FEATURES

Becoming Percy Crosby

In a close examination of “Skippy” one can find in this secure and solidly middle-class version of Crosby’s childhood evidence of the worries that hovered over his own family. Discussion of overdue mortgages, impatient bill collectors, and economic reversals are played to comic effect in the strip, as Skippy shares in public details of the economies behind the Skinners’ genteel façade. But if Skippy is in part the romantic, wish-fulfilled memory of a lost youth, these moments also point to the anxieties and uncertainties that troubled Crosby’s childhood, anxieties that cannot help but be voiced—if only to be blustered away—by the irrepressible Skippy Skinner.

For in truth, things were not always easy for the Crosbys, particularly after Thomas’s crippling arthritis severely limited his ability to make art canvases. Like so many others who would pursue a career in cartooning during these early years of the industry, Percy Crosby’s childhood was cut short by financial problems at home. By his second year at Richmond Hill High School, at age fifteen, Crosby had decided it was time, as only son, to leave school to support his family.

That he turned to comics was not surprising. For one thing, he had already earned his first dime at age twelve by selling a traced cover of the Saturday Evening Post to a Chinese laundryman in the neighborhood. He realized early on, as he would recall later, that “I couldn’t enjoy eating if it was paid for with money I had made in any other way.” Unlike other would-be cartoonists, however, Percy experienced support for his ambitions from his parents, who not only shared his creative temperament but also saw in cartooning a viable career path for an ambitious young man.

In 1906, it was. In addition to the widely recognized celebrity of cartoonists such as Thomas Nast, Charles Dana Gibson, and Frederick Burr Opper who had used the illustrated magazines of the late nineteenth century as their platform, there was a new medium in New York in the early years of the 20th Century: the color newspaper comics supplement. Here a new generation of celebrities were emerging, including James Swinnerton, R. F. Outcault, and Rudolph Dirks (and even Opper had rebooted his career in the pages of William Randolph Hearst’s Sunday papers). Long before the star system emerged in the nascent motion picture industry, celebrity cartoonists were securing both riches and fame on a scale unimaginable just a few years earlier.

Of course, it was not Crosby alone who noticed the new opportunities in the field of comics and cartoons. Profiles of the careers of successful cartoonists were becoming regular features in magazines and newspapers, and hundreds of talented young men (and a few intrepid women) were swarming through the doors of the city’s newspapers and illustrated magazines. Crosby’s own first foray across those thresholds was a particularly awkward one. At sixteen, a bundle of drawings in hand, Crosby headed into the offices of Life magazine and asked to see the editor. When the secretary asked him if he had an appointment or a card, he had to admit he had neither. And as he looked around at how the employees in the office were attired, he realized that it might well be time to get a pair of proper trousers as well. Perhaps it was the fact that the would-be cartoonist was standing there in the Life offices in short pants, however, that prompted the sympathetic secretary to make a proper appointment for the following week, at which time Crosby returned with both trousers and a business card (of which he had only one copy made). By the time he had left the offices he had sold a cartoon—or at least he had sold an idea. His quick imagination and wit ran ahead of his skills with the pen at sixteen, but within a year he had sold a handful of cartoons to the magazine as well.

Meanwhile, during that first year out of school, he found a job as an office boy at the popular women’s magazine, The Delineator, newly under the command of the novelist and reformer Theodore Dreiser. Crosby would have been in the offices when Dreiser launched The Delineator’s “child-rescue campaign” on behalf of the city’s orphaned children. As Crosby would recall many years later, writing from King’s Park Psychiatric Center, it was around this time that he developed his own lifelong concern with the life of the poor. After evenings at the penny arcades on 14th Street around the corner from The Delineator offices, Crosby would walk down to the Bowery toward the Brooklyn Bridge to catch the train to Richmond Hill on the Fulton Street elevated line. There he would see up close the forgotten children and the implausible poverty that co-existed within this burgeoning metropolis and which placed his family’s own financial insecurities into a vivid perspective. “Just fleeting glimpses of their tired, tear-stained faces under lamplight or saloon glow was enough to touch the heart,” he recalled. “Still,” he mused, all those many years later, “I understood it all, for I too had been a poor boy. So poor, in fact, I had been ashamed of my shabby clothes and ashamed lest my neighbors would be continually whispering that our family, poor but proud, hardly had anything to eat.”

In the Delineator offices he would have also had a chance to run into his Richmond Hill neighbor, Jacob Riis, who was involved with Dreiser’s campaign. And it was doubtless at this moment that Crosby first caught the flame of politics and reform that would fuel his adult career in complex ways.

Crosby was only at The Delineator for a short time. After all, Percy had not come to the city in search of work as an office boy, which would contribute little to his own ambitions or to the financial security of his family. He came to be a cartoonist. While Life magazine remained the prize he most dreamed about, there were jobs to be had in the city’s many newspapers: in 1908 there were over a dozen general circulation papers in the city and all of them were in need of artists, excepting the New York Times, always eager to differentiate itself from its more colorful popular rivals. And though Crosby still had a lot to learn in terms of technique, he had one skill that was especially in demand: he could draw quickly.

His first staff gig, however, was not at one of the many regular daily papers in the city, but at the Socialist daily, The Call, the only paper in town that was hiring. The Call was the second English-language Socialist daily in the nation, founded just a couple of years earlier in 1908. (A German-language Socialist daily, the New Yorker Volkzeitung, preceded it, a reminder of just how cacophonous and vibrant was the print culture of the city at this time). When Crosby joined the paper the tensions between capital and labor from coast to coast were at a fever pitch, and The Call was on the front lines, having emerged quickly as the most important socialist periodical in the nation.

Crosby knew little about socialism, but the broad strokes did not seem so very different than the progressive reformist agenda of Dreiser and Riis. And at ten dollars a week this was far and away the best job he had found since leaving school. Further, where the pages of The Delineator had been dominated by dress patterns, at The Call political cartoons were regularly featured on the front page. Crosby would have encountered some of the most committed and engaging writers and artists of the day, including John Sloan, a founding member of the Ashcan School, whom Crosby would later encounter again at the Art Students League where Sloan would become a celebrated teacher.

Crosby joined the staff of The Call just days before the city was turned upside down by the largest industrial accident in its history. One hundred forty-eight workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, victims of brutally unsafe conditions and an oppressive sweatshop system. The accident horrified the city and galvanized the labor movement. And it deeply moved the fledgling cartoonist assigned to capture its horrors to produce his most powerful early work.

March 30th, 1930 cartoon for The Call.

His front-page cartoons in the days after the fire captured the outrage experienced by all friends of labor regarding the death sentence passed on the women who perished in the fire, victims of uncaring greed on the part of the factory owners. One cartoon features the “Triangle” as a pyramid of skulls representing the martyred workers; another portrayed a skeleton with a swirling dollar sign wafting in smoke before it. While no socialist himself, this outrage was one he could share with the more orthodox members of the staff, and at nineteen, Crosby became for a brief time (and within the limited circles of the city’s Left community) celebrated publicly for his art, lauded by the paper as “the great crusader, Comrade Crosby.”

As a committed anti-communist, Crosby would downplay the brief time spent at The Call. But in fact he had more in common with those writers and artists at the paper than he would like to admit in later years. While Crosby would soon reject the title “comrade,” the label of “great crusader” which the paper first bestowed on him was one to which he would grow increasingly more attached throughout his career. The combined influence of Riis, Dreiser, and the socialists at The Call sharpened Crosby’s politics and his sense of his mission as an artist in ways he never could have predicted in 1911 when he walked away from the job.

The walking away, however, proved particularly easy. While Crosby sympathized with the passionate commitments of the defenders of the poor and the dispossessed, he found little encouragement from the paper’s editors or readers for any but the most didactic cartoon work. His attempts to launch a comic strip in the paper were quickly discontinued. More important, the promised “ten dollars a week” proved maddeningly elusive, despite Crosby’s work for the paper during this crucial moment in the city’s history. Clearly, young artists were expected to feed off of their political ideals and the coming gratitude of the Worker, but at nineteen Crosby was in need of more concrete wages. When he spotted the very editors who had refused him his wages (and rejected his idea for a comic strip poking gentle fun at socialist ideologues) dining lavishly in the back room, Crosby had had enough. Crosby would grow to despise hypocrisy in all its forms. This lesson too he learned in these earliest days of his career.

If leaving The Call was easy, landing in a new position was proving hard. At first he thought he found a perfect home at the New York Globe, where he was hired as a sports cartoonist, but he had little interest in the topic. He spent most of his time pitching cartoons and ultimately ended up back on the streets. Walking away from The Call was one thing, but getting fired from a daily paper hit the young man hard.

Meanwhile, things were deteriorating at home. Thomas’s arthritis was worsening and the shop was in financial trouble. And Percy’s earliest jobs out of high school had contributed little to the family’s coffers. In desperation, he submitted a cartoon to a New York Edison contest and returned home to try and figure out what to do next. When several weeks later the letter arrived informing he had won first prize—and most welcome of all seventy-five dollars—his confidence was restored. As his twentieth birthday approached, Crosby found employment at the New York World.

In late 1911 the World was struggling to regain its footing following a long and bruising battle with Hearst’s upstart American and the decline and subsequent death of its patriarch, Joseph Pulitzer. Many of the cartoonists who had helped pioneer the form in Pulitzer’s Sunday supplement just a decade earlier had been bought up by William Randolph Hearst’s syndicate, but in 1911, there was a renewed energy in newspaper comics from the recent success of the daily comic strip. First taking flight in San Francisco in 1907 with Bud Fisher’s “Mutt & Jeff”, the form was now being nationalized by Hearst, who had recently acquired Fisher’s strip for his syndicate. The Sunday supplements seemed sewn up tight by the established deans of the form, but the daily strip offered young cartoonists a new frontier—and as Fisher had proven, a potentially very profitable one. At the World, Crosby met George McManus, himself soon to be stolen by Hearst, and C. M. Payne (“S’matter Pop”) both of whom were experimenting at the time with dailies focused on family life.

After putting in time in the trenches, including as a sketch artist at the criminal courts, Crosby was given his first strip for the World syndicate in the fall of 1911: “Babyettes.” Crosby had two targets for this satirical strip: the female suffrage movement that had been a target for his humor since one of his earliest cartoons in Life in 1910 and the socialists he had come to know more recently. In “Babyettes” Crosby ridiculed women engaged in the struggle to vote by featuring babies organizing as an opposition party to the rising power of the Suffragettes. And he mocked the socialists at The Call by having his militant infants refer to each other as “Comrade.” It was at best a thin joke, but it allowed the young cartoonist to work through his differences with the socialists and his deep ambivalence regarding the growing power of the New Woman (fourteen years later, Skippy’s mother will be seen campaigning against feminism in the second installment Crosby would produce for his new strip).

“Babyettes” ran sporadically until the end of 1911, to be followed by “Toddles”, which ran on a similar schedule throughout the first couple of months of the new year. Despite being an untrained artist, Crosby was clearly talented. Compared to the often breathtaking energy of his mature work, his early strips were tense and insecure. But with “Toddles” things started to loosen up somewhat, inspired by the subject matter. “Toddles” was Crosby’s first strip about children. Here adults were few and far between and the kids worked out their problems, their politics, and their economics on their own. And while Crosby was not yet the artist he would become, he was finding his voice as a cartoonist for the first time in the fertile ground of his childhood memories.

“Toddles” drifted off after a couple of months, but Crosby was starting to get a measure of himself as a cartoonist. After banging around the trenches of the World for a year Crosby finally got another chance, this time at a proper daily strip. “Beany and the Gang” was the first true prototype of “Skippy”, carrying Crosby back to his abbreviated childhood on the streets of Richmond Hill where Beany and his friends hold court. Beany is a pampered middle class child whose domestic life is governed by an overbearing mother and her world of hyperbolic femininity. But on the streets he is a “man”: a soldier, an athlete, a leader of little men. Crosby had found his form, and while Skippy would not be born for a decade, Beany was laying the groundwork for his creation.

 

One can see in Beany Crosby’s development as an artist as well. After a somewhat cramped beginning reminiscent of his earlier strips, Crosby began occasionally to let his lines breathe and his subjects careen around the frame. There was more confidence in his pen by the fall of 1913, as Beany led his men into war in what became one of Crosby’s first continuities as a cartoonist. Working endless hours at the drafting table in the World’s offices, Crosby found inspiration in memories of the kinetic chaos of childhood. In addition, the regular salary from the World was giving Crosby a chance to take occasional art classes for the first time, at Pratt Institute around the corner from his first home in Brooklyn and then at the Art Students League uptown from Pulitzer’s skyscraper in Manhattan.

A Crosby cover for the Word’s Sunday supplement, February 8, 1914.

Crosby was being shaped as an artist by other forces as well. A long-time habitué of the penny arcades and nickelodeons of the city, that fall Moving Picture World recorded Crosby’s presence alongside several of his colleagues from the newspaper at the Inquest Club, a society dedicated to the improvement of the new art of film. Crosby could not help notice how the young medium was transforming in remarkable ways, from the stilted theatrical posings of the previous decade to the parallel editing and camera movement in D. W. Griffith’s Biograph films. The film industry had not yet begun its westward migration to Hollywood, and so Crosby found himself very much in the thick of it in 1913, heading off regularly to the nickelodeons for relief from the tensions of the newspaper offices. That same year the Armory Show came to New York, and in the work of Duchamp, Villon, and Braque, Crosby found new influences and the birth of his lifelong fascination with modern art. And in the cartoonists whose work was exhibited at the Armory Show, including George Luks and Rudolph Dirks, Crosby would have seen new possibilities for the form to which he had devoted himself. It is not surprising that during this time his own art was going through remarkable transformations.


 

 

 

 

 

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