Tuesday, January 29, 2013

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

I have some screwy news!

I just completed an essay on the birth of American newspaper screwball comics that will be included in the forthcoming Sunday Press book, Society Is Nix: Gleeful Anarchy at the Dawn of the American Comic Strip 1896-1915. While no release date has been set, it seems a safe bet that the book will come out before the end of 2013. This is a book that I'm sure every fan of screwball comics and the comics on this blog will cherish!

For those of you unfamiliar with Sunday Press books, be sure to check them out here -- they present amazing old newspaper comics in their original size in beautifully designed volumes. Seeing Little Nemo and Krazy Kat Sundays in the original colors and size offers the invaluable opportunity to re-discover these works of art anew and to more fully understand and appreciate them -- in this case, size matters!

Having covered the standout comics of the early days, Sunday Press publisher Peter Maresca has laudably decided to move into devising anthologies that collect lesser-known comics that are worthy of our attention. His Forgotten Fantasy volume is a wonder and highly recommended. The price tags for these books, while high by everyday standards, are well worth it -- since buying the original Sunday pages in these books would cost far more - -probably at least a hundred times as much. And, you can read with impunity, not having to worry about the paper crumbling in your fingers. Plus... you get some cool essays and bonus ephemera. So, my four-color friends, I encourage you to save up and spring for one these deeply satisfying books. I am honored to have the chance to contribute an essay to the upcoming book.

(Here and above) Gus Mager's contributions to the
1909 and 1910 programs for the Kit Kat Club,
a small organization of  avant-garde
New York artists that included
many cartoonists.
Writing this essay helped me to pull together some thoughts I've been developing on how certain elements of  screwball comics developed in American newspaper comic strips. Since my essay, (currently titled Mule Kicks, Boy Bounces, Eccentrics Perpetrate Chaos: American Screwball Comics Commenced in the Earliest Sunday Funnies) is a breathless 1700 word survey of a few highlights, I've decided to delve deeper and present a NEW series on this blog: The Roots of Screwball Comics.

In order to create the Sunday Press essay, it was necessary to sift through my personal collection of fragile old funny papers and my archive of scans to pull together an ersatz, rough-hewn framework for understanding the development of  screwballism in early American comic strips. In an upcoming essay on this blog, I will share this framework with you, as imperfect as it is. But, for now, in true screwball fashion, I'll start randomly and share with you one of the many screwball delights I discovered in early American newspaper comics:

The Lost 1904-1906 Sunday Comics of Gus Mager - Part One

Known primarily for his Sunday comic Sherlock Holmes spoof, Hawkshaw the Detective, which ran off and on from 1913 through 1947, Gus Mager (1878-1956) was a fine cartoonist and accomplished painter. Mager was born in New Jersey to German immigrant parents. The self-taught cartoonist was influenced by the work of German cartoonists represented in his parent's library, including the great Wilhelm Busch. Details of his life are chronicled by comics historian Allan Holtz here.

Much of Mager's earliest comic strips of the 1900s are filled with rich humor, joi de vivre, and innovations stemming from a fine arts sensibility. His work from 1904-1913 anticipates where the form and screwball genre would go in ensuing decades. While there appears to be nothing screwball in his paintings, which hang in many galleries and museums today (including the Whitney), Mager certainly had a flair for the artful expression of exaggeration in his comic strips.

Gus Mager, circa 1905-1910

In his cartooning career, Mager created well over 30 individual series, mostly dailies (see the Illustrated Gus Mager Comicography below). Many of these creations were spawned between 1904 and 1913, sometimes only running for a few days or weeks before being discarded. In several cases, there is overlap between his various series. This speaks both to the more casual, freewheeling attitude newspaper editors and cartoonists had in the early days and to the ambitious Mager's quest to find a subject that would strike a chord with the public. As we'll see in this and the next article, Mager's early work has a satirical edge to it that reminds me of Roald Dahl's stories for kids, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. For readers of 1905, who delighted in the slapstick antics of the Katzenjammer Kids, Mager's early satirical bent may have been a bit too droll -- which could also explain his numerous short-lived series. It's difficult to really know exactly why Mager had so many brief series in his first eight years as a professional cartoonist.

More likely, however, it simply took Mager a while to settle down. His restless early career was not uncommon. The form of comics allows for a great deal of experimentation and development of ideas -- and in the 1900s, the business of comics also allowed for this.

Gus Mager was born in 1878 to German immigrant parents in New Jersey, and grew up enjoying the cartoons of Wilhelm Busch and Karl Arnold. Thus inspired, he sold cartoons to American magazines in his teenage years. At some point in his mid-20s, Mager landed a position as staff cartoonist at the Hearst-owned New York American and New York Journal. These papers provided spot cartoons, art and comics to the other Hearst papers around the country.

Members of the Hearst stable of New York cartoonists, 1904.  T.S. Sullivant is on the far left.

Mager's first comic strip work appears to start in April, 1904. From the start, he seemed inclined to draw charming hippos and monkeys, possibly influenced by the work of fellow staffer T.S. Sullivant whose humorous animal cartoons were highly regarded then and now:

T.S. Sullivant's version of hippos and monks

But where old-school renderers like Sullivant put the emphasis on detailed funny drawings, Mager seemed to understand the need for a different kind of visual approach in sequential comics. His clothes-wearing animals are simpler, but no less charming. One of his first strips was called, alternatively, Jungle Land, The Jungle Society, and In Jungle Society. It began as a series of separate panels with typeset captions and featured animals in their au natural state.

October 15, 1904

The cocky mouse character in this next example reminds me of something we'd see in 1930s and 40s animated cartoons and comic books:

October 8, 1904

At some point, Mager's Jungle comic morphed into a sequential strip. The animals began to wear clothes, Mager's drawing style became more refined, and his humor became more slapstick. In the example below, Mager cleverly plays with the central panel border as a separating wall between two rooms. Four years later, in 1910, George Herriman would build an entire strip around this concept, called The Family Upstairs. Mager's early comics are filled with this sort of playful innovation and experimentation.

May 27, 1906  

In a circa 1920 issue of Cartoons magazine (in which his name is misspelled as "Gus Mayer"), Mager's early career development is discussed:

"Gus Mayer (sic), the author of the famous "Monk" series, always did like to draw animals. Hippos and monkeys were his favorites, and in order to indulge his hobby to the fullest extent he gave up a position as a jewelry designer, and went to the New York American where they allowed him to make animals by the yard. Finally somebody suggested that he take the little monkey which appeared usually in the corner of his weekly "jungle" page and develop him into a full-fledged comic character. So Mayer (sic) dressed up the little beast, clipped his tail, and introduced him to polite society as "Knocko the Monk," a gentle satire on those individuals who are always taking the joy out of life."
- From Comikers and Their Characters by William P. Langreich (Cartoons Magazine, 1915)
In addition to spelling Mager's name wrong, the article's description of how Mager's second early weekday series, the "Monks" came about is also erroneous, for Mager started both his Jungle comic and the Monks series in April, 1904. Here's an early Knocko the Monk that mentions Teddy Roosevelt:

August 13, 1904 - dropout lines indicate a second color the microfilming process did not pick up

These strips appeared three or four times a week, usually on weekdays. Sometimes Mager drew two tiers, approaching the half page Sunday format.

September 3, 1904

The Cartoons article goes on to explain:

"Knocko had his day and was succeeded by 'Grafto the Monk,' a sort of a simian panhandler. 'Rhymo' then gave Mayer (sic) a chance to inflict some of his 'made in Newark' poetry upon his readers. Finally came 'Sherlocko the Monk,' a creature endowed with the uncanny instincts of Sire Arthur Conan Doyle's world famous character."- From Comikers and Their Characters by William P. Langreich (Cartoons Magazine, 1915) 

Left to Right: George Overbury 'Pop" Hart, Walt Kuhn, Gus Mager on banjo. Kuhn was
also an early cartoonist with an original flair who became a famous
painter -- and is also known for organizing the seminal 1913 New York Armory
Art Show -- which included paintings by Mager, Kuhn, Rudolph Dirks
(The Katzenjammer Kids), and cartoonist T.E. Powers.
Once again, the author of this piece has his facts wrong, but still captures the basic gist of Mager's career. There were numerous Monks from 1904-1911 before Mager devoted the strip to the adventures of Sherlocko (all of which were reprinted in a recommended book in the Hyperion Classic Comics series by Bill Blackbeard). Mager's Sherlock Holmes satires, which are among the very first of hundreds that followed, deserve a future article on their own. Eventually, Mager humanized Sherlocko, and then created a new Sunday version, Hawkshaw the Detective ("hawkshaw" is slang for detective), which ran for four decades. It's a testament to Mager's uniqueness that his weekday strip had no continuity, where his Sunday Hawkshaws were long-running, shaggy dog continuities -- the reverse of the usual approach by comic strippers. Here's a special Monk strip that features many of the characters:

1910: Some of the Monks shown here include, left to right, Groucho, Nervo, and Knocko (on tuba).
The Monk names ending in O created an early cartoon-inspired fad, similar to Rube Goldberg's 1909 Foolish Questions series (see my article here). Some writers speculate Mager was inspired by Latinate Italian in his naming scheme, but I suspect that he was combining his two favorite, trademark animals: the hippo and the monk. It's also of interest that, in his autobiography, Harpo Marx clearly states the comedy team of The Marx Brothers derived their names from Mager's comic strip - a clear example of screwball lineage, if there ever was one! Note also that the Marx Brothers named an early vaudeville show and a movie "Cocoanuts, " a further connection with the popular comic strip.

The bulk of Mager's 30-odd cartoon series were single tier weekday strips, but he did produce three short-lived Sunday funnies 1904-1906 -- each one so filled with humor and style that they beg to be re-discovered an appreciated.

In September 11, 1904, Mager created the half-page Sunday feature called And Then Papa Came, his first run at a Sunday feature.

September 11, 1904: The first of  only sixepisodes
The basic idea of the strip is simple, but effective. A girl's suitor hides when poppa comes, and chaos ensues when poppa comically discovers the suitor, usually in a hilariously painful way, and goes bananas. The last panel in the above strip is very close to the trademark plop take (or back-flip) of the screwball comics of the 1920s and 30s.

October 9, 1904
Mager's drawings are richly comical, with a clarity of composition and line that clearly communicate the gag. In the strip above, we see Mager experimenting with repetition on the background. The six circles of the moons in squares of black are a stabilizing visual element that is both decorative and has a story function (to tell us it's a bright moonlit night). Similarly, the next week's episode -- sadly, the last in the all-too-brief series -- uses small white circles in the color field of the tree. There are fewer and fewer white circles, representing oranges, as we work through the panel -- a beautiful device in its simplicity that anticipates the comics of Otto Soglow (The Little King).

October 18, 1904

The character designs of the monkeys are compellingly ugly and funny. Mager has developed his craft in both  funny animals and in comic strips. As with Frederick Opper and James Swinnerton, Mager has created a six panel sequence where the chaos explodes in the fifth panel, followed by a denouement in the sixth panel. From week-to-week, the series grows funnier as we learn to expect the final scene of the suitor scampering towards the horizon. Mager's staging in the final panel, where we see the characters from the back and from a distance, encourages us to step back and laugh, similar to the way Carl Barks sometimes ended his 10-page Donald Duck stories in the 1940s and 50s. Sadly, the series ended after just six episodes, and Mager's work was not seen in the Sunday pages for two years.

On September 30, 1906, What Little Johnny Wanted, a true forgotten gem of comics first appeared, and lasted for only five episodes. The comic was a sharp, satirical reversal of warm and fuzzy kids fantasy adventures, and represented a far more refined and sophisticated accomplishment.

September 30, 1906 - Note the title, which was refined in later episodes
(From the collection of Paul Tumey)
NEXT TIME, in Part Two of this article, we'll look at more examples of What Little Johnny Wanted, and Mager's other lost Sunday, The Troubles of Pete the Pedlar, with a plethora of large paper scans from my collection!

All the Best,

An Illustrated Gus Mager Comicography
Most of this information comes from American Newspaper Comics: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide by Allan Holtz 

Sunday Halves and Full Pages
And Then Papa Came (9/11/04 to 10/18/04)
What Little Johnny Wanted (9/30/06 to 10/28/06)
Troubles of Pete the Pedlar (11/11/06 to 12/16/06)
Hawkshaw the Detective (1913 to 1947, with some breaks)
Main Street (10/15/22 to 10/7/23)

Weekday Panels and Strips

Jungle Land/ The Jungle Society/ In Jungle Society (4/14/04 to 2/27/06)

Oct 15, 1904: In the first strips, Mager drew
a series of panels with typset captions and
no speech balloons. Each panel was a separate gag.
This strip may be a jam with his friend and colleague at
The Evening Journal, Paul Bransom,
who possibly drew the snail, man, and grasshopper.
(from microfilm)
May 27 1906: At some point Mager shifted into drawing a sequential
version of this strip, with speech balloons. In this one, we are treated to a Mager alligator.
(from microfilm)

[Various names such as Knocko, Braggo, Coldfeeto, etc.] the Monk (4/22/04-3/613)

July 2, 1904: Mager's first Monk was Knocko, who knocked everything down a peg.
Satisfyingly, Knocko always got knocked himself in the last panel.
(from microfilm)

January 9, 1911: Original art to a very funny episode of  Sherlocko the Monk daily.
Mager's parody was so popular that it's speculated Arthur Conan Doyle
threatened lawsuit and William Randolph Hearst hired him away
to create a carbon copy strip, called Hawkshaw the Detective.

Foxy Reynard (12/6/04 to 12/9/04)
Trouble Bruin (12/16/04 to 12/19/04)

If Swinnerton's bears were a big hit, why not give a new bear strip a go?
Mager did --  for exactly three days! Good title, though.
(from microfilm)

It's Too Bad that Willie Stammers (1/20/05 - 1/28/05)

February 4, 1905 - this strip barely lasted long enough for Willie
to get a complete sentence out. (from microfilm)

Everyday Dreams (3/2/05 to 5/29/05)
Cecil in Search of a Job (7/29/05 to 9/27/05)
Oily John the Detective (9/20/05 to 10/10/05)
Louis and Franz (12/23/05 to 1/23/06)
January 21, 1906: Let's mix Swinnerton's bears with Opper's mule!
(from microfilm)
Maybe You Don't Believe It (6/24/07 to 8/14/07)
The Nerve of Some People (1/15/08 to 1/18/08)
What Little Sammy Knows (1/28/08 to 2/4/08)
The Merry Widower (4/20/08 to 5/29/08)
May 31, 1908 (from microfilm)
Dogs is Dogs (1/23/09 to 3/3/09)
A Misfit Fable (2/24/09 to 3/19/09)
Ain't It? (3/2/09 to 3/1/09)
And Not Only That (3/16/09 to 5/3/10)
O. Heeza Boob (9/21/12 to 1/3/13)
Millionbucks (1/18/13 to 6/3/13)

Millionbucks (Sometimes called Millionbucks and  Kandykiddo)

Obliging Otto (6/21/13 to 8/2/13)
Time-Table Tompkins (12/17/13 to 1/6/14)
Trewtulyfe Family (1923-24)

The Trewtulyfe Family by Gus Mager  - October 2, 1923

The Trewtulyfe Family by Gus Mager  - October 3, 1923

Radio the Monk (1/2/24 to 3/29/24)
Sherlocko (1925)
Fifty-Fifty Family (1925, dates unknown)
Oliver's Adventures (1926-34)