Bill Hume and Babysan
Unknown and, Until Now, Unheralded
When Bill Hume died at 93 on June 27, 2009, the lead paragraph in the obit published in his hometown newspaper, the Columbia Daily Tribune, rolled out a list of his many talents—sculptor, artist, actor, playwright, magician, ventriloquist, author, clown, newspaper man, husband and father, photographer, animator, TV and film producer, corporate art director and cartoonist.
When I first came across Hume, all I knew was that he was a cartoonist who had drawn a book of cartoons about Babysan, a toothsome young Japanese woman who entertained U.S. occupation troops in the early 1950s. I’d found the book, a tidy 5x7-inch paperback, in a used book shop on Fifteenth Street in downtown Denver in 1954. The book was, then, not used. It was brand new, just published in May.
It would be a year before I first encountered Playboy (the August 1955 issue covered by a mermaid barely attired in strategically arranged seaweed)—just 18 months into its run—but my adolescent hormones were already sufficiently alert that I could scarcely ignore the cover of Hume’s book, which, under the title Babysan’s World: The Hume-n Slant on Japan, depicted one of the curvaceous gender with a Bettie Page hair-do, thrusting her chest out at two servicemen, each offering her a cigarette. She was fully clothed, reflecting the mores of the time, not yet battered into accepting vast stretches of naked female epidermis on the covers of general circulation books and magazines. But she was irresistibly cute, standing there, modestly attired in long-sleeved sweater and calf-length skirt.
Standing in the shop, I thumbed the book’s pages quickly and saw an unusual interior: every right-hand page was a cartoon, and on every facing page was illustrated text explaining some aspect of Japanese life, custom or lingo that seemed to have inspired the cartoon. The drawings displayed delectable brushwork—a supple, undulating line that waxed thick and waned thin, modeling volume with every stroke’s variation.
And Hume deployed an impressive array of techniques: he achieved tonal values sometimes with Zip-a-tone, sometimes with Craftint duotone (a chemically treated paper that could produce two tones of gray); some of the cartoons and many of the illustrations on the facing pages were drawn and delicately shaded with pencil. A bravura performance throughout the book’s 128 pages.
On the back cover was this (quoted here in italics):
Babysan’s back! This time she brings with her the artist who created not only her but also the other lovable gals and guys who helped make Babysan a real Far East bestseller. This Hume’n Slant on Japan explains a lot about Babysan and her world. ... This volume is really more than a hilarious cartoon book—though it’s that, too! It is an artist’s eye view of Japan and its everyday culture. ...
That’s all I knew about Bill Hume until several years ago when I acquired a second book of Hume’s Babysan cartoons—Babysan: A Private Look at the Japanese Occupation—which explained the character a little more.
In 1945, in the early days of the Occupation of Japan, it was a common sight to see American servicemen giving candy to some little boy or girl they encountered toddling along the street. Most of the Japanese kids were shy and this friendly gesture helped win the youngsters over to the side of the Americans. As the years passed, those kids, naturally, grew up. The little boy grew up to be a boy-san, and the little girl grew up to be—like Babysan.
The name Babysan reveals the blend of cultures that distinguishes the cartoons. "San" may be assumed to mean "mister," "missus," "master," or "miss." "Babysan," then, can be translated to mean "Miss Baby," an expression that combines the Japanese compulsion for politeness with the American GI's passion for informality. Instead of greeting a girl with, "Hey, baby," the servicemen added a respectful "san." It took them quickly beyond the introductions.
Created as a local pin-up to help boost the morale of servicemen in Japan, the Babysan cartoons made their first bid for fame on the Navy aircraft hanger’s bulletinboard at Oppama. From the bulletinboard to a weekly feature in the pages of the Far East edition of the Navy Times, Babysan scored an immediate hit. Her graceful lack of sophistication, her frank sayings—”If I not here tomorrow, I out with other boyfriend”—made for surefire cartoon entertainment.
A carefree and utterly charming girl, Babysan never forgot the Americans’ acts of kindness she’d enjoyed as a child. She decided, in fact, to devote herself to the cause of the American serviceman in Japan. She would make his stay in the land of the cherry blossoms a pleasant one, and—well, the way she figured it—the more GIs the merrier. There wasn’t much sense in restricting her charms to one.
The format of this volume—which, I discovered, had been published the year before the other one—was the same: a page of explanatory text facing a cartoon about the aspect of Japanese culture that was explained in the prose. No illustrations this time, just the text.
By the time the second Babysan book arrived on my desk, I knew enough comics history to wonder why I’d never run across Bill Hume’s name or work anywhere else. Except for these two small volumes, Bill Hume seemed never to have existed.
And that was, to a chronicler of the medium like me, alarming. Judging from the two books, Hume was as active as a cartoonist-in-uniform as, say, George Baker or Dave Breger had been during World War II. And he evidently specialized in pretty girls. Given all the press attention that was showered on Baker and Breger not to mention Bill Mauldin and, especially, Milton Caniff with Miss Lace in Male Call, it was baffling to me that Hume had evaded attention so thoroughly. Maybe, I thought, he was better known on the West Coast. Dunno.
Admittedly, the "Occupation" referred to here was not a world-wide phenomenon like World War II. It was confined to the American military occupation of Japan that took place after World War II. The corn-cob pipe smoking General Douglas MacArthur ran the Occupation. A virtual dictator, MacArthur supervised the recovery of the Japanese society, its conversion to peace-time economy, and the establishment of the present form of democratic government in Japan. For the period of the Occupation, American soldiers and sailors were plentiful residents of the Japanese islands.
One of the sailors, Bill Hume, drew cartoons about the adventures of servicemen in this unfamiliar culture—concentrating mostly on their relationships with the feminine outcropping of the population. Babysan probably didn’t get around as much as Caniff’s Miss Lace or Mauldin’s Willie and Joe, but in occupying the GIs while they were occupying her country, she was obviously popular enough to make it into two book collections.
So why hadn’t Bill Hume and/or Babysan showed up anywhere in the chronicles of cartooning? It was a mystery, exactly of the sort to pique my interest.
The second of the two books had press releases from the publisher stuffed into the pages. From these, I learned all that I would know about Bill Hume for several ensuing years. Here, in italics, by way of elucidation, are some pertinent paragraphs from one of the press releases.
Like the famed cherry blossoms that come with the Japanese springtime, Babysan came with the Occupation. Babysan is the heroine of Hume's Oriental flavored brush and ink sketches and humorous commentary on the mutual problems of the Japanese and American peoples in their first chance to become intimate since the days of Admiral Perry.
By September 1951, when Navy Reservist Bill Hume arrived in Japan, having been recalled to serve with Fleet Aircraft Squadron 120, the infant baby-sans of 1945 had grown up to become fascinating, fun-loving Japanese girls, influenced by American customs and trying their best to become Westernized. From his observation of such incongruous antics as Japanese jitterbugging, American as apple pie, yet Oriental as a rice paddy, a new personality was born—Babysan. And from the brush of the talented sailor, life fairly burst into the personality.
Babysan speaks an international language—broken American and chopped Japanese—and quickly learns the expressions of American servicemen in the Far East. She often bewilders her new boyfriend by her dubious command of the English language. He can't help thinking that there is another American love in her life—someone who teaches her a Yankee word or two. Babysan assures him that such a thing could, to coin a phrase, never hoppen.
Americans, too, learn a new language. Almost immediately, they learn words like "sayonara," which means "goodbye"; "sukoshi," which means "little"; "takusan," which means "much"; and "stinko," which means the same in any language.
The antics of the fun-loving Babysan, many of which are recorded on the pages of the book Babysan, are fast becoming a well-loved legend in the history of the GI Dynasty in Japan—sometimes called the American Occupation.
Here we see in bold comic relief the Japanese impact on the bewildered and enthusiastically curious young Americans who suddenly find themselves surrounded by Oriental culture.
Making a Japanese brush behave in American style, Hume has depicted situations that have already had servicemen in Japan roaring with laughter. His cartoons have appeared on the bulletinboards of navy hangers, in The Navy Times, Stars and Stripes, The Oppaman, and have been clipped to decorate lockers, desks, and service clubs.
The Babysan words and pictures are, of course, strictly for entertainment, but beneath their light-hearted appearance lies an understanding and the influence of the Japanese peoples. Babysan is not a travel bureau impression; she is not to be found in movie travelogues; she is a phase of Japanese-American life hitherto untouched. Here in a poignant cartoon story, the Japanese, freed from the domination of the warlords, are seen to be a kind-hearted, amiable people, with a keen sense of humor and with a basically democratic spirit.
To those who served with the American forces in Occupied Japan, this book will bring many a chuckle in recalling the happiness some little Babysan brought into their lives. To others, this book will prove a fascinating account of the serviceman's varied and amusing social life in the Far East. To Americans everywhere, this significant first book by the talented Bill Hume will be sure-fire cartoon entertainment.
Press release Number One ends here. There is a tinge of racism (not to mention sexism) in both the press release and the cartoons, no doubt. But in the context of the times, the humane understanding embodied in both was noteworthy.
World War II began for Americans with the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, an infamous act of international treachery that thoroughly shaped American attitudes about the Japanese for a generation—a generation that included Bill Hume and his shipmates. It was the same generation that, at the close of hostilities, discovered how brutally the Japanese had treated prisoners of war. (This was, you may recall, a cultural thing: surrendering was unthinkable to the Japanese soldier of that time, so they regarded anyone who did as subhuman and treated them accordingly—hence, the Bataan Death March, for instance.)
With all that history fairly fresh in the American collective consciousness, the press release can be seen as a nearly heroic gesture at reconciliation between the two cultures.
And Hume's cartoons made the same gesture. Indeed, the humor of his cartoons is often based upon the clash of American and Japanese cultural habits, a clash that creates comic incongruity. Many of these explanatory text passages were penned by a shipmate of Hume's, John Annarino, who launched and edited The Oppaman, the base newspaper in which Babysan regularly appeared.
THE SECOND PRESS RELEASE tucked into the volume was a biography of Hume. Born William Stanton Hume on March 16, 1916, in Hinton, Missouri, and, except for his sojourn in the military, he never strayed far from the Show Me State. He was a precocious kid, graduating from high school at the age of 15.
In high school and subsequently at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Hume performed as a stage magician, but he paid his way through college doing posters and publicity art for the drama department, where he stayed for a year after graduating in 1936 with a degree in journalism and advertising.
Working in the campus theater, Hume selected, produced, directed, and often wrote the one-act plays presented at the University. His one-act play, “The Oracle,” was judged one of the thirteen best one-act plays in the United States in 1937 and was published by Noble and Noble of New York City in a book collection of the outstanding one-act plays of the day.
In 1937, Hume moved to Stephens College in Columbia where he worked with famed actress Maude Adams (1872-1953), who had achieved her niche in thespian annals by playing Peter Pan, which, with other roles in J.M. Barrie plays, earned her an annual income of over a million dollars during her peak years in the first two decades of the 20th century. Adams put Hume in charge of costume and scenery design for the productions she presented at the college. Their association lasted for four years, but it had a bumpy beginning.
When I finally met and interviewed the illusive Bill Hume, living in 2002 where he had almost always lived, in Columbia, Missouri, he told me Adams began by wanting to send him to New York to learn stage techniques.
Hume said, “Miss Adams, if I go to New York and learn all there is to know about stage, scenery and so forth, I’m not coming back to Stephens College. And she said, Oh, Mr. Hume. You Missourians are all so stubborn.” Hume laughed.
“I couldn’t take her for too long,” he continued, “so I went up to the Kansas City Art Institute for a while.”
After his service in World War II, though, Hume returned, briefly, to Stephens College: “Their technical director quit in the first part of the year, so I filled out his year there at what Stephens called The Playhouse, the Drama department. I designed scenery.” But Adams was no longer there.
After taking courses in commercial art at the Kansas City Art Institute and doing a little of it on the side, Hume struck out on a freelance career, drawing for trade publications and doing newspaper advertising illustrations. He spent a summer in Lakeside, Ohio, where he did publicity for a theater. And he also sought to continue in the editorial cartooning profession he’d dabbled in while in college with Herblock his idol.
While he was in Kansas City, he applied at a couple of papers, but before anything came of either offer, the papers went out of business.
“I was a jinx,” Hume said, laughing. “I got an offer from a St. Louis paper and another for twelve dollars a week for some newspaper down in south Missouri, and I turned it down. I turned down the one in St. Louis because it wasn’t much better. And they went out of business, anyway. So I never fooled with them very much.”
“I met a couple of real swell guys at Kansas City Star,” he continued, “—old boy by the name of Wood and S.J. Ray. They were both real nice guys, and they were trying to help me. They couldn’t. Did their darndest but never made it, any kind of way. I ran into the guy in Kansas City who published the Missouri Republican, a guy by the name of Hebert Nations. I did a few editorial cartoons for him, and then I got called up. I had to go into the Navy, and he says, ‘When you get out of the Navy, let me know right away. We’ll go into Chicago and take you up to the owner of the Chicago Tribune,’ Robert McCormick. He said, ‘We’re good friends. We’ll see that you get yourself started.’ Well, anyway, I got out of the Navy and I called Hebert Nations. That’s a really good name: Hebert Nations. Good name. Anyway, I got his secretary and she said that Hebert was sick, and that he wanted me to do a cartoon on such-and-such. She said, ‘We’ll run it because I know Hebert, and he trusts you.’ So I did some cartoons for him, and the next thing, I heard he died. So that was the end of that. I’m a jinx.”
“I’m not too good at editorial cartoon humor,” Hume finished. “I like humor, but with editorial cartoons, you get to really smack some people between the eyes, and I’m not like that.”
Hume was inducted into the U.S. Navy in October 1942. The Navy, like all branches of the U.S. military, was just learning how to conduct itself. Hume intended to become a sonar technician, but he found he had trouble distinguishing different tones. And then his paperwork was lost. But in two months of basic training in Key West, Florida, the Navy finally found a place for the young artist: he became an aircraft painter first class and was sent to Coco Solo Naval Base in Panama.
Hume found he had a certain amount of spare time after his duties “smearing paint around” in the paint locker, so he presented himself at the base welfare office and asked if they needed an artist—or a cartoonist. They did. Soon, he was attached to Special Services, editing the base newspaper, Contact, and drawing cartoons for it.
Most of the cartoons retailed the adventures of a local fictional beauty named Kay Pasa.
“You know what that means?” Hume asked me.
“Yes—‘What’s going on?’ ‘Que pasa?’”
“All the sailors used that term,” he said, “—the answer’s ‘pasa de nada,’ or ‘nothing doing.’”
Hume was also doing cartoons for Our Navy, but when the Panama Star Herald dubbed Hume "the U.S. Navy's most talented serviceman,” it was because of the range and scope of the talent he displayed.
Special Services produced stage shows to entertain the troops, and here, Hume’s variegated experience blossomed. Before long he was writing skits and acting in them as well as doing posters, designing costumes, and painting scenery. He was master of ceremonies for the USO unit and revived his magic act. But he soon gave that up to pursue another stage proclivity.
“Magic was my hobby for a long time,” Hume said. “I quit that in Panama because when I joined the USO troupe, we had a guy from the Army who was a very good magician—a darned sight better than I was, at least. And he did the magic act, so I switched to ventriloquism, which I’d also done in high school and college. I didn’t have a ‘figure’ [what a ‘vent’ call his dummy],” Hume went on, “so I made one.
He’d made figures before. At the age of thirteen, he’d made his first one, which he called Jean. He made four other Jeans at various times. Starting with a wire coat hanger or something similar, he bent an armature into a skull shape, applied plastic wood and molded the head and face, and then, after the wood putty had set, he carved in facial details and sanded them smooth.
In Panama, he used balsa wood to create a female figure.
“She was mainly balsa wood, something I could carve quick,” Hume said. “And lightweight. Very lightweight to carry around. I think she had some airplane parts in her, with the mouth movements. And I think I may or may not have invented something or other. You know, most hinges on the ventriloquist figures are hinged with springs. I knew good and well I couldn’t trust a string or rubber band, so I put the mouth movement on a weight, so she won’t work if you turn her this way because the weight goes off. But the other way, something pulls the weight down, and the mouth opens. And when you let go of it, it automatically closes.”
His figure was a feisty, flirty slightly risque dark-haired Panamanian show girl he named Rosita.
“She speaks very bad Spanish,” Hume said.
“Does she speak very bad English too?” I asked.
“Well, I could fake that,” he laughed. “I fake Spanish legitimately, my bad Spanish, I mean.”
A reporter for Yank, the serviceman’s weekly newspaper, came upon Rosita in one of Balboa’s clubs, where he “overhead” her talking to a sailor while sitting on his knee at the bar.
“‘Que pasa?’ is the first thing she says,” the reporter noted. “After that, watch out. Her tongue is sharp and the things she says would make you blush if you could spare that much blood.” He then recorded the conversation:
“Have you ever been in the United States?” the sailor asks her.
“I was made in Panama,” she replied, narrowing her deep black eyes.
“You mean you were born in Panama,” corrected the sailor.
“Brother, you don’t know Panama,” cracked Rosita.
“This sort of talk went on for ten minutes,” said the reporter. “Finally, the sailor got up and left, carrying Rosita unceremoniously under one arm. Everyone stamped and cheered. Bill Hume was the sailor.”
Hume and Rosita averaged three shows a week, traveling to Nicaragua, Ecuador, the Galapagos, and other islands and military backwaters. When Hume left the Navy after the war, he took Rosita with him, but after a short career together, she was retired to the Vent Haven Museum in Somerset, Kentucky.
In 1944, Hume was transferred to St. Simons Island, Georgia, where, for the pages of the island's naval publication Tally Ho, he created another pin-up cartoon personality—a Southern belle named Georgia, who, with her favorite beau, was vaguely reminiscent of Daisy Mae and Li’l Abner.
“I used the theme,” Hume said. “I tried to fake Al Capp’s style. But I don’t want to get caught for plagiarism,” he joked.
In 1945 at the war's end, Hume was discharged and headed for the West Coast where he freelanced for a while.
“When I was a kid,” he told me, “I always thought I’d like to do a comic strip. My favorite strip was a thing called Young Buffalo Bill. That was the big thing, at least back in the thirties. So I decided to try one. I had an idea to do a strip about a magician. I called it Padjama—awful name. And so I went to see J.V. Connolly, the guy who was the head of King Features Syndicate—he must’ve been out in California for a meeting or something. And I asked him about my magician strip idea. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I don’t think it would work.’ They already had some experience with a magician strip that came out of St. Louis, he said. ‘We didn’t think it would last a week—it wouldn’t last a year. It was just no good.’ And so he discouraged me as much as he could. I later found out he was pushing Mandrake the Magician. Do you remember that? It wasn’t a very good—”
I laughed: “It didn’t last at all.”
“Right,” Hume said with a grin. “Well, I had a magician friend out there in California who was also a gag writer. And he found out I wanted to do a strip, and I still had that magician thing in the back of my mind, so I worked with the gag writer. We called it Swami Salami from Bombay, Indiana. Indiana, not India. It ended up in a magic magazine called Genie, out of the West Coast. And I let them have it for nothing because I couldn’t sell it anywhere else. That was a big flop,” he finished with a laugh.
IN 1947, HUME RETURNED to Columbia, Missouri, and on November 13, he married Mary Mason Clark of Maysville, Kentucky, and he opened his art studio.
“It was on the third floor of the Miller Building, right downtown,” Hume remembered. “Had darn near the whole third floor, the most room I’ve ever had and never had that much room since.”
Hume was soon thriving. A son was born. David. A daughter was born. Elaine. And he was getting plenty of commercial art jobs.
Then in June 1950, the North Koreans invaded South Korea, and the U.S. was back at war—in a United Nations “police action.” A year later, Hume was re-activated in the Navy and shipped off to Oppama, Japan. He was there for less than a year, assigned to “damage control.” His rate was still aircraft painter, but by 1951, aircraft painters were included in Damage Control units. Hume’s job, however, wasn’t painting aircraft. “They found out I was not a very good painter,” he said.
He worked in the technical library where he kept instruction manuals up-to-date by inserting into loose-leaf technical volumes pages of newly revised instructions, sent in a constant stream from the states. The task was endless, and Hume was always behind. But he took time to draw cartoons, most featuring fetching Japanese girls, and he posted them on a bulletinboard in the hanger. Before long, he was art editor of the weekly base newspaper, The Oppaman, which was edited, as we observed, by John Annarino, a journalism graduate of St. Bonaventure University.
Annarino was an aspiring writer: he contributed regularly to the Pacific Stars & Stripes and to the Navy Times, and he wrote the highly successful Far Eastern Navy show, “Damn the Torpedoes.” And he would do some writing for Hume, too, as we’ll see in a trice.
Said Hume: “When John left the Navy, he went to New York and worked at an ad agency there. He ended up on the West Coast at Capitol Records. His claim to fame, I think, is that he wrote the famous Volkswagen mini-bus ads which said: ‘Sportscar? You don’t think like that.’ He wrote the stuff. They paid him to write two or three words.” Hume laughed. “He was that kind of a guy.”
Hume’s pin-up cartoons were soon all about Babysan, and he also did cartoons about everyone’s hoped-for return to civilian life, entitled When We Get Back Home. This series and Babyson appeared not only in The Oppaman but in the Pacific Stars & Stripes and in Navy Times.
After putting in his months in Japan, Hume returned to Columbia and his freelance commercial art studio. Then fans of Babysan persuaded him to collect his cartoons about her in book form. Resorting to his file of clippings, he culled some of his best Babysans but was unhappy with their appearance. He had a photographer friend make photoprints of the cartoons, and then Hume touched up the art.
“It wasn’t redrawn,” he said, “but it was reworked.”
And for the first Babysan book, Annarino produced explanatory text pieces about each cartoon.
“John’s contribution to Babysan was mainly almost what you’d call outlines,” Hume told me. “He didn’t write any of the gag lines, but he would write a little paragraph about every one of the cartoons, and I would expand it. That’s the way we would work. I would draw a cartoon, and he would look at it and write something about it. He would sit down at the typewriter and peck out a whole paragraph. That was it. He didn’t do anything else. No corrections, no nothing. Wonderful. I wish I could do that. Smart guy. In expanding on what he’d written, I’d try to copy his style and I think, maybe, you could hardly tell where one begins and the other ends.”
The first Babysan book, Babysan: A Private Look at the Japanese Occupation, was published in 1953 by American Press in Columbia. Hume then compiled a book of his When We Get Back Home oeuvre, published almost simultaneously; Annarino again provided paragraphs of commentary about each cartoon.
Almost at once, Hume began assembling material for the second Babysan book, Babysan’s World. For this volume, he not only reworked the cartoons, he produced illustrated explanatory material for the pages facing each cartoon. These pages Hume called his “scrapbook.”
“I did all that,” he said. “What little writing there is in it, I did that. John did the Foreword, but he didn’t do anything else with the book.”
It was published in May 1954 by Charles E. Tuttle Co., with offices in Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo. A year later, Tuttle published another Hume volume, Anchors Are Heavy, with cartoons about life in the Navy. This time, Annarino produced a page of blank verse on nautical matters to face each cartoon.
The Babysan books attracted the attention of Arv Miller, publisher of an early Playboy imitation called Fling.
“ I got a good spread,” Hume said. “He took the black-and-white drawings and he colored them in.”
Then Hume thought about getting Babysan into Playboy. He’d had a brief one-way encounter with Hugh Hefner’s magazine in its formative days.
“Somehow or other, I read that somebody was going to start a magazine called Stag Party,” Hume said. “And I just got on my old typewriter and I wrote him a note—‘Whatever you do, don’t use that name. Get another name quick,’” he laughed.
“Anyway, after the Fling thing,” he continued, “I went up to see Hefner in Chicago to see if he wanted to do a spread on Babysan too, but he turned it down. I had my photographer friend with me, and I asked Hefner if my friend could get a picture of us together. And after that—doggone if that son of a gun—he just sat there and talked and talked and talked. Spent the whole afternoon doing nothing. He was sitting around, chewing on his pipe all this time. He was the most friendly guy I think I ever ran into. And I didn’t look like one of the girls at all,” he laughed.
“He didn’t have girls around him then,” Hume continued. “He was just in an old, beat-up office in the second or third floor of this building at the North Side of Chicago. And he was a heck of a nice guy.”
BY THIS TIME, HUME HAD ABANDONED his downtown art studio: in 1952, he had gone to work full time in the printing and publishing department of the Missouri Farmers Association, which was headquartered in Columbia. He now produced artwork for ads, circulars, and the Missouri Farmer Magazine.
Before his stint in Japan, he had over the years done various projects for MFA—including designing the emblem for the MFA insurance company, a distinctive red-white-and-blue shield. Its perfectly symmetrical shape, it turned out, was not easy for others to copy on billboards and elsewhere.
“A close copy is not enough,” he explained. Copies had to be perfect, so he created a sign painter guide to assure that others would produce the emblem exactly.
But his chief assignment at MFA was producing animated cartoons to sell insurance on television.
“Television was new then,” Hume said. “A tv station had just opened up in town, and I had a friend there who wanted me to do some art for them—black-and-white, all the grays. And at the same time, I thought while I was doing that, I’d like to do some animation. Back when I was at Stephens, some guy had a French camera that took singles. He said, ‘I can take one frame at a time with this camera.’ And I thought, ‘Well, that would be kind of fun. If you could take one picture at a time, you could do animation very easily.’ Nothing ever happened about it at the time. But it was just in the back of my mind then, for years. Until this tv stationed opened up in town.
“I bought myself a movie camera and taught myself to do animation. There were no textbooks at that time—that was in the fifties. And at one time, I even applied to work for Walt Disney. The letter back said they’d have to pass me by because I didn’t know enough about anatomy.”
Hume laughed. “Ironic, I think. I’m known for anatomy.” He laughed again. “But, anyway, I got off on a tangent.”
He continued: “When I got a chance to do animation, I enjoyed it, and I stayed with it—33 years with an insurance company, of all things. People, I tell them I work for an insurance company, they think I’m selling insurance. I don’t know anything about insurance. But I thought I knew how to sell it on tv.
“Everything came together at once,” he went on. “I was working in the printing and publishing department, and I happened to show a guy in the insurance division samples of the animation I was doing on my own at home. I’d set up what I call ‘the rig’ in my basement—a wooden rack to hold drawings in place under a 16-mm camera so I could shoot one frame at a time. My photographer friend Andy Tau and I designed the thing and built it. The camera mount was adjustable, and sliding tracks permitted a variety of visual effects. So I showed some of my animations to this guy, and he said, ‘We can use that.’ And he apparently talked to the higher-ups, and they put me to work full time doing tv commercials. For the next ten years, I did nothing but animation on my own. Half of it, I did at home, and half of it, I did at the MFA shop.
“I had to figure out some way to sell insurance,” Hume said. “This had never been done before. Nobody had used cartooning for anything like that, to sell insurance, of all things. They said animation was too facetious to sell insurance. But the guy that hired me—Judd Wyatt, the advertising director—he figured animated cartoons would sell, and they did.”
For the first few years, Hume animated 30- and 60-second commercials, producing new ones every 13 weeks to be used on a 23-station tv network. And he did all the animation by himself.
And then in 1956, he started work on a long film.
“It was about bicycle safety for kids,” Hume said. “You see, they’d have these farm meetings and they had to have some kind of entertainment. And so Wyatt decided it would be a good idea to sneak safety films in and give a little lesson at the same time. He’d been picking up old movies to show at these meetings. But now he had this idea about safety films.”
The idea came up and took shape on a road trip Hume and Wyatt took to Kansas City; when they returned to the Columbia office, they converted their conversation to a one-page script. And as Hume worked on the drawings, the project blossomed into an office-wide enterprise: other MFA employees heard about the novel undertaking, and they began bringing in ideas for segments. The single page of the initial script multiplied.
Some volunteered ideas were accepted; others rejected. Some were tried and then discarded. One long sequence was re-done on the advice of the Missouri Highway Patrol, with whom Hume worked all along.
By the time Hume finished the film in mid-1958, it was a ten-minute extravaganza. It took 14,400 individual drawings. And Hume did them all. By himself. All the in-betweening, all the camera-work. Solo. Single-handed. A stupendous individual feat in the quantity of labor alone, but the film had merit, too.
The film won national awards—the Indie Award, the Oscar of the industrial film business, another award for best use of animation, and the Best-in-Class Award from Industrial Photography Magazine.
Entitled “Fair Game,” it was called “Boone Crockitt” around the office. It tells the story of a little girl named Shirley who encounters Boone Crockitt, a kid in a coonskin cap who comes from an imaginary world to play with her. He knows nothing of modern civilization, so Shirley teaches him how to function—and how to survive, snatching him out from in front of on-moving cars in the street, for instance. She also teaches him the correct way to ride a bicycle.
Later, Hume did three or four industrial safety films, one of which—on fire—he wrote. They were used by insurance agents, civic clubs, and law enforcement agencies throughout the country.
By then, MFA had hired some assistants for him.
Animated commercials were replaced by live-action footage in the early sixties, but Hume still had plenty to do. Most of his work the last years before he retired in 1985 was for the MFA marketing department—brochures, circulars, signs, hand-lettered posters, detailed charts and graphs, and, occasionally, cartoons.
“In this type of work,” he said, “you had to be pretty diversified, doing many kinds of things and getting the job out on deadline. I never knew who was going to come into my office or what their project was. They usually had a rough idea or theme, and we developed it.”
Sometimes “we” developed an idea way beyond the client’s expectations. While Hume preferred drawing cartoons, his inner artist couldn’t resist the occasional temptation to embroider an assignment with decorative ruffles and furbelows. Once when asked to produce a chart that would compare agents’ relative production, Hume did a large oil painting of mountains with a lake in the foreground and ships sailing across it to indicate agents’ progress.
MOST OF WHAT I’VE JUST REHEARSED of Hume’s career at MFA I learned from Hume, not from the press release tucked into the Babysan book. But the mystery that had provoked my interest in Hume and Babysan still remained unsolved: why hadn’t I or any other comics historian I knew heard of him or her?
When I found out that Hume lived in Columbia, a day’s drive from my home, then in Champaign, Illinois, I phoned him and arranged a meeting for an interview, hoping to unravel the mystery.
I stayed overnight with Frank Stack, who was on the verge of retiring from the University of Missouri’s art department, and he drew me a map, showing how to get to Hume’s place, south of I-70 in a sleepy residential area just west of Stadium Drive.
When Hume came to the door, I was surprised to see that he was rather short, just a little over five feet, I’d say. His manner was at first reserved, even diffident, although he warmed to our subject the longer our conversation went on. And he’d long ago given up the cigars that had been clenched between his lips in almost every photograph I’d ever seen of him.
At the time, the only thing I knew about Hume was that he’d drawn Babysan, so we started with that.
“Have you ever read a recent book called Memoirs of A Geisha?” he asked. “No? Well, Babysan, now I realize, was an outgrowth of the geisha, who, as I say in one of the books, were not prostitutes. They were well-educated, proficient in the fine arts like music, dancing, art, social graces, dress, and sometimes intricate customs and ceremonies of the country. Highly respected. In many cases, they were live-in lovers. Babysan became that; she was a poor man’s geisha. Geishas were wonderful things in other times; they were not immoral, as such. They were entertainers and I found—maybe I was all wrong but— I didn’t consider it as a moral issue.
“Babysan kept a lot of guys out of trouble,” he went on, “— kept them preoccupied and because, theoretically, you were Babysan’s friend, you were accepted in various places as long as you were with her. You could go places you wouldn’t otherwise be able to go. The babysans rode herd on guys, and I think they did kind of a service. Now, maybe I’m all wrong, but a lot of people didn’t think so. I don’t know whether the custom still exists or not. I don’t know, but I bet you it does in a smaller way. That was the whole thing. All Japanese girls that I heard about, they were all babysans. ‘Hey, Baby. Babysan.’ You know ‘san.’ It’s a term of respect. I was ‘Bill San,’ so it was a sign of respect, in a way. You might not get another name for a girl: they were all ‘babys,’ babysans.”
“Reading the cartoons in the book,” I said, “I had the idea that Babysan was probably intimate with some of her boyfriends. But that wasn’t all of it. It wasn’t an overt thing. It was apparent, but it wasn’t overt, I guess you could say. She was more companionable than sexual, somehow. But there was plenty of romance going on in the cartoons, and certainly in my imagination.”
“Yes,” Hume said. “That was it. Now, it didn’t have to be, but babysans could be sisterly, but not necessarily.”
I told him that I loved the attitude that the cartoons embodied. Babysan’s World with its alternating explanatory pages was an obvious attempt to acquaint American servicemen with Japanese customs, but beyond that, there was Babysan, and she was such an accommodating, pleasant—and attractive—young woman. She was wholly uninhibited, and in that lay her considerable charm.
I said: “She was apparently free of any kind of Puritan hang-up that would interfere with her activity, and so the cartoons conveyed a picture of servicemen in Japan in very cheerful, generous, open romantic relationships with the female natives. And I’m not sure that kind of relationship was real. Was it?”
“I think so,” Hume said. “As I said, I was there less than a year, and I picked brains. I had to do it quick. And I’d sit around, in the paint locker, and we’d be guys just talking. So they started giving me ideas, and especially one officer who’s been there four or five years. It seems, however, that I was a little too truthful in many respects.” Then he dropped a minor caliber IED: “The book was banned in Tokyo.”
“What?! That’s amazing!” I sputtered. “How could that—Babysan was published all over—in the Navy Times, Stars & Stripes...”
“Yes, that’s right,” Hume said. “But that didn’t matter much. One reviewer said, ‘Anybody who has ideas like these doesn’t deserve a book.’ You can see the attitude there. I was getting a little too close to somebody or other. I was just looking for the humor in the situation. But another critic said that the book did more to promote good relations, or explain relations between the Japanese and the Americans, than any other book they’d ever found. That was a woman reviewer. Most people thought the cartoons were a little naughty.”
“Well, yes,” I said, “but I thought there was a healthy kind of wholesome straightforwardness about it. There wasn’t any shilly-shallying about the situation—none of the sort of behind-of-the-hand secret smirking that implied that sex was evil or bad for you or anything of that sort.”
“It was an existing condition,” Hume said, “and I believed I might as well report it the way it was. I know I didn’t try to make up anything. I didn’t have to. I was doing more reporting than anything else. One guy, a sociology major in college, said I should have been a sociologist. I never thought of being a sociologist. I thought I was a cartoonist,” he laughed.
I laughed, too: “Well, I think cartoonists are probably sociologists. At least sociologists would think so.”
“I guess so,” Hume said. “I was visiting in the hospital here in town one day, and I was introduced to a doddering old man who was there. Not a patient but visiting someone. He was Carter Blanton, who owned a chain of newspapers, and he said, ‘Oh, you’re a cartoonist? What kind of a cartoonist?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m a frustrated editorial cartoonist.’ He said, ‘If you weren’t frustrated, you’d never make a good cartoonist.’” Hume laughed.
“And he was right,” he finished. “You’ve got to be a little bit frustrated. And a little bit of a sociologist.” He laughed again.
“And I was frustrated with this Babysan thing,” he went on, “because people, even the officers, they were panning the idea. They didn’t like the idea. Naturally, the moralists wouldn’t like what were going on in the Babysan world. And so I was taking swipes at a lot of people, just doing the cartoons.”
In cruel contrast to the idyllic but warmly comedic romance of Babysan’s world was another, darker post-WWII Japan. Some years before I met Hume, I’d chanced on a book about the Occupation in Japan which maintained that Japanese women were pretty severely abused by American servicemen who were there. And not only the women. When I asked Hume about it, he confirmed the report.
“There was a lot of meanness going on,” he said sadly, “—like one little incident I remember. I didn’t see it happen—someone told me what a ‘fun thing’ it was to do. Get in a jeep, get a two-by-four, and put it across the jeep, side-to-side, and then run through a crowd of Japanese on the street, knocking them down with the two-by-four. Now that’s mean.”
“Mean, right,” I said.
“But that was one of the ‘fun’ things to do,” Hume said sarcastically.
“Well,” I said, “the world that you portrayed was distinctly not a world like that.”
I mentioned Milton Caniff’s Miss Lace, an obvious soul sister of Babysan’s, and we talked a little about Steve Canyon’s Miss Mizzou, the lady wearing nothing but a trenchcoat whose name Caniff borrowed from the University of Missouri. The resulting publicity accruing to the University tempted the city fathers, momentarily, to name Stadium Drive after the character, but wiser heads ultimately prevailed; today, only a short street in a residential area bears Mizzou’s name.
On campus, she fares better. A huge, bigger than life drawing of Mizzou decorates a wall inside the Alumni Building entrance; just outside is a sculpture of Beetle Bailey, commemorating another cartoonist graduate, Mort Walker. No statues of Babysan, though. No Babysan murals.
“I missed Walker,” Hume said. “I never ran into him while he was here, just after World War II.”
He never met Caniff either; Caniff came to the campus often during Miss Mizzou’s heyday. Nor did Hume meet Bill Mauldin during Mauldin’s brief visit to Oppama.
Said Hume: “I wish I had because I always admired Mauldin. I thought he did a great job during the war.”
At one time or another, Hume briefly considered other avenues for his cartooning.
“I made a few submissions to magazines every now and then,” he said. “I used to have one of these brown envelopes full of rejection slips years ago. I remember one of them: they said something like ‘this batch of cartoons did not wake us up. Next time, try a bomb,’ he laughed. “That’s what I was sending them—bombs.” He laughed again.
Recalling his earliest submissions to magazines, Hume said: “Back in those days, they did something which would be unthinkable now. I sent stuff to several magazines, and at least one, maybe more, sent me back originals of other cartoonists to study, to see, to improve my technique. Original art, complete with white-out and everything. Nowadays, that’s unthinkable. I don’t know how they got away with it. I guess in those days, the originals were throw-aways. Send them to some budding artists and let ’em learn.” He laughed.
“I never had any urge to do comic books,” Hume said when I asked about them. “I used to read them, and I’d enjoy them—what an amazing amount of work that goes into some of those things, gosh. Once I had kind of an urge to do illustrations for science fiction stuff. There was one—I think it was called Marvel Stories, or some fool thing like that. I liked the illustrations but I didn’t like the stories. So I just up and wrote to the editor, and I’ve forgotten what my point was, but I wrote him a letter, and he sent me a check for fifteen bucks—just for writing the letter,” Hume laughed, “—which he said was very useful. I was very happy about that. I think I spent fifteen bucks for more copies of the magazine.
“In those days,” he continued, “science fiction was, of course, a no-no. It was just the lowest of lowest. Some of the illustrations were pretty darned good. One guy in particular—Virgil Finlay. Beautiful ink drawings. They were the top of the line.”
At one point in our conversation, Hume got up and left the room. A few minutes later, he returned carrying two dolls. They could have been vent’s figures—their clothing was fabric—but they had no moving parts.
“I call them leprechauns,” Hume said. “I make them to give away for birthdays and such things. I put messages on them—a sign that says ‘Down With Girdles’ or something like that. These things are not for sale, and I’ve never sold one.”
One of the figures was a clown. The other was an extremely buxom vamp.
“I gave this one to my son David and his wife gave it back to me,” he laughed.
I said: “Well, she’s a generously proportioned creature. I love the feet too.” They were extra large.
“The feet are very important,” he said with a grin. “Otherwise, she’d fall over.”
“Well, balance is a real problem here with the, er, upper story.”
Hume laughed again. “Yes, balance is important. Like people, they fall over. She has no name,” he went on. “She probably has a name, but I don’t know what it is.”
“This one has a sign hanging on it,” I said, and I read the sign aloud: “I cannot give you three wishes. Maybe you’ll want to bag a fortune guard and maybe he will give you some happiness and a wee bit of good luck.”
“They’re made out of wood putty,” Hume said. “And coat hanger wire—anything you can make into an armature. After shaping the wood putty, you can carve, sand, do whatever you want to. I tell everybody I work as long as I want to. When I get tired of it, I just quit. None of them are really ever finished.”
The mystery I’d come in with was beginning to dissipate. Hume slid below the national horizon after returning from Japan partly because he had so many other artistically interesting things that took him away from cartooning. And while pursuing his professional activities and his hobbies, he was a founder of the Columbia Art League.
“I won’t say I was tired of doing Babysan books,” he said, “because I did start another one, and I darned near finished it. I guess it needs a little polish, and it’d be ready to go. But I got off on this tangent in animation. It was something a little different and I loved it.”
“Did you enjoy animation more than drawing still cartoons?” I asked.
“I kind of think so,” he said. “Sure, there’s something about seeing a drawing come to life and start moving—it becomes something different. Yeah, I guess that’s the whole thing. I wanted to see them move. I wanted them to come to life. I don’t know what I would do nowadays with computers, but that's an entirely different world, in computers.”
“Yeah, what about that?” I said. “Some computer animation is drawing and some of it is almost three-dimensional painting.”
“‘Shrek’ is about the only one I’ve seen,” he said. “But you know, I came away from there, I said, ‘If there’s anything that a man, a person, can imagine, think of, it can be done.’ There was a time you couldn’t do this kind of thing because it was too complicated. It would take a lifetime to do it. And now, if they do it, it doesn’t take a lifetime.”
I ended my interview with the most provocative question unanswered—even after I asked it of Hume.
“Babysan had to have been very popular during the time that it was being done,” I said. “And yet, I have met almost nobody who has heard of Babysan or has heard of you as a cartoonist.”
Hume was nonplussed: “No,” he said.
“Why is that?”
He smiled. “I don’t know. Just didn’t have a good publicity department, I guess.” He laughed. “Didn’t have the promotion.”
Here’s a gallery of Hume ’n Babysans, and some other illustrations of his life as an artist and cartoonist.