Frank Willard and A Touch of Moonshine
Lowbrow Comedy for the Masses
If cartoonists were typecast according to their creations, Frank Willard would undoubtedly win the prize (if prizes were awarded). He was very nearly the perfect incarnation of his eponymous comic strip protagonist, Moon Mullins. Or so Clive Howard, in his article “The Magnificent Roughneck” (Saturday Evening Post, August 9, 1947), would have us believe.
“To put it bluntly,” Howard said, bluntly, “Moon Mullins is a bum.” And Howard went bluntly on: “His banjo eyes are always a little bleary from lack of sleep and vague but doubtless colossal dissipations. He has never, in all the years that the public has had the opportunity of observing him [68 altogether], been known to do an honest day’s work. He wears his derby hat as a badge of insolence which he refuses to remove even in the livingroom, much less the elevator. Toward young women, he is invariably forward, not to say disrespectful. He is the sworn foe of all bill collectors and a devotee of pool halls, cigars, long yellow roadsters and what Broadway calls the fast buck.”
Not surprisingly—given the bias Howard unveils in his article—Willard, like Moon, “hates to work and has spent most of his life trying to get out of it. He also hates office hours, business lunches, dress suits, dinner parties and all other common appurtenances of success.”
But Willard, unlike Moon, was a resounding success. At the time of the publication of Howard’s article, the combined daily circulation of the 350 or so newspapers carrying Moon Mullins was 14 million (19 million on Sundays); it ranked among the top half dozen comic strips of the day. And Willard was a wealthy man.
But his habitual garb scarcely suggested wealth. He usually wore a sweat shirt and rumpled slacks. Once he failed to engage a new gardener because when the applicant arrived for an interview, he saw Willard working on his lawn in old pants and an undershirt and so the applicant left because he thought the job had already been taken.
“On those rare occasions when he wears a double-breasted suit,” Howard writes, Willard looks “a great deal like a successful banker. However, any discerning observer soon notices that Willard likes to sit on the middle of his spine, that he usually talks through a cloud of cigar smoke, and that he holds the cigar in his left hand in the same way that a veteran pool play supports a cue.”
Willard has, Howard assures us, “only two great loves in his life, neither of them conducive to prosperity. The first is pool, which he had to give up early in life for lack of skill.” The other is golf, to which Willard devotes himself most of every week.
Willard’s inclination to indolence and work avoidance manifested itself early in life.
Frank Henry Willard was born on September 21, 1893 in Anna, Illinois, the son of Francis William Willard, a dentist (some sources say “surgeon,” but they’re wrong according to the testimony of his son), and Laura Kirkham. Although his father wanted him to follow in his footsteps, young Frank never finished high school. “Got tossed out for something or other,” Willard told Martin Sheridan (Comics and Their Creators), “—and was promptly placed in a now defunct institution—Union Academy. After being a sophomore for several years, they decided that the only way of getting me through school was to give me the old heave-ho—which they did to our mutual delight.”
Young Frank left home at about the age of seventeen to join another youth in running a concession with a traveling carnival throughout southern Illinois. While his partner ran the hamburger stand, Willard played the horses, and they split the profits on both enterprises. The business collapsed one day when his partner "became interested in trains" (as Willard put it to Sheridan) and took all the receipts to California, leaving Willard to pay all the bills, thereby depleting entirely whatever profits his winning at the races had generated.
In hindsight, compensations were revealed: “I met a lot of interesting people in that business—some very able tattoo artists, pickpockets, ballyhoo men, shills, etc.,” Willard said. “They might have had some influence on Moon,” he concluded.
Willard next took a position as a claim tracer with a Chicago department store and conned a friend into doing all the work by supplying him with lunch (sandwiches that Willard obtained at the free lunch counter in a nearby saloon). At night, Willard attended classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. And he also freelanced cartoons to local newspapers.
In 1914, Willard sold an editorial cartoon about the outbreak of World War I to the Chicago Tribune, whose two political cartoonists happened, that day, to be away from their drawingboards.
“John McCutcheon was in Mexico,” Willard told Marcia Winn in the Los Angeles Times (December 12,1943), “and Frank King, who used to pinch-hit for him, was on vacation, so I thought, ‘Well, what the hell, here’s the war starting and the Tribune with no cartoon for the front page,’ so I went home and drew one.”
The Trib took the cartoon and ran it on the front page, four columns wide. (We’ve posted it in our Willard Gallery at the end of this disquisition.) Said Willard: “That was August 1, 1914. I’ll never forget it. ... I quit my job and spent the whole day walking around Chicago looking at Tribunes on the newsstands with my cartoon on the front page. Thought everybody in Chicago was doing the same thing. Wore out a $3.50 pair of shoes.”
Willard’s success went immediately to his head: deciding forthwith that he was a political cartoonist, he offered to go to work at it full-time on the Tribune staff, and when his offer was declined, he applied at the Chicago Herald.
After listening to him for five minutes, the Herald’s managing editor, the legendary James Keeley, let him down, not too gently: “Son,” said that worthy, “you haven’t enough brains to be a political a cartoonist.”
“Then how about a comic strip,” said the irrepressible Willard, inadvertently admitting that one doesn’t have to know much to be a comic strip cartoonist.
Keeley confirmed Willard’s opinion: “Well, maybe you’re dumb enough for that,” he said (quoted by Willard in Comics and Their Creators) and hired him at twenty dollars a week.
Willard did a Sunday strip called Tom, Dick and Harry about the shenanigans of a band of miscellaneous school kids. He also did another strip, Mrs. Pippin’s Husband, and “a so-called humorous cartoon.”
Like other newspaper staff cartoonists of the time (including two of his bullpen cohorts, E.C. Segar and Billy DeBeck, neither, as yet, known for their masterworks, Popeye and Barney Google), Willard worked all day in the Herald art department, drawing whatever was needed—including several unnamed, discontinuous comics features, one of which we’ve posted in our Willard Gallery down yonder.
Willard had barely gotten started when he was drafted into the American Expeditionary Force, wherein, Howard tells us, “he rose three times to sergeant and three times was busted back to private.” When the war ended, he returned from France and found himself in New York, where he became a staff artist for King Features Syndicate, for which he did several comics features—Penny Ante, Let the Wedding Bells Ring Out and yet another undistinguished strip called The Outa Luck Club about a family man named Luther Blink. The strip was credited to Dok Willard, the cartoonist’s deliberate misspelling of a nickname he had acquired as the son of a doctor of dentistry.
One day in the spring of 1923, Willard engaged in a dispute with his editor and settled it with his fists. The confrontation took place over a matter of proprieties. Willard showed the editor, the famed Rudolph Block, some ideas for gags, and Block rejected them. A few weeks later, Willard saw those same ideas in George McManus’ Bringing Up Father. Block was stealing his ideas and passing them on to McManus. Understandably miffed, Willard stormed into the office and pasted Block one. (A miffed Willard was not to be trifled with.)
Willard won the fight but lost the job. It was, however, a loss as fraught with historic significance as the notorious “long count” prize fight a few years later in which Jack Dempsey was robbed of a victory over Gene Tunney because he took too long getting to a neutral corner. (Tunney thus had more than the prescribed ten seconds to get up after Dempsey had floored him.) In Willard’s case, it was a newspaper publisher who counted.
When Joseph Medill Patterson, publisher of the New York Daily News and head of the Chicago Tribune-Daily News Syndicate, heard of the Block imbroglio, he sent for Willard and offered him a job doing a new strip that he’d been mulling over. The Daily News was the nation's first successful tabloid, screaming headlines and scandals galore, and Patterson wanted a comic strip tailored expressly for his sensation-hungry readers. He wanted a strip about the low life of the city, about roughnecks and confidence men who made their way with their wits and pure gall in total disregard of the Puritan work ethic, books of etiquette, and every other refinement. Judging from what he had heard of Willard's character, Patterson thought the cartoonist would be able to produce just what he wanted. And that's what Willard did. The result was a classic comedy of conniving, brawling, uncooth social pretension, Moon Mullins.
Beginning June 19, 1923, the strip at first concentrated only on the title character (named by Patterson, who seized upon a nomenclature just then emerging on the social horizon in those early years of Prohibition, moonshine; for the character’s last name, Willard and Patterson consulted the phone directory and landed on a plumbing company, Mullins and Sons.)
Patterson launched the strip in the sports section of the Daily News, and the first sequence capitalized on mounting public interest in the forthcoming prize fight between Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons in Shelby, Montana. At the time, Dempsey was having trouble keeping sparring partners, so Moon enlists a black guy named Wildcat, whom he plans to “rent out” to Dempsey as a punching bag. To get to Montana, Moon sends himself and Wildcat off to Shelby in a shipping crate, their arrival detailed in the inaugural strip (which we’ve posted in the Willard Gallery along with other historic moments in the strip’s run).
Although Patterson intended the strip to appeal to sports fans, the sporting milieu disappeared fairly soon. According to Willard’s long-time assistant, Ferd Johnson (he began assisting the second month of the strip’s run), Willard couldn’t keep coming up with sports ideas even when Patterson sent him to baseball training camps in Florida. After a few months, Willard abandoned locker rooms and concentrated on poolrooms where Moon began to shine.
Moon is an unabashed free-loader, a con man, always on the look-out for a free lunch and a quick buck and willing to let anyone take the risks but himself. He fails more often than he succeeds. His only redeeming quality is his endurance: he keeps at it. Disappointed at the outcome of one con, he immediately goes on to the next, not bothered one whit by failure. Moon's motives are undisguised by the usual veneers of civilization's respectable society. And he is entirely forthright. His honest embracing of his own self-interest is refreshing, and that is his charm.
At first, Moon presented a no-neck, square-jawed visage, but within a few months, the jaw receded and the classic “moon-faced” stalwart appeared. By then, he’d already run into the siren who would monopolize his time for much of the next decade or more—Little Egypt, named for what Willard called a well-known “hootchy-koochy dancer.” (The dancer called Little Egypt in real life appeared in the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago; the name became generic for any belly dancer, and, indeed, two Little Egypts danced at the Fair.)
Otherwise, Willard surrounded Moon with kindred souls—Lord and Lady Plushbottom (the former, a harmless pompous fugitive from some peerage somewhere; the latter, formerly the spinster Emmy Schmaltz, angular and vinegary owner of the boarding house where they all live), rotund ne'er-do-well Uncle Willie (always in need of a shave) and his slovenly wife, Mamie (nee McAshcan), the cook. Moon's diminutive kid brother Kayo (who slept in one of Moon's bureau drawers) was the only realist (and he was a full-blown cynic).
As Stephen Becker says (in Comic Art in America): the strip was "the greatest collection of social pretenders ever assembled. ... The impulse is always upward— to fame, riches, dazzling lights. But the culmination is always a descent to reality, via the nightstick, the pratfall, or the custard pie. Always, earthly reality wins out over the ideal, the pretension; beef stew defeats poetry."
John Lardner called the strip a "permanent monument" to an easier time when lower and middle classes overlapped. But it was also definitely low-brow: "[In] their way of life, which was the natural way, for them, of attrition ... if they had to choose between a necessity and a pleasure to spend a couple of bucks on, they invariably went for the pleasure. But the primary rule of their existence, and Willard never let them forget it, was that they did not have the couple of bucks."
Assisted by Ferd Johnson (who was soon doing his own strip, a mock cowboy epic on Sundays, Texas Slim, August 30, 1925 - February 12, 1928; revived twice, once sharing the marquee with Dirty Dalton—“Patterson wanted a villain”), Willard drew in what has been called “the Chicago Style,” solid linework of unvarying width which eventually was embellished by a gritty, hayey treatment that is perfectly in tune with the threadbare vulgarity of the strip's lower class setting.
A procrastinator of epic dimension, Willard postponed work on each week's batch of strips (six dailies and a Sunday page) until the last possible moment. So habitual was his dillydallying that the syndicate began phoning him every Monday for strips that were due on Friday. A couple days later, Willard would tell his wife, Marie (nee O'Connell), that he was “going to work today.” But he invariably finds an excuse to put off going to work for another few hours—he goes downtown to get a haircut, takes detours into hardware, drug and dime stores, and otherwise fritters away the morning hours until it is too late to contemplate doing anything on the strip before lunch: it would be foolish to begin work with so little of the morning left to work in.
When he finally gets into his studio in the afternoon, he spends several minutes sharpening every pencil in the place—then adjusting the light over his drawingboard. Finally, as daylight wanes, he phones Johnson, summoning him to the battlefield.
“From the time Johnson arrives,” Howard relates, “the two men work without interruption, sustaining themselves on black coffee and cigars, until they have finished. ... The job takes anywhere from thirty-six to forty-eight hours. At the end of it, Willard falls into bed exhausted and sleeps practically around the clock”—that is, twenty-two to twenty-four hours straight.
Howard exaggerates. But, like Willard, only to make a good story better. Not every week concluded with an all-night crescendo. Most of the time, according to Johnson, the two played golf all day but worked on the strip at night. And Willard, who was a boozer of mythic attainments, drank all night. That’s one reason they worked at night: Willard’s wife kept an eye on her husband, but she was asleep at night.
Said Johnson, describing their working lives when living in New Canaan, Connecticut one winter: “He’d kill a quart, maybe a bottle, of gin a night. I didn’t touch the stuff. I’d learned that somebody had to stay awake. And come the morning, I was the one—I’d get rid of the bottles, the empties, slip them in my pocket, as soon as I got out of the house, toss them in a snowbank. Come spring,” he finished with a laugh, “there was a glass fence of bottles.”
Sometimes, catastrophically, Willard arrived at the moment of truth before his drawingboard and found his mind a complete blank. Not a joke in sight. When he misses his deadline, the syndicate resorts to “wallpapering,” Howard reported. “The editors cut characters and scenes from old strips, paste them together and invent dialogue as close to the Willard tradition as possible.” Willard gets no pay for “wallpaper weeks.”
Once Willard decided that his work week would be more productive if he worked a regular 8-hour day in an office. He took weeks to find a likely location and weeks more to outfit the place properly. On his first day “at work” in his office, he left after fifteen minutes and went home.
“Can’t work in that place,” he told his wife, “—it’s too lonesome.”
His wife advised him to hire a secretary for company.
He looked at her with an aggrieved expression. “Honey,” he sighed, “you know I can’t work when there are people around.”
Willard traveled around the country with the seasons to a succession of residences—Poland Springs, Maine; Los Angeles, California; Tampa, Florida; Greenwich and New Canaan, Connecticut—where he chased the little white ball on every day of the week that he wasn't bent over his drawingboard. Johnson and his wife faithfully followed Willard and Marie to every new locale. When Willard died on January 12, 1958 (suddenly, a week after suffering a stroke), Johnson inherited the strip, which he continued over his own signature for another twenty years. (Ferd’s son Tom started collaborating on the strip the year his father took it over and co-signed it for the last 13 years until Moon Mullins ceased in 1991). In an interview in Nemo No.29, Johnson said he’d been doing most of the drawing since 1933; most of the writing by 1943.
By 1948, Willard was not able to do the work at all, Johnson said: he got diabetes, had a heart attack and a stroke. For the last ten years of Willard’s life, Johnson did all the Moon lighting. By the time Moon went down, Johnson had been intimately associated with it for the entire 68 year run.
In the Willard Gallery just at your eye’s elbow, we’ve posted various of Willard’s works, emphasizing the historic moments in Moon Mullins—the debuts of Moon, Emmy Schmaltz (March 3, 1924), Kayo (July 4, 1924), Lord Plushbottom (January 1,1925), Mamie (May 28, 1928), Uncle Willie (July 11, 1928)—plus a few curiosities: Ferd Johnson’s appearance in the strip, Emmy’s threatening to divorce Lord Plushbottom, and Uncle Willie getting a shave.
Just at the exit of the Gallery, is a genuinely Historic Document. In 1987, Ferd Johnson drew for cartoonist and comics chronicler Ed Black a floorplan of the sixth (top) floor of the old Chicago Tribune office building, showing which cartoonists worked in which offices—Sidney Smith (The Gumps), Carey Orr (editoonist), Harold Gray (Little Orphan Annie), Gaar Williams (miscellaneous daily panels; then, in the 1930s, The Strain on the Family Tie), Carl Ed (Harold Teen), Frank King (Gasoline Alley), and Willard and Johnson. He also shows the office of Arthur Crawford, manager of the Chicago Tribune-New York Daily News Syndicate, whose assistant, Mollie Slott, actually ran the operation.
At the lower left, Johnson points out the window next to which his drawing table was located. Various of the Trib’s executives, including Patterson, often played tennis on the roof just outside that window, and to get to this “tennis court,” they clambered over Johnson’s drawing table. Johnson always placed “some kind of a cartoon” on his drawing table, “in a prominent place where they couldn’t help but see it. After a couple years of this, Captain Patterson decided I could do a Sunday page—a full page in the Chicago Tribune when I was 19!” The full pager was Johnson’s Texas Slim.
In his final annotation, Johnson says the office arrangement depicted here was “about the same” when the Trib moved to its new flamboyantly soaring Gothic headquarters, the Tribune Tower, in 1925.
Bibliography. Biographical information on Frank Willard can be found in Comics and Their Creators by Martin Sheridan (1944) and in more extensive form in "The Magnificent Roughneck" by Clive Howard (Saturday Evening Post, August 9, 1947). Willard is extensively quoted by Marcia Winn in an interview published in the Los Angeles Times (December 12, 1943) but written, probably, for her own paper, the Chicago Tribune; since Willard liked a good story a little better than unvarnished facts, some of what he says should be taken with a few grains of the proverbial salt. Stephen Becker provides the best appreciation of the strip in his Comic Art in America (1959). An obituary appeared in The New York Times (13 January 1958), and in Newsweek (27 January 1958), John Lardner paid tribute to Willard. Several collections of Moon Mullins strips were published by Cupples and Leon (1923-31), two of which have been reprinted in Moon Mullins: Two Adventures (1976). Ferd Johnson supplies information about Willard and his own experiences with Moon in Nemo No.29 (February 1989). Since May 2000, Spec Productions has been issuing reprint volumes, starting with the first strip; with the twentieth volume this summer, the project has reached July 4, 1935. Spec has an extensive catalogue of reprint tomes (Dick Tracy, Gasoline Alley from the start, Alley Oop, and more); visit specproductions.com for the list.