Cigars and the Comics

| By Neil A. Grauer | From Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

P. Martin Shoemaker, a bird of indeterminate species but impeccable taste, puffs on his cigar while typing his newspaper column, "The Cigar Corner Sewer."

"To fully appreciate fine cigars, it's important to recognize the various types of cigars," writes Shoe, who edits the Treetops Tattler. "There are two basic categories of cigar," he advises his readers. "The lit and the unlit."

"Shoe," published in more than 800 papers nationwide, represents more than just the cigar-smoking philosophy of the artist who created it, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Jeff MacNelly. By savoring cigars, both Shoe and MacNelly carry on a tradition as old as comic strips themselves, which are celebrating their centennial this year. Many of the founding fathers of this uniquely American art form smoked cigars -- as did their cartoon characters.

A mirror of American culture and a profound influence upon it, comic strips have always reflected and affected the way we see ourselves. The characters in them have chronicled our society in times of peace and served as morale-boosters and mascots in times of war. Comics have even shaped the way we speak. Comic-strip artists have been unsurpassed as "diligent coiners of neologisms," opined H.L. Mencken in The American Language. "Their influence upon the general American vocabulary must be very potent," wrote the Baltimore Sage, perhaps while puffing on an Uncle Willie.

"Jeep," "goon," "boloney," "bam," "zowie," "plop," "wow," "wham," "heebie-jeebies," "horse feathers," "hotsy-totsy," "23-skidoo," "drugstore cowboy," "cat's meow," "security blanket," even "hot dog"--all are words or expressions that originated in the comics.

Cartoon characters have become stars of Broadway musicals, motion pictures, radio programs and television shows; they've been featured on every imaginable kind of merchandise. "There is a warmness and affinity for comic-strip characters that you don't see in any other medium," says Lee Salem, vice president and editorial director of the Universal Press Syndicate, which distributes "Doonesbury," among other strips.

As an especially potent symbol frequently employed by comic-strip artists, the cigar has served as an emblem of the plutocrat, politician or boss, all ripe for ridicule, and as the comfort of the common man. The cartoon cigar conveys confidence and cockiness; mischief and majesty. "The cigar suggests to me a kind of worldly gruffness," says MacNelly, "so that's why I installed one in Shoe's beak."

When MacNelly, 47, wants to look worldly and gruff, he tends to favor Ashton Churchills. "The best thing about smoking a cigar is that I find it to be a very effective [form of] crowd control. No one bothers me in my studio while I'm smoking cigars."

An impressive roster can be compiled of cigar-fancying comic-strip artists whose drawing boards were enveloped in smoke long before MacNelly's. Some of them are among the most influential figures in the history of the medium, including Thomas A. Dorgan, or "Tad," coiner of more popular words and expressions than anyone else; Rube Goldberg, creator of preposterously complicated inventions for performing eminently simple feats; and Walt Kelly, whose deft adaptation of Captain Oliver Hazard Perry's famous victory message from the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie ("We have met the enemy and they are ours") became a slogan for the 1970s and beyond: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

An equally impressive list can be assembled of cigar-smoking comic-strip characters who preceded Shoe, giving his fondness for a smoke a distinct pedigree, even if his avian ancestry is obscure.

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.

The sports pages of the San Francisco papers were also the professional spawning ground of two cigar-smoking cartoonists whose impact on our language was more far-reaching and profound than Fisher's: Thomas Aloysius Dorgan, who signed his drawings "Tad," and Rube Goldberg.

Dorgan was born in San Francisco in 1877 and joined the art staff of the old San Francisco Bulletin at 14. By 1902 he was the top sports cartoonist for the New York Journal, as well as an incisive reporter and sportswriter--"the greatest authority on boxing," in the opinion of Jack Dempsey, no less. Dorgan also was an immensely prolific coiner of slang expressions. "More than any other newspaper man..., he influenced the speech of millions of Americans," the New York Herald Tribune said shortly after Dorgan's death in 1929.

Among the words and expressions Dorgan is generally credited with either creating or popularizing are "dumbbell" (a stupid person); "for crying out loud" (an exclamation of astonishment); "cat's meow" and "cat's pajamas" (as superlatives); "applesauce" (nonsense); "cheaters" (eyeglasses); "skimmer" (a hat); "hard-boiled" (a tough person); "drugstore cowboy" (loafers or ladies' men); "nickel-nurser" (a miser); "as busy as a one-armed paperhanger" (overworked); and "Yes, we have no bananas," which was turned into a popular song. In 1933, W.J. Funk of the Funk and Wagnalls dictionary company placed Dorgan at the top of the list of the 10 "most fecund makers of American slang"; Mencken credited Dorgan with designating a sausage in a bun as a "hot dog."

Dorgan was in the Polo Grounds press box one chilly spring day in the early 1900s while hawkers from the Harry M. Stevens Company peddled steaming sausages to baseball fans by calling out, "Get your red hots here! Get 'em while they're hot!" New Yorkers back then frequently called such sausages "dachshunds," perhaps because they resembled those little German canines--or to suggest slyly that this inexpensive comestible contained dog meat. Dorgan wanted to draw a cartoon about the snack, but didn't know how to spell "dachshund." So he depicted little four-legged sausages running around and labeled them "hot dogs."

Goldberg, also a native San Franciscan, was born in 1883 and added not only expressions to the language but his own name as a synonym for an extraordinarily complicated contraption devised to perform an extremely simple task.

Although he graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1904 with a degree as a mining engineer, Goldberg never really wanted to do anything but draw cartoons while smoking cigars. "He smoked Cuban cigars, mostly Partagas," recalls Goldberg's son, George W. George, 75, a movie and theatrical producer whose credits include the film My Dinner with Andre and Dylan, a Broadway play about Dylan Thomas that starred Sir Alec Guinness.

"He loved cigars, and he knew a great deal about them. I took up cigar-smoking myself simply because my father smoked them. I love cigars, too, but only smoke about two a month--when I'm feeling expansive, usually after dinner. I like Partagas or Macanudo. I don't think Cuban cigars are as good as they used to be--but nothing is as good as it used to be, which is a common observation of anyone over 65," George says with a chuckle.

Rube Goldberg joined the San Francisco Chronicle's art department in 1904 as an $8-a-week office boy. Soon he was contributing cartoons to the sports page. He became Tad Dorgan's successor at the rival Bulletin and soon thereafter followed Dorgan to New York and got a job on the Evening Mail.

Goldberg branched out from the sports department, producing an immensely popular, long-running series called "Foolish Questions." (A battered man stands beside a demolished car. "Have an accident?" he is asked. "No thanks; just had one," he replies.) Goldberg also began to put his engineering education to work, creating the first of the extravagant, nonsensical "inventions" that would make his name a byword for technology run amuck. By 1918 he was earning $1,000 a week and had begun syndicating his most famous comic strip, "Boob McNutt," starring a gentle, unassuming figure in polka-dotted pants who was constantly embroiled in exotic adventures.

Many of Goldberg's comic strips were polished off with a small box containing an unrelated wisecrack--the cartoonists' equivalent of a stand-up comic's snare-drum rimshot. It was for these little kickers that Goldberg popularized the slang word "boloney" (now more commonly spelled "baloney") to punctuate the punchline. Goldberg recalled that the first time he heard the expression was during the 1920 World Series between the Cleveland Indians and the Brooklyn Dodgers. An acquaintance scoffed at a theatrical extravaganza they had just seen by dismissing it as "just a lot of boloney."

"Such a descriptive phrase for such an event!" Goldberg wrote nearly a half-century later. After he had begun using the "that's a lot of boloney" tag line about six years later, it caught on because it satisfied Americans' "favorite hobby of branding anything a fake."

The scope of Goldberg's seven-decade career was remarkable. In addition to comic strips, sports cartoons, single-panel gags and sculpture, he was an editorial cartoonist for the New York Sun and the Journal-American, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1948. He knew, however, that he would be remembered most for his inventions, the products he credited to the fevered imagination of Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, his cartoon alter ego.

Lexicographers recognized Goldberg's impact. Webster's Third International Dictionary lists "Rube Goldberg" as an adjective, defining it as "accomplishing by extremely roundabout means what actually or seemingly could be done simply." When Goldberg died in 1970 at the age of 87, The New York Times editorialized: "Long before 'Parkinson's Law' and 'The Peter Principle' and 'Up the Organization' codified the notion that there are two ways to do things--the simple way and the way they actually are done--Rube Goldberg was telling Americans to watch out or the machines and technocrats would overwhelm us."

In the early years of Goldberg's career, comic strips mostly were confined to the Sunday papers. That changed on January 12, 1912, when William Randolph Hearst--in many ways the greatest promoter comic strips ever had--introduced the nation's first full daily comics page in his New York Journal. The following year, George McManus began "Bringing Up Father," the slapstick saga of Jiggs, a cigar-smoking bricklayer suddenly enriched by the Irish Sweepstakes, and his social-climbing wife, Maggie. Jiggs' fireplug physique, red nose and ever-present cigar echoed those of McManus.

By the time Jiggs began smoking his cigars and dodging Maggie's rolling pin, the comics already had passed through their initial phase of experimentation. Chroniclers of the comics have discerned distinct phases in the medium's evolution, with that first period highlighting fantasy ("Little Nemo") and stressing the comics' appeal to kids--even though in reality, most comics have always been aimed at adults (they're the ones who buy the papers). Jiggs and Maggie epitomized domestic comedy; by the 1920s, with that decade's post-World War I semi-liberation of women and the initial stirrings of suburbanization, working-woman strips ("Tillie the Toiler") and husband-and-wife, suburban-life strips emerged as popular themes. "Blondie," which made its debut in 1930, remains one of the most popular strips in the world.

By the mid-1920s, the comics had acquired enough clout to merit serious critical scrutiny. Gilbert Seldes' 1924 book, The Seven Lively Arts, contained several chapters on the comics. "Of all the lively arts, the comic strip is the most despised, and with the exception of the movies it is the most popular," Seldes wrote. "I am sure that a history of manners in the United States could be composed with the comic strip as its golden thread."

In the 1930s, the comics entered a new phase with the advent of adventure strips that told a continuing story--"Dick Tracy," "Buzz Sawyer," "Orphan Annie"--and their science fiction counterparts, "Buck Rogers" and "Flash Gordon." By the 1950s, perhaps due to the baby boom, television and the accelerated pace of life, gag-a-day strips once more became the most popular, with children, such as the "Peanuts" crew, the key characters. Satire and social commentary, never absent from the comics (Daddy Warbucks was always fulminating against the New Deal), resurfaced powerfully during the late 1940s and early 1950s with Al Capp's "L'il Abner" and Walt Kelly's "Pogo."

Kelly, born in Philadelphia in 1913 and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut, first went to work as a reporter and part-time artist for the Bridgeport Post. After stints as an animator for Walt Disney and a civilian illustrator of U.S. Army foreign-language handbooks during World War II, Kelly joined the New York Star in 1948 as its art editor. There he produced the first strips featuring Pogo, who won instant, lasting acclaim. Kelly soon was drawing "Pogo" for hundreds of papers and a readership estimated to be 37 million. By 1952, Pogo, a gentle, dewy-eyed opossum surrounded by an outrageous cast of "nature's screetures," as Kelly called them, had a fanatic following. Pogo for President Clubs sprouted on college campuses, and a rally at Harvard organized to promote his mock campaign led to a four-hour riot. Pogo's campaign buttons, echoing those of Dwight D. "I Like Ike" Eisenhower, said "I Go Pogo."

Kelly, who had briefly been an editorial cartoonist, filled Pogo with sly, subtle digs at the 1950s Red-baiting witch-hunts, the fatuity of Communism and the pomposity of "congersmen," whom he often depicted as tiny, cigar-smoking frogs. When Senator Joseph R. McCarthy was at the height of his power as a self-proclaimed Communist-hunter, Kelly had a McCarthy-lookalike bobcat named Simple J. Malarkey emerge in Pogo's Okefenokee Swamp and browbeat its innocent inhabitants. When the portly Nikita S. Khrushchev was the Soviet Union's dictator, Kelly depicted the invasion of the swamp by a Khrushchev-like pig, dressed in pirate garb. Albert the Alligator, chewing furiously on his cigar, frightened the pig away. In 1954, Kelly was the first comic strip artist invited by the Library of Congress to contribute original drawings to its collection.

Kelly, like Goldberg, was partial to Cuban cigars, recalls Steve Kelly, 43, one of the cartoonist's six children. "He used his cigar boxes for storing art supplies, and I've kept a few. One's for the La Corona Queens of Alvarez Lopez and Company. I think he also smoked Romeo y Julietas."

The younger Kelly recalls that his father's cigars were "fairly omnipresent" around the house, and one of his childhood chores was to clean out his father's ashtrays. "He put a sort of signature chaw on his cigars. I wish I'd kept a few and had them bronzed." Kelly says his father and Rube Goldberg were known to exchange banter at cartoonist conventions. "They wielded their genius like they wielded their cigars."

After Walt Kelly's death in 1973, Pogo, Albert and their confréres slowly faded into comics' history, although their legacy endures. Kelly has been cited as an inspiration by such present-day cartoonists as MacNelly, Garry Trudeau of "Doonesbury" and Berke Breathed of "Bloom County" and "Outland," all of whom have made topicality the hallmark of their work; as well as Bill Watterson of "Calvin and Hobbes," whose superb draftsmanship and keen eye for fantasy have made his strip the most remarkable new addition to the comics in years.

Both Trudeau and Watterson have complained bitterly that comic strips are treated shabbily by newspapers today, mostly mined by syndicates as merchandising opportunities, and are stagnating as a medium. Comics have been reduced in size, and many strips that began decades--even generations--ago still fill space that might feature more contemporary comics. Some critics call these venerable strips the "living dead," relics that persist on the comics page long after their creators went to their Creator.

Watterson, a very private person who refuses to speak to the press or even allow his photograph to be published, gave a speech at Ohio State University in 1989, lamenting and lambasting the medium that has made him fabulously wealthy. (A comic strip that appears in as many papers as "Calvin and Hobbes," an estimated 2,300 worldwide, earns a cartoonist about $500,000 a year in newspaper revenues alone; according to Forbes, Charles M. Shultz's "Peanuts," which appears in some 2,400 papers and is widely merchandised, earns Shultz nearly $20 million a year.)

Why, Watterson asked, are so many comic strips today "poorly drawn? Why do so many offer only the simplest interchangeble gags and puns? Why are some strips stumbling around decades after their creators have retired or died? Why are some strips little more than advertisements for dolls and greeting cards?"

And why, he might have asked, are cigar-smoking cartoon characters now so scarce? Apart from Shoe and the eternal Jiggs, cigar-smokers such as Pogo's pal Albert seem largely to have disappeared. "There's no smoking in strips anymore," says a slightly exaggerating editor at King Features Syndicate who preferred anonymity. "If you appear in the mass media, you must be politically correct--and that affects comic strips, too."

Of course, comic-strip figures are occasionally seen puffing away, but regular cigar-smoking appears to be associated most frequently these days with another category of characters to which cigars, alas, have ever been linked: the villains. J. Jonah Jameson, the nemesis of Spider-Man and odious editor of The Daily Bugle, is always chomping on a cigar; and the revived, completely revised "Terry and the Pirates," just launched by the Tribune Media Services syndicate, features a loathsome, 300-pound character named Papa Python, who is "very much a cigar-smoker," observes editor Mark Mathes. Tribune Media also distributes "Shoe," and Mathes reports never having received a complaint about his cigars. "Smoking a cigar is still permissible in the comics," Mathes says.

While that may be true, in all of the top 10 comic strips today--"Peanuts," "Garfield," "Calvin and Hobbes," "Blondie," "Hagar the Horrible," "Beetle Bailey," "For Better or Worse," "Doonesbury," "Andy Capp" and "The Family Circus"--nary a cigar-smoking character can be found. Now they primarily reside in museums and university repositories devoted exclusively to cartoon art.

The International Museum of Cartoon Art broke ground in Boca Raton, Florida, last December for a new, multi-million dollar complex to house its collection of 130,000 original pieces of cartoon art. Building it has been the personal crusade of many top comic strip artists, led by Mort Walker, creator of "Beetle Bailey" and "Hi and Lois." A new National Gallery of Caricature and Cartoon Art opened last month in Washington, D.C., right across the street from The National Press Club. The core of its collection will be the astounding private trove of more than 40,000 pieces of rare, original cartoon art amassed over the past half-century by Art Wood, a Washington-area resident and one-time political cartoonist for The Washington Star and other papers. The Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco has been in operation for years, and The Ohio State University Cartoon, Graphic and Photographic Arts Research Library owns more than 200,000 pieces of cartoon art, which it loans out to museums periodically.

Despite the criticisms of Trudeau and Watterson, and contrary to the grumpiness of Breathed, who quit drawing his strip this spring and branded comics an artistic medium "in decline," comic strips remain among the most popular features in the press.

"Comics are one of the top two or three elements of any newspaper," says Lee Salem of Universal Press Syndicate. "People look at the front page, sports, the classified ads and the comics." Comic strips are known to have their fans in places high as well as humble. In 1988, Ronald Reagan's spokesman, Larry Speakes, said that the President faithfully read every strip in The Washington Post--a task that took eight minutes a day. Garry Trudeau said he was "reassured" to know that "the leader of the free world has spent a total of 14 days, 16 hours and 48 minutes of his presidency reading the comics."

The kind of controversy that Trudeau's "Doonesbury" can spark has been common since the beginning of comic strips. Early in this century, clergy and educators denounced the comics as "vulgar"; today, the story line in "Doonesbury," "For Better or Worse" or "Cathy" can prompt temporary cancellation and reader mail, pro or con.

Jeff MacNelly dismisses as premature any talk of the death of the comics. "I don't think comics are a dying art. I think it's evolving. I'm experimenting with all sorts of things, like computers. There will always be comic strips, not only in newspapers but in other formats. As long as you can create interesting characters and tell good stories, there will be a market for comics."

Perhaps the current revival in cigar-smoking will find itself reflected in today's comics, just as other trends still are turning up in the funny papers. That would suit Jeff MacNelly's Shoe just fine. Then he would have a larger audience for his column, "The Cigar Corner Sewer," to which a reader recently wrote: "Dear Mr. Shoemaker: I'd like to enjoy cigar smoking on a regular basis but I find that they burn my tongue. What can I do?"

Shoe replied: "Next time try putting the other end in your mouth."

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist and the author of Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber (University of Nebraska Press).