Tuesday, January 12, 2010


holy Mackerel! Look at that (above)!

If anyone deserves the accolade, "Father of the Modern Comic Strip," it would have to be Wilhelm Busch, who did his best work (above) in the 1850s and 1860s.

Okay, technically that honor belongs to another German (well, actually Swiss), Rudolphe Topffer, who did sequential strips as early as 1839 (above), but he wasn't as funny or as skilled as Busch. Busch had what it took to set other artists' imagination on fire.

With a lead like that you would think Germany would have dominated comic strip art for decades to come, but that wasn't the case. Eventually German cartoonists retreated back to stolid and far less funny one-panel cartoons like the one from Simplicissimus magazine above.

What an odd thing to do! Why did the country repudiate an art form (comic strips) that the public loved, and which seemed destined for success?

The answer, so far as I can tell, is that the funny German cartoonists didn't repudiate it, they simply moved to America and practiced the art form there. Look at the names of the early American strip artists: Outcault, Opper, Dirks, etc....they're all German!

Many of them were second and third generation German Americans whose parents had fled from the wars of German unification. When they came over here they brought with them the sense of humor that was in the air in Germany at the time they left, and that sense of humor included Wilhelm Busch's brand of slapstick comic strips.

America was fertile soil for that sort of thing. Over here we just wanted to be happy and make money. European cartoonists, on the other hand, were living under the clouds of a growing ideological storm and cartoonists found themselves under increasing pressure to dump the slapstick and be serious.

At the turn of the 20th century a lot of newspaper editors were convinced that only Germans could make good comic strips. American scouts scoured Germany for talent and succeeded in luring away some pretty heavy hitters, like Lyonel Fenninger (above).

Fenninger did some brilliant comics here but missed Germany and went back home. Once there he found he couldn't shake off the influence of the German American comics, and he painted weird syntheses of comics and fine (above) art that were beautiful, but somehow awkward in the extreme. Eventually he settled into abstraction. Too bad. In my opinion he did his best work here.

The German cartoonists who stayed transformed our graphic arts, and when I refer to the Germans, I'm talking about an awful, awful lot of Germans. There were a lot of newspapers in those days, and syndication was in its infancy. Every small town newspaper had German cartoonists toiling away, drawing pratfalls and farmers getting kicked by mules.

When I talked to John K. about this he said something like, "Well, that explains Hitler! We siphoned off all the funny cartoonists from Germany, and then they had no humorists left to stand up to the Nazis. Funny cartoonists would have shredded Hitler before he got big enough to hurt anybody!"

BTW, how do you like "Hairbreadth Harry," in the cartoons above? It's by the German American cartoonist, Charles W. Kahles.


kellie said...

Hairbreadth Harry is terrific. Some long stories from the daily strip were reprinted in the '80s in Nemo magazine (Fantagraphics), issues 14 and 15, maybe other issues too, I'm not sure.

Justin said...

I love Wilhelm Busch, and like Hairbreadth Harry quite a bit. The story goes that the creator of Harry fell into cartooning by accident, after the regular newspaper cartoonist didn't show up in the office.

Zoran Taylor said...

Sufferin' Saurkraut, John is right.....AGAIN!

Joel Brinkerhoff said...

I was surprised to see how many visual gags animation borrowed from
Busch and had some examples on my blog here:


Brubaker said...

I'll always appreciate Lyonel Feininger.

I find it interesting that he's pretty well known among comics fans, especially if you consider that his two strips were very short-lived. "The Kin-der-Kids" and "Wee Willie Winkie's World" each only lasted six months in print. And considering that they were both Sunday-only features, that means there were only about two dozen strips made for each.

It says alot that Lyonel's strips stand out among the sea of short-lived strips. It is a shame that they never made it.

changz said...

Sometimes having pressure against being funny makes the artist strive more to be funny and creative. While we had too much freedom and too little restrictions, the sub-conscious motive becomes less.

Mark Simonson said...

Hairbreadth Harry looks like it might have been the inspiration for Politenessman, a strip by cartoonist Ron Barrett that ran for years in National Lampoon. He even looks like him. Politenessman would ignore the most outrageous behavior for the sake of correcting some silly slight of manners.

diego cumplido said...

Eddie, here you can find German Nazi cartoons from war time. Have you seen those?

By the way, great post, I've got the complete works of Wilhelm Busch next to the Smithsonian collection of Newspaper Comics on my bookshelf since last December, and I've been thinking a lot about this. Thanks.

Steven M. said...

Such a shameful waste of talent in Germany.

Jack G. said...

While I have some knowledge about the history of comic strips I never considered the "German Influence".

Did you get this idea out of a particular book or did you come upon the theory on your own?

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Mark: I just looked up Politenessman! Thanks for the tip!

Diego: Wow! Interesting wartime art! Gracias!

Brubaker: Wee Willie's was great! If only there had been more!

Jack: The German connection is in lots of articles about the time, but I don't have any at hand.

Kellie: Thanks much! I'll look it up!

Justin: Haw! I hope that's true!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Joel: A good selection. I wouldn't be surprised if Bob and Tex were influenced by Busch. I wish i knew for sure.

Kirk Nachman said...

I, too, prefer Feininger's comic strips to his later Blau Rieter/Expressionist paintings. But you can't blame the man for partaking in German modernist painting, as it was an exciting time for pictors. I'll never understand why all you cartoonists will pour over the most saccharine old illustrations, but never seem to venture an appreciation for the very cartoony paintings of George Grosz, Otto Dix, and the lesser known Georg Scholz. For that matter the cartoon landscapes of Yves Tanguy! We love to talk about the surrealism of Clampett, but somehow stop short of going beyond Dali's Persistence of Memory.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

K. Nacht: Good Lord! You cut me to the quick! I love the artists you mentioned. If I have a bias toward cartoonists, it's because I am a cartoonist, and I naturally write about what I know.

If we all devoted our blogs to the objectively most deserving we'd have millions of blogs about Pasteur, Newton and Farraday, and maybe not so many about artists like ourselves.

Kirk Nachman said...

Sure, sure, Eddie. I don't know that these painters are "objectively most deserving", but I do think exposure to their works would be an asset to cartoondom. Perhaps all the portentious cultural hooplah makes our artists in the popular vein shy away from them.

Are you workin', Eddie? With Spumco on ice, are you booked elsewhere?
In any event, hopes you're well and drawing.

Austin Papageorge said...

This is kind of late, but just look at these clips from a German animated feature from the 90s!


And Here

There's also a moment where someone dresses up as a Hitler like charater, but I can't find the clip!

Austin Papageorge said...

I'm not sure if I named the cartoon, so I'll say (again?) that the name is Werner Beinhart.

Rick Marschall said...

I agree up and down, with minor notes. Toppfer was Swiss, but of his course his lineage was German. Feininger's parents were born in Germany, but he was born in the US. He moved to Germany I think in 1887, moved back here in Hitler's fourth year, 1937. Although he was an active cartoonist for German magazines (social cartoons --> political cartoons, anti-American during WWI) he did Sunday pages for the Chicago Tribune, also comic illustrations for nonsense stories by John Kendrick Bangs in Harper's Young Folks magazine. You could also mention two VERY influential German cartoonists in America, Thomas Nast and Joseph Keppler, founder of PUCK. (Technical note, merely: Opper's ancestors were Austrian -- on his mother's side he was descended from Aaron Burr -- and Keppler was Viennese).

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Rick: Many, many thanks for the interesting info. German speaking countries and German Americans did so much to pioneer the comics. I wish I knew more about what cultural influences brought that about.

Dan Chambers said...

Seeing the Katzenjammer Kids reminds me of a Mad Magazine parody called the Catch-and-hammer Kids by Harvey Kurtzmann and Bill Elder, which I used to read over and over again when I was very young. In fact I don't think I ever actually saw the Katzenjammer Kids till much later.