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!
|(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
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."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:
- From Comikers and Their Characters by William P. Langreich (Cartoons Magazine, 1915)
|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)
|1910: Some of the Monks shown here include, left to right, Groucho, Nervo, and Knocko (on tuba).
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
|October 9, 1904
|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)
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)
|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.
[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.
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.
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!
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)
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)
Fifty-Fifty Family (1925, dates unknown)
Oliver's Adventures (1926-34)