Showing posts with label early comics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label early comics. Show all posts

Thursday, August 18, 2016


I love the drawing mistakes on old comic book covers. Here (above) a tiny car drops off a dead man who, if he were standing upright, would be taller than the door. His girl, who has a gigantic left leg, backs up to a miniature staircase. It's all goofy, but it works...for me, anyway. 

I don't mind mistakes when they're funny.

I guess that's why I like early comics. They're full of mistakes! How do you like the hand in front of the girl's face or the inappropriate (and no doubt unintentional) grab?

The most frequent mistakes had to do with perspective. Lots of early artists had trouble with it.  What do you think of the panel above? The shooters in the foreground appear to be standing on ladders.

I'm glad editors let them get away with it. It meant that artists felt free to try drastic angles. Sure there were artists who didn't make mistakes, but that's because they played safe and avoided shots that were hard to draw. That's cheating the reader.

The best artists eventually figured out perspective but their later work never had the guts of their earlier stuff.  Even famously smooth DC artist Carmine Infantino (that's his work, above) had trouble with perspective when he first started out. I like his early work better. 

Stunning Exorcist-type head turns (on the bald guy, above) were often combined with bad perspective. The guy in blue appears to be standing on a stack of telephone books.

It's my belief that gutsy but primitive art prompted writers to write better stories, but I guess making the argument for that would require a separate post.


BTW: I've got a lot of work to do around the house so my posts might be a bit irregular for a month or so. I'll get on a normal schedule just as soon as I'm able.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


I thought I'd put up a blog about Topffer, the Swiss artist who's said to have invented the comic strip. All the illustrations in this post are by Topffer. I have a book about the man but I've only spot read in it so far so I hope there's no errors in the chronology.

Let's see....well, in a way the comic strip can be said to have begun in England with lithographic artists like Hogarth, Rowlandson and Gillray. These guys didn't draw serial comic stories but they pioneered the idea of simplified, funny drawings. Before these guys, drawings appearing in print were labored and were expected to have classical artistic merit.

Maybe Napoleon can take some of the credit for the birth of cartooning because the war against him compelled the British to crank up the production of caricatures insulting the French. Cartooning, which was previously shunned as low class, was now regarded as positively patriotic. Of course, after the war a lot of skilled caricaturists were left with nothing to do and once again cartooning began to be perceived as low class.

Enter Rudolphe Topffer, a young university professor in Geneva. He collected wartime English caricatures and was emboldened to try his hand at it after reading a serious book about the shape of people's heads revealing their true personalities. Since caricature was considered beneath the dignity of a professor he had to draw in his basement, out of sight of snooping eyes.

Topffer drew even more loose than the English. Biographers speculate that this is because he had bad eyesight but it may also have come about because he was only an artist in his spare time. Anyway, influenced by his book of heads, he developed a comedic style that didn't depend on political caricature.

It's a good thing he disdained politics because this endeared him to Goethe who hated political caricature. When Topffer published his first book in 1830 Goethe loudly endorsed it, and that opened a lot of doors for the Swiss artist.

Unfortunately his overnight popularity also worked against him. The print run for that book was only a few hundred copies which quickly sold out. After that large numbers of pirate editions were made and a host of imitators sprung up.

One of these was Cham, an artist hired by the publisher to transfer Topffer's drawings onto lithographic stone. Cham took Topffer's serial panel technique, combined it with his own Daumier-type style, and rushed into print with his own books, which sold very well.

In order to compete with his imitators Topffer increasingly put an emphasis on cartoon acting, something the imitators had trouble with. Some of the drawings in his subsequent books looked like still frames from animated fact, you could argue that Topffer was the father of animated cartoons as well as comics. Anyway, his imitators hit back with an English innovation...the word balloon.

Poor Topffer, being a literature professor, clung to the caption and disdained the balloon. For Topffer the incongruity between the sedate caption and the outrageous drawing was what gave cartoons their appeal, but the public increasingly disagreed. Captions lingered on right up to the 20th Century but the word balloon eventually prevailed.

After the mid-19th Century I don't know what happened to Topffer. He was highly regarded by artists but became less known by the public. Maybe his innovations were dimmed by the entry into cartooning of first rate professional artists like Daumier, Dore, Lear and Wilhelm Busch. Maybe his skeptical attitude toward radical politics put people off. I'm not sure.

Anyway, let's raise a Theory Corner glass to the memory of Topffer who did so much to advance cartooning and the comic strip.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Haw! From Allan Holtz's "Stripper's Guide" blog (link in the sidebar) comes yet another roundup of little-known comic strips of a hundred years ago. How do you like "Mr. and Mrs. Pippin" by the same artist who would later do Moon Mullins? Click to enlarge.

Boy, it was hard to make a living as a cartoonist even then!

Here's (above and below) a melodrama by girl artist Russell Patterson.

This (above) looks later than the other strips here, maybe from the 30s or 40s. 

I just can't get enough of the early Herriman. This is a fairly typical Herriman daily... from 1906, I think. 

Above, the relentless law of the cartoonist's universe: be funny or die!

This artist (above) isn't what you'd call wildly innovative, but his compositions are easy on the eye, and he manages to project a quietly happy and friendly tone. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


From approximately 100 years ago, it's George Herriman again! I just can't get enough of this guy. I confess that I've only read a couple of the captions.  The drawings are so funny that the captions hardly matter.

Sometimes (above) he told stories. When he did he was surprisingly wordy.

Most of the time though, he just drew impressions on a theme, the way he does above. His editors kept him on a very loose leash. Today only certain writers have that kind of freedom. 

You can see (above) that Herriman could easily have made it as an illustrator if newspaper comics hadn't panned out. The guy was a killer draughtsman. 

Not everyone here likes Herriman so I thought I'd throw in some cartoons by other artists working in his time. How do you like this one (above)? Geez, there sure was a lot of ethnic humor in those days. 

Here's (above) an interesting one. The staging is a bit unorthodox, and it's very sedate. In view of that, you wonder where the strip gets its high energy level. I've seen other strips by this artist, and every one was as quietly dynamic and demented as this one. How did he manage to pull it off?

Here's (above) an ad, the thirties I think. It's great that advertisers chose to use cartoons like this one to sell their wares. The public associated cartoons with entertainment by and for the common man, and advertisers naturally wanted to get in on that.

This is Allan Holtz, the benefactor of humanity, whose blog, "Stripper's Guide" (link on the right sidebar) is where I got these cartoons. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


I just visited Allan Holtz's site, "Stripper's Guide," and discovered that comics historian Bill Blackbeard died on March 10th. Earlier this month someone told me about his death, but I was distracted and the news didn't register. When I read about it on Holtz's site I was shocked, as if hearing it for the first time. Blackbeard was the the author of "The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics," an indispensable book which almost single-handedly revived interest in old newspaper strips. Several years ago I spent an afternoon with Bill and was much, much impressed. The man will be sorely missed.

As usual Stripper's Guide was full of worthy strips that I never heard of before. What do you think of this one  (above) from 1948?  Does the style seem familiar?  Click to enlarge.

 If it seems familiar, that's because it is! The look is copied from Al Capp's "L'il Abner!" Is the artist, Baldy Benton, responsible or did the Post Syndicate tell him to do it? I don't know.

Here's "Fables and Puzzles" from 1903. It wasn't at all clear at the time that newspaper comics should take the form of serial drawings with word balloons. A number of artists tried this approach (above) with dense captions. 

Here (above) the same artist tries again, this time with serial drawings and reduced captions.

Here's (above) a beautifully drawn strip from 1903 called "The Interfering Idiot." The artist was Raymond Shellcope. I imagine that poor Shellcope couldn't come up with a regular character the public liked, so was consigned to the trash bin of history.

Here's (above) a postcard that Shellcope sent to a friend. The drawing is Shellcope's. How do you like the beautiful penmanship?

All the drawings on this post were stolen from Allan Holtz's excellent blog, "Stripper's Guide." 

Wednesday, October 06, 2010


Some of what I have to say here I've said before, but great truths bear repeating. Besides, this gives me an excuse to put up some killer drawings. All the artwork is from the period 1900-1910, my favorite decade for newspaper comics. Opper (above) did some of his best work then, and so did Herriman, Goldberg, F. W. Marriner, and Fenninger.

Some modern comics fans don't like Opper because they think his drawing style was primitive. That's an odd thing to say. Compared to what's around now (above), Opper was Michelangelo.

Besides, Opper was an important influence on artists like F. W. Marriner (above) who were indisputably killer draftsmen. How do you like Marriner's sketch of the teacher above?

  The pre-Krazy Kat Herriman (above) flourished during this time. Why Herriman ever did Krazy Kat, I'll never know. It was a come-down for him.

Above, more Herriman. What a guy!

I wish I'd copied down the name of this strip (above) and the artist. Who drew it? Was it one of the Felix artists, Sullivan or Messmer? You can see how newspaper strips influenced animated cartoons. You can also see the Opper influence.

 I love the weird, slapstick stories in the old newspaper strips. Here's one (above) of a vengeful goat who sells who sells his enemy's babies to a wandering Italian guy. The mother sees what's going on and delivers a big bear bite to the guy's side. 

Once again, you can see the Opper influence. 

I'm amazed that American newspapers were able to lure fine German artists like Lionel Fenninger (above) over here (actually Fenninger had a complicated lineage...see Norman's comment on this in the comments section). Germany had a wonderful crop of funny artists in this period, and we managed to bring a lot of them over here. 

Maybe that brain drain was catastrophic for Germany. For comparison, imagine that another country like Japan managed to lure away all our great jazz musicians at the start of the Jazz Age. Imagine that China had lured away Elvis and Chuck Berry, and all the great Rock and Roll musicians when Rock and Roll was just starting. 

Then again, Germany was in a mood to be serious in those times. If the funny artists stayed home they might have been ineffectual.

Milt Gross (above) was, of course, from the 30s. I include him here because he carried the cartoony, slapstick, anything-for-a-gag sensibility of the 1910s right into his own era, and he made it work. Don Martin had a lot of that sensibility. 

Current newspaper cartoons are too introverted, too smug, too tiny, too politically correct. I wish they were more outgoing, more...more noisy.

BTW, most of the pictures here are from Allan Holtz's superb blog, "Stripper's Guide," link in the sidebar.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Indisputably in my opinion, the golden age of newspaper comics occurred in the two decades before WWI. It was an era before formulas became locked in,  when the field attracted first-rate artists like the one above (click to enlarge).  Hmmm...well maybe some formulas were locked in.  Editors couldn't get enough of Katzenjammer Kids-type stories where kids torment adults. 

Arists that weren't first rate made up for it by being downright weird (above).  Here the fruits and vegetables have a picnic, which is disrupted by a cow who eats them. 

Editorial cartoons were terrific in this period. How do you like this one (above) by Herriman? No wonder he was a favorite of Hearst.

Some of these pre-war cartoons were incredibly violent.  Here (above) a woman is threatened by a mugger and she sticks him with a pin.... in the stomach! Ouch! Good drawings, though. 

I love visual stories like this (above).  The storyteller was a continuing character, but the strips structure was loose enough to permit almost anything.  There was room for imagination. In later years regular characters in predictable situations dominated, and artists were expected to use the same setting, day after day after dreary day.

This is a sore point with me. I wish current editors wouldn't put so much emphasis on regular characters in rigidly defined situations.  Aren't you glad that Mad allowed the young Don Martin to draw whatever took his fancy, regular characters or not? Aren't you glad that he wasn't shoe-horned into a sitcom format?

I have a lot of tolerance for racial and ethnic humor when it's funny and not mean-spirited, but even I cringe at strips like the one above.  I include it here because it's so well drawn. 

More strips like these can be seen at Allan Holtz's "Stripper's Guide:"