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Cigars and the Comics

Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

(continued from page 1)

Cigars have jutted from the jaws of comic-strip characters going all the way back to Der Captain, the bane and butt of Hans and Fritz, "The Katzenjammer Kids," a strip first published in 1897 and still in circulation. Just a brief roll call of subsequent cigar-smoking cartoon figures would include Flip, the pugnacious companion of Little Nemo on fantastic, nightmarish journeys through Slumberland (sporadically from 1905 to 1927); Mutt, the lanky racetrack habitué who teamed with the diminutive Jeff for one of the comics' longest runs (1907-1982); Jiggs, henpecked by Maggie since 1913; Barney Google; Moon Mullins; Dagwood Bumstead's boss, Mr. Dithers; Daddy Warbucks, Orphan Annie's protector; Major Hoople, the pooh-bah of "Our Boarding House"; Mr. O'Malley, who used his cigar as a magic wand while being fairy godfather to the precocious Barnaby; Marryin' Sam, justice of the peace in "Li'l Abner's" Dogpatch; Brenda Starr's oval-eyed editor, Mr. Livwright; Dick Tracy's partner Sam Catchem; Smokey Stover, the firefighter whose residence was adorned with framed signs saying "Notary Sojac"; and Albert the Alligator, the Okefenokee Swamp sidekick to the lovable opossum, "Pogo." And even though Popeye preferred a corncob pipe, as did his creator, when E.C. Segar signed his drawings of the spinach-eating sailor, he did so with

To commemorate the comics' impact on our society, the United States Postal Service this October will issue a series of 20 stamps honoring some of the greatest comic-strip characters of all time. The designation of 1995 as the centennial of the comic-strip is a pleasant contrivance, based upon myth, not fact; but the slightly shaky historiography behind the comic-strip-centenary series should find few critics. If, as has been said, history is simply a lie agreed upon, then 1895 is accepted as the birthdate of the comic strip--even by those who know it isn't so.

The birthday boy whose centenary is deemed the same as that of the comic strip is the Yellow Kid. Created by Richard F. Outcault in 1895, "The Yellow Kid" wasn't a comic strip but a large weekly drawing full of the horrific shenanigans "down in Hogan's Alley," the Kid's slum environment. And neither the Kid--a bald, jug-eared lad in a nightshirt--nor his companions in mayhem conveyed what they had to say in balloons of dialogue, a later innovation in the comics. The Kid's observations were printed on his often-smeared smock, and the comments of his friends sort of floated in midair. The Kid was, however, the first commercially successful newspaper cartoon character.

The Yellow Kid's initial appearance on May 5, 1895, sparked what historian Stephen Becker has aptly described as "that first, gentle wave of mass hysteria which accompanies the birth of popular art forms."

As comics scholar Rick Marschall and others have documented, cartoonists in Chicago and San Francisco created comic strip-like cartoons and characters at least a year before Outcault drew "The Yellow Kid." The feat of these figures could be likened to that of the Vikings who got to North America before Columbus: It was a historic event of no subsequent importance. "The Yellow Kid," as Marschall has written, is what "truly turned the newspaper world upside down," making color Sunday comics sections a must for almost every paper. Since newspapers had only recently acquired the ability to print colored drawings, "The Yellow Kid" showcased what then passed for the latest in high-tech graphics. Hearst ballyhooed his extravagantly colored weekly comics section as "eight pages of polychromatic effulgence that makes the rainbow look like a lead pipe."

Setting a pattern that persists to this day, "The Yellow Kid" reflected societal developments uppermost in the minds of newspaper readers. In the Kid's case, it was the urban environment of the poor--specifically, the impoverished Irish. Although the Kid looked vaguely Asian, he was in fact a Hibernian named Mickey Dugan.

"Comics have always had immediacy," observes Cullen Murphy, managing editor of The Atlantic Monthly and for nearly 20 years the man behind the plots and dialogue of "Prince Valiant," which is drawn by his father, John Cullen Murphy, an acclaimed combat artist during World War II and occasional cigar-smoker.

"When you think how long it takes to mount other forms of entertainment--a play, a film--comics frequently could be the first to comment on what was going on. In a way, they have been the first-line barometers of the times. You see it carried to a fare-thee-well today in a strip like 'Doonesbury.' But in a time before anyone thought of social history, the comics were doing social history, sort of inadvertently. In the early comics, the resonance of what was going on is so strong--just look at 'The Katzenjammer Kids,' for example, with the whole immigrant experience," says Murphy.

Indeed, Rudolph Dirks, the young German-born cartoonist who created "The Katzenjammer Kids," produced a strip that resembled a classic German cartoon picture book--Max und Moritz by Wilhelm Busch--and filled it with German dialect-speaking characters and raucous jokes. European immigrants were then a major bloc of the American urban population, and many of them learned English by scanning the newspapers. It made sense to have cartoons that would attract them, as well as other readers. Hans and Fritz did that in droves.

So popular were the Sunday comics sections that daily comic strips soon appeared. The first was drawn by Harry Conway "Bud" Fisher, a self-assured, cigar-smoking Chicagoan who was doing sports cartoons for the San Francisco Chronicle when he decided to draw a daily strip about Augustus Mutt, a woebegone horse player. On November 15, 1907, Mutt, contentedly puffing on a cigar, began his forever fruitless quest for a killing at the racetrack. Within six months he had met top-hatted Jeff (short for Jeffries; in 1908, the upcoming James Jeffries-Jack Johnson prizefight was all over the sports pages). Together their names became a synonym for any pairing of the long and the short; their success prompted other daily comic strips to follow in their wake.

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