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George Baker and the Sad Sack

Nobody ever had it as bad as the Sack—the Sad Sack, George Baker’s perpetually luckless anti-hero of World War II. The world was poised to dump on him, and Baker made sure it did—creating in the process one of the most popular cartoon characters of the twentieth century. SadSack1Ironically, everything came up roses for Baker.

Baker was born May 22, 1915 in Lowell, Massachusetts, son of Harry Baker, a middle class merchant, and Mary Portman.  In 1923, the family moved to Chicago where young George attended Roosevelt High School.  After graduation, he held a succession of inconsequential jobs (truck driver, cleaner and dyer assistant, salesman, clerk) before becoming assistant (circa 1935) to a commercial artist.  In 1937, he applied to Disney Studios for a job, was accepted, and moved to California.  He worked in the Effects Department on such full-length features as “Pinocchio,” “Dumbo,” and “Bambi.”  In June 1941 Baker was carrying a picket sign in the notorious animators’ strike against Disney. Just as he was about to run out of money, he was drafted into the Army and sent to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, for basic training, after which he would be assigned to the Signal Corps to do animation for training films.

At the time, Pearl Harbor was still six months in the future, and many of Baker’s fellow inductees expected to be returned to civilian life before the end of the year—“Ohio,” as they said (“Over the Hill in October”). In the meantime, as Baker observed, “civilian ignorance of the Army was appalling. Everyone seemed to have been educated to the military through the movies. … Simple terms such as K.P. or Inspection drew a blank and needed explanation. In an endeavor to rectify this sad state of affairs and also to occupy my evenings with something constructive for a change, I decided to do some cartoons that would explain pictorially what Army life was like.”

He started by devising an authentic average soldier “to refute the ads that were then beginning to make their appearance, in which soldiers always looked bright and cheerful, bedecked in tailored uniforms immaculately pressed and shined.” To create his new khaki Truth, Baker “reached into the psychological, if not actual, reality” and pulled out the Army Everyman, whom Baker saw as a hapless and perpetual victim in the Army’s grand scheme of things.  “The actual state of mind of a soldier was more authentic and real to me than his outer appearance,” Baker wrote in the Preface to The New Sad Sack (1946), “so therefore my character looked resigned, tired, helpless, and beaten. Going the whole hog, he looked clumsy and even a little stupid, but these last two elements were actually unintentional and only slipped in because I was still a bit rusty in my drawing.”

Baker hoped to sell his as yet unnamed creation into newspaper publication and made the rounds of newspaper offices in New York, only fifty miles from Fort Monmouth. When no one proved interested, Baker gave up on the idea until the Defense Recreation Committee in New York ran a cartoon contest for soldiers in the spring of 1942; he submitted one of his cartoons and won.

Marion Hargrove, noted later for his hilarious tome about his Army experiences, See Here, Private Hargrove, described this watershed cartoon in the Preface to the first Sad Sack book: “In the first drawing, this pathetic dogface lay supine and sloppy upon his tousled bunk, oblivious to the filthiness and disorder the characterized his little corner of the barracks. In the course of the next ten drawings, he rose and made his bed, cleared away the scattered clothing and newspapers and old candy wrappers, swept and mopped the floor, pressed his uniform, shined his brogans, polished his brass, bathed, shaved, dressed himself immaculately, and stood at the foot of his bunk, trim and erect in the midst of sparkling order and cleanliness, while the inspecting officers passed on their rounds. In the last picture, the inspectors had gone, and our hero again lay supine and sloppy upon his tousled bunk, surrounded by the same scattered clothing and newspapers and old candy wrappers. It was the full military cycle caught in a newspaper cartoon.”

The publicity provoked by the cartoon attracted the attention of Major Hartzell Spence, who was then in New York, assembling material and a staff to produce the weekly Armed Forces tabloid magazine, Yank.  Invited to submit a cartoon every week, Baker titled his feature The Sad Sack (employing Army slang for a worthless soldier, “a sad sack of shit”) and began contributing with the first issue of Yank, June 17, 1942.

In this vicinity, we post the inaugural Sack. Also the first military publication appearance of G.I. Joe, the creation of Dave Breger (whose autobiographical cartoon series Private Breger had been appearing in the Saturday Evening Post for some months before being drafted by Yank).

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The 24-page first issue of Yank offered a full page of cartoons, “Between the Lines,” and also printed several cartoons throughout. Joining the Sack on the page of cartoons were the efforts of contributors, some of whom (like Private Jaro Fabry; and Private Ralph Stein, who was a Yank staffer) would have memorable post-WWII cartooning careers. Other contributors over the next several years who joined the post-war parade of professional cartoonists included such luminaries as Bil Keane (already signing his name with one ‘l’ but being credited in type with two), John Ruge, Irwin Caplan, and various others, among them, the ubiquitous Ned Hil-ton, who seems to be everywhere in single-panel gag cartooning for the entire first half of the twentieth century.

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Despite the work of a distinguished line-up of cartoonists, Breger’s G.I. Joe was the presumed star; Breger, after all, was nationally known because of his soldier cartoons in the Saturday Evening Post. Early promotions for Yank plugged Breger’s cartoon and made “little or no mention of the Sack,” Baker observed. But it was a short-lived fame: “G.I. Joe ran in Yank for about eight months until one day Breger, who was in London at the time, accepted a commission of Second Lieutenant in Special Service, and his strip had to be dropped; Yank’s policy was that contributing members of its staff had to be in enlisted grade.”

The War’s most famous enlisted cartoonist, Bill Mauldin, never made it into Yank. Baker reports that Mauldin submitted many cartoons, but Yank’s feature editor rejected almost all of them, and Mauldin, fed up, wrote him a scathing letter, denouncing the editor, the magazine, and the cartoons in it and vowing that he was through with Yank. The name of this benighted editor has been lost to history.

A few months following the Sack’s debut in Yank, Baker was transferred to the staff of the magazine, and he served there for the duration of World War II.  Yank sent Baker to military installations all over the world to expose him to every possible phase of Army life in order that he might reflect it in the cartoon. In the early months of Yank’s run, Baker also distributed subscription blanks wherever he went. Eventually, the magazine acquired a circulation department, which involved Baker only to draw promotional posters. One of these gave the cartoonist “the first tangible evidence” that the Sack was a success. The poster said: “Subscribe to Yank and see the Sad Sack every week.”

Baker shouldn’t have worried. As perennial low man on the regimental totem pole, the Sad Sack was popular from the very start.  He epitomized the frustrations and disappointments of Everyman, dragged somewhat reluctantly into a military bureaucracy he didn’t understand and could never master.  The Sack’s adventures took place entirely in pantomime; each cartoon was a series of eight-to-ten borderless pictures that progressively depicted the cascading persecution of the week.  Like some dumb animal being inexplicably punished for behaving in a perfectly natural way, the Sack was all the more pitiful for being mute. SadSack3

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The Sad Sack’s personal agonies begin immediately upon his induction:  when his first uniform fits him perfectly, his sergeant orders him to take it off so he can be supplied with one that doesn’t fit.  The Sack always gets the worst assignments in camp.  He is perpetually on K.P. (“kitchen police”) duty, peeling potatoes and washing pots and pans.  When he spends a whole day cleaning the latrine and making it spotless, his comrades mess it up in minutes when they return from the day’s training.  When he works hard, his superiors are promoted and he gets more K.P.  When he finds a girl, she deserts him for a sergeant or an officer. Incidentally, Baker’s way of portraying the female of the species is, to be coy, udderly outlandish. Few cartoonists are able, as he is, to make sexy women look so pendulous as to be nearly repulsive.

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Also among the specimens at the corner of your eye is one of the few times the Sack comes out ahead—when he blunders into bayoneting a sergeant. Unusual, as I say: the Sad Sack never wins. Or almost never wins. But he never gives up either.  He always comes back the next week.

Baker drew with a bold outline which he soon began to embellish with hayey shading, creating a gritty, raunchy visual ambiance for the feature.  Human anatomy as the cartoonist portrayed it was bony and lumpy, and clothing draped on such constructions forever bagged at the knee and wrinkled everywhere.  The Sack himself was a chinless apparition of comic as well as sad aspect with his sausage nose, huge ears, and weary, meek expression; and the forces opposed to him—sergeants and officers—were lupine predators, fanged and snappish, intimidating even in appearance.  The Sad Sack was primitive—even crude—in its visual style, but that suited the subject:  a powerless cog in a machine he never made, the Sack with his sagging, rumpled, awkward physique and hangdog expression was the personification of the Army’s typical private, a pathetic dogface, frazzled and worn, destined to be defeated by every circumstance he encountered.

Wrote Baker (in The New Sad Sack):  “The greatest source of material for the Sack was the Army itself….  [A]ny idea based on the machinations of the Army, the red tape, officers or the thousands of consistent inconsistencies of the system would be accepted and understood by G.I.’s everywhere.  The underlying story of the Sad Sack was his struggle with the Army in which I tried to symbolize the sum total of the difficulties and frustrations of all enlisted men.”

The popularity of the Sack may be gauged by his cover appearance on Yank’s first anniversary issue, and by a convivial tongue-in-cheek “expose” in the issue for December 10, 1943. SadSack5The article alleges that Baker’s character is actually a German spy, descendant of a fifteenth century Nurenberg family known as Sad Sach, the origins of which can be traced back to 1494 to a Hans Sad-Sach, shoe-maker, “who was a celebrated meistersinger and German poet of many works, who died in 1576.” The spoof gives itself away early by saying that Yank “claimed to be The Army Weekly.”

After the War, Baker left the Army, married Brenda Emsley (on May 29, 1946), moved to Los Angeles, and formed Sad Sack, Inc., through which he marketed his creation.  The Sack also resumed civilian life.

Bell Syndicate had been distributing reprints of the Yank cartoons since 1945, and on May 5, 1946, it launched a Sunday Sad Sack comic strip with entirely new material; a daily started September 8, 1952.  But it was a somewhat depressing feature.  As a portrayal of civilian life, the strip seemed unduly cynical and bitter:  here the Sack encountered nothing but predatory con men, crooks, and heartless, conniving women, and he was victimized by their malevolent premeditation rather than by the uncomprehending and therefore comic blunderings of monumental military inefficiency.  The daily strip ceased after only a year; the Sunday, in 1958.

Baker had more success with a comic book incarnation of the Sack (for which pantomime was abandoned).  Launched by Harvey Publications in the summer of 1949 (cover date September), The Sad Sack lasted with various titles (Sad Sack and the Sarge, Sad Sack Army Life Parade, Sad Sad Sack World, etc.) until mid-1982 (with a six-issue revival in 1992-93), drawn mostly by Fred Rhoad.

Initially a civilian in the book, the Sack reenlisted in the spring of 1951, and his return to Army life made the comic book, aimed at a teenage audience (not at servicemen), a bestseller during the Korean War and after even though Baker no longer drew the feature (except, it sez here, for covers).  The Sack also inspired a 1957 motion picture, starring Jerry Lewis.  Although the Sad Sack secured a living for Baker until his death May 7, 1975 from cancer, the Sack never again achieved emblematic status for an entire generation, as he had during World War II, when he suffered in silence as did Everyman in uniform.

Bibliography.  The chief source for most of the information about George Baker’s life is the obituary printed in The New York Times, May 9, 1975.  A few additional details may be found in The Encyclopedia of American Comics (1990), edited by Ron Goulart; in “Sad Sack,” an article by Gordon and Mary Campbell in Cartoonist PROfiles No.69 (March 1986); and in the front matter of the two Simon and Schuster collections of the Yank cartoons:  The Sad Sack (1944) and The New Sad Sack (1946), especially the latter which begins with Baker’s own account of his life before and with the Sack.

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7 Responses to George Baker and the Sad Sack

  1. John Platt says:

    What a great article about George Baker! His original pantomime cartoons were gems.

    Minor typo: The artist of the Sad Sack comics was Fred Rhoads, not Rhoad.. (I have a delightful original by him.)

  2. Bill says:

    Thanks for this upbeat and informative article.

  3. Paul Tumey says:

    Mr. Harvey, this Sad Sack piece made me very happy — thank you! Your skillful writing communicated both the history and the proper appreciation of Baker’s silent comic. Thanks very much for this.

  4. R. Maheras says:

    Nice article! Although I like Baker’s original version, I love Rhoads’ later version of Sad Sack!

    In my essay about Harvey Kurtzman’s three cartoons published in “Yank,” I wrote the following: “In an Oct. 30, 1945 letter to Kurtzman, Yank feature editor, Sgt. Ray Duncan, told the no-doubt thrilled cartoonist that although Yank was in the twilight weeks of publication, he would possibly use three of Kurtzman’s cartoons, and that he liked Kurtzman’s “weird style of drawing.”

    So Duncan may very well be the “Yank” editor who kept rejecting Mauldin’s cartoon submissions.

    Here’s the URL for my essay: http://open.salon.com/blog/r_maheras/2009/08/21/mad_creators_early_army_cartoons_subtle_hint_of_things_to

  5. Pingback: Comics A.M. | U.K. political cartoonist Leon Kuhn passes away | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment

  6. My wife has a 4×8 negative of Sad Sack depictiing the end of the war that was one of his last pictures
    he published about the war. She found it in her deceased fathers pictures. He also was a photographer during the war and personally knew George Baker. If anyone knows the historical value of this negative or anyone who might know please give me a email.
    Russell Noble
    rnoble4@astound.net

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