Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Roots of Screwball: The Lost 1904-1906 Sundays of Gus Mager (Part 3)

Directly on the heels of his sublime five Sundays of What Little Johnny Wanted, Gus Mager created another fascinating, short-lived Sunday comic strip, The Troubles of Pete the Pedlar, which only lasted for six weeks. After his brief foray into the violent fantasies of young Johnny, Mager shifted his focus onto western culture itself, presenting the disastrous adventures of a full grown, fussy American salesman attempting to peddle the wondrous goods of his civilized world to the African inhabitants of a less technological society.

When I read Mager's Pete the Pedlar, I see a comic strip version of Randy Newman's 1972 song, Sail Away. Each Pete Sunday begins with him arriving on an African shore, selling to the natives. In Newman's song, regarded among many as his best and a landmark of American culture, a slave trader arrives on an African shore and woos the natives:

In America you'll get food to eat  
Won't have to run through the jungle  
And scuff up your feet  
You'll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day 
It's great to be an American  
Ain't no lions or tigers-ain't no mamba snake 
Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake 
Ev'rybody is as happy as a man can be 
Climb aboard, little wog-sail away with me                   
                                     - Randy Newman (Sail Away)
Of course, everything the slave trader is saying to the natives is a lie. These lyrics are bathed in a beautiful, soaring score that belies the savage truth. Similarly, Mager's Pete appears to be a funny little screwball comic. Could Mager have been wryly commenting on the lies of consumerism in The Troubles of Pete the Pedlar? Note the name of Pete's company: Joblot and Bunkum (for those not in the know, "bunk" is slang for false information.) Even though the machinery and machine-made goods Pete sells are functional, the ritual of the sales pitch always devolves into chaos for him and his potential customers. A hippo eats a record player and chases Pete, with a song streaming from his open mouth -- this, to me, seems to inhabit a more poetic and beautifully surreal space than the pranks of the smirking Katzenjammer Kids, or the mischief of the eternally repentant Buster Brown.

The Troubles of Pete the Pedlar ran from November 11 to December 16 in 1906. In the first episode, Pete has rowed ashore from his big, two-masted ship, visible on the horizon. He is greeted by a grinning giraffe, a leering hippo, a curious ostrich, and jungle natives who are oblivious to both the process of a proper sales transaction and the intended use of the products Pete peddles. By the end of the first adventure, the drooling hippo (the spirit animal of the Consumer?) attempts to consume not Pete's wares, but the "pedlar" himself! Here's a paper scan from my collection:

The Troubles of Pete the Pedlar by Gus Mager, November 11, 1906
(Collection of Paul Tumey)
Mager has given us here a comic strip that appears to be like the usual half-page Sunday comedies of the period, but one which is actually more sophisticated in both content and execution. Here's the same page in color, from the archives of Ohio State University's Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum:

(Collection Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum)

I love the native in the background of panel 3, who has helped himself to Pete's boatload of paintings -- he appears to be quite the art lover!

It's also worth noting that, with Pete the Pedlar, Mager had designed yet another strip that allowed him to draw his beloved jungle animals, particularly hippos and monkeys. In an issue of Cartoons, William P. Langreich wrote of Mager: "Gus Mayer (sic), the author of the famous "Monk" series, always did like to draw animals. Hippos and monkeys were his favorites..." Given this, it's no surprise that the second Pete adventure features a howling hippo, with an operatic ostrich thrown in, for good measure.

The Troubles of Pete the Pedlar by Gus Mager, November 18, 1906
(Collection of Paul Tumey)

I love the look of surprise on the hippo's face when the music from the swallowed record player erupts from his mouth. By the last panel, he has begun to embrace the new development and lifts his head in song.

It goes without saying that the depiction of the tribal king in the strip above is less than flattering -- but then so is the caricature of the wimpy peddler. I don't actually see anything particularly racist in Mager's natives other than the use of the formulaic big-lipped, bug-eyed way of cartooning a black man that was popular for decades in American newspaper comics.  In fact, the so-called civilized white-skinned Pete appears to be pretty idiotic in comparison to the natives of these comics. In the strip above, the King, startled by a jack-in-the-box toy exercises his royal power on Pete with a lordly comment: "You WILL play tricks on me!"

That same week, Mager drew the topper vignette for Buster Brown, and indulged his love of hippos and monkeys. These Mager toppers have nothing to do with the content of Richard F. Outcault's Buster Brown comic which ran below them.

Gus Mager topper for Richard Outcault's Buster Brown - Nov. 18, 1906

In the third episode, Pete attempts to sell the natives a pre-fabricated house and discovers that selling involves very little lion around.

The Troubles of Pete the Pedlar by Gus Mager, November 25, 1906
(Collection of Paul Tumey)
In this period of American newspaper comics, the fifth panel of a six panel Sunday was almost always the climax of whatever comic chaos ensued, usually filled with explosions, falling objects, food and paint splatters, and all manner of disaster. In Mager's strip, he underplays the comic moment and the result is far funnier than the over-reaching slapstick of the day. The image of  Pete fleeing the lion inside the house is genuinely funny.

That same week, Mager drew a delightful Thanksgiving-themed vignette for Outcault's Buster Brown, featuring his jungle animals.

Gus Mager topper for Richard Outcault's Buster Brown - Nov. 25, 1906

It's not clar if Mager simply didn't create a Pete episode for the following week, or if the newspapers I've been using to fill the missing gaps in my collection didn't run Pete for the week of December 2. In any case, here is the extra large Buster Brown topper vignette Gus Mager drew that week, this time with a Christmas theme.
Gus Mager topper for Richard Outcault's Buster Brown - Dec.2, 1906
In the Pete episode of the following week, December 9, Pete attempts to sell stilts to diminutive pygmies. This seems like a good idea, but we know better...

The Troubles of Pete the Pedlar by Gus Mager, December 9, 1906
(Collection of Paul Tumey)
Graphically, the above strip is a perfect sequential deconstruction of cultural logic. We move from verticals of Pete's world in panel one to the skewed slants of the pygmies. The last two panels are exponentially funnier without sound effects or speech balloons. Mager's 1906 Sundays show, perhaps for the first time, what Minimalism looks like in screwball comic strip form.

On December 9, someone besides Mager drew the Buster Brown vignette, and so we move on to the last episode of Pete, in which he attempts to sell a folding bed to jungle natives and draws the interest of a famished feline:

The Troubles of Pete the Pedlar by Gus Mager, December 16, 1906

The last panel, with the flattened, two-dimensional tiger pre-figures the sort of visual gags around plastic forms that would become a staple of 1930s and 1940s animated cartoons -- Mager, in his 1906 Sundays, was thinking like an animated film director would, twenty years after Pete the Pedlar!

Even though his short run of Sunday funnies experiments ended on December 16, 1906, Mager continued to draw topper vignettes for Buster Brown. In these last examples, Mager begins to draw two sequential vignettes, offering a rudimentary comic strip, boiled down to it's most basic elements.  Here are the rest of Mager's Buster Brown topper (again, these have nothing to do with the content of the Buster Brown comics that ran below them):

Gus Mager topper for Richard Outcault's Buster Brown - Dec.23, 1906

Gus Mager topper for Richard Outcault's Buster Brown - Dec.30, 1906

Gus Mager topper for Richard Outcault's Buster Brown - January 6, 1907

Gus Mager topper for Richard Outcault's Buster Brown - January 13, 1907

Gus Mager topper for Richard Outcault's Buster Brown - January 20, 1907

Mager returned to Sunday comics, with Hawkshaw the Detective, about seven years after What Little Johnny Wanted and The Troubles of Pete the Pedlar. His new Sunday was a spin-off of his popular daily, Sherlocko the Monk. Since the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, vigorously defended the Sherlock Holmes copyright around 1913, Mager retreated from such a direct name and instead lifted from an obscure play in which a detective character is named "Hawkshaw." naturally, after some time, the word "hawkshaw" entered into popular American slang as a substitute word for "detective." Oddly, Mager's Sunday series offered a continuing story, while his dailies were one-shot gags. Here's an example of a Mager Sunday Hawkshaw, from the first year of the strip:

Hawkshaw the Detective by Gus Mager - August 24, 1913

Mager's Hawkshaw is good stuff, but it lacks the minimalist sensibility and sheer brilliance of his 1906 Sunday comics.

This concludes my 3-part monograph on Gus Mager's lost 1904-1906 Sundays. Despite the persistent comics archeology and the careful analysis offered in this monograph, two big questions related to this material remain: where did this stuff -- so unusual for the time -- come from, and why isn't the rest of Mager's subsequent output filled with similar sophistication?

In addition to having a long successful run with his Hawkshaw Sunday (1913-1947, with some short breaks), Mager carved out a career for himself as a noted painter and member of the New York art world. He was friends with Paul Bransom (who took over Gus Dirks' bug comic strip after he killed himself) and Walt Kuhn, who was also a cartoonist who enjoyed working with animal characters. In 1913, Kuhn organized the seminal art exhibit at the Armory in New York City. Today, this show is legendary for being a snapshot of American art at the time and for influencing a new generation of artists. Kuhn included in this exhibit paintings by a few of his cartoonist colleagues who also wielded a brush: Rudolph Dirks (The Katzemjammer Kids), T.E. Powers, and... Gus Mager. Mager had two paintings in the show, as shown in this scan from Kuhn's own copy of the program, now a part of the Archives of American Art.

Here's a self-portrait by Mager:

Gus Mager's life and work bears further scrutiny. In 1906, he was onto something and created a handful of comics that were artistic successes, generations ahead of their time. These comics embraced minimalism and other formal art elements to offer a simple but profound graphic style, anticipating the 1940s and 50s comics of Otto Soglow and the cartoons of the UPA Studio. The content of Mager's What Little Johnny Wanted exposed the true power fantasies of every young boy, anticipating Maurice Sendak's classic 1963 book Where the Wild Things Are and Bill Waterson's hit comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes (1985-1995). But Mager, like most American cartoonists of the early 20th century, was first and foremost a popular artist who reshaped his vision and style until he hit upon something that pleased the general public. In doing so, he left behind his bold 1904-1906 experiments in comics, which have since been consigned to the dustbins of history. Even so, much of his work before, during, and after the period of the "lost Sundays" bears the stamp of a quirky, gifted artist and is worth study. Perhaps, someday, we'll have enough information and examples of Gus Mager's work to be able to answer all the questions I've raised about this fascinating American artist.

That is all,
Screwball Paul

Gus Mager and canine friend - undated photo (circa 1910)

- All text copyright 2013 Paul Tumey. No portion of this text may be used without written permission from

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