fuller (the famed filmmaker), his entrepreneurial schemes, and obscure comics. In this post, to cement Ving's place in the Screwball Comics All-Star line-up I'm assembling, I'll focus on sharing a few examples of Ving's magnum opus of screwbalicus comicus: Doc Syke.

Ving Fuller, Screwball Cartoonist

Running as a Sunday and daily through roughly 1945-60, Doc Syke (at first it was called Doc, and later, Little Doc) was for many years an inspired, surreal, goofy, subversive, and totally unique comic that both sharply satirized and joyfully celebrated human looniness -- in other words: classic screwball. The strip falls in what could be considered the first years of the "modern screwball" period that could also include Virgil Partch's surreal gag comics among others.

I propose 3 phases to screwball comics:

Early Screwball: 1904-20
Peak Screwball: 1921-44
Modern Screwball: 1945-present

Let's start our Doc Syke taste-fest with a bang:

As you see by the wonderful example above, Ving had something more to offer than just a gag strip. Just as the father of screwball comics, Rube Goldberg, was a trenchant observer and skillful ridiculer of America's obsession with mechanical gadgets, Ving entertainingly comments here on the double-edged sword of scientific progress. His mad scientist, Professor Cyenhide (both a play on the poison and also a prescription for dealing with nuts - sigh and hide),  in the comic above is truly insane, lacking in morality and obsessed with inventing. In the title panel, Ving draws a squirrel --the universal screwball comic symbol for nuttiness -- pushing the Earth over the edge. But it's still funny stuff -- and probably Ving didn't think too hard about the deeper meanings and sub-conscious connections -- the strip has a sense that he just let it flow.

At first glance, Doc Syke with it's minimal visual style is a sort of poor man's Nancy, if you can imagine such a thing. Fuller was obviously working in Bushmiller territory, but with a zany, goofy twist that came natural to him and seems to infuse all his comics. The very concept was offbeat and rich with screwball possibilities: the wacky adventures of a slightly super-human psychiatrist. In Ving's hands, Doc is a "syke" like no other, with his debonair cigarette holder, top hat, and pointed goatee (which was removed by 1948, the date of most of the examples I'll share in this article).

Ving Fuller's Doc Syke was a gifted, sane person in a mostly insane world--
the same formula Jack Cole used for Plastic Man. (above: May 16, 1948)
Ving Fuller was as good a writer as he was a cartoonist. In the comic above, the wife of a man who thinks he is Abraham Lincoln shoots off this witty bit of dialogue: "He's been cured a dozen times but he always elects himself again."  The rant Fuller writes for the man with the Lincoln-complex to spout in panel four is a dense mass of Lincoln trivia that is funny in itself. The comic's resolution provides the desire (and required)  gag twist, but also reflects the therapy phenomenon called transference.

Here's another example of Doc Syke at work:

A literal example of "syke-ing" someone out (from April 14, 1948)

Ving was an opportunist. In 1945, pop psychology was emerging in America. Ving probably saw the emerging trend, and realized he had a golden opportunity to create a salesworthy vessel for his wacky style of humor. The idea of a comic strip about psychotherapy was novel and interesting in 1945.

Five years earlier, Ving capitalized on the popularity of the Olsen-Johnson musical revue, Hellzapoppin by creating a comic strip with a similar, but more palatable title for mainstream audiences called Elza Poppin (see my article on the strip here for some examples and more information). He gave the show's stars writing credit, using their fame to draw interest to his strip. Ving hustled to make it as a cartoonist.

Another wild and wacky entrepreneurial scheme of Ving's was his 1953 piggy bank, which is stamped "Ving Fuller" on the bottom:

The pig's nose has a safe dial on it, so you can open it and extract money without having to break it. A truly screwball invention:

This was an actual real-world invention that he patented and sold. Here's the patent (I'm not sure if Ving Fuller draw this, but it looks as if he might have):

From what I can gather, Ving Fuller orchestrated a tie-in for his new product with his daily comics strip Little Doc. For several days in December 1952, Fuller had Little Doc feverishly work on a new invention, finally unveiling it as a triumpgh of modern technology. 

Aside from taking advantage of a popular new trend, Ving Fuller's Doc Syke had much to offer that was unique and special. In this lyrical example with totally wacky twist, we meet Doc's son, called "Little Doc."

If Gasoline Alley went screwball - May 9, 1948

Here's another episode featuring Little Doc in which Fuller cleverly incorporates images of famous paintings in a strip that celebrates sunday funnies:

A rare example of a collage in a newspaper comic - April 11, 1948

Notice the last panel in the strip above -- the big pile of newspaper comics and comic books includes Doc Syke - a fun and surreal self-referential paradox.

At some point, Fuller shifted the strip into the adventures of Little Doc, renaming it thusly. here's a couple of dailies that show he had lost a lot of steam 10 years later:

Ving Fuller's Little Doc -a sloppy paste-up that cuts off the ends of the strip- June 29, 1957

This strip appears to be published in backwards order, as Chris Riesbeck pointed out to me -- December 20, 1957 

For some reason, around this time, Al Capp began to mention Ving Fuller in his comic, L'il Abner. Perhaps Ving was a friend or mentor to Capp. The joke was always the same:

Ving Fuller had a flair for what looked funny and appealing in comics. It was a skill that he developed over decades of cartooning. Here's an episode that shows he was thinking about the comedic possibilities of piggy banks long before his invention came to fruition:

Love the visual speech balloons - April 25, 1948

Here's a particularly subversive comic that makes a different use of the animal speech balloon element we see int he above strip.

The above comic is an excellent lesson in our political system. Ving's brother, Sam Fuller, made hard-hitting journalistic films that told hard truths. In his own way, Ving gets a flavor of that in his screwball comics. This is a part of screwballism. Goldberg drew comics for 20 years that offered countless truth-telling sessions about politics, greed, snobbery, pride, and lust.

Doc Syke has many sides. There is as much goofy surrealism in the comic as anything:

Original art - June 29, 1947

Of course, a screwball comic is the perfect place for Alexander Ceasar Napoleon to make an appearance in the skewed world of Doc Syke where you can listen to the beautiful music in people's ears:

Oct 13, 1946

It's kind of amazing how Ving Fuller had a way of making likable comics about crazy, neurotic, obsessive behavior. Love the name here - Missus Flapnoodle. And the comical name for her ailment: gabbacious neurosis.
The joke here is just a stone's throw away -- July 11, 1948

At the risk of developing a case of gabbacious neuosis myself, I'll refrain from commenting (much) on the rest of the examples of this marvelous screwball comic that I have to share with you today. I have more on Ving's life and work to tell you, so stay tuned.

 Fuller played with his title panels in this period. Here, two squirrels gossip
over a backyard fence, echoing the topic the strip. From June 1, 1947

April 18, 1948

 Another character in the strip was the babe Miss Wow - June 6, 1948

June 20, 1948

July 4, 1948

July 18, 1948
My last example of this goofy, inspired comic for you today is one I particularly like -- there's something joyously wacky and perfect about it. This is berry good comics!

I wonder if the character in this comic was colored blue. MMMMM -- The Berries! June 27, 1948

Vitally Important Announcement! This blog needs watering and sunshine! Please comment, and spread the word. Our world needs screwball comics!

Screwily Yours,
Doc Tumey