In 1942, DeBeck was diagnosed with cancer, and by late spring, he could no longer work. His signature last appeared on a daily strip dated July 4; his last signed Sunday strip, August 2. When DeBeck died in November, Lasswell, who had tried to join the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked but failed the physical because of poor eyesight, was making his contribution to the war effort in Africa, working as a radio operator for Pan American Airways. He’d been away from the strip since August, but because he’d been DeBeck’s assistant for almost nine years, it was natural that the syndicate asked him to return to the U.S. to continue the feature. Lasswell quit Pan Am as fast as he could and returned to Snuffy’s hill country. Later, he went to Washington, D.C., to join the Marines, which he did in order to work on Leatherneck magazine for which he created a special strip, Hashmark. His eyesight was presumably no longer a problem by this time in the War’s progress. Evenings in his apartment, Lasswell cranked out Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. The first strip to carry his signature appeared on March 8, 1943.
While Lasswell labored in the nation’s capital, in the syndicate bullpen in New York, staff artist Joe Musial (who had been doing the daily strip after DeBeck became too ill to continue it) produced the Sunday strips and, sometimes, dailies until the end of the War. Then Lasswell took over entirely. Acting upon the advice of syndicate officials, Lasswell gradually eased Barney out of the strip to concentrate on the more picturesque Snuffy.
It was a successful ploy. The strip was faltering when Lasswell took it over. It had about 200 subscribers and was losing clients steadily. But the subscription list had climbed to more than 500 by 1964, the year Lasswell won the Reuben as the National Cartoonists Society’s “cartoonist of the year”; and at its 70th anniversary in 1989, Barney Google and Snuffy Smith was in nearly 900 newspapers worldwide.
Incidently, the Reuben, a heavy metal statuette of a pile of nondescript but definitely cartoony characters attempting to array themselves as a human pyramid, was named after its designer, Rube Goldberg, the first president of the club, but it was not always the trophy or the name of the award NCS conferred upon the “cartoonist of the year.” Initially—and for the first eight years the award was presented, 1946-1953—the trophy was a handsome silver cigarette box, its lid engraved with pictures of the characters in Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. When DeBeck’s widow, Mary, heard about the formation of NCS in 1946, she suggested that the Society institute an annual award recognizing the cartoonist who, in the judgment of his fellows, was the best of the year. She would furnish the prize, she said, if it could be awarded in the name of her late husband. In fond memory of DeBeck, the Society accepted her offer. Known officially as the Billy DeBeck Memorial Award, it was also briefly dubbed “the Barney”—in imitation of the film industry’s practice of referring to its most prestigious prize by an informal first name.
Drawings upon his background to maintain the rural folksiness of the strip, Lasswell felt at home with the hillbilly folk of Snuffy Smith’s Hootin’ Holler mountain country and was therefore able to make his own distinctive contribution to the saga of the strip, thereby making it entirely his own creation. As Walker says: “He took a comic strip that had earned a place in history and developed it into an enduring classic.”
“I have great empathy for these folks and critters,” Lasswell wrote. “My folks had come out of a country atmosphere, so I was very comfortable with country people. I just fell into the spirit of the type of people Snuffy and Loweezy were. I really don’t know beans about the racetrack world of Barney Google and Spark Plug, and that is why I changed it to a Snuffy strip exclusively.”
Lasswell brought Barney and Sparky back from time to time—“for the old folks,” he said. But his signal effect upon the strip grew out of his own personal history in rural settings and his sympathy for rural America. Says Walker: “This sensibility is what makes Fred Lasswell’s contribution to the legacy of Barney Google and Snuffy Smith uniquely his own. The beautifully rendered backgrounds of Fred’s Hootin’ Holler evoke a rural ambience that is distinct from Billy and Barney’s urban milieu. Fred has also established a loving relationship between Snuffy and Loweezy that gives the strip a feeling of warmth and tenderness.”
At first, Lasswell drew in DeBeck’s style but slowly adopted a bolder line, better suited to the minuscule reproduction comic strips faced increasingly in the years after the War. He introduced a host of intriguing characters for his post-war stories (most memorably for me, the creations of the 1950s—Tiger Li’l, a sexy nightclub dancer; Tieless Ty Tyler, the necktie tycoon; and Riddles Barlow, who married the winsome Cricket Smif). In the mid-fifties, he cannily gave up long continuities that had characterized the strip for decades and converted the strip to gag-a-day to stay in step with the trend in the industry.
Lasswell died at about 6:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, March 4, 2001, of a heart attack while at home in Tampa, Florida. He was 84. He had been meeting the syndicate deadline for 58 years almost to the day. In longevity, Lasswell joins a very tiny band of his peers—Edwina Dumm, Paul Robinson, Chester Gould, Charles Schulz, Mort Walker, Milton Caniff, to name a few of the few record holders in the profession. In reaching this milestone, Lasswell is second only to Australia’s Jim Russell, who, at the time of Lasswell’s death, had been doing The Potts for 62 years.
Fred Lasswell’s achievement with the strip must be measured in more than simply the number of years he did it. He also worked another minor miracle: inheriting the strip from its creator in 1942, Lasswell managed to improve upon its original conception while maintaining its essential ambience —a rare almost unprecedented accomplishment. Much of the difference between the two incarnations lies in the difference between continuity and gag-a-day. DeBeck was expert at milking comedy out of suspense with a seemingly unending string of cliffhangers and tantalizers. But Lasswell gave the strip personality and heart as well as humor.
Fred Laswell was one of the grand masters of the medium. And he was a memorable and laudable man. Lasswell was “Uncle Fred” to his colleagues in the National Cartoonist Society (NCS). He was an actively contributing member to the convivialities of the group for almost its entire existence, and no Reuben Banquet was complete without some shenanigan from Uncle Fred. Even the last year of his life when he didn’t attend, an unprecedented occurrence, he supplied punchlines for others standing at the microphone: all you had to do was refer to Uncle Fred— to one or another of his well-known proclivities—and you could get a laugh. Absent in person, he was still present. His picture was on the cover of the program booklet. And one of the souvenirs of the event was a flip book featuring Uncle Fred in action.
He was honored by NCS in other, more formal, ways. In 1964, he established a record when he was awarded both the Reuben statuette and the category plaque for “best humor strip.” And he is the only cartoonist to have twice (1984 and 1994) received the Elzie Segar Award “for unique and outstanding contributions to the profession of cartooning.” As the news of his death spread through the Web, e-mail lists recorded the responses of other cartoonists.
“Uncle Fred was a dear friend to NCS,” said Daryle Cagle, then NCS President. “He was a treasure, and we are all richer for having known him.”
“Now there was a cartoonist!” Paul Fell said. “Boy, talk about a career. Uncle Fred was the prototype for cartoonists if ever there was one.”
Uncle Fred had a way of making anyone he met feel at ease—as if they were friends of long standing. “Anyone who met him, loved him instantly,” said Mark Szorady.
In the NCS membership Album, Uncle Fred is the only one to list not only his mailing address but his fax number and his phone number, signifying, without qualm or quibble, that anyone should feel free to call him anytime.
“He took me in like I was a long lost nephew,” Ron Evry said. “But he was more than a fun guy and an active member of NCS. He was a link to a world of cartooning that no longer exists.”
He was, in short, the last of the old time comic strip cartoonists, and his passing cut the umbilical cord of direct experience that connects us to our past. Without Uncle Fred around, we shall have to imagine more because we no longer have the testimony of an eye witness. And his strip was always an exemplar of the cartoonist’s art. In virtually every Snuffy Smith strip I ever saw, the pictures contributed as much to the punchline as the words. In a time when so much comic strip humor is entirely too verbal, the pictures serving only to identify the speakers and time the gag, Lasswell’s strip blended the verbal and the visual into a seamless comedic whole in the best tradition of the artform. Typically in Snuffy, the words set up the situation in the opening panels; and the picture in the concluding panel supplied the joke. Neither words nor pictures alone without the other were funny; blending together, they created a new hilarity every time.
Lasswell’s successor, John Rose, had been assisting on the strip since mid-1998, inking Uncle Fred’s pictures. Born November 15, 1963 in Covington, Virginia, Rose graduated from James Madison University in 1986 with a degree in art and art history. For a time, he freelanced sports cartoons for newspapers in Manassas and elsewhere in Virginia, then in 1993, he was hired by the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, joining the other Byrd Newspapers of Virginia to draw political cartoons for the Shenandoah Valley 8-paper chain. And since 1988, Rose has produced a weekly children’s cartoon/activity page, Kids’ Home Newspaper (syndicated since 1991), and he’s illustrated seven children’s books. When Lasswell died, Rose took over the strip that still carries the joint title, Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, conferring an accolade on both Rose’s predecessors on the feature.
While Rose produces a competent imitation of the appearance of Snuffy and his cohorts in the hills, the strip’s gags are almost always verbal jokes. Uncle Fred cannot, it seems, be so easily aped as we might suppose. And that’s a comforting thought: one of a kind is, for perpetuity, one of a kind.
Lasswell, despite his hayseed demeanor, was quite at home in the high tech era, maintaining a state-of-the-electronic-art studio. He developed his own lettering font on a Mac long before most other cartoonists did and established a web page very early in the cyberspace age. And he produced a videodisc series on “how to draw” cartoons (one in Spanish) and a bilingual laserdisc with a barcoded workbook and a hypercard stack for computers.
He was always innovating. In the 1940s, he produced a comic book for the blind using a Braille-inspired system. And in 1962, he obtained a patent for a citrus harvesting machine he’d designed in 1958 and licensed the idea to International Harvester. Still, the challenge was a daily comic strip. One a day, every day. “The gut of a comic is in the characters themselves,” he said several years before he died. “If you don’t have a bang-clang gag or something that’s all polished and beautiful, then just emphasize the character because that way people get to know them.”
And that’s how we got to know Fred—through Snuffy and Loweezy and all the folks down at Hootin’ Holler. Like them, Fred was funny, picturesque, and loving.
“If you loved comics,” comics scholar Richard Olson said, “Fred loved you.”
It was as simple as that. Still is.
Virtually all of the information and anecdotes in the foregoing was gleaned from Brian Walker’s memorable book, which includes, in addition to the insights of its text, a healthy sampling of how the strip looked through the years and a smattering of visual references to the events in the strip during those years, plus photographs and miscellaneous art. The book, although scarce, can still be found on the Web.