Sunday, March 20, 2011

Mrs. Waitaminnit—The Woman Who Is Always Late: George Herriman’s First Daily Strip?

What was George Herriman’s first daily comic strip? Even though Herriman is acknowledged by many artists and critics as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, cartoonists to ever work in the art form, it turns out that there still is not a straightforward answer to that question. In his article from 1983 titled “The Forgotten Years of George Herriman,” Bill Blackbeard wrote:
It has now become evident that research into the classic period of the American comic strip, a still considerably obscure era between 1896 and 1930, will not be completed until the files of every American newspaper of any sizable circulation in that general time has been examined… Even in the instances of those cartoonists who have been considered of major rank for a great many years… there may well be extraordinary surprises in store for the assiduous researcher. (NEMO: The Classics Comics Library, June 1983)
I had one of those extraordinary surprises last week, but the research that uncovered it was more serendipitous than assiduous.

While I was researching the 1903 World Series in the Evening World using the Library of Congress’s excellent digital collection of newspapers Chronicling America, I stumbled on a page of comics following the sports section. And a strip called Mrs. Waitaminnit—the Woman Who Is Always Late, to my surprise, was signed “Geo. Herriman.” I checked the issues of the newspaper before and after and determined that there were twenty-two episodes of this comic strip from September 15, 1903 to October 13, 1903. Excepting the second episode, they were all authored by Herriman. I had never heard of Mrs. Waitaminnit before. The authors of Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman wrote that Herriman’s first weekday strip was Home Sweet Home which had four episodes in February and March 1904 (probably favoring the term weekday over daily because the episodes weren’t consecutive). Bill Blackbeard identified Herriman’s first daily to run more than a week (a total of ten episodes) as Mr. Proones the Plunger, which ran from December 10, 1907 until December 26, 1907. Mrs. Waitaminnit predates both Home Sweet Home and Mr. Proones the Plunger and covers a longer period, so it’s now the earliest daily we know of by Herriman. His first daily? Maybe… but I wouldn’t be surprised if more turn up. In fact, there are a few one-shot and two-shot comic strips that appear in early 1903 in the same paper.

One more observation I can’t resist: a black cat with a ribbon, which made its first appearance in Herriman’s Sunday supplement Lariat Pete, appears in the later episodes of this series.

Below are all of the episodes of Mrs. Waitaminnit. They include the one episode not by Herriman, as well as a comic strip by Herriman called Little Tommy Tattles which was substituted for two episodes. They are from the Evening World, downloaded from the Library of Congress website Chronicling America. The images of this newspaper were provided to the Library of Congress by the New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundation.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Herriman's Animals

George Herriman is known almost exclusively for a single comic strip series, Krazy Kat. Yet he worked as an editorial cartoonist and sports cartoonist in addition to his comic strip work. And even as a comic strip artist, much of his work isn’t remembered. The number of comic strip series he authored is safely in the double digits, including Alexander the Cat, Baron Mooch, The Family Upstairs, Baron Bean, Now Listen Mabel, and Stumble Inn. They didn’t have the longevity and appeal of Krazy Kat, but they were works of a master cartoonist so they shouldn’t be ignored, either.

It probably comes as no surprise that the author of Krazy Kat would have an affinity towards animals, but you wouldn’t say that just because his most well-known character is a talking cat, would you? Did Floyd Gottfredson really like mice when he worked on the Mickey Mouse comic strip? Did Carl Barks have a unique appreciation of ducks when he drew Donald Duck’s adventures?

I think this affinity is actually more obvious when you see how Herriman treated non- or less-anthropomorphic animals in his comic strips with human characters. In a very early cartoon that was published in the humor magazine Judge in 1903, a goat comes out as the victor. And twenty years later in “Stumble Inn” we see again where his true sympathies lay.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

It's in the Details

Most of the joy in reading a T.S. Sullivant cartoon comes from looking at the art – an obvious observation. That said, he doesn’t draw a pretty picture and then slap a caption on. For example, look at the cartoon above (you can click on it for a larger image). If I were told to read a cartoon based on the pun “raising cain”, I would feel more than a little doubtful about the cartoon’s potential to be funny. And one wouldn’t think that the best art in the world would be able to compensate. In fact, a beautiful drawing juxtaposed with a mediocre concept seems a little odd. If you had a broken-down car that wasn't even close to being in driving condition, giving it an expensive coat of paint wouldn’t be seen as the best solution. And the higher the quality of the paint, the more quizzical the looks you'd receive. That isn’t a perfect analogy for describing the relation of words and images in a comic or cartoon, but what I’m trying to get at is that it would seem that the more effort you expend on illustrating a mediocre pun, the more of a mixed result you’d get.

But here Sullivant is successful, finding potential in the pun by exploring the two principal characters. We need no guidepost to identify who is who. Cain is drawn as a prehistoric caveman, while Abel is drawn in such a way where you almost feel like he’s a character who has wandered from a painting of a Greek or Roman myth, dressed in ivy instead of a hide, sitting erect with a crown of roses perched upon gently coiffed hair. We see other characteristics of the two contrasted: the arrangement of the coins, choice of tobacco product, even the feet –

Abel’s relaxed, lounging foot next to Cain’s tense big toe, suggesting, along with Cain’s smoldering glare, the violence that we know is soon to follow.

And my favorite details are their furniture – Cain only has a single boulder that he slouches on, while Abel sits with perfect posture on top of deftly arranged rocks that make a stool.

Sullivant describes characters not just with lines, but he also makes creative choices about the physical details of his characters and their possessions. Here he crams – but without crowding – his cartoon with rich details that build on the caption, and allow you to chuckle without embarrassment at the pun “raising cain.”

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Stone Age

Sullivant drew several types of magazine cartoons. Some of the ideas he often returned to included Bible stories (similar to Fractured Fairy Tales), funny animals, and conversations between philanthropists and convicts. The first set I'm showing follow the theme of stone age stories where Sullivant imagined the origins of certain aspects of contemporary life.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A Washington Lobbyist Hawking His Wares?

This is an example of Sullivant's political cartooning, published in 1904. Most of the political cartoons I've seen by Sullivant seem pretty general and easy to understand (even 100 years later). But I wonder if that lack of specificity made them less powerful to the readers of the time. Maybe that's why he isn't really remembered for his political cartooning. Of course, the volume of political cartoons he produced is tiny in comparison to his humor cartoons. I can only confirm 1904 and 1905 as years when he drew political cartoons for Hearst's New York American. He also worked for Hearst in the late 1890s at the New York Journal, but I haven't seen much from that period.

Monday, April 24, 2006

The cartoon above (published in Judge around 1901 or 1902) is a more representative example of Sullivant's work. Sullivant was a master at distorting anatomy in a way that made his drawings strange and interesting, yet somehow right.

Friday, April 21, 2006

T.S. Sullivant

T.S. Sullivant was another amazing cartoonist. His comic art was mostly found in weekly magazines such as Life, Judge, and Puck, but he did do some newspaper cartooning as well. At the same time as Herriman drew the sports cartoons for the New York American, Sullivant produced political cartoons for the paper. Sullivant's artwork also appeared on the Sunday comic supplements--though rarely. The above is an example of a "topper," which is, to state the obvious, a comic or illustration put at the top of a Sunday comics page.