REVIEWS

Cartoon Monarch: Otto Soglow and the Little King

In 1933 a newspaper columnist described Otto Soglow as “a great cutup” who “clowns all over the place” at parties, livening up the scene with magic tricks and jokes. This convivial portrait of Soglow as a merry prankster is reinforced by the photos that adorn Jared Gardner’s introduction to the new collection Cartoon Monarch: Otto Soglow and The Little King. One photo shows Soglow cheerfully parading his legs in a mock all-male chorus line made up of members of the National Cartoonists Society. In another snapshot Soglow wears a broad grin as he displays the power of a waterproof pen by drawing his signature character the Little King on swimming trunks worn by a zaftig model.

Soglow clearly belonged to the tribe of tricksters, so it is entirely fitting that he earned a sly tribute from one of the great harlequins of literature, Vladimir Nabokov. In his memoir Speak, Memory (original edition 1951), the novelist describes his younger self surveying his early literary production: “The ranks of words I reviewed were again so glowing, with their puffed-out little chests and trim uniforms….” In a later edition to the book, Nabokov called attention to this sentence and rather kittenishly lamented that not one reviewer discovered that it contained “the name of a great cartoonist and a tribute to him.” To turn Soglow into “so glowing” is a bit of a strained pun but the sentence as a whole is a nifty encapsulation of the cartoonist’s work, which is rife with shimmering parades of soldiers and guards neatly arrayed in their dapper uniforms with their balloon-like little chests sticking out.

September 9, 1934

Nabokov’s tip-of-the-hat to Soglow offers a clue to the cartoonist’s appeal. Like the author of Lolita and Pale Fire, Soglow specialized in the comedy of the unexpected, the humor of surprise, the mirth of looking at the world from an unexpected angle. The Little King was a long-lived strip — it started as a recurring feature in The New Yorker in 1930 and was syndicated in newspapers as a weekly feature from 1934 until Soglow’s death in 1975. Despite its longevity, The Little King relied on variations of one joke: the King is surrounded by courtiers and subjects who diligently obey the rules of high state which the sovereign playfully subverts.

The Little King is the court jester in his own castle. Here is a rundown of the King’s actions in the first few strips: he uses a banner stretched out before his balcony as a tightrope; he holds up a wet paint sign after his throne room is painted; he parachutes off a plane while seated in his throne; he uses a cardboard cut-up of himself to take over the tedious job of watching soldiers march; he tries to calm his wailing princeling by having the butler push him and the baby in circles in a go-cart.

September 16, 1934

The essence of the carnival, Mikhail Bakhtin has taught us, involves turning the world upside-down, with kings are reduced to beggars and beggars are showered with gifts. In that sense, The Little King is a profoundly carnivalesque strip.

These strips set the tone for the entire run of The Little King. Occasionally Soglow will make a nod in the direction of the daily news, as in 1940 when he introduced Ookle the Dictator, a recurring character for the next few years or in the post-war strips about UFOs. But such topical strips are the exception and Soglow’s focus rarely shifts from the central comedy of the Little King’s carnivalesque upturning of the social order. Soglow’s monarch is a very democratic ruler, a problem-solver with a talent for finding unconventional solutions, a lord who is not afraid of getting his hands dirty and indeed consorts with such lowly subjects as hobos and sewer workers.

May 5, 1940 — the first apperance of Ookle

The gleeful mood of the strip would be impossible without Soglow’s art. As Ivan Brunetti notes in his sharp foreword to this book, “The Little King wouldn’t be funny unless there was some sense that dignity and decorum exist within the strip’s universe. The sleek and concentrated drawing creates a background of rigidity, rules, convention, and correctness, which the titular character impishly circumvents and happily, without malice, violates.”

The puffed-out chests that Nabokov called attention to are a clue as to the way Soglow’s drawings create a clash between hide-bound propriety and irrepressible mischief-making. The puffed-out chests all belong to courtiers, soldiers, guards, and other figures who have their noses in the air as they carry out their appointed rounds. The monarch that they serve, by contrast, is a much earthier figure with his beach-ball belly hanging low to the ground. Since we always see him in profile, the Little King is very close to being a playing-card monarch (and indeed in one strip serves as a model for a playing card). He’s a marvel of character design, with his jutting half-rectangular nose, canoe-shaped beard, and emblematic crown (a triangle and three circles: a nice example of Soglow’s tendency to reduce images to Euclidian geometric purity).

Otto Soglow was one of the major stylists in the history of comics. Along with a handful of other artist — Hergé, Gluyas Williams, Rea Irvin — he was a central instigator in the stylistic revolution of the late 1920s and early 1930s that created the clear line style. Of course, early Art Deco-influenced cartoonists like George McManus had laid the groundwork for the clear line, but Soglow and his contemporaries purged Deco of any ornamentalism and developed a cartooning language that united elegance with minimal but forceful line work.

November 19, 1967

One of the great strengths of Cartoon Monarch is that it gives us a very generous sample of Soglow’s work from many facets of his career so that we can see that the clear line style was a hard won victory for the cartoonist. Rather surprisingly, Soglow started off as a student of such Ash Can School masters as Robert Henri, George Luks, and John French Sloan. Like them, he specialized in charcoal-dark representations of urban squalor (some of which appeared in radical publications like The New Masses).

Soglow’s move to the clear line wasn’t a complete break from his earlier art since he continued to do anecdotal art about urban life, but his art started to become more line-focused and less shadowy as he became a fixture in The New Yorker, where the Little King first appeared in 1930. I’d speculate that Rea Irwin was an influence. Contractual wrangling with the New Yorker seems to have prevented Soglow from immediately moving the monarch to newspapers when the Hearst Syndicate hired him in 1933. As a stop-gap measure, Soglow created The Ambassador, who was the Little King in everything except title and facial features (the Ambassador had a bulbous nose and a walrus moustache).

Cartoon Monarch gives us samples of Soglow in his various styles and modes: as a young radical doing proletarian realism, as a cosmopolitan New Yorker artist, as the fixture of mid-century American book illustration and advertising, and finally as the celebrated comic strip maestro behind The Little King (with The Ambassador as an appetizer and a top strip called Sentinel Louis as desert). Deceptively simple as Soglow’s art might seem, the book makes clear how hard he worked to achieve his distilled style. The Ambassador and the early Little King strips even look a little cluttered and bloated compared to the pared down, rapier sharp cartooning that Soglow achieved in his peak years (which to my eyes ran from the late 1930s to the early 1960s).

To create a style where every line counts, where nothing is included in the picture plane that doesn’t need to be there, where words only show up when absolutely necessary while pictures do the heavy lifting of carrying the narrative: that’s what Soglow achieved in The Little King. It’s a legacy that continues to inform the work of many our best cartoonists – notably the aforementioned Brunetti but also Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Mark Newgarden, and Richard McGuire.

September 20, 1970

Cartoon Monarch is in every way a topnotch book: elegantly designed, offering a satisfying tour of Soglow’s long and complex career, adorned with a smart foreword and an eye-opening introduction. Gardner’s essay on Soglow expertly links the biography to the art, and is rich in insight. My only complaint is that it doesn’t give much of a sense of Soglow’s private life, but I suspect that the reason for this is the dearth of sources.

It’s now a cliché to say that we’re living in the golden age of comics reprints. That’s true enough, and many of us are so spoiled that we might take a book like Cartoon Monarch for granted. But the further point needs to be made that the most valuable books in this golden age aren’t the ones that give us more complete editions of the masters we’re already familiar with. Those books are important but they don’t change how we see history. The really crucial books are the ones that recover the cartoonists who have been nearly forgotten or are remembered hazily. I’m thinking here of Dean Mullaney’s earlier book on Jack Kent (with Bruce Canwell’s fine introduction), or the Denys Wortman collection edited by James Sturm and Brandon Elston, or Paul Karasik’s books on Fletcher Hanks. Such recoveries and excavations imperfectly appreciated cartoonists force us to redraw our mental maps of comics history.

Otto Soglow was one of the central cartoonists of mid-century America. He’s never been completely forgotten. Any roll call of the major New Yorker cartoonists usually includes his name and most history of comic strips allot a paragraph or two to The Little King. Still, until this book it was hard to get a handle on why Soglow was so important. With Cartoon Monarch, we can finally begin to gauge his achievement.

 

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13 Responses to Cartoon Monarch: Otto Soglow and the Little King

  1. Jeffrey Meyer says:

    I’ve been waiting 25 years for this book, and as much as I love it, there are a few issues I wish someone (perhaps a more critical reviewer?) would address: Unless I missed it, there is no explanation anywhere for the substantial (years in some cases, and increasing towards the end of the book) gaps between the included strips, why the color suddenly stops a quarter of the way into the volume, and why Soglow’s New Yorker version of the strip was not included.

    This seems like an editorial insouciance that seems increasing common in many reprint books, perhaps a “You’ll take what you’re given and like it” approach. The new Nancy collection, for example – which is otherwise wonderful – features several strips enlarged to a full page (sometimes out of dated order) for no apparent or given reason.

  2. Jeet Heer says:

    Jeffrey Meyer and I have different ideas about what criticism entails. I think the job of the critic is to look at an artist’s work, describe it, and place it in some sort of meaningful context that deepens our appreciation of it. He thinks the job of the critic is to make niggling and inaccurate statements about the production decisions. Some people might find that sort of criticism useful, but for me its a recipe for tedium.

    For the record, it’s not true that “Soglow’s New Yorker version of the strip was not included” — if you read the introduction you’ll see samples of the New Yorker Little King. The book doesn’t purport to be a complete run of the Little King, but rather a sample of his work (and a smaller sample of non-Little King work for context). The so-called “gaps’ are a product of the inevitable fact that if you are going to sample from four decades of work in the compass of a single (admittedly hefty) book, you will have to pick and choose. The editors chose, wisely to my mind, to weigh their sample towards the work of the 1930s and 1940s, when Soglow developed and perfected his style (The importance of Soglow’s stylistic development is something I talk about in the review).

    The book relies on two sources: tear sheets (for the early strips) — which is why those works are in color; and black-and-white proofs for the bulk of the Little King strips (provided, I believe, by the syndicate). The advantage of using proofs is that the art comes out especially crisp — next to original art, this is the preferred source. They could have colorized those black-and-white proofs but the effect would have been not to reprint an existing source but to create a new work of art. Which would have been a mistake.

    If Jeffrey Meyer actually wants to discuss Soglow’s art, we could have a much more fruitful conversation — one that’s actually about something real and important.

  3. Kim Thompson says:

    Complaining that there are “gaps” in strips in what is self-evidently not a complete collection is pretty demented nit-picking, yes. Jeffrey Meyer’s complaints seem incredibly minute and petty, although still not as petty as complaining that another reviewer fails to level the same minute and petty complaints at the book.

    We picked occasional NANCY strips to run full page to break up the book visually, a decision so self-evidently obvious I didn’t really see the need to point it out. (I’m guessing Jeffrey Meyer realizes this full well and is being purposefully obtuse in order to complain.) Since we picked what we felt were the most visually appealing strips to blow up, it wasn’t possible to run them in the exact order, we just pulled them out and ran them on the page facing their continuity. Only in the querulous world of the internets could printing a number of strips larger for fans’ enjoyment result in confusion and resentment!

    I think my favorite NANCY reaction so far was from the diehard NANCY fan who refused to buy our book because he found the decision to run the page numbers in color too distracting, in its own way a great meta-NANCY moment.

  4. Jeffrey Meyer says:

    You’re the boss!

  5. I have to admit that the enlarged strips in the NANCY book looked odd to me, too. It’s obviously not a deal-breaker (where else are we going to read all those early strips?), but I’d have preferred a more uniform layout.

    Now I’m wondering if the forthcoming collection of KRAZY KAT dailies might benefit from a similar approach, giving emphasis to the more “visually appealing” strips.

  6. Kim Thompson says:

    Wait, you object to it in NANCY but are recommending it in KRAZY KAT? Why publishers go gray, Part 3876!

  7. Kim Thompson says:

    “They could have colorized those black-and-white proofs but the effect would have been not to reprint an existing source but to create a new work of art. Which would have been a mistake.”

    I actually don’t agree entirely with that. In a case where (a) the publisher has clean black line work and (b) also has printed copies of the color version, which (c) was good and (d) was created using flat colors which (e) could be replicated with some work, and (f) the color is important to the effect of the work, the optimal solution would be to re-color it. This is what we’re doing with Barks and Guy Peellaert. But it’s pretty rare you get that whole alphabet soup of conditions ((a) alone is rare), and it also needs to be a project where you can AFFORD to do it.

    In Soglow’s case I can see an argument for wanting to see the Sunday strips in color as they were intended to be, but aesthetically there is a certain quality to the black and white pages, and pragmatically if IDW had decided to color all those strips, it would have been a much shorter and/or much more expensive book. (If they had scanned them from tearsheets, Soglow’s linework would have been hurt.)

    In the vast majority of cases, we’re stuck with (often badly) printed color tearsheets, and the only reasonable thing to do there is just scan ‘em and fix ‘em up as best you can. In a way, having clean black and white proofs or photostats is a headache because suddenly you have to make a decision which will inevitably aggravate part of your audience — who are all purists in a different way, considering either the original line art, the printed color art, or the theoretical ideal color art of which the printed color art is only a so-so interpretation (subject to errors and poor printing) to be the “real” art.

  8. Relax, I said I was just “wondering”, not making a recommendation!

  9. Jeet Heer says:

    Kim is right of course that re-coloring is in some circumstances the best solution. But for reasons he indicates — the choice of doing a big book largely in black and white versus a smaller book fully in color — the choice went with the bigger book. And I’d add that Soglow is one of those artists who looks better in black and white.

  10. Doug Skinner says:

    Also, Soglow himself was perfectly happy to present “The Little King” in black and white in his 1933 collection. I think his work looks fine in both black and white and in color; he probably did too.

  11. Briany Najar says:

    I like the way those images up there look in mono, they’re super-2D and that draws my attention to the… erm… pattern-poetry, which is quite the delight and has me all won over.
    Seems like one of those strips which are much closer to poetry, or music, than to drama or prose. (kind of, if you squint through your ears at it)
    Anyway, the shapes, in the picture plane, they ring.

  12. gary panter says:

    It would be interested to see another neglected strip collected and dissected–a sister strip to the Little King: Colonel Potterby and the Duchess, which featured a similar angularity and mimimalism, but was as creepy as Elsie the Cow’s forelock.

  13. Jeet Heer says:

    Gary: See here for samples of Colonel Potterby and the Duchess: http://allthingsger.blogspot.ca/2010/09/lady-and-gent-tuesday-comic-strip-day.html
    As it happens, Dean Mullaney is working on a book on “top strips” (i.e. the smaller strips that often accompanied more popular features on the Sunday page — like Harold Gray’s Maw Green and E.C. Segar’s Sappho). I imagine that Colonel Potterby will be in that book.

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