Bill Holman took madcap comedy, pumped it into a comic strip, Smokey Stover, and punned his way to everlasting infoomy. A man of foo words (as he once said), he managed to parlay them into a living that foo’d a lifetime. Nonsense could have been his middle name, but whatever it was, it was always funny in the very best groaning tradition of really good bad puns. And it all began, as you might imagine, with corn.
Through no fault of his own, Holman was born March 22, 1903, at Offield Crick, near Sugar Crick which was near Crawfordsville, Indiana, from whence the family soon moved north to Nappanee, where Bill’s mother ran a millinery store. At an early age, Bill displayed an interest in drawing and enrolled in the Charles N. Landon correspondence course in cartooning. He also had a job tending a popcorn machine in the local five-and-dime store, which, according to Holman, accounts for the prevalence of corny jokes in his cartoons.
Explaining his early inclination to cartooning, Holman once said he’d indulged a sense of humor and acted silly as a youth, adding that his father was a “funny guy” but saying no more about him. It’s possible that the father died or left his family: when Bill was fourteen or fifteen, they moved to Goshen, Indiana, where, at sixteen, Bill quit school in order to get a job and earn money for the family.
“I worked in a drugstore, jerking sodas,” Holman said later, “and that was big stuff to me since I made $2.50 a week and all I could eat.”
The Holmans soon left for Chicago, where the mother worked in millinery again and Bill found a job in the Marshall Field wholesale house and attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts in the evenings. When he heard that the Chicago Tribune was looking for an office boy to work in the art department, he applied and was hired. Holman was jubilant:
“I could have kissed everyone in Chicago,” he said later, quoted in Cartoonist PROfiles No.37 (March 1978). “I rubbed shoulders with a lot of famous cartoonists from then on. Carl Ed (Harold Teen) was there, as was Harold Gray (who later created Little Orphan Annie). Gray worked in a turtleneck sweater, wore a derby and among other things was working as a legman for an illustrator. He went out and dug up illustration work for this guy and then got a percentage of the job. At night, Gray was doing layouts. I was the office boy, but I did layouts and little comics to amuse myself, and did all the paste-downs of all the stuff in the paper—so photos could be squared up and retouched. This was big stuff to me, and I loved it. E.C. Segar was my idol at the time with his Looping the Loop. Frank King would come in and Sidney Smith was tops with The Gumps.”
In 1921, after a couple years doing layouts and minor art chores at the Chicago Tribune, Holman went to Cleveland, where he hired on at the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) syndicate and was soon producing a daily comic strip, Billville Birds, about Wally Waddle and his feathered friends. He also did a funny animal strip, J. Rabbit, Esquire, for NEA. Neither was particularly successful. Once again, Holman was in the company he most aspired to:
“There were a lot of cartoonists there. Wally Allman was drawing Doings of the Duffs, Gene Ahern, Our Boarding House, and all of us cartoonists were in one cubicle together. We didn’t work at the main NEA production plant but had an office in the same building that housed the famous Landon Course. Chic Young had been working as a stenographer in a railroad office in Chicago; he came to NEA about the time I did, and we roomed together for a while, Merrill Blosser (Freckles and His Friends) and Edgar Martin (who started Boots and Her Buddies in 1924) were there also. And I can’t forget Jim Williams (Out Our Way).”
When Holman was fired in 1924, he went to New York and joined the newly formed Herald Tribune Syndicate for which he produced another daily comic strip, G. Whiz Jr. Again, he was ecstatic about the company he was keeping. “Winsor McCay, Charlie Voight, Clare Briggs and other famous names were there,” Holman recalled, “and as a punk, I hung out with damn nice people.”
Among them, “assorted actors, publicists, writers and odd characters who dropped in at all hours,” Jerry Robinson wrote in The Comics. Will Rogers came by often, and so did W.C. Fields, who taught Holman how to juggle.
After seven years and not much success, Holman abandoned comic strips and took up freelance magazine cartooning, at which he did much better, selling to Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Judge, Life (the humor magazine), Liberty, Redbook, American Magazine, Film Fun, Ballyhoo, Boy’s Life, and Everybody’s Weekly in London. Said Holman: “I soon had about thirty markets and was making a hell-of-a-lot of money.”
Accounting for this unexpected success, he said, “I was just being myself in my cartoons—that was the whole thing. I’d had quite a bit of experience at various papers and syndicates, and when you find that your stuff’s appearing before the public in a big national publication, you get confidence. You unconsciously open up, forget your inhibitions, and do the things that are the easiest and most normal. You’re not uptight any more.”
In late 1934, Holman heard that Joseph Patterson, publisher of the New York Daily News, was looking for a Sunday comic strip that would display the paper’s civic-minded support of such public servants as policemen and teachers and, in this case, firemen. “I had sold a lot of firemen cartoons to magazines,” Holman said, “and the idea of firemen running around all over in red trucks seemed like a good gimmick to hang things on.”
Over Christmas while visiting his grandmother in Crawfordsville, Holman drew up a sample Sunday strip and when he returned to New York, he offered it to Patterson. “He wondered if I could keep it up,” Holman said, “and I told him confidently that I could.”
The manic Smokey Stover debuted March 10, 1935; Holman said the name came to him while watching a smoking stove. The strip continued with the Tribune-News Syndicate until Holman retired in 1973.
The title character is a fireman, Smokestack Stover, and while the strip also features his boss, the fire chief Cash U. Nutt, the activities just as often involve Smokey’s wife Cookie or his son Earl or their cat with a perpetually bandaged tail, Spooky, who, for a time, starred in a companion strip of his own before joining the firehouse gang.
Holman, Stephen Becker said in his Comic Art in America (1959), “threw himself into his work with unmitigated glee,” adding: “The profession of comic strip artist has supplied nothing closer to a baggy-pants burlesque comedian than Bill Holman. Holman wears neither baggy pants nor floppy shoes, and his work has none of the bluish quality of real burlesque; but his inventiveness, his verbal juxtapositions and misunderstandings, and his irrepressible manglings of the English language are the marks of a man to whom reality is subordinate to art.”
The art was the art of the pun, both visual and verbal. The jokes around which Holman arrayed his maniac word play were tame left-overs from what pop culture critic Don Phelps calls “decrepit vaudeville.”
One day, the Chief introduces Smokey to an old friend, saying, “Come on in, Smokey—I want you to meet my old slat happy pal, Major Bedd—he’s in the camouflage division at Camp Stool.” Smokey, entering the Chief’s office, says, “Major, huh? What are you doing in a private office?” The Major, putting his arm around the Chief, says, “I was just tellin’ Nozzle Nose here how we paint tanks and cannons so they can’t be seen.” That gives Smokey an idea, and he enlists the Major to paint over his clothing, saying, “My wife’s doing her spring cleaning this week—just think—now I can loaf around the house without her seein’ me.” The pictures prop up the lame gag: Smokey’s costume is now loudly redolent with the outlandish pattern of jungle folliage camouflage, scarcely inconspicuous let alone invisible.
Holman always enhanced the core comedy of his strip with sight gags—in the case at hand, punning pictures that echoed the military theme. Framed pictures on the wall change from panel to panel: one shows a slipper labeled “army mule”; another, an insect carrying a rifle labeled “bug private”; next, a dentist leans into an neighboring frame to minister to his patient over the label “drill sergeant.”
But the little hilarities are not all military. The Chief sits at a table adorned with numbers and a tag reading, “multiplication table.” The Major smokes a cigar to which is affixed an ash tray to catch the steadily lengthening ash. (The strip abounds with inventions of this looney sort, the most persuasive perhaps being the double-bowl pipe that the Chief often smokes.) The bill of Smokey’s fire helmet is hinged, and the axe he is carrying has a limp handle. The Chief reacts to Smokey’s explanation by leaping up and banging his head against the fire gong on the wall. But this reaction is mild.
In the punchline panels, Holman’s characters typically do the most outlandish “takes” in comedy: not only do their hats fly off their heads, their false teeth bound out of their mouths, and, in a rising crescendo of hysterical visual alarm, their ears depart from their heads, and the characters leap out of their trousers while other bits of clothing take off in all directions.
Holman’s Sunday strips, Phelps wrote, “came to resemble anatomies of a garage sale in the Market Place of Oz: chirping, clucking, and kazoo-ing with the puns that were Holman’s favorite side-arm … —a pretty girl’s face with gently flaming locks (Fire Belle); a bowlful of tiny heads (Noodle Soup); a ‘Postage Stamp,’ in frenzied jig.”
One Sunday, we see the Chief taking a bath, singing, “I wash I was in Dixie—Hooray, Fooray.” A small plug in the side of the tub is labeled “choo choo drain,” and on the wall is a picture of two sailors coming out of a barber shop, radiating cologne and labeled “smelling salts.”
Smokey Stover, as Phelps observes, is the last lunatic refuge of the “buoyant absurdity” of such vaudeville and burlesque comedians as Ed Wynn, “with his ebullient bonnets, pipes, and bicycles,” and Smokey himself, “with his lima-bean-shaped head, absentee chin, and tongue which lopped out foolishly like a happy dog’s, was the proper heir of Wynn’s giggling fire chief.”
Apart from its manic imagery and the kinetic frenzy of its verbal hijinks, the strip achieved lasting fame with a trio of seemingly meaningless expressions and a provocatively odd piece of automotive engineering—foo, notary sojac, 1506 nix nix, and a two-wheeled car.
Holman once explained that he had first encountered “foo” in San Franciso’s Chinatown where it was written on a little jade doll. It meant “good luck,” he learned, and because it sounded funny, he promptly lettered it on the radiator grill of a comic car he’d drawn—and, subsequently, on walls, furniture, and just about anything else that seemed in need of some sort of name. “A man’s foo is his castle,” reads a sign. A seafood dish is labeled “lobster a la fooburg.” Familiar phrases are giddily revamped: “Rings on my fingers, foos on my toes”; “an icicle built for foo”; on the front of a car, “T-foo-2” and on the back, “2-foo-T.”
At least two foo songs were written—“Foo” by Isham Jones and “What This Country Needs Is Foo.” Sheet music and recordings brought royalties to Holman.
This innocent monosyllable, says Becker, “is perhaps the best explanation of Holman’s genius”: that he has made that solitary word “stand up for thirty years, has used it, so to speak, as every imaginable part of speech, and has come instantly to be identified by it. If he had achieved the same results with ‘holy mackerel’ or ‘by gum,’ his would have been a pale success indeed.”
“Notary sojac” is Holman’s phonetic spelling of the Gaelic nodlaig sodhach— which the cartoonist had run across in a newspaper article. Said he: “A guy who conducted a column in the New York Daily News got a letter from a reader, asking how you would say ‘Merry Christmas’ in eleven different languages. The editor spelled the various greetings phonetically, and the one in Gaelic came out sounding like Notary Sojac.”
Amused by the expression, Holman sprinkled it throughout his strip as often as whimsy prompted, “wishing my readers Merry Christmas throughout the year,” he said, and sometimes presenting “Yraton Cajos” in its stead.
As for “1506 nix nix,” it was the room number of a bachelor cartoonist friend, Al Posen, who lived in a hotel. “I began using the phrase,” Holman explained, “—a private joke between the two of us—as a way of warning girls to stay away from Al’s room.”
The two-wheeled auto, spewing nuts and bolts as it jounced along, was so frequently a fixture in the strip that it was virtually another character, and, therefore, had a name of its own: Foomobile. Wheels mounted left and right instead of fore and aft like a bicycle’s, the car’s hood and engine protruded precariously in front of the wheel base. This gravity-defying novelty inspired countless amateur mechanics to heroic feats of manufacture in attempts to get such a vehicle to function. One, Alfred “Pete” Schlatter, solved the gravity problem by using radial steel-belted tires that could be run half-inflated, thereby providing a flat foundation to counter-balance the front end projection.
Holman often by-lined his strip “Doctor of Foolosophy” and ended these installments with a wholly extraneous last panel offering a wacky bit of wisdom: “No one has ever complained of a parachute not opening.” Or “If all the hot dogs consumed on Sunday were laid end to end, it would be a lot of baloney.”
Under another heading, “Foomous People,” is a man with a coffee cup balanced on his nose, accompanied by text: “How about chewing the fat with C. Nesbit Nibble, the chow champ who distributes all the gusto that people eat their meals with.” Under the same heading, “We just got wind of the Clops Twins, Cy and Clippity, the breezy buddies who fly the kite that people get as high as.”
Smokey Stover picked up client papers almost at birth, chiefly because a well-known Tribune-News cartoonist, Gaar Williams, died a month after Holman’s strip started, and when his Strain on the Family Tie ceased shortly thereafter, Smokey Stover inherited many of its subscribers.
It was a Sunday feature for most of its run, but for a brief time, starting November 14, 1938, it also appeared daily. In the mid-forties, Holman added a daily panel cartoon, Nuts and Jolts, to his repertoire; it continued for 28 years, its comedy heavily reliant on wacky gadgets and inventive uses of ordinary items—in a movie theater, chairs with arm rests shaped like hands “for bachelors who like to hold hands in the movies”; a man whose wife has put a filled bathtub next to her bed for her husband to sleep in because it reduced the danger of his habitual smoking in bed.
In an interview with Frances Fiset at the Worchester Telegam (February 15, 1948), Holman claimed he got interested in firemen as a boy when he aspired to be one because he was good at playing checkers. He lost interest, he said, when he learned that fire horses didn’t harness themselves.
Fiset continues, observing that Holman’s conversation was laced with wise-cracks and his behavior with a compulsive zaniness—offer him a cigarette, and he’ll take two; ask for one of his two-fer cigars (the popular “two for a nickle” brand), and he’ll charge you a dime for it. His sense of humor extended to practical jokes: he once humiliated a waiter in a restaurant by loudly complaining about how stale the bread was, referring to a week-old slice he’d brought with him for the purpose and banging it loudly on the table to demonstrate its inedibility.
Writing in the National Cartoonists Society’s newsletter, The Cartoonist (Fall 1957), Jerry Robinson recalled some of Holman’s eccentricities, among them, a legendary tight-fistedness. “Holman, the man, has provided a fascinating shower of anecdotes for his friends for most of his 54 years. Holman’s foibles are legendary. Many Holmanisms refer to his parsimonious resemblance to Jack Benny. Holman, they say affectionately, has spent 40 years working to the top of a hotly competitive profession, inspired by a passionate devotion to money. Holman would be the last to quarrel with these observations. He is not considered a lavish spender (his money is completely tied up in cash).”
But, Robinson went on, “in seeming contradiction to the legend, more than one artist in distress could tell of considerable Holman financial help. One close friend observed that both pictures are true and Holman is a man with conflicting impulses. His nature, generous and outgoing, is restrained by a conservative midwest rearing and early years of financial insecurity.”
According to John Price in Froth magazine (December 1939), Holman was a methodical worker, starting every day at 10 a.m. and working until 6 p.m. without stopping for lunch. When not socializing with friends and popping popcorn in their kitchens during their parties (an occupational inheritance from his youth), he liked to swim, play gin rummy, and indulge a fondness for red-haired women.
“Holman’s romantic escapades of that era are largely unrecorded,” Robinson wrote. “Otto Soglow supplies one, however, that reveals Holman as the Great Lover. ‘One day Bill found himself at Coney Island and ventured into the Tunnel of Love and discovered a female sitting on one of the painted rocks. She explained that she was left there by some guy who was getting too familiar. Bill saw a lot of the girl and sentimentally recalls her in his strip to this day. She was a Lithuanian; Notary Sojac was her name.’ No Holmanisms are more inspired than Soglow’s.”
Holman remained a bachelor until rather late in life, marrying a redhead named Dolores in the late 1940s. Thereafter, he enjoyed being at home.
“My wife sometimes gets irritated at me because I was always thinking about my work,” Holman told Jud Hurd during his interview for Cartoonist PROfiles. “I would sit all evening at home, working on material, rather than going to a movie, which, to me, is wasting time. I’d rather do this than go out on some guy’s boat and fish for two hours because fishing, to me, is repetitious—if you’ve caught one fish, you’ve caught ‘em all.”
Dolores, the best Holman authority of all, is quoted by Robinson: “Life with Bill certainly isn’t dull. I never know if on a week’s notice I will be heading for Paris, the middle west or Timbuktu. He does have a faculty for not hearing at times (when I want something) but then, aren’t most husbands like that? To use that old cliche, I’d do it again. You just gotta love that guy.”
To which Robinson appended: “We all do, Dolores, we all do.”
They had no children.
Robinson said that Holman is almost as well known as a performer as he is a cartoonist. “He has appeared in movies and worked on radio and TV. Abner Dean, who was on a panel show with Holman, Gus Edson and Soglow, says of Holman the performer: ‘Bill has the rare quality of being able to switch from comic to straight man. He becomes a stimulant. His essential zanyism lifts others out of any rut.’
“The effect of Holman upon his audiences is unique,” Robinson continued. “He instantly establishes rapport as he strides on stage dressed in a dark blue suit, dotted bow tie and perhaps a light blue sweater. His mouth clamps a lit cigar and his bald head is topped incongruously by a bright red fireman’s hat. Before the audience can quite absorb the initial visual onslaught, Holman barks in deadpan, ‘Cut out that laughing, you idiots!’ or ‘Shut up, you crazy screwballs!’ The effect is electric. They howl.”
This approach has also provided his fellow performers with some queasy moments. During World War II, Holman joined other New York cartoonists in making regular visits to area military hospitals to entertain the convalescing troops. Al Posen, long time friend and associate, recalled one of these experiences for Robinson:
“We were putting on a show at the military hospital at Northport, Long Island. The doctor in charge cautioned us not to make any reference to the mental condition of the patients as the audience would be made up of G.I.’s from the psychiatric ward. Bill evidently missed the briefing because as soon as he came on he began referring to the patients as a bunch of nuts and screwballs—and they loved it. Bill was probably the only man in the world who could get away with it. Obviously, the audience recognized him as one of their own.”
When these hospital visits resulted in the founding of the National Cartoonists Society in 1946, Holman was an active member of the group, becoming president, 1961-1963. He died February 27, 1987 in New York City, where he’d lived since first arriving there in the early 1920s.
With Smokey Stover, Holman successfully prolonged the life of robust, good-natured slapstick nonsense humor in comics. “He wedded idiocy to real wit,” Becker wrote, “and the result is a constantly surprising, never disappointing comic strip.” It followed “no logic but that of the artist’s own mad sense of humor,” said Dennis Wepman (in Ron Goulart’s Encyclopedia of American Comics), producing “a lively and inventive strip that survived long after the end of a simpler, cheerier era that gave it birth.”
Sources: Most of the biographical information in the standard reference works on cartooning (The World Encyclopedia of Comics, ed. Maurice Horn, 1999, and The Encyclopedia of American Comics from 1897 to the Present, ed. Ron Goulart, 1990) seems based largely upon Jud Hurd’s interview with Holman in Cartoonist PROfiles, No. 37, March 1978. Stephen Becker in his Comic Art in America (1959) and Jerry Robinson in his The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art (1974) add a little, particularly in terms of assessment and appreciation. Don Phelps’ article, “Disorderly Conduct,” in Nemo: The Classic Comics Library No. 1, Screwball Comics (1985), supplies an enthusiastic albeit typically baroque analysis. An article in Froth, December 1939, “Of Firemen and Foo” by John M. Price, is chiefly manufactured out of Holman’s own zany autobiographical fabrications. The New York Times obituary March 21, 1987, the only one I know of, is too short to be worth much.