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A Stretch in the Bone Age: The Life and Cartooning Genius of V.T. Hamlin

Hamlin’s cast made for some rousing good fun in the jungles of old Moo. And fun it is. In approaching Oop’s adventures, Hamlin kept his sense of humor fully operative. Like Roy Crane did with Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy, Hamlin treated the threats against life and limb with realistic deference—the threats were real enough and therefore dangerous—but Oop’s encounters often had comic outcomes. Hamlin kept up a merry round of madcap adventures in Moo for the next five years before beginning to feel constrained by the narrow range of story possibilities imposed upon him by his chosen locale. Then Dorothy again supplied a vital prompt: remembering a story her husband had written in high school, she suggested introducing a time machine. If Alley Oop and Ooola could travel through history, stopping here and there wherever a good story seemed likely, the story possibilities would be limitless.

Hamlin’s interest in prehistory had by this time broadened considerably into ancient history (as it would eventually into all history), and time travel enabled him to pursue this interest in the strip. He went to the syndicate editors in Cleveland immediately and, after “the best part of a week” of persuading and pleading, got permission to change the strip, a violent wrench of a change, something no other strip at the time had managed.

On April 6, 1939, Oop and Ooola suddenly fade from our sight in the Moovian jungle; and two days later, they materialize in the laboratory of a twentieth century scientist, Elbert Wonmug (a punning last name celebrating science’s most famous theorist, “en stein” being German for “one mug”). Wonmug has invented a Time Machine, and, seeing the rugged resourcefulness of the prehistoric pair, he subsequently sends Alley and Ooola on “fact-finding” missions through the ages: they become time travelers and have adventures in every famous epoch in history. No comic strip had changed its venue so suddenly—and so dramatically—before. But with Alley Oop, it worked because Hamlin proved supremely adept in handling his new materials. After several weeks of continuity showing the comic side of Oop’s introduction into 20th Century American civilization, Hamlin sent his troupe on their first time trip—to ancient Troy during the Trojan War. Oop meets the beauteous Helen and fights the Greek champion, Ajax, and Ooola meets Ulysses.

The fugitives from Moo are accompanied on this adventure (as they will be on many of their earliest trips) by one of Wonmug’s colleagues, a grizzled old scientist named Bronson. Bronson was a canny addition to the cast. Neither Oop nor Ooola know any history, so the erudite Bronson becomes Hamlin’s spokesman in the strip, making sure that readers know at least enough history to understand the implications of the events at hand. Bronson, for instance, knows what will happen when the Greeks park a giant wooden horse outside the gates of Troy. And he then confronts the dilemma of all of literature’s time travelers: should he change the course of history by putting his knowledge to use? Knowing that Greek warriors are concealed in the horse, Bronson could warn the Trojans and prevent the fall of Troy. He decides not to meddle.

Later, Oop will have no such scruple about helping Ulysses evade the clutches of the Cyclops, Circe, and the Sirens. Survival requires that he exercise whatever ingenuity he can bring to bear upon the predicament he and his friends find themselves in, and he’s not about to sacrifice his life just so the “history” Bronson tells him about can course unrippled through time.

But Hamlin always invented a way for Oop’s “meddling” to extricate them all from danger without changing history. Regardless of the cave man’s pragmatic disdain for the niceties of history, whatever he does always has the effect of bringing events to pass in almost exactly the way “history” has recorded them. For instance, in Hamlin’s version of the encounter with the one-eyed giant Cyclops, it’s Oop who engineers the escape—not Ulysses. Oop does it in approximately the same way as legend reports that Ulysses did it: he blinds the giant. But Oop blinds Cyclops not by driving a stake into his single orb but by punching the giant in the eye, and the swelling of the resultant blackeye renders Cyclops blind for the nonce, long enough for Oop and Ulysses and the rest of Ulysses’ crew to flee unharmed.

It was this sort of tinkering with history and legend that would give Alley Oop its unique appeal over the next thirty years or so. Readers who had at least a nodding acquaintance with literature and history were delighted to meet “in the flesh” such intriguing personages as King Arthur, Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Captain Kidd, Napoleon, Roberta Crusoe, Aladdin, Julius Caesar, Richard the Lion-hearted, Nero, Pocahontas, Macbeth, Brunnehilde, Jason and the Golden Fleece, and the like (and to visit such picturesque places as the California in the days of the 1849 gold rush, Atlantis, ancient Egypt while the Sphinx was being built, the battle of Hastings in Old England, the moon, and Venus)—and to see how Oop might tamper with the legends, bending them slightly to suit his own purposes but never breaking with “history” altogether. It was a fascinating game.

Oop returns to Moo occasionally—for rest and relaxation presumably, a respite from the rigors of time travel. But for Hamlin, the appeal of history and its legends proved irresistible, and he always brought Oop back to the time machine.

Having confronted Homer’s Iliad, Hamlin went on to put his gang through the Odyessy, too. In this adventure, which follows the Trojan War episodes immediately, Oop battles Hercules. And we are introduced to Oop’s life-long nemesis, G. Oscar Boom (“Go Boom”), an explosives expert who sometimes relies upon Hamlin’s experiences with nitroglycerin in the oil fields of Texas. Boom is a black-sheep of a scientist who often travels in time with the cave man but not out of scientific curiosity. Boom’s chief motive is to loot history of valuable relics that might enrich him in the 20th Century. He tricks Wonmug and Oop into enabling his schemes, but in their execution, he invariably brings the wrath of the looted down upon himself and Oop. As a result, Oop is always suspicious of whatever notion Boom comes up with.

But Boom is a highly useful plot device: his nefarious plans initiate many a time trip. Despite his larcenous proclivities, Boom is not a villain. In fact, remarkably, there are very few villains in Alley Oop. And no downright evil. Oop has antagonists a-plenty, but most of them are legendary characters or historical personages, and they act as they are supposed to act. Usually, this means they regard Oop and his entourage as the intruders they are. And this creates conflict enough for the workings of Hamlin’s plots. It was not necessary to have evil-doers.

Hamlin’s characters lived for him. “They were all flesh and blood, like people to me,” he said. “After I got them started, they became a part of me. … Alley was not heavily endowed with brains,” Hamlin continued. “He wasn’t supposed to be. I think he had a certain physical charm that was obvious, but it’s kind of hard for me to sit here and give you a word picture of him because he really was a gentle soul, and I think that he was capable of a lot of affection. I was pretty sure I knew this character because he practically slept with me: half or two-thirds of the stories were written while I was in bed—or asleep!”

Once Hamlin exclaimed, “Alley Oop is my life. It’s me! Honestly, that guy and I are the same person. I can’t tell where I leave off and he begins. I guess it’s just a little man’s worship of a big man.”

Physically, Alley and Hamlin had nothing in common: the cartoonist was five-and-a-half feet tall and weighed about 150 pounds; he estimated that Oop was a six-footer, weighing over 210 pounds. Still, there was a vital connection. The intimacy of the relationship between Pygmalion and his creation is scarcely unexpected, but Hamlin stopped short of making Alley his equal. “I found it expedient to keep my hero’s intelligence quotient somewhat inferior to my own limited mental machinery,” he once said. “I never could understand how a comic artist could live with a character inherently smarter than he was. Look at Milt Caniff and his characters in Steve Canyon. Now I know Milt Caniff, and he can’t be as smart as his characters.”

Hamlin’s science, as must be apparent by now, is fantastical. And the cartoonist’s interest in science-fiction is non-existant: his science-fiction is more fiction than science. Hamlin was not bashful about admitting it. As soon as Wonmug appears on the scene, the cartoonist had the means to recognize the impossibility of the Moovian milieu he’d been depicting for the past six years: man and dinosaurs did not exist concurrently. But Hamlin did not bother to explain the impossible; he merely acknowledged it.

When Wonmug’s assistant protests that man was “not heard of” in the age of the dinosaurs, Wonmug nonchalantly gestures at Oop: “Behold the unheard of,” he says simply.

Similarly, Hamlin dispenses altogether with the language barrier by merely ignoring it. Said he: “I offer no apologetic explanations as to how my caveman could and did converse with Dr. Wonmug in pretty good run-of-the-mill Americanized English. In my world of cartoon science there just was no place in the strip’s balloons for a quantity of ‘ugs’ and ‘woofs’ and grunts to express what Oop had on his mind. He’d been speaking understandable English back in prehistoric Moo, so why not in his new setting?”

If Hamlin ever acknowledged that Oop should not be able to communicated as readily as he does with Wonmug, Helen of Troy, Cleopatra and all the rest, the language problem would dog his strip forever and foul the fun that he and his readers could have. The decision was scarcely good science, but it was canny storytelling. “My handling of the language problem didn’t seem to bother my readers to any noticeable extent,” Hamlin saisd; “I received no mail on the subject.”

With the advent of the time travel, Hamlin makes another subtle change: Oop must now assume a less comedic and more commanding role in the strip. Oop, after all, is the chief decision-maker in directing the escapades of several persons whose welfare often depends upon his skill as both warrior and tactician. Oop becomes a cool pragmatist, his temper honed to a fine belligerence: he is as peevish as before albeit much less excitable. But there is still comedy a-plenty in his adventures: when his horse gives out while he is pursuing Boom, Oop dismounts but continues his pursuit, now carrying the horse.

From the very onset, Hamlin’s delicate cross-hatched shading elevated the artwork in Alley Oop, and his technique improved with time, giving the panels the textured quality of eighteenth century etchings. And Hamlin enhanced the eye-appeal of his etchings with strategic use of white space. Sometimes he left portions of his drawings unfinished, letting the background fade out entirely in one portion of a panel, which made the picture function visually as a design rather than as illustration. He played with the devices of the medium: a speech balloon might appear as smoke from Oop’s cigar; the action depicted in one panel might spill over into the next in an overlapping rather than sequential manner.

Hamlin’s strip was a thoroughly unique creation. As Lee Castro said: “Alley Oop remains one of a small group of comic strips that defies easy categorization. Like Little Nemo, Pogo, and a handful of others, Alley Oop established its own genre and has never been successfully imitated. It was not, strictly speaking, an adventure, humor, or fantasy strip although it contained elements of all of them. At times, It embraced unrestrained fantasy; and at others, it was scrupulously realistic. It could be altenately funny and serious. There was no such thing as a typical Alley Oop story.”

But Hamlin was doing more than simply telling a story: he was cartooning a story, blending word and picture to create his narrative. Throughout the saga of his caveman time traveler, Hamlin deployed the verbal and the visual in a seamless blend in which neither words nor the pictures conveyed alone the meaning they achieved in tandem. The pictures show us a hulking gorilla of a hero; but when he speaks, we hear a pragmatic realist. When Oop goes into action, brute force serves canny analysis, and the results are neither haphazard nor theoretical: they are perfectly executed maneuvers (which, admittedly, sometimes go awry but always suggest a motivating rationale), and fantasy becomes reality, idealism animates action, and the brute achieves nobility. As unique as Alley Oop was in genre, Hamlin’s achievement in the masterful exploitation of his medium made the strip a virtual exemplar of the art of comic strip cartooning.

While putting Oop through his paces hither and yon, Hamlin led a far from sedentary life himself. Just about the time Hamlin joined NEA, Roy Crane moved to Florida and set NEA cartoonists free, and Hamlin followed, settling in Sarasota. But he and his wife journeyed west every summer to escape the heat, traveling to Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado and sometimes to Texas. During the days, they fished avidly; and in the evenings, Hamlin produced the comic strip from whatever rented abode they were occupying. One 1947 story, he drew on the front porch of his sister’s house in Perry, Iowa.

During World War II, they gave up travel: gasoline was hard to come by for civilians. Hamlin volunteered for military service, but he was forty-one. “They didn’t need me,” he said. So he joined the war effort as many of his colleagues did—by urging his readers to buy war bonds. He also mustered a troupe of show people and emcee’d their performances before soldiers in camps and hospitals around Florida.

“We had a lot of boys coming in who were badly damaged and need to be entertained, and other fellows were going over who needed to be entertained,” he remembered. “We had this big show where four or five of my people would come out, and I would introduce them by drawing on a great big sheet of paper. There was a dancer, a singer, and a skater. It was easy to do that kind of stuff. I had an orange grove, and I put Alley Oop wrappers around oranges, and during the performance, I would toss a bushel of Alley-Oop-wrapped oranges into the audience. That was a big success.”

Hamlin also raised the morale of the 92nd Heavy Bomber Group based near their Florida home, painting Alley Oop on the noses the B-17s. The 92nd was thereafter known as the “Oop Group.”

In 1942, Hamlin took up boating and built his own 21-foot cabin cruiser. He joined a yacht club but gave up sailing ten years later after a near-fatal accident in Sarasota Bay when he fell overboard while out fishing alone. In 1951, he began racing midget autos, continuing in the sport even after breaking both wrists when he flipped the car in a 1959 race. Dorothy was “very angry,” Hamlin reported, and had “plenty to say about the care of an artist’s hands.” But he didn’t give up driving until 1963. Then he started golfing, but he sponsored other drivers in races for several years.

In 1960, Alley Oop hit the airways in an oft-played eponymous song, one of only four popular ditties based upon comic strip characters. (The other inspirations were Popeye the Sailor Man, Orphan Annie, and Barney Google “with the goo-goo-googly eyes.”) Hamlin realized royalty income from the song—”It more than paid for our sparkling red-leather cushioned T-bird,” he said. And in 1965, Hamlin celebrated his 65th birthday in Iraan, Texas, scene of some of Hamlin’s oil field adventures as a youth, which chose the occasion to name its municipal park after his character.

At its peak in the 1950s, which Hamlin considered his best period, Alley Oop’s client list numbered 800 newspapers, but Hamlin’s eyesight was deteriorating. In 1950, he had hired an assistant, Dave Graue, who began by lettering the strip and worked into inking backgrounds and then drawing minor characters; and by 1967, Graue was doing most of the drawing. Hamlin continued writing the daily strip until 1970 and wrote and drew the Sunday through 1972, his last Sunday published April 1, 1973.

Hamlin’s wife Dorothy, who, Hamlin maintained, had done all the thinking for him, died in November 1985; within a year, macular degeneration had destroyed all but Hamlin’s peripheral vision. Hamlin died June 14, 1993, in a nursing facility near his home in Brooksville, Florida, where he had moved in 1985 to be near his son. Alley Oop is continued today by Jack Bender and his wife Carole, who writes the strip, but Hamlin’s exemplary blend of history and fantasy is, as Lee Castro said, inimitable. Here’s a short gallery of Oop art from Hamlin.  

—————–

Sources. Hamlin’s papers and much of his original art are archived at the University of Missouri in the Ellis Special Collections. His papers include a 37-page autobiographical fragment that Hamlin wrote in the early 1980s, The Man Who Walked with Dinosaurs, the chief source of information here, thanks to Frank Stack, another Hamlin fan, who sent me a copy. The Comics Journal, No. 212 (May 1999) published a long 1988 interview Hamlin gave to Lee Castro, a dedicated fan and historian of the strip. Castro also wrote “Neither Fish Nor Fowl,” an elegant introductory essay in Kitchen Sink Press’s Alley Oop: The Adventures of a Time-Traveling Caveman (1990), the first of three reprint volumes from KSP. Manuscript Press subsequently issued a fourth in the continuity. Brief histories of the strip can be found in standard reference works: Comic Art in America (1959) by Stephen Becker, The Comics: An Illustrated History (1974) by Jerry Robinson, and The Encyclopedia of American Comics from 1897 to the Present (1990), edited by Ron Goulart. The Bonnett-Brown sequences of the strip are reprinted in Nos. 1 and 2 of Alley Oop: The Magazine (1998, Spec Productions, Manitou Springs, CO). Hamlin’s unpublished writings, archived in the Ellis Collections, include two autobiographies, the aforementioned and For the Record, plus a fishing memoir, Four Rivers, and a novel, The Devil’s Daughter. An obituary appeared in The New York Times, June 17, 1993.

 

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6 Responses to A Stretch in the Bone Age: The Life and Cartooning Genius of V.T. Hamlin

  1. BVS says:

    wow, ok from no on every interview with a cartoonist needs to include the question”what is the most painful and serious physical injury you have ever sustained?”

  2. Alexandre Buchet says:

    Great article on a great, much-underrated strip.

  3. This brilliant strip is long overdue for the deluxe reprint treatment!

  4. Doug Skinner says:

    A lovely article; it’s about time Hamlin got more recognition. I’d love to have a collection of his Sunday pages. I have to point out, though, that there have been many popular songs about comics, as well as several successful musicals.

  5. Pingback: Super I.T.C.H » Blog Archive » Jumpin’ Cliffs # 770

  6. RODNEY MENDOZA says:

    One of the best strips of all time. The 1949 Trip to the Moon episode is one of the most accomplished entertainments in comic strips. I was first introduced to Alley Oop when I was a kid and was playing in my grandfathers garage. There were some old books covered in newspaper and the newspaper was from 1949 and it had the comic section intact which I immediately went to. The Alley Oop segment was from Trip to the Moon. From that time on I became a fan of V.T. Hamlin’s beloved creation.

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