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A Brief History of Ernie Bushmiller’s Dirtiest Comic Strip

A dog lifts his hind leg and urinates on a man’s couch. The annoyed man takes the dog outside, locates a tree, and demonstrating his preference in the matter, leans forward and urinates upon the tree. They return home and the enlightened dog leans forward and obediently urinates upon the man’s couch in the approved two-legged manner.

As far as scholars have been able to determine, this simple mildly off-color comic strip first appeared in the Dutch Treat Club Yearbook for 1961.

The privately printed edition of 750 copies was distributed to the attendees of the club’s annual dinner in the Sert room of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel New York on May 3 of that year. The Dutch Treat Club was (and is) a fraternal luncheon (and cocktail) organization founded in 1905, which boasted a prominent membership of creative professionals. The club maintained no home base, operating instead as a floating Tuesday afternoon soiree at designated Manhattan bistros. The yearbook was launched in 1920 as a souvenir program of its bacchanalian annual dinner, which traditionally included a full-fledged theatrical revue, produced by and starring its multitalented members. The annuals continued for decades and the editions of the 1930s and 1940s boast elaborate production values and arresting graphic design. However sumptuous, those yearbooks found their true niche in showcasing “blue” contributions by the famous illustrators and cartoonists among its ranks, work which was quite unlike the familiar fare that endeared these pulp entertainers to the general public.

"How To Housebreak Your Dog" was drawn by Ernie Bushmiller (1905 -1982) the creator of the internationally syndicated comic strip Nancy, renowned as a consummate craftsman who “dumbed down” his gags to their barest essentials, resulting in a strikingly austere visual language. Bushmiller joined the Dutch Treat Club in mid-career, long after the yearbook’s heyday. His name first appears in the membership rolls in 1944 and he remained a loyal member until shortly before his death. Despite this longtime affiliation, "How To Housebreak Your Dog" was Bushmiller’s sole Yearbook effort. Ernie later referred to this strip as “the only dirty thing I ever did.”

Although intended only as a cheap laugh for his Dutch Treat Club cronies, "How To Housebreak Your Dog" assumed an illustrious afterlife. The irresistible (and un-copyrighted) page was promptly bootlegged, perhaps by a fellow Dutch Treater gone bad. It was soon launched into a surreptitious, labyrinthine underworld through which such illicit printed matter of the day was channeled. No other work produced for this obscure social club ever enjoyed such far-flung distinction. In various modes and media over the past six decades, this mutt has stepped up to the couch again and again.

 

The strip soon re-surfaced as a small four-page booklet. Rude novelties such as this were proffered by the anonymous purveyors of the notorious “Tijuana bibles” (under-the-counter comic books depicting famous characters indulging in sexual antics) alongside the more hardcore offerings.

 

The newly rendered title on this wallet-sized card of the same ilk appears to have been scratched with a sharp key onto a casually torn swatch of electric tape. This bold compositional touch became part of the strip’s heritage for decades.

 

Trainor’s Three Deuces Cocktails, owned and operated by James D. and Margaret D. Trainor at 8638 Sierra Avenue in Fontana, California, was granted its liquor license in June 1957. Sadly the rest of its story has been entirely lost to time. But let the record show that James and Margaret thought enough of Ernie’s gag to enshrine it on their establishment’s napkins, helping insure that Fontana alcoholics were kept smiling for years to come.

 

"HTHYD" was already circulating as “office humor” in the early 1960s in the form of crude photocopies which were passed along and duplicated from employee to employee. This sheet was received at the Staten Island desk of Sal P. Terracina, Assistant Chief Clerk at the B & O Railroad c.1965. Alterations to Bushmiller’s original were already de rigueur, including the discreet removal of Bushmiller’s signature itself.

 

Issued in the 1960s by the Palm Color Card Co. of North Miami Fla. in its oversized Komic Kards postcard series, this early horizontal incarnation (“suitable for framing”) curiously retains the artist’s signature although a fair portion of his artwork has been randomly obliterated and redrawn on the color printing plate. The black line itself has already been eroded through several generations of substandard reproduction, a harbinger of the work’s ultimate fate.

 

This two-color heavy ply cardboard sign was presumably rumpus room décor for fun-loving, dog-loving, pee-loving midcentury moderns. Even more of the strip has now been redrawn (note the rounded arms of the couch are now quite square) yet this variation still retains it’s Bushmilleresque flavor alongside such dubious innovations as the glowing sun, the odd shading textures and jagged borders.

 

Back in the 1960s, if you harbored a compelling urge to have "How To Housebreak Your Dog" accompany you on vacation, this colorful circular specimen was created with your peculiar needs in mind. Marketed as a “Press Kal” by Impko of New Jersey this adhesive-backed novelty was designed for “campers, bumpers, luggage, boats, paddles and windows.”

 

The strip’s next recorded appearance was a thick silk-screened wooden plaque peddled to the tourist trade (this 1970s example proudly hailed from Martha’s Vineyard). Bushmiller’s hand has now been completely obliterated and the strip has been ineptly, yet slavishly imitated (note how the droplets of urine in panel #4 and the exclamation lines in panel #6 both still number seven). Color variations of this incarnation have been reported.

 

The first true homage appeared a full decade after the strip’s introduction. Underground cartoonist Denis Kitchen (allegedly a charter member of the shadowy “Secret Bushmiller Society”) created "Canine Capers", an all-talking version for the Bugle-American, his own Wisconsin based counterculture newspaper in 1971. ©1971 Denis Kitchen

 

The author (an eager young fan of Bushmiller himself) reprinted the strip in a 1984 New York-based comics anthology entitled Bad News. This restoration originated directly from his grandfather’s heirloom office copy (see Figure 5 above) which was photostatted and painfully retouched with a triple zero Rapidograph in an attempt to recapture the pristine blandness of the Bushmiller line. (The maestro’s signature was also restored.)

 

A full quarter-century after its creation the strip was still being circulated with no clue to its origin. 1986 saw this severely degenerated copy, which appeared in Jimmy K’s Las Vegas Showroom Jokes And Cartoons. This obscure compendium of wit was published by “American Printing” (which also offered such valuable titles as Winning Consistently at the Grey Hound Races and How to Succeed at Video Poker.)

 

Two years later Henry Holt published The Best Of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy, a celebration of the cartoonist’s life and work. Compiled by comic strip authority Brian Walker, the book finally framed Ernie’s “dirty” strip within a historical context. The specimen included was yet another variant of the “torn electric tape” genus.
©1988 Brian Walker

 

In 1992 media mogul Denis Kitchen followed the lead of media mogul Ted Turner and colorized the now “classic” work. It was issued by Kitchen Sink Publications as a postcard, to promote their amusingly-packaged reprint volumes of Nancy.
© 1992 Kitchen Sink Publications

 

The advent of the World Wide Web provided a natural venue for further havoc. This eccentrically defaced specimen could be viewed as late as 2007 at the now-defunct www.crazyjokes.com and is testament to the ubiquity of both the internet and bad Photoshop filters in the visual folk culture of the late 1990s.

 

On January 13th, 2001 this iteration was anonymously posted on www.dogsinthenews.com. Aside from being perhaps the most tortured rendition of Ernie’s concept to date, it also has the unique distinction of being boldly copyrighted by the presenting venue—with dire warnings against any further reproduction. (Attention venture capitalists: this URL can now be yours!)

 

The most recent "How To Housebreak Your Dog" sighting occurred on May 17, 2019, when a cunning forgery of the original artwork was offered on eBay at a modest starting bid of $150 by one “Carla-99” (100% Positive feedback). The provenance included a heartwarming tale of Ernie Bushmiller bestowing the precious pencil sketch (twenty years before its creation?) to Carla-99’s father while serving side-by-side in World War II (which Bushmiller never did). The drawing didn’t sell, but history was made again.

 

For whatever reasons "How To Housebreak Your Dog" has screamed “reproduce me” again and again to America for nearly six decades and willing entrepreneurs have readily responded to this call of nature. Bushmiller’s humble dog-pee joke flows gloriously onward, replicating like mutant bacteria through the dark alleys of our pop culture. And like a grinning dog before a mighty oak, each subsequent publisher seems strangely compelled to leave his unique mark on this enduring work.

 

(An abbreviated version of this essay originally appeared in Howl: a Collection of the Best Contemporary Dog Wit from Crown Books in 2006.)

Mark Newgarden is a cartoonist and co-author (with Paul Karasik) of the Eisner-winning How to Read Nancy. He teaches at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan.


3 Responses to A Brief History of Ernie Bushmiller’s Dirtiest Comic Strip

  1. Christopher Duffy says:

    This is great! Thanks, Mark, for a great history lesson. The one from Oak Bluffs would be welcome in any beach house. Now I need to know: do you know who created the “You want it when” laughing men?

  2. Travis says:

    This article is really interesting to me on a personal level. My nana had the wooden plaque version hanging on her front porch and I saw it every day when I got home from school. I never new Bushmiller was the original creator! Years ago I recreated the strip using my own characters (see link)

  3. Kip Williams says:

    Near the end, I was reminded that at one point, perhaps in the 90s, I saw a book that collected a pile of classic pre-net memes in all their mimeo/hector/ditto/Xerox/fax glory, and smiled to myself at the existence of a copyright notice at the beginning, asserting that all that feral public domain material was proprietary to the guy who did the collection. I regret not buying it the one and only time I saw it for sale.

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