Screwball! The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny

Screwball follows an isolated strain of comics history as opposed to those other books that tell the whole lot decade by decade or by lining up a canon of masters. Which is not say it isn’t linear: from Fred Opper to Boody Rogers, editor Paul Tumey locates fifteen cartoonists in a singular furrow, giving each a solid apportionment of twenty pages, some besides, some beneath. A species of humor is Tumey’s theme, the zany zest that made the comics an event that had not happened before: the nutty, the loony, the madcap and the high nonsense. “Nov schmoz ka pop” as Ahern’s little hitch-hiker said, and it loses none of its power and profundity when I say it here.

The nice result of such a scheme is that we can get to see a big sneeze of work by a relatively obscure cartoonist such as the marvelous Walter Bradford, an early denizen of the funnies who is usually overlooked by the broad view histories. Perhaps that’s because his career took place outside of New York, drawing as he did mostly for the Philadelphia North American, in such comics of his own creation as “Boggs the Optimist” with his catch-phrase,“It could have been worse” (muttered between the fifth story window and the pavement); “Fitzboomski” (putting dynamite in the czar’s punching bag); and “Jingling Johnson,” who cannot express himself but in ceaseless rhyme (“Lincoln freed the blackman, Custer fought the red, Nero wore a sausage turban when he went to bed”). The problem with the approach of following a groove, and it is not a problem we should lose a snooze over, is that the compiler can be tempted to abandon limpidness momentarily to include a personal favorite or two, or a well known figure who will increase demand, who might not exactly fit the corrugation. Thus, while one can posit a line of continuity between Goldberg, Gross and, say, Harvey Kurtzman (the latter not included for reasons of an orderly discontinuance, but certainly the ineludible third term in that sequence), I’m inclined to ask whether George Herriman belongs in it. His humor is the product of a different spirit altogether from that of the other cartoonists here. But then again, what bureaucratic nitwit would prefer cognizability over 18 pages of Herriman’s brilliant “Stumble Inn,” nine of these pages being color Sundays (this book has color all through, hence that lumpy price tag- though Trump’s 25% China tariffs have something to do with it also). Tumey’s Screwball is, in short, entirely a compendium of what Tumey finds risible and antic, and who are we to snivel? - He has been riding shotgun for his conception of “Screwballism” for years now on his blog and otherwhere. It’s the bug in his ear. 

Opper is where this new kind of cartooning begins. The difference between his early work and the new style he introduced in March 1900 with “Happy Hooligan,” the tramp who is only trying to help but always ends up with a truncheon on his head, is the difference between two eras, between the somewhat staid Victorian decades, which had not yet figured out how to turn bones to rubber and how to throw the laws of physics out the window. These latter were to be the casual habits of twentieth century animation, and it took an unembarassable American kind of cartooning to get us there.

Tumey gives us the big guns of this new era, the heavy stuff: Eugene Zimmerman, or “Zim” in those days of three letter noms de pencil; Rube Goldberg, “The Napoleon of the nuthouse” as Tumey calls him, who has a good solid section including a handful of Boob McNutt color Sundays; Milt Gross, who was irrepressible in such titles as “Count Screwloose,” a character who breaks out of Nuttycrest funny farm in the first panel, gets involved in the daffyness of modern life and is relieved to be able to break back into the nuthouse in the final panel; Elzie Segar, the creator of Popeye, of whom Tumey shines the light usefully on a sampling of his whole oeuvre, in a 5,000 word essay embracing “Looping the Loop,” “Thimble Theater” and “Sappo.” Tumey’s description of Segar’s work reads like a prospectus for the whole screwball project: “Fetchingly distorted forms, exaggerated action, freeze-frames of chaos, silly wordplay, crazy inventions, meta-gags, humorously serious characters, and nonsense galore.”

Tumey also gives us the squirts, the small potatoes, though none of them were ever as insignificant as you and me: Gus Mager, whose monkey characters, Rhymo, Knocko, and Groucho, to mention three of his “over thirty silly simians,” inspired the names of the famous Marx Brothers of stage and film; Clare Dwiggins, a great cartoonist who, unknown to me until now, was a dab hand at drawing strikingly beautiful women (with samples); Walter Hoban, perfecter of the “plop take,” the reaction of a character who, upon hearing the punchline, falls, flips, bounces, or rockets into space; Gene Ahern, whose “Ches and Wal, the Nut Brothers,” evolves, in a sequence that would take too long to describe in this context, into “The Squirrel Cage,” a comic whose surreal nuttery would take too long to describe in any context. “The years of strips following this sequence could be interpreted as one long dream...” says Tumey at an early stage of his explanation; George Swanson, creator of $alesman $am and master of the background gag. (Actually, the detail that amused me most about the account of Swanson’s career is when the syndicate editor took him off $am and gave it to cartoonist C.D. Small. At the same time he took Small off “Bugs” and had Swanson draw that. It’s the comics business!); Ving Fuller, who is perhaps the most obscure figure in the book. His ups and downs trying to make a go of the comic strip business make for instructive reading; Bill Holman, whose humor I would say is archetypically screwball. He’s the one you’d reach for to explain what it is, and he was still practicing it in the 1970s when all the other outbursts of Tumey’s beloved screwballism had gone from the funny papers, replaced by wise-ass purveyors of high sarcasm like Johnny Hart. I only ever saw it in its late days on occasions when I obtained a Chicago Tribune funnies section and I confess I found it unbearably old-fashioned and never read it, even if the early Mad comic book guys all raved about it. I’m begrudgingly giving it a better chance now. I see that Holman can’t put a picture on the wall of a room without turning it into a bit of funny business irrelevant to the main point of his comic; and finally there’s Boody Rogers, who brings us at last to the advent of the comic books. I had a hard time taking to Boody Rogers when Dan Nadel published twenty pages of his work in Art Out of Time and I’m still having a hard time. Nadel seems to have wanted to re-toss the supposed “canon” by putting the oddballs front and center for a moment. Oddballs, screwballs: can their zany noncomformity, quieted by time, still show us a way out of the humorless world of conservative gloom encroaching upon us?

“Foo” I say, after Bill Holman’s Smokey Stover, or some other character in that strip, and it loses not a jot of its vim and vigor in the repeating.


3 Responses to Screwball! The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny

  1. This book is beautiful, but I can’t help but wonder what Rick Marschall must think of the way that it is in essence an expanded version of the 1985 special “Screwball Comics” NEMO Annual, only with production values that he could scarcely dream of at the time. It was one of my favorite issues, then and now!

  2. Is it true that Drumpf’s tariffs on things from China are affecting the price of books? If so, it’s one more reason to be rid of him immediately!

    I haven’t bought the book yet (because of the price), but when I do, in the future, I know I will love it. I am especially fond of Opper, so anything more of him and his work will be Jim Dandy!

    Incidentally, to Mr. Campbell, I loved your Goat-Getters book, which also treats the very-early, foundational era of comics. I got lost in it, and was sorry when it was over.

  3. Paul Tumey says:

    What a kick to be reviewed by the great Eddie Campbell! I’m thrilled, and in the spirit of passionate discourse, have a few comments.

    George Herriman is not only a clear part of the lineage of screwball cartoonists but one of its foremost practitioners. The screwball sensibility is all over Herriman’s greatest work. The slanted Ignatz mouse beaning in a zip-pow, one brick after another, the slanted Krazy Kat is an artful variation on the plop take, so common in screwball comics. The fact that Krazy Kat thinks in crazy logic and speaks in jumbled, jagged collages of fragments of songs, poems, literature, and slang is an expression of the rich veins of absurdism and nonsense that make up the screwball spirit, as is the reversal gag — elevated to art by Herriman — of the rodent dominating the feline. The use of human-like funny animal figures in a comic strip connects to other cartoonists working in the Screwball genre, such as Jimmy Swinnerton and Gus Mager, who also used talking animals in their comics.

    It’s true, as Campbell writes, that Herriman’s work comes from a unique spirit. However, after living with these 15 cartoonists for the seven years that it took to write Screwball! (I’m not the book’s editor as Eddie states — Dean Mullaney and Bruce Campbell edited Screwball! and the blame for writing the book rests only on my hunched shoulders), each one seems to have a unique voice and a common sensibility.

    I know what Eddie means about including more well-known names into the book seeming like I was trying to boost sales. I’m happy to boost sales and get more people to read these comics, but not at the expense of trashing my thesis. Given that, the decision to include people was based on their contributions to the form.

    George Herriman wasn’t even on the original list of 30 cartoonists I planned to include in the book. It was only after reading Michael Tisserand’s ground-breaking biography of George Herriman (Krazy! George Herriman, a Life In Black and White), that I realized Herriman should not only be included he HAD to be included. His mature work represents one of the highest peaks of Screwballism in comics.

    I included the aforementioned 18 pages of Stumble Inn in part because it’s the only comic strip of George Herriman’s that hasn’t seen a reprinting. This strip is a fascinating hybrid of screwball comics and screwball film comedies. Herriman created this comic strip fresh while he hung out at the Hal Roach Studios where comedians Harold Lloyd, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Snub Pollard, and Charlie Chase innovated ways to make people laugh with sequential visuals. Stumble Inn plays like a film short shot on an outdoor set in the brilliant California sunshine. One feels that if you could expand the panel outward instead of seeing more walls and hallways of Uriah Stumble’s hotel, you would instead see the boards holding up the set, the cameraman, the prop master, and the director, straddling his canvas bag chair while wearing jodhpurs and a stylish beret.

    On a side note, Stumble Inn was created some seven years before the silent movies became the talkies. Astoundingly, Harriman created a comic strip where the staging, pacing, and dialogue resembles what would be done in the 1930s with sound films.

    There is no other comic strip quite like Stumble Inn when it comes to creating a new kind of screwball sensibility in comic strips. Perhaps this why Herriman seems like he doesn’t fit in this book to a reviewer like Eddie Campbell because there really is nothing like Stumble Inn or Krazy Kat. But just because his sensibility or his spirit as Mr. Campbell put it, is singular that doesn’t mean he doesn’t belong to a lineage. I’ve devoted a lot of brain cells to thinking about the connections between these and other cartoonists and understanding how one generation influenced the next. We see this still happening with some modern cartoonists. And it’s my hope with this book to inspire new cartoonists to try working with this particular kind of non-ironic silly, grotesque absurdist humor.

    It’s interesting to me that Eddie doesn’t appreciate the work of Boody Rogers, because there are some funny comics out there that others love which leave me cold — so I get it. The comics of Boody Rogers crack me up but then I am, like Boody, a Southerner, having been born and raised in Louisiana (Boody was from Texas). Perhaps southern humor comics are as unfunny to a Scottish cartoonist as some of the British humor comics are to me. There is a case to be made for the regionalism of humor in comic strips.

    It’s true that Rogers could not find a mode of expression that would appeal to a broad audience. But that’s what I love about his work, that he was so quirky and weird. In the book we reprint a long continuity from the rare Sparky Watts comic strips. In the storyline, Sparky joins the army, flies to Germany in his boxer shorts, captures Hitler, and ends up going to bed with him! The Sparky Watts strip only ended after two years because Rogers himself joined the United States war effort and became a soldier. He said, in a remarkable statement, but he felt he needed to go fight the war because if Germany won there would not be any place in the world for “people like me.”

    I don’t think the China tariff affected the pricing of this book, which was set long before the trade wars started. I didn’t have anything to do with the pricing but it seems clear to me the thinking was the book would appeal to a limited collector’s market – thinking done before the book was written and designed to appeal as broad a base as possible — and so to make it work economically: a higher price point would compensate for the fewer sales. Honestly, it’s a miracle a book like that was ever published. In addition, I suspect the deep discounting of Amazon had something to do with the price point. Amazon currently has the book available at $40 instead of $60 (Bud’s Art Books, who sells it online at a discount too, and you get an exclusive signed zine I made).

    With over 600 images in the book, that’s about a dime per comic – not bad considering the comic pages sell for anywhere from $10 to $100 on the market. And that doesn’t count the 80,000-word text which contains information on the cartoonists not available anywhere else.

    Again, it is fantastic to be reviewed by Eddie Campbell. I honestly never thought I’d be so honored. Thank you, Eddie and thank Comics Journal! I hope it inspires folks to read these wonderful cartoonists.

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