2007: Celebrating the Centennial of the Daily Newspaper Comic Strip
One hundred years ago this month, the daily comic
strip was inaugurated in a
Mutt and Jeff attests to the visual power of the comic strip. The eponymous duo long ago ascended to the pantheon of American mythology: in common parlance, the names, seemingly forever linked, always denote a visually mismatched pair, a tall person and a short one. But as a comic strip, Mutt and Jeff enjoys another distinction: it established the appearance of the medium, its daily format.
cartoonists (Clare Briggs, George
Herriman) may have strung their comic pictures together in single file
across a newspaper page before Mutt and
Jeff debuted on
Until Mutt and Jeff set the fashion, newspaper cartoons usually reached readers in one of two forms: on Sunday, in colored pages of tiered panels in sequence (some, like Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland, intended chiefly for children to read); on weekdays, collections of comic drawings grouped almost haphazardly within the ruled border of a large single-frame panel (directed mostly to adult readers). The daily cartoons were often found in a paper's sports section and featured graphic reportage and comic commentary on the doings of diamond, ring, track, and other arenas of athletic competition. Harry Conway "Bud" Fisher was a sports cartoonist on the San Francisco Chronicle, and so, not surprisingly, the comic strip he launched that became Mutt and Jeff focussed on a preoccupation of the sporting crowd—namely, betting.
accounts of the cartoonist’s life report that Fisher was born in Chicago on
April 3, 1884 (or 1885; sources differ), but in a 1915 news release prepared by
Wheeler Syndicate, Fisher is quoted as saying he was born in San Francisco,
April 3, 1885 —“but I didn’t stay there long. We moved about rather rapidly on
account of my father’s business. My mother and father lived in
1928, Fisher had changed his story. In a four-part article, “Confessions of a Cartoonist,”
published weekly in The Saturday Evening Post (beginning July
28), he says he was born in a suburb of
had no luck at first in finding a newspaper job in
Soon after arriving at the Chronicle, he, like most early cartoonists, was assigned to the sports department, where, for the next couple years, he did layouts and occasionally drew pictures celebrating in humorous imagery what proper society then regarded with disdain—the dubious prowess and feats of professional athletes, their trainers, managers, promoters, and hangers-on and other alleged riffraff. Fisher also occasionally did pictorial reportage for other departments of the paper. Once he was sent to interview Enrico Caruso, when the opera star came to town. Caruso was well known as an amateur cartoonist as well as a celebrated tenor. “He was great,” Fisher said, “and made a picture of me while I sketched him.”
short time later, on
that didn’t fall down burned. The city-wide conflagration was more impressive
than the earthquake: for years afterward, surviving locals referred to the
Fisher scarcely imagined that he was establishing an art form. “In selecting the strip form for the picture,” he wrote in “Confessions,” “I thought I would get a prominent position across the top of the sporting page, which I did, and that pleased my vanity. I also thought the cartoon would be easy to read in this form. It was.” But Fisher’s editor had been a reluctant participant in the experiment. Two years earlier, Young had turned down Fisher’s suggestion for a similar “strip” because, he is alleged (by Fisher) to have said, “it would take up too much room, and readers are used to reading down the page and not horizontally.”
By way of introducing and describing his cast, Fisher called his strip A. Mutt. "Mutt" was short for "muttonhead"—a fool (Eric Partridge in Slang Today and Yesterday even credits Fisher with inventing the clipped version of the term). And Augustus Mutt was indeed something of a fool: he was a compulsive horse-player, a "plunger." And at first the strip concentrated almost exclusively on his daily quest for the right horse to bet on and for the wherewithal to place the wager. We saw Mutt's wife every once in a while—and his young son, Cicero. But no Jeff. Jeff didn't come along until later.
In those days before national syndication, a cartoonist drew only for his own paper, and he generally drew a cartoon just the day before it would be published. (Syndicates would require cartoonists to submit their work weeks in advance because it took that much production time to prepare the material for distribution all around the country.) The circumstance permitted extremely topical and local comedy: the cartoon in today's paper could be based upon the news in yesterday's paper, often news of city hall or the nearest police precinct house. Or, in the case of sports cartoons, the playing field or race track. It was a circumstance Fisher seized upon and exploited. In determining which horse Mutt would bet on in the strip to be published in, say, Tuesday morning's paper, Fisher picked a real horse that would be running Tuesday afternoon at the Emeryville track. Fellow racing enthusiasts had to wait for Wednesday's paper to learn the outcome of Mutt's bet. Mutt lost mostly, but, given the vicissitudes of wagering, he won every once in a while. And that was often enough. Readers of the strip began to take his wagers seriously, interpreting them as inside tips. Almost overnight, they were hooked, and their addiction guaranteed the strip's continued appearance (not to mention continued sales of the Chronicle at the newsstand). Fisher was on his way to fame as well as fortune.
But Fisher did more for the comic strip medium than establish its format. According to John Wheeler, founder of the Wheeler (later Bell) Syndicate (distributor of Mutt and Jeff for most of the strip's run), Fisher, "by his guts and independence, probably did more to make the cartoon business for his more cowardly confreres than anyone else who has ever been in it." To begin with, Fisher had the foresight to copyright A. Mutt in his own name—and, later, to apply for a trademark on the title. The strip was his and no one else's. And Fisher fought in court to establish his ownership beyond question.
Fisher began to benefit from his prescience almost at once. Press baron William Randolph Hearst, seeing that A. Mutt seemed responsible for his competition's increase in circulation, did what he would do again and again over the next half century: he hired the rival's talent away by paying more. Much more. Hearst offered a weekly salary of $45, double Fisher's pay at the Chronicle; and A. Mutt began running in Hearst's San Francisco Examiner within three weeks of its debut in the other paper. It also continued to run in the Chronicle. In accordance with established practice, A. Mutt was treated as if it were the Chronicle's property: the editors simply hired another cartoonist (Russ Westover, later the creator of Tillie the Toiler) to draw the strip. But this time, the situation was different. The canny Fisher had taken the precaution of copyrighting the strip in his name with its last appearance in the Chronicle.
the first of his “Confessions” articles, Fisher explained that after he had
accepted the Examiner offer but
before he left the Chronicle, he
consulted a lawyer about copyright and learned that “a copyright notice [had
to] be carried when the picture or article to be copyrighted was published and
then the drawings for three successive days had to be filed in the Patent
Office in Washington to complete the copyright.” Fisher had only one day left
at the Chronicle, but he used it:
after his editor had approved his strip for that day, December 10, the
cartoonist went into the engraving room before the strip was processed and
lettered into the last panel: “Copyright, 1907, by H.C. Fisher.” He did the
same on the first two strips published the next week in the Examiner. So when the Chronicle continued publishing the strip without Fisher, he brought
suit, and the paper, once persuaded of the legitimacy of his copyright holding,
dropped its claim. The last of the Westover strips appeared on
Fisher sued again for his rights to the strip, and this time, the case went to
court. In 1914, hearing that Fisher’s contract with Hearst was coming up for
renewal, Wheeler offered Fisher a better syndication deal than Hearst was
giving him. Hearst was then paying
Fisher $300 a week; Wheeler offered the cartoonist $1,000 a week or 60% of the
revenue, whichever was greater. It was a
staggering sum, but Fisher wasn’t convinced Wheeler could make good on the
offer. Wheeler finally persuaded him by depositing a year’s salary in an escrow
account. Fisher signed a contract in December 1914; his last strip for Hearst
offer hadn’t been the first that tempted Fisher away from Hearst. Shortly after
“My friend,” said Fisher, “I don’t know who you are, but if you will guarantee to fire me and make it stick, I’ll meet you at this afternoon and give you ten thousand dollars.”
Writing his “Confessions,” Fisher concludes the tale: “I walked away, puffing my cigarette and left a startled and dignified substitute general manager. Needless to say, he didn’t fire me. I guess I was pretty fresh in those days.”
Fisher's fights for his rights as a cartoonist were not confined to the courtroom. And the fighting began early. In his Comic Art in America, Stephen Becker tells us that while Fisher was still a staff cartoonist for the Chronicle, the paper reduced the size allotted to his cartoon without informing him. Fisher calmly tore up his artwork and refused to draw for the smaller size. In effect, he quit. But since he was obliged to give two weeks' notice, he came to the office every day for the next few days. He did not, however, touch pen or paper. His editor soon relented, and Fisher's cartoon resumed at its usual dimension.
Fisher was perfectly constituted for doing battle. According to Rube Goldberg and others who knew him well, Fisher was an inlet of self-assured independence in a churning sea of whimpering egos. He was antagonistic and belligerent—a cocky, scrappy, dapper hard-drinking, carousing denizen of city rooms and saloons. His was the sort of personality that generates legends. For example, there was his habit of using his apartment as a target range, an incident recounted by Wheeler in his book, I've Got News For You.
While waiting for his contract with Hearst to expire, Fisher was doing no strips. To fill his idle hours, he went with Wheeler on an expedition south of the border to interview Pancho Villa, the bandit who had somehow become the savior of his country. Villa gave Fisher a six-shooter that he'd taken from the body of a man whose execution Fisher and Wheeler had been invited to watch.
took the pistol back to
"You're too damn strict around here," Fisher said. "It is getting so you can't shoot off a pistol in your own place at four in the morning without someone complaining. I'll move out tomorrow."
"You bet you will," said the superintendent. And he did.
the Mexican adventure, Fisher resumed Mutt
and Jeff, this time for Wheeler, his first strip dated
April 1917, the United States, until then resolutely neutral about the
he showed up at the training camp, Fisher reported, “I knew very little about
what people did before
. I once got up early and
was served with a subpoena I had been ducking for months, which proves that the
early bird gets the subpoena and not the worm.” At camp, Fisher encountered the
peculiar but unassailable logic that always governs military life and mystifies
civilians. “I had read in the papers that most of the fighting in
weekends, Fisher took a hotel room in nearby
his account of his adventures as a soldier, Fisher somewhat coyly mentions only
that his were “special duties” that “kept me along the Western Front for
several months.” He confesses that he was assigned a “staff car, which gave me
a lot of freedom and an opportunity to visit the American Front—always by way
Fisher says that he saw “considerable fighting,” but it must have been from a distance. He adds, rather gracefully, “My experience at the Front was colorless compared with that of other soldiers so I shall not dwell on it.” But he can’t resist his comedic urge: “One thing that always amazed me was how easy it was to slip by the front lines. There was no sign to tell you where they were until you got shot at.”
of Fisher’s duties at the censor’s office was draw Mutt and Jeff for American publication. He send his weekly batches
of six daily strips back to the states from
Fisher—and Mutt and Jeff—served until the end of the War, and Beaverbrook had him created a “perpetual” second lieutenant in the British army. Runyon lost his bet.
Almost immediately upon Fisher’s discharge, Wheeler, responding to demand, contracted with Fisher for a Sunday Mutt and Jeff. “I have never taken so great an interest in the page as in the daily pictures,” Fisher said. “The Sunday page must necessarily be for children since it is they who demand the funnies as soon as the newspaper comes into the house while the strips are intended more for adult readers. I don’t think I have the point of view of the child since I have never had one myself.” (Note that Fisher refers to the daily releases as “strips” as distinguished from the Sunday version which fills an entire “page” of the paper.)
Fisher had another bias against the Sunday page. In order to allow for making the color plates and subsequent matts for distribution to syndicate clients, the Sunday version had to be produced several weeks in advance of publication date. And Fisher “always contended that it keeps up the standard of the comic to draw it as near the publication date as possible” in order to base his comedy “as much as possible” on the news of the day.
By the twenties, Fisher was enjoying his social life so much that he left most of the work on the strip to Ed Mack. In this respect, too, Fisher may have set the mold. For a long time, the average newspaper reader, who acquired his perception of the world from what he read in his paper, believed that the famous cartoonists whose escapades were so frequently related on the front pages spent most of their time lolling around in fancy nightclubs while their strips were being drawn by underpaid starving teenagers, who slaved away in secrecy in some obscure garret. In Fisher's case, this perception was probably close to the truth. (As it was with another Fisher, Ham, whose Joe Palooka was drawn by others even if it was written by its creator of record.)
Bud Fisher soon became a gambling, womanizing sun-dodger, who seldom handled a pen anymore. And the more he moved in society's salons, the less use he had for his erstwhile brethren of the inky-fingered fraternity. He regularly snubbed his one-time friends. "He squandered his life and was a very unhappy man," Wheeler wrote.
died in 1954 at the age of 70. His last
years were desolate and lonely. He was
sick and solitary in a huge museum of a
The strip that made Fisher a wealthy celebrity graduated from pedestrian race-track touting to classic comedy when the tall and gangling Mutt acquired his diminutive side-kick: Mutt had encountered Jeff among the inmates of an insane asylum in late March 1908, but it wasn't until a year or so later that Fisher brought Jeff back into the strip as a regular cast member. The skinny tall man sort of adopted the short fellow, and the historic team was born. By then, the strip was appearing in Hearst's New York American, well on its way to national distribution. Even before Jeff's arrival, however, Fisher had pioneered another of the medium's conventions—narrative that continues from one day to the next.
Fisher had recognized at once the potential of the daily comic strip for bringing readers back day after day after day. The central device of A. Mutt virtually forced the cartoonist into day-to-day continuity. Mutt places a bet one day; the outcome is reported the next day. And Mutt promptly places another bet. To learn whether Mutt won or lost, we must buy a paper every day. But Fisher soon began to bait his hook with other embellishments.
In early January 1908, Fisher insinuated another storyline into the daily ritual. Mutt's wife divorces him, and Mutt begins paying court to another woman. Even in the throes of courtship, however, the plunger makes his daily dash to the betting window. Despite his addiction, he wins the lady's hand—only to lose her once and for all when he deserts her at the altar in order to place a wager on a horse named Lazell running in the Third Race that day. Subsequently, Mutt’s wife takes him back, telling him that the divorce had been faked, a tactic she cooked up with a judge to jolt Mutt into dependable domesticity. The scheme, clearly, didn't work. They resume their marriage, Mutt as devoted to the track as ever.
Obviously, Fisher's strip was aimed at adult readership. Wagering is an adult diversion. And the strip appeared on the sports pages of the paper, a section reflecting adult preoccupations. Obvious factors but worth noting. The Sunday funnies were conceived at least in part as entertainment for children. Not Fisher's strip. At first, he did seven strips a week, one for Sunday and six for the weekdays. But the Sunday strip ran in black-and-white on the sports page, not in the colored comics section. He knew his audience. And in deliberately appealing to adult readership, Fisher once again set the pace for the medium. Although in the popular mind, the comics still remain "kid stuff," they never were directed at youngsters in the daily format: from the very beginning, cartoonists wrote and drew their weekday comic "strips" for adults.
In yet another way, Fisher may have shaped the medium. This time, less commendably. There is ample evidence to indicate that Fisher deliberately assumed a rudimentary drawing style for rendering the adventures of Augustus Mutt. Fisher's other cartoons for the Chronicle (some drawn before he started A. Mutt; some after) display a drawing ability that, while not spectacular, is accomplished, better than merely adequate. In fact, some of the pen portraits of Mutt that the strip's continuity occasioned in 1908 show a command of the nuances of cross-hatching and shading that is a cut above the skill otherwise revealed in the strip. Fisher apparently believed that cartoons of the sort he was inventing with A. Mutt should be drawn in a crude almost clumsy manner. I'm not talking about Mutt's heron-like appearance—his beaky, chinless visage and tall rangy build or his raw-boned, loose-limbed all-elbows-and-knees mode of locomotion. No, I'm talking about basic anatomy and such other artistic fundamentals as simple perspective. In giving his protagonist human dimension, Fisher was apt to change Mutt's proportions from one panel to the next: when he bent his arms and legs, they got longer. And the characters very often looked as if they didn't quite fit the surroundings Fisher gave them: chairs and doorways were too small, and various furnishings tilted wildly to conform to Fisher's idiosyncratic understanding of perspective.
To the extent that A. Mutt provided a model for others to emulate—and as the roaringly successful first of its kind, the strip's influence was considerable—Fisher demonstrated the way a comic strip should be drawn—crudely. His influence in this regard was not, fortunately, pervasive. Cartoonists like Winsor McCay who had a towering talent drew in the way their talent dictated and produced art works of great beauty. Even artists with less skill were driven mostly by their gifts, and, drawing as well as they could, they created reasonably accomplished pictures. But Fisher had opened a door, and through that door, many less talented artists could now pass. More significantly, Fisher, perhaps unwittingly, gave the reading public the impression that comic strips should be ineptly rendered. It was an image the medium would carry for years—decades. Regardless of how popular comic strips became (and they were very popular indeed from the very beginning), for much of their early history, comic strips were seen as sensational, amateurishly drawn appeals to the baser instincts of newspaper readers. And for that, the vulgarities of Richard Outcault’s Yellow Kid was partly responsible; and Bud Fisher must surely shoulder his share of the blame, too.
Speculation about Fisher's impact upon comic strip graphics and upon the public perception of the artistic merit of comic strips aside, it's clear that when Fisher launched A. Mutt, he defined the new genre almost at birth. A. Mutt presented itself as a "strip" of pictures, its narrative was continued from day-to-day, and it was aimed deliberately at an adult audience. At this late date in the study of comic strips (we've been pondering them seriously at least since about 1970), it may come as a surprise that the first of the breed burst upon the pages of a San Francisco newspaper with virtually all of the medium's conventions in place at the very onset. Upon reflection, though, it is not quite so astonishing. As Samuel Johnson said of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, "When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do the rest." With newspaper cartoons, once the decision had been made to format them in "strips" and run them daily, the rest—continuity from day-to-day, even adult readership— follows logically. And these elements were not the last of Fisher's innovations. He continued to play with the medium, and over the next two years, he explored many facets of the form that others would take up again in later years.
For the first two months of his new strip's run, Fisher repeated essentially the same gag every day, seven days a week. The punchline was Mutt's daily bet, and the last panel in every strip showed Mutt dashing up to the betting window, knees and elbows a-flap with the exertion of his desperate haste, a few dollars clenched in his fist. Fisher varied the daily drill in one of two ways: Mutt's predicament on one day might be determining which horse to bet on; on another day, his dilemma might be how to acquire enough money to place a bet.
Mutt often overhears a phrase in the discourse of passers-by and, taking the phrase as some sort of omen, he bets on a horse whose name he hears in that conversational fragment. Mutt's compulsion is overpowering. He can be diverted from any endeavor by chancing upon a phrase or a word that suggests which pony to play that day. He jumps in the bay to rescue a woman from drowning, and when she drops a word of gratitude, Mutt abandons her to her fate in order to get to the track in time to bet on "Thanks Be." He has a heart attack as a result of some betting misfortune, but on his sick bed, he hears his doctor recommend rest and "sea air," so he leaps out the hospital window to place a bet on "Sea Air" to win. He even arises from the dead to get to the track. Stricken by "apoplexy," Mutt dies and is buried. In the grave, he overhears the grave diggers discussing that day's races, and when they mention Pullman as a sure thing, Mutt bursts out of the earth and makes his customary last-panel sprint to the betting window.
To get money to bet, Mutt finds employment as a policeman, the first of many miscellaneous jobs he'll hold over the years. But he can't keep the job: he runs off to the track every time he hears the name of a horse. Eventually, he steals from Cicero's piggy bank, sells the family parrot, hocks the bathtub and, eventually, the clothes off his back.
The comedy in these early strips arises entirely from Mutt's run of bad luck and his overwhelming obsession. But Mutt doesn't always lose. Because Fisher was picking the names of real horses that ran in real races, Mutt sometimes wins. And when he does, Fisher keeps track of the size of Mutt's bankroll, recording its dwindling (or increasing) amount in the last panel of each daily installment. Fortunately for the strip's comedy, Mutt loses more often than he wins, so he never has a stake large enough to quell for long the general feeling of frantic desperation that seems to animate him. Then on a fateful day in early February 1908, the "great plunger," as usual in need of cash, steals money from a pay phone. This development started Fisher on a fresh course for his strip—and, as before, he explored new ground for the medium.
For a week or so, Mutt remains a fugitive from justice. He eludes the police, but he still makes his daily dash to the track to place a bet. Caught at last, he is brought to trial, and Fisher stretched the proceedings out for the next six weeks. Mutt still makes a wager in the last panel on most days, but the real interest in the strip is generated by the trial. And to the natural suspense that a trial might create, Fisher added a titillating device: the prosecuting attorney and the various minions of the law surrounding him are devised to remind readers of several local politicians who were engaged in a crusade to clean up the city government of San Francisco.
In the months of reconstruction following the earthquake, municipal graft had flourished, inspiring a commendable civic effort to expunge the corruption. “Reform ran mad,” wrote Bogart Rogers in American Mercury (December 1954), and “a cabal ruled the city with a pious but iron hand.” A grand jury handed down 383 indictments, and the trials began. The investigation was financed by Rudolph Spreckels, who employed “a magnificently mustached recruit from the Secret Service, William J. Burns,” who later achieved fame by running down the culprits who blew up the Los Angeles Times building. The leading prosecuting attorney was Francis J. Heney, “darling of the muckrackers,” who was succeed by an ambitious young lawyer, Hiram W. Johnson.
“There were no dull moments during the graft prosecutions,” said Rogers. “Prosecutor Heney was shot and seriously wounded by a prospective juror named Hass, who subsequently committed suicide in his jail cell. Police Chief W.J. Biggy was fished, dead, from San Francisco Bay in a did-he-jump-or-was-he-pushed mystery. The home of the star prosecution witness was wrecked by a bomb. ... Safes were cracked; evidence stolen.”
But, Rogers continued, “the prosecution faltered; convictions were few and far between.” And San Franciscans were frustrated, then bored, then unhappy—then ashamed that their city appeared so disreputably in the nation’s spotlight. Fisher saw the entire enterprise as an opportunity: “I began to kid the investigation in a good-natured way,” he wrote. Caricatures of the principals in the investigation showed up in the same roles at Mutt’s trial. “I named them after things to eat,” Fisher said in “Confessions.” Heney appeared as Attorney Beaney; Spreckels as Pickles; a lawyer named Shortridge was Short Ribs. Detective Burns was christened Tobasco. In his book, Wheeler elaborates on Fisher’s method: “Fisher once saw Burns in a Turkish bath, he says, with curl papers in his mustache, the great detective’s most pronounced facial characteristic. The next morning in the strip, Burns was shown wearing curl papers in his mustache. Throughout the rest of the trial, Burns made his daily entrance with the curl papers in his mustache, much to Mr. Burns’ own chagrin. In fact, there are some spectators who say Mr. Burns even let the corners of his famous mustache droop for a time.”
The references by which Fisher jogged the memories of his readers are obscure today, but in the winter of 1908, they were doubtless clanging alarm bells in the minds of those who read the strip. And Fisher rang the bells every day, day after day, mentioning “curl papers,” “the $30,000" and one dignitary's "goat" (which Fisher "got"). As political satire, this sort of thing was pretty thin. But as outright ridicule, heavy-handed though it was, it probably delighted Fisher's readers: the barely veiled references amounted to name-calling in public, a sensationalized novelty for the embryonic comic strip form (even if the same techniques were common practice in the news columns of many newspapers of the day).
According to Rogers, the laughter Fisher incited gave San Franciscans a much needed reprieve from the national humiliation their city was suffering daily as the “graft prosecutions” dragged on without resolution. The title of his American Mercury article is “Augustus Mutt: Hero of San Francisco.” Said Rogers: “The town grinned, smiled, guffawed hilariously as day after day Fisher’s sharp and perspicacious pen cut the reformers to ribbons. He did with laughs what others had failed to do with countless solemn editorials and pompous speeches. It was widely agreed that he, more than any other factor, stopped the Donnybrook which was saddening San Francisco and ruining her municipal reputation.” Amid the laughter, the trials were permitted to fade away.
Depicting Mutt’s trial in the newspaper, Fisher continued in the spirit of experimentation that had inspired the initial appearance of the strip. He toyed with the incipient form, capitalizing upon its daily recurrence and the medium in which it appeared. He converted his strip from a narrative of sequential visuals to a miniature newspaper. Each daily installment featured a succession of pictures, "newspaper photos," of the principals with accompanying captions as Fisher reported the daily developments in the Mutt Case. The strip assumed a new "voice"—the voice of the front-page headlines of a daily newspaper. Fisher would use the device again later in the year; and the technique would be refined twenty years later by Roy Crane in Wash Tubbs.
The trial is of interest today for yet another reason: it brought us to the immortal Jeff. Mutt is found guilty, of course (he was guilty, after all), but he is released after serving only a couple days because of suggestions of malfeasance among the officers of the court. The constant references to the corruption of the real city government thus opened the way for Fisher to free his protagonist. But Mutt's sanity was brought into question during the trial, and as soon as he is released from jail, he finds himself committed to a local insane asylum. (Fisher skimps on the reasons for this development; and so, therefore, must we.) In the "bughouse," Mutt meets such
historic personages as Shakespeare, George Washington, the Czar of Russia, and assorted millionaires, poets, kings, and captains of industry. Among these deluded souls is a short bald fellow with muttonchop whiskers who believes he is James Jeffries, the heavyweight boxing champion of contemporary notoriety (particularly on the sports pages where A. Mutt appeared). Little Jeff at last has arrived, wandering on stage March 27, 1908.
Jeff (called Jeffries for many of his earliest appearances) is the bughouse fall guy. The other inmates are always playing tricks on the poor boob. But he doesn't seem to mind. As Fisher put it, "What's the diff? He's just as happy as if he had good sense."
Jeff did not immediately become Mutt's ever-present side-kick and comic factotum. He was, rather, just another member of the strip's growing cast. When Mutt is released from the asylum, Jeff occasionally visits the plunger—usually in the company of "General Delivery," another of the inmates. Through most of April and May, however, Fisher resumed his ridiculing of the city's corrupt politicians, using the same "newspaper format" approach as he had used during Mutt's trial. For a time, the strip ceased to be a "strip"—a narrative sequence of drawings—becoming instead a series of daily tableaux that poked fun at the foibles of local politicians. (All of these strips can be witnessed in the 1977 Hyperion Press book, A. Mutt.)
When the 1908 Presidential campaign began heating up that summer, Mutt was again linked with Jeff. Mutt is the Bughouse Party nominee for President, and Jeff is the other half of the ticket. This may be the first time a comic character ran for the U.S. Presidency (and Mutt and Jeff will do it again several times), but Fisher did not much exploit this rich vein of material. In fact, he uses the campaign as an excuse to reprise his now-familiar needling of San Francisco politicos. He must have enjoyed this sort of thing a great deal, and he probably was encouraged by public reception of the maneuver, but the constant chorus of the same material ($30,000, curl papers, the goat) makes dull reading in later years.
On Election Day in November, Jeff returns to the strip (as does Mutt). Jeff makes periodic re-appearances over the next year, eventually proving himself the ideal foil for Mutt. By mid-1909, Jeff is a regular cast member, appearing frequently, and in July, according to historian Allan Holtz in The Early Years of Mutt and Jeff, the strip was officially entitled Mutt and Jeff. But according to the court papers of the 1915 legal skirmish with Hearst, the first time the names were coupled in print was in 1910 when a booklet reprinting a selection that year’s strips was published with the title The Mutt and Jeff Cartoons. (Fisher filed copyright papers dated September 22, 1910. He applied to trademark the name on November 14, 1914, just as his contract with Hearst was coming up for renewal; the trademark was granted March 9, 1915. Hearst, meanwhile, anticipating Fisher’s departure and hoping to secure the strip’s name for a successor to perpetuate, began using Mutt and Jeff as a title of the strip on December 11, 1914—but only in the New York American not in other newspapers to which the strip was syndicated.)
Fisher had widened the scope of his strip's focus very early in its history, as we've seen, by turning from horse-playing to politics (from one kind of horse-play to another, we might say). He did it deliberately: he aimed to broaden the appeal of the strip. And he continued to search for ways to make Mutt and Jeff interesting to the widest possible readership. He saw that many entertainers achieved success by appealing to the special interests of a particular group. He reasoned that "if Mutt and Jeff appealed to everyone—high-brow, low-brow, man, woman, and child—their value to me would be much greater."
Although he subsequently determined that "the high-brow sense of humor does not differ much from the low-brow," he decided his other distinctions were valid. "So I worked out a scheme," he wrote in American Magazine of May 1920, "which I have followed ever since. Mutt and Jeff do something one day that will tickle the women; the next day, the kids; the next day, I try to give the old man a laugh. If Mutt hits Jeff across the face with a fish, Father says, `That isn't funny!' Mother sniffs and looks away without a grin. But the small boy yells. The next day, Mother gets the laugh. And finally, I squeeze a grin out of Father. After a while, it gets to be a habit."
With the emergence of Little Jeff as Mutt's partner, the strip acquired the humane dimension that made it a classic: it ceased to be solely a daily chorus about crass money-grubbing and became a cautionary tale about the human condition. Mutt remained the scheming conniver that he'd always been as a horse-player: his role in the strip was to come up with ways to make a buck. Jeff's seeming mental deficiency made him the perfect innocent, the ideal foil for Mutt the Materialist. And the strip's comedy soon took its vintage form with Mutt's avaricious aspirations perpetually frustrated by Jeff's benign and well-intentioned ignorance. Foiled by the little man's uncomprehending bumbling, Mutt often responds with classic vaudevillian exasperation: the strips' punchlines are frequently precisely that, punches. In the best slapstick tradition of the stage, Mutt lets his pesky partner have it in the face with a pie, a dead chicken, a brick, or whatever object he happens to have in his hand when he realizes the little runt had scuttled yet another scheme with his literal-minded stupidity. Being beaned with a brick was a classic Mutt and Jeff finish long before George Herriman took the same device and turned it into krazy katty poetry.
Often deploying gentle Jeff as his shill in a succession of careers and enterprises together, Mutt sometimes conceives plans that have the incidental effect of victimizing the little fellow. But we always root for Jeff: visually, the short guy is the underdog, and most American readers cheer for the underdog out of cultural habit. As usual, Fisher was perfectly aware of what he was doing:
"Mutt is a big, simple-minded boob who is always trying and always blundering," Fisher once said. "The great majority of people like Jeff much more than they do Mutt; but Mutt always has been my pal and friend. Mutt is trying, and making mistakes, just like the rest of us, and he is a rough worker at times. People like Jeff because he is smaller, and almost every person in the world is for the little guy against the big one."
And Little Jeff in his innocence and kindliness justifies our faith. Regardless of Mutt's machinations, Jeff invariably winds up on top, unwittingly victorious over whatever traps or pitfalls may have lain in his path. So does the benevolent nature of humankind seem somehow to triumph eventually over its baser instincts in the long, long run. We laughed at them both, but we merely tolerated Mutt and his schemes; we loved little Jeff.
Fisher and his assistants were able to work endless variations on their simple theme. It wore well. The strip ran for over 75 years.
When Ed Mack died in 1932, the strip was inherited by his sometime assistant, Al Smith. Albert Schmidt was born March 2, 1902, in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Henry Schmidt and Josephine Dice. After attending public schools, he started in newspapering as a copy boy for the New York Sun, leaving within a year for the New York World, where he followed the traditional apprenticeship route from copy boy to cartoonist: first, he was permitted to assist other cartoonists, then he drew an occasional fill-in cartoon, and eventually he graduated to his own regular feature. As he launched into his cartooning career, Smith married Erna Anna Strasser on May 25, 1921. Smith’s From 9 to 5, a panel cartoon about office life, was syndicated by the World until the newspaper folded in 1931. United Feature Syndicate continued the strip for a short time, but when it ceased, Smith freelanced, doing artwork for various clients, including the Works Progress Administration and John Wheeler’s Bell Syndicate, where, presumably, he assisted Ed Mack from time to time. When Mack died, Wheeler approached Smith about ghosting the strip.
Smith told the story in the newsletter of the National Cartoonists Society, The Cartoonist, on the occasion of Fisher’s death in 1954: “It was during the Depression years, when my wife and I had three small girls, and I was digging ditches for the WPA in New Jersey, that I received a phone call from John Wheeler, president of Bell Syndicate, to come over and see him. Bud Fisher needed an assistant artist to help him with Mutt and Jeff. My wife brought the good news in our Model T Ford while I was in mud up to my ankles digging on the job. I threw my shovel to one side and bid my associate ditch diggers a fond but quick good-bye, and away I went to Mutt and Jeff, and I’ve been with them ever since.”
Fisher was not particularly easy to work for, Smith discovered: “Very few people really know—or should I say ‘understood’—Harry Conway (Bud) Fisher. He somehow struck me as being an individual with a dual personality. It seems he was right on the line of being an ordinary person and a genius if there is such a line between the two. I never knew how I would find him. One day, he would be kind, gentle, understanding and appreciative, and the next, hell in all its fury would break loose. A whole week’s work of comic strips would be destroyed by a few strokes of his brush, dripping with black ink. Good was not good enough, and right there, I think, likes the secret of his success. He always wanted the best in everything, and he usually got it. At the time, it was very difficult for me to understand this man. He was so different from everyone else. Early in my career with him, he had me on the point of a nervous breakdown. I left him and went away for a week to rest, coming back with the determination to conquer this most unusual job. The years started to roll by and after quitting four times and being fired once—and in each instance the following day being called on the phone as though nothing had happened—I began to understand Mutt and Jeff’s creator.
“Much of the time in later years, he was ill and confined to bed in his apartment. He was always afraid of being trapped in a fire. He never used an ashtray but would always drop his cigarette butts into a basin of water which stood by the side of his bed.
“We became very close friends as the years passed by. I had many pleasant visits with him when he would reminisce until three or four in the morning and tell me all about the big and little events in his life. I’m a good listener, and he liked a good listener. He could talk for hours, going from one subject to another. I hope I brought him some joy and happiness for in his passing years, he was a lonely man.”
Despite the sporadic interference from the flamboyant and heavy-drinking Fisher, Smith ably conducted the classic strip, eventually revamping it to suit his own comedic sensibilities. Mutt became less a race track tout and sporting enthusiast and more a paterfamilias and bread winner. The habitual gambler was thoroughly domesticated, and the strip focused on his frustrations as husband and father, with occasional forays into various entrepreneurial schemes. Smith’s penchant for humorous animal antics yielded a secondary strip, Cicero’s Cat (about the cat that belonged to Mutt’s son), in a feature that ran at the top of the Mutt and Jeff Sunday page. After Fisher died in 1954, Smith was permitted to sign his own name to the strip, which he continued to do until he left it at the end of 1981, having produced the feature over four times longer than its creator did. Smith died five years later, November 24, 1986.
Smith’s graphic style was more polished than that of his several ghostly predecessors on the strip, but he nonetheless preserved the turn-of-the-century feel of the visuals. By the end of the 1930s, the faces and anatomy of his cast had crystallized into static doodles, stylized glyphs of human appearance, embellished by the cross-hatching and shading techniques of the earlier era.
In 1950, he inaugurated his own feature syndicate, the Smith Service, to provide comic strips and cartoons to weekly newspapers. For this purpose, Smith produced two features, Rural Delivery and Remember When. Other similarly folksy offerings included Down Main Street by Joe Dennett and Pops by George Wolfe. Active in the National Cartoonists Society, Smith held several offices (treasurer for nine years) before being elected president (1967-69). In 1968, his NCS colleagues awarded him the organization’s trophy for the year’s Best Humor Strip.
In late 1981, while Smith was still cranking out Mutt and Jeff, a coup was fomenting in the back alleys of the syndicate. The strip was appearing in only about 40 papers, cartoonist Jim Scancarelli told me, and various of the powers-that-were began to murmur disconsolately about it. Speculation grew that Mutt and Jeff would do better if it were somehow up-dated, modernized, brought into the twentieth century. An agent, one-time syndicate employee and now a freelance prospector in feature properties, hearing the murmurs, thought of George Breisacher.
Breisacher was a staff artist and cartoonist at the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina, where he had been for the last seven or eight years. Born August 24, 1939, Breisacher had explored several occupations before settling on cartooning. After graduating from high school in 1957, he’d worked as a mail carrier until 1963 when he “involuntarily” entered the Army, playing clarinet in the 158th Army Band. He left the martial musical profession in 1965 and began to pursue a career as a newspaper cartoonist/artist, “doing everything I could do to gain experience,” he said. A series of jobs landed him at the Pontiac Press in Michigan in 1967 and then, in 1973, at the Observer. In 1978, he began producing a daily comic strip with United Feature: called Knobs, it was about television. The strip ceased in 1980, and Breisacher thereupon embarked upon an ambitious effort to re-enter syndication with another strip. He submitted candidates for consideration with such frequent regularity that his name was familiar at the syndicate and known to the freelance agent, who, as 1981 dwindled, phoned Breisacher and asked him if he’d like to take over an old-time classic strip. Breisacher, momentarily without another strip idea to submit, said he’d like to consider it, and the agent invited him to New York to discuss the matter. Scancarelli, who, as we shall see, was in a position to know, told me what happened next.
Breisacher found himself having lunch with the agent who had invited Al Smith to join them. During lunch, the agent, to Breisacher’s astonished consternation, told Smith that the syndicate was unhappy with his work on Mutt and Jeff, felt the strip needed a shot of adrenalin, and was going to ask Breisacher to administer the needed nostrum.
“So Smith didn’t know he was on the way out when he came to lunch?” I asked Scancarelli.
“That’s what George told me,” said Jim. “Big surprise.”
At the time, Scancarelli continued, Breisacher didn’t know which of the Mutt and Jeff characters was the tall one and which was the short one, but he accepted the assignment for the sake of the challenge. He did the strip for the first couple weeks of 1982, but, according to Scancarelli, he modernized the look of the feature so much that subscribing newspapers began to complain.
“George drew it like no one had ever seen before,” Jim told me. “It was unique.”
The syndicate asked him to tone down his treatment and draw the strip in a somewhat less extravagant manner, which Breisacher, as it turned out, didn’t want to do. Having concocted the new, modern style, he evidently didn’t want to scale it back into something akin to the traditional Fisher-Smith manifestation. Whatever the cause, Breisacher phoned his Charlotte friend and fellow cartoonist Scancarelli, who was at the time assisting Dick Moores on Gasoline Alley.
If second acts are almost never as good as first acts in syndicated comic strips, third acts are completely unheard of. And yet, Gasoline Alley has enjoyed both the impossible and the unheard of. Moores, born in 1909, performed the impossible when, after a four-year apprenticeship on the strip, he took it over in 1960 at the retirement of its creator, Frank King; and Scancarelli, born in 1941 (coincidentally, on August 24, same date as Breisacher but a few years later), did the unheard of when he succeeded Moores at the latter’s death in 1986. Before becoming Moores’ assistant in 1979, Scancarelli worked as a commercial artist, first in television (he made the first color animated movie for a local tv station in his hometown, Charlotte), then, freelance, preparing slide art. When computers came along, capable of producing slide art faster and cheaper than an artist, Scancarelli was suddenly out of work. That’s when he joined Moores, eventually inking everything on the strip except the characters’ faces. And then came Mutt and Jeff.
Starting with the January 18, 1982 release, Breisacher wrote and Scancarelli drew Mutt and Jeff for the next eighteen months, until the strip, finally, expired with its June 25, 1983 release. Their tenure embraced the strip’s 75th anniversary on November 15, 1982, and when, eleven years later, Gasoline Alley passed the three-quarters century mark, Scancarelli became the only cartoonist to have worked on two strips in their seventy-fifth year. At first, Breisacher turned the strips over to Scancarelli with the speech balloons lettered and inked, but Scancarelli soon asked him not to ink the lettering: “George was a good gag man,” Jim said, “but Mutt was a tall character, and sometimes George’s speech balloons didn’t leave me enough room at the top of the panel to draw Mutt at full length. With penciled speech balloons, I could shift things around to make room for drawings.”
One of Breisacher’s gags yielded an unexpected consequence. The punchline gave Newark, New Jersey, a negative glow, and the mayor promptly dispatched a letter to Breisacher, forbidding him to ever set foot in the precincts of his fair city—“or even to fly over it!” Scancarelli said. “Some folks take their comics seriously!”
Scancarelli thought Smith’s drawing style was entirely adequate, but he didn’t want to draw it that way: it tied the strip to the 1940s, he thought. He admired the appearance of the strip in the 1920s when Ed Mack was doing it.
In developing his own stylistic treatment, he modeled the construction of the characters on Mack’s—their way of walking and standing; he elongated Mutt’s nose a little and thinned it out, but it was in inking the drawings that Scancarelli streamlined the strip’s appearance and modernized it. He added just a little cross-hatching and fine-line feathering along the edges, enough to give the drawings an antique gloss, but his flexible brush strokes, waxing and waning as they delineated the figures in bold outline, burnished Mutt and Jeff to a throughly up-to-date sheen.
All the effort Breisacher and Scancarelli devoted to the strip came, alas, to naught. The circulation of Mutt and Jeff did not climb miraculously, and in June 1983, a syndicate official phoned Breisacher and invited him to lunch in New York. Breisacher flew up and had lunch, during which, the syndicate factotum, in effect, fired the cartoonist.
Breisacher, bemused by the coincidence of the similar circumstances of his hiring and his firing, remarked that “it was the first time I had to fly to get fired.”
But he wasn’t so much fired as he was retired. “The syndicate guy told George we could continue it if we wanted to,” Scancarelli said, “but at a considerably reduced rate. Only about half of what we’d been getting. We were splitting only $150-200 a week as it was, and when we talked it over, we decided—six dailies and a Sunday strip—it was too much work for too little recompense. So we gave it up.” And so did Field Newspaper Syndicate.
Afterwards, Scancarelli joked that he had single-handedly killed the famed strip. The gag on June 23 had been his and his alone. Breisacher had evidently taken the day off. “I wrote it and drew it myself,” Jim exclaimed, “and two days later, the feature came to an end! I didn’t think the June 23 strip had been that bad!”
After the demise of Mutt and Jeff, Breisacher concocted his second tv-related strip, Channel One, which he did just for the Observer; by 1988, he was doing another Observer-only strip, this one, Ozone, offering off-beat comedy appeared three times a week. He also began devoting more and more of his spare time to the National Cartoonists Society, which he had joined in 1973. He started the Southeast chapter of NCS in 1990, the year after he took on the editorship of The Cartoonist. He edited the newsletter for the next nine years, then served as NCS president, 1997-99. He retired from the Observer in 2000 and died in 2003, a respected and revered member of NCS.
In 1986, Scancarelli inherited Gasoline Alley and sustained the strip’s King-crafted homespun tone and Moore-like crisp visuals, winning the NCS Best Story Strip Plaque in 1989. And he’s still at it. Next year, 2008, Gasoline Alley will be ninety on November 24, and Scancarelli will have been working on it for 29 years (signing it for 22), just a year short of his predecessor’s mark: Moores worked on the strip for 30 years, signing it for 26. Says Scancarelli about the writing of the Gasoline Alley: “Frank King and Dick both left very indelible fingerprints on these characters. Their personalities are so set that they act out the stories themselves. I just throw them into a situation, and they go about doing whatever they’re going to do.”
Scancarelli has done stories on such topical issues as deafness (Walt’s) and naturalization, and he has sent members of the ensemble off on some fairly wild adventures, too. A passionate fan of his medium, he often devotes Sunday strips (no longer “pages’) to nostalgic evocations of the comics of yesteryear, and he draws every installment, daily or Sunday, with painstaking thoroughness, seemingly in defiance ofthe hostility to cartoon art on any scale that prevails throughout the newspaper industry. Mutt and Jeff, burnished into modernity by Scancarelli’s fluid line, make periodic appearances in the strip. They and numerous of their vintage paper-and-ink fellowship reside nearby at the Comic Strip Characters Retirement Home, where their best friend, Walt Wallet, Gasoline Alley’s senior citizen, comes to visit every so often. But even when the gangly Mutt and the diminutive Jeff are out of sight, they’re scarcely out of the nation’s consciousness: whenever we see a tall man with a short friend, we cannot help but think of Mutt and Jeff. They’ve joined the immortals.
Some of the foregoing appeared as a chapter in my book, The Art of the Funnies, but that material has been extensively supplemented here with biographical information about Smith and Breisacher and Scancarelli, plus more information about Fisher. But if this sort of expedition through the history of the medium gives you pleasure, you’ll be happy to know there’s more of the same, cover-to-cover, in The Art of the Funnies, an advertisement for which appears here.
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