Riff Raff Riff Raff

Herriman Riff

I spent my holiday free time leafing through a stack of Nemo: The Classic Comics Library. And Comic Book Artist. My stash of The Comics Journal was buried underneath too many boxes to get to easily. Sorry, Gary.

I was doing some research on the C.N. Landon Correspondence Cartooning Course from 1909 and stumbled on to something I did not know: George Herriman may have produced a "daily strip" in 1904 even before they were, as some claim, "invented" by Bud Fisher around 1907. And what's more: both started on the sports page of the newspaper. Bill Blackbeard reports this "startling discovery" in Nemo #1 from 1983. It's a great essay. Track it down if you can find it.

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Did you read John Kelly's piece on one of the longest running comic strips that lived on the sports page? It's interesting to me to be reminded of comic strips' early association with gambling, generally slumming it on the sports page for laffs with the masses. That connection also makes me think of the web and all the possibilities of being visible on the front page or the sports page of a newspaper then and now.

Back in 1905, cartoonists were often expected to basically find interesting ways of staying employed by the newspaper. Daily strips didn't exist yet and Herriman and Bud Fisher and apparently, originally, Clare Briggs were just trying to find ways of stringing together gag bits and repeating characters day to day to fill space around the horse track listings and baseball box scores. Bill Blackbeard expertly emphasized this and organized the timeline which unearthed this bit of Herriman trivia which was, in 1983, new. Blackbeard likened it to finding an earlier draft of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (!) and lamented that no one seems to notice or care anymore about Herriman because he'd been written about enough.

I must admit it is fun to think about those cartoonists 100 years ago just trying to figure it out. Herriman was barely 20 years old and floating from paper to paper and city to city. He would just fill the space leftover after they laid out the paper--much like Lynda Barry did in issues of her college paper and later  The Rocket. This idea of jockeying for space in the paper reminds me of seeing comics online in the context of some non-comics website or platform. For example, when I see a Kate Beaton comic floating around on various websites and platforms and seeing non-comics readers absorb it I'm reminded of the slow evolution of the comic strip in the newspaper. When I see a Sam Alden illustration for the New York Times and it reads like a comic and then see one of his Tumblr comics sandwiched in between dog gifs it reminds me, daily, that the landscape is changing fast.

Webcomics haven't totally been defined, but the fences are in place, and within that playing field the rules and regulations are starting to take shape. There are so many different types of webcomics (and what can be loosely defined as Tumblr comics) and how they fit into our daily consumption of online content. I feel like they fit into a very similar arc of history to that of the early comic strips; if the two arcs were mapped you could overlay the two maps like transparencies and see the similarities.

This honestly excites me,because I feel like maybe comics--and specifically serial comics--can work their way into the fabric of our lives in a way they could not before. Notice I didn't say "work their way BACK in." I think it's better now than it was then. The story of the demise of the traditional print newspaper comic strip is another story. Imagine "being in the newspaper" a hundred years ago. What that meant. The potential. And imagine the stress and the strain on the cartoonist. It was a tightrope act just to stay employed as a cartoonist. And now everyone is "in" the digital newspaper of the internet every day. Of course it's not the same, but stumbling upon this article about Herriman throwing darts at the wall reminds me of Kate Beaton, Ed Piskor, Jesse Moynihan, Meredith Gran, and scores of others who have found a way to make "being in the newspaper" payoff in some manner or another. The stories of both arcs, from both eras, rhyme.

Michael DeForge has this great riff when the conversation inevitably turns to "the kids not knowing their (comics) history." He says something to the effect of, "I feel like we're all in these punk bands and we all go to punk shows and then we go home and we're supposed to study ragtime music." Meaning, the idea that younger cartoonists are expected to read the classics is silly. Maybe some but not all. Like Tom Devlin said somewhere,"No more talking about EC Comics." Meaning, again, that young makers don't need to hear it from the old guard about what's what. It's a good point and well taken. However, I like to think there are more links to be explored between cartooning today and 100 years ago. I thought I knew the early history of the comic strip like the back of my hand and just from rooting around some old magazines about comics from 100 years ago I found a map for the present day. Felt that way to me anyhow.

I asked my editor and comics scholar, Dan Nadel, about this occasionally quoted sentiment of younger makers towards older makers and he said, "Here’s the thing about 'knowing your history' (you can quote me): It’s soooo easy. It’s a short history, there’s less than like 50 essential works that would take you about a week to digest, and, y’know, if you’re ambitious as an artist in the sense that you care about making good art (as opposed to making books, making Twitter, making a persona etc. etc.), it’s useful to know what was done before you in the medium of your choice. Only in comics (seriously) can one find a streak of self-hatred so strong that people would proudly talk about not knowing the history of the medium. You’d never hear that from a serious painter or writer because those people need to succeed in a context that does not value simple affirmations and basement festivals as a means of emotional survival. Basically, of COURSE plenty of people are not going to like Crumb or hate Chester Gould or not 'get' Julie Doucet, but you have to at least know what you’re dismissing before you just walk away. Anything else is just laziness, which is, except in very rare cases, not good for art. The difference between punk and ragtime is that they’re two different genres of music. The difference in genre between Michael DeForge’s comics, Crumb’s comics, and Herriman’s comics is basically negligible. Yarn-spinning emotional narratives that involve fantastical elements. See? I have yet to meet a good, ambitious cartoonist who doesn’t value the history of the medium."

Thanks for reading.

Over and out.

**please note that the Herriman strip shown above is from 1908. The ones Blackbeard is referring to in his Nemo article are from 1904.

***also please note that Mr. DeForge knows his comics history very well and values it very much. I just liked using his comment to echo a sentiment I often hear in our circles.

20 Responses to Herriman Riff

  1. Iestyn Pettigrew says:

    Funnily enough – the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge has got an exhibition of early cartooning that made me think of you!!!

    There’s mention of the first How to Caricature book – written by Mary Darly and published in 1762!! – Yes, before America even existed as a free nation – and Yes, a woman who taught other women to cartoon!!!

    see here –


    Saw pages from Henry Mayo Bateman – (see page 2 for some good stuff) – who was working with panels and pantomime strips around the same time.

    All made me think of you because you love history so much…

    It even had a couple of Glenn Baxter strips!!

  2. Frank Santoro says:

    What a catch! Thanks so much for this – truly inspiring!!!

  3. Iestyn Pettigrew says:

    It was actually a really interesting exhibition.

    see here

    It also had a hand drawn history of cartooning as drawn up by Ronald Searle (St Trinians and many other things incase you’ve not heard of him??) as well as a small exhibition of his work

    It’s printed in this book

    Very fascinating

  4. Michael Grabowski says:

    So what’s it gonna take to get an scanned archive of the Nemo magazines online? Kickstarter?

  5. Ian Harker says:

    It’s worth considering how the younger generations explore information in general when we think about how they explore history. The internet has changed the way information is organized and explored, it’s an organic structure as opposed to a hierarchical/canonical structure. Sure young artists should be exploring the history of the form, it’s just not necessarily going to be what someone else deems important! We get to create our own history now, and its a give and take interaction between what we find and how it shapes us.

    Has the idea of “we know what is the best and let us tell you” every been so roundly rejected as it was this week with the Grand Prix? Perfect example.

  6. Frank Santoro says:

    thats not really what I’m talking about here Ian but thanks for your comment :)

  7. Andrew White says:

    I think this is an interesting topic so I will try to say something intelligent about it.

    The fact that there are indeed “less than like 50 essential works that would take you about a week to digest” is what makes me feel conflicted about comics history. Diving into it sometimes feels like walking along an extremely well-worn path. I think we already have a significant pool of cartoonists who see Kirby, Crane, Segar, King, Crumb, etc as foundational influences. Why would I add myself to that list rather than attempt to strike out into new territory? Diverse inputs create diverse outputs. Dan mentions that a serious painter or writer would never dismiss history as he feels some cartoonists do, but I think that’s in part because writers, painters, musicians, etc. have a wider pool — hundreds of years — from which to pull. Comics has a single century.

    This doesn’t negate what Frank and Dan say above; there’s a difference between dismissing history out of hand and choosing not to engage with it. But my sense — maybe I’m wrong — is that many young creators know who, say, Crumb is but are opting out of engaging with his work. That’s essentially how I feel myself.

    Plus I happen to have a…reasonable (I think? Weird to quantify these things.) awareness of comics history, but I sometimes feel handicapped by that knowledge! I’m often envious of creators who don’t have my same comics background — L Nichols and Erin Curry are two who come quickly to mind and I’m sure I could name more with some thought. Their work benefits from coming out of a non-comics tradition.

    There’s also the matter of engaging with comics history vs. engaging with The Accepted Comics Canon. Overlapping, but not the same, I think.

  8. To be honest, the idea that there are only 50 works to engage with seems easy to disprove.

    I also think that it shows that I understand ‘comics’ as something very different from Dan and maybe something wider.

    I may be exempt from this argument as I’ve reached my 40’s, but I can certainly see that there are many avenues of engaging with comics that could completely, for example, exclude all of the underground cartoonists. Not because they are bad or unworthy, but simply because they do not have anything to give for that individual.

    I also think – as shown with Mary Darly, that the history of comics is a lot longer than and more varied than mainstream COMICS history allows. Dan admits more in that most certainly. But what about, just to pick another woman, Rosalind Welcher, who helped pioneer Studio Cards and also published hard back books of sequential cartoons that remind me very much of – for example If ‘n Oof by Brian Chippendale in terms of single panels with the occasional multiple panel laid out on each progressing page. She also used crayons and scratchy lines.

    See here –

    Also here – for examples of the books –

    All I’m saying is that there is a big world out there that informs Cartooning and through that comics and all of it is relevant and worth exploring.

    People can know their comics history, it may be that that history is actually very personal and catholic ann not just about comic strips and comic books

  9. Ian Harker says:

    The weird thing about comics history is that i think the specific “comics form” overlaps so hard with a segment of commercial illustration that you can fool yourself into studying the latter instead of the former. Comics branching out visually into other approaches of image-making is a relatively new thing. I huge chunk of comics history is dominated by pencil/ink/brush developmental approaches to illustration that really are not intrinsic to the “comics medium” at all. So i can’t blame young artists for basically ignoring that. The diverse approaches to image making that we see in “art comics” has been very inviting and has diversified the field. So i would tell a young artist to study Aidan Koch before i’d tell them to study Joe Kubert.

  10. Paul Tumey says:

    There’s a lot more to comics history than we currently understand. Lots more work to be done.

    Great thought piece, Frank. Inspiring.

    One essay I’ve been wanting to write for a couple of years is an in-depth the 1904-07 sports cartoons of Rube Goldberg. I want to look at how he was learning his trade quickly and with great effort… and you can see the seeds of what he would later create in these early comics. It was something he was so clearly in love with and driven to do. He was fighting for a spot in a field that meant everything to him. The stuff he figured out in his two or three years of professional cartooning set the approach for the next 20 years. here’s grotesque exaggerations, vignettes circled by smaller cartoons, a love of nonsense, and experiments with continuity. From 1908-1919, Goldberg was on fire, creating great comics that are all but forgotten today — and they are rooted in his early years of sport cartoons.

    I haven’t written that piece mainly because I didn’t think anyone would want to read it — but your essay makes me want to go ahead. My conversations with Eddie Campbell made me aware that Goldberg and Herriman were just two of many cartoonists who started out in the sports pages and later developed into the great humor strip artists. And Campbell has been studying lots of great artists who worked in the sports pages who didn’t go into strips — but instead illustration and painting.

    Lastly, Allan Holtz has been sharing rare Herriman sports cartoons, with insightful context provided in his essays, at his great comics history blog, Stripper’s Guide. There’s a wealth of these fine cartoons to be found at Holtz’s blog.

    Thanks again, Frank.

  11. Brilliant post, Frank. Bravo.

  12. Frank Santoro says:

    Thanks for all your comments – keep em comin’ :) I guess honestly I’m more interested in the conversation about the similarities between now and 100 years ago in terms of platforms and access – more than I am about “50 essential works” or kids not knowing their history. Bottom line for me is that I want to pursue my own education and do so with superhuman strength and focus. That means walking back and forth across that well worn path and the side roads and secret passages. I want to be the best comics maker/junior detective I can be and go, say, to the Billy Ireland museum and go through Noel Sickles files and then while in there find a letter from Toth about the perils of photo-referencing. And yes go hiking outside of comics sources like Dan’s research into the Hairy Who and oh I dunno Heinz Edelmann and H.C. Westermann. I figure my own enthusiasm for the material – and help of other researchers and fans – I’ll wear new path between “new ideas” and “old” sources for myself that keeps me happy and healthy. Onwards!

  13. John Kelly says:

    One of the reasons Landon encouraged budding cartoonist to do sports pieces because it was practical career advice. A number of the early cartoonists started out by doing sports comics because it was a way to get paid and, at the time, there were still very few actual photos running in any newspapers. It should also be noted that at the time that being a cartoonist could be more lucrative than being a professional athlete. In 1926, Babe Ruth was the highest paid professional athlete at $52,000; that same year, Bud Fisher was making more than $200,000.
    Here’s what Landon himself had to say about “sports cartoons” from that same year, 1926, from one of my copies of his course books:
    “The SPORTS PAGE is one of the most popular features in our daily newspapers…Football, boxing, racing and other sports also have hordes of followers, so it’s not surprising that SPORTS PAGE CARTOONS have gained wide popularity.
    “Cartoons of LOCAL games are particularly popular with sports fans. There are so many opportunities to cartoon local sporting events that newspapers are employing artists in increasing numbers for this purpose. Many newspapers which do not use cartoons based upon political issues and national affairs are featuring sports cartoons….
    “All sports offer endless opportunities for comic treatment. In trying to excel, athletes get into a lot of funny positions. Then, too, crowds at sporting events are also subject to comic treatment. Their antics, when excited over a close decision or critical point of the game, can be pictured in a funny way…”
    And it goes on from there about how to break break into the business. One suggestion was familiarizing yourself of the rules of whatever game or event you are there to cover.

  14. Frank Santoro says:

    Nice catch, John!

  15. Briany Najar says:

    There are too few comics historians being quoted by too many.

    There are ideas about what is ‘proper’ or even ‘intrinsic’ to comics, generated by the few and promulgated by the many.

    Punk is a terrifically conservative style of music, despite the rad clothes etc. Fortunately some of that milieu stuck it out, embraced influences from outside the RnR playlist, and wrote some new music.

  16. Frank Santoro says:

    I’m not sure what this all means – especially the first part which maybe I am misunderstanding – it sounds like youre saying sort of to stop quoting Vasari because he was the only one around writing stuff down

  17. Briany Najar says:

    More research; more Vasaris with different perspectives.
    (The Vasaris we’re talking about are from our own time – The resources at their disposal are around, and even remote physical artifacts are far more accessible to more people than they were in ye olde Mediterranean Rennaissance times. We’re not dependant on Blackbeard or Gifford in the same way that we are on Vasari.)

    Also, ideas about ‘history’ are a bit different to how they were back then. Monolithic ‘Great Men’ aren’t the primary vectors any more, for instance. Many other transvaluations have also occurred, in diverse disciplines.

    But the orthodoxy of comics scholarship seems to struggle (vigourously, in some quarters) to catch up with approaches that have galvanised, liberated and invigorated studies of other artforms. We’re still trying to nail down definitions, isolate canonical masterpieces, exclude anomolies, all that old Imperial, Romantic stuff that reduces horizons and calcifies heirachies.

    I guess it’s cos comics fans are escapists?
    I dunno.

    Maybe this relates to platform pragmatism as well…

  18. Briany Najar says:

    … Or, pending more research (far too much wishful thinking coming from me), somehow deter the prevalent assumption that comics scholarship (so far) is a comprehensive and rigourous body of work that has answered all questions and explored all avenues. It isn’t; it hasn’t. ‘It’ is nascent.

    Anyway, just bouncing off of some of the other comments here.

    Do websites need filling? Isn’t the size of the page dictated by the content?
    What is today’s type of graphic art for entertaining people with… isn’t it all about dank memes now?
    (Not just memes, no. Cartoons still get people going.)
    Cartoonists need to tap into some early bird news network so they can scoop stuff to draw about.

  19. Frank Santoro says:

    OK thanks Briany – I hear ya

  20. Eddie Campbell says:

    That Blackbeard article away back in 1983 planted seeds in my mind which have resulted in me spending the last couple of years doing a big comprehensive book on the relationship between comics and the sports page (loads of illustrations- Swinnerton, Herriman, Fisher, Goldberg, Tad Dorgan etc.). Hope to have more info on this soon.

    Meanwhile, Jeff Overturf has posted loads of scans from his collection of Nemo magazine

    Eddie Campbell

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