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



  1. Glad to see this feature got zanier in the 1930s. 1920s versions of this topper just have Ches and Wal standing on-stage, rattling off the owies. If only Ahern had included cut-out rotting vegetables to throw at 'em! ;) Great stuff here! Seeing them in color adds a great deal of enjoyment to these strips!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Frank! I agree -- Nut Brothers 2.0 is more creative. In fact, I think that Ahern became drawn into it as the weeks progressed. I doubt we'd have Foozland if he hadn't created The Nut Brothers 2.0 Sunday topper. It was the start of his re-visit to pure screwballism. If only he had thought include rotten fruit cut outs!

  2. Just as I am going out for a week, I had a chance to see this and look for some more on NewspaperArchive. The earliest I have now is from December 23 1921, signed Ahern under Our Boarding House and next to Fables of 1921 by a Martin. Interesting, because a later one I found (in May 1922) was signed by Martin! No Nut Bros on Dec 16th and no time tolook at the intermediate copies. I have to go out now, but I'll continue looking if you don't.

    1. Ger, I don't know why I didn't think of it before, but of course Allan Holtz has the information needed. There's a short, but informative post on the early Nut Brothers at his Stripper's Guide blog. According to Allan, the strip started December 19, 1921, so you are close. And the comic was also done at times by Edgar Martin. So you are definitely on the right trail.