FEATURES

The Enigma of Cecil Jensen, Part Two: Elmo Without Elmo

Elmo barely had time to find its two-left-feet footing before Little Debbie entered the picture on May 22, 1947. Initially conceived as a parody of spunky waifs like those in Little Orphan Annie, Little Annie Rooney, and Mary Mix-up, Debbie was inspired by Debbie Gentry, a child who lived in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, where she grew up to be an award-winning teacher with a college degree in child care. (This aspect of Gentry's life would inform the strip in its last days; more on that in a bit.)

Jensen's Debbie is drawn in a parody of winsomeness. She is repulsively cute, and quirky as only Jensen could quirk. Encouraged by a photographer to pretend the “birdie” above his camera is real, Debbie imagines it’s an eagle and runs in terror. In her greatest moment, she ruins a gala TV special for Roastie Oatsies with a perfectly-timed plug for Skrummies. Here's a three-day sequence that shows how Debbie interacted with the Elmo cast:

Debbie had potential for Jensen’s inscrutable plan, as an adjunct to Elmo, Bluster, and the other denizens of the strip. As 1948 dawned, Debbie began to edge Elmo out of his own feature. Jensen seemed to have run aground with Elmo the character. His cheerful dumbness and adaptability to any situation ought to have made him the perfect comic-strip star. He is a zero, a non-entity. His storylines would seem to write themselves. Instead, Jensen let him fade into the background, as Debbie and her equally eerie world took shape. Elmo becomes a walk-on as the antics of Debbie, her poverty-stricken chum Tooker and Ma and Pa Chuckle define the strip's ebb and flow.

Before this regrettable decline, Jensen tugged at the heart-strings of his readership--a bold move for a feature steeped in absurd irony. Elmo's live radio performance of a song he remembered from his childhood ("The Swan Song") attracts ducks from the skies. They swarm the radio station in another screwball frenzy. Elmo's amateur-hour performance leads to an unexpected reunion with a gruff, pot-bellied older man whose face rings a bell.

In the strips for February 12th and 13th, 1948, Jensen wields pathos with the same deadpan as his comedy. The tone is so dry that the reader must think, for a moment, if the last line of the 2/12/48 strip, "We lost him in a fire," is supposed to be funny:

Elmo-mania's only souvenir was one horribly printed 36-page comic book, published by Archer St. John's self-titled imprint. This scarce pamphlet reprints a chunk of 1946/47 daily strips, with the addition of sloppy color. This was the source of the sequence printed in Dan Nadel's Art Out of Time (2006; Abrams Comic Arts). The result makes the reader long for the atrocious treatment Jensen's work got in the newspapers.

cover illustration by unknown St. John staff artist

Many papers carrying Elmo chose to maim it—by stretching or distorting, cropping and sloppily clipping panels. The strip's flagship paper, the Des Moines Register (which neglected to run the strip’s first week of dailies), pasted the panels down crooked, shanked the bottoms of the strip and overlapped frames—and then over-inked their presses, which made a hash of Elmo's delicate linework. The Cincinatti Enquirer stretched the panels lengthwise, with a ghastly effect. Like other strip-makers, Jensen drew with the knowledge that it would be cropped at the bottom, which resulted in a larger reproduction of less content, as seen in the Minneapolis Star. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch was among the few papers to run the strip as Jensen intended it. They were also one of the first papers to drop Elmo. Cancellations continued in 1947; papers that heralded the strip with custom announcements, like the Dayton, Ohio Herald, dropped it within the strip's one-year anniversary.

Elmo's diminished presence in the daily was offset by the gag-oriented Sunday episodes. As in this July 4, 1948 strip, Jensen made Elmo the butt of the joke:

By 1948's close, with its former star AWOL, Jensen's strip survived a liminal period. Elmo's parents took Debbie in, and gave her a base of operations for her sometimes-bland, sometimes-creepy neighborhood antics. Though the strip was still titled Elmo, he was never seen and seldom spoken of by its newer cast members. Debbie proved a better front-person for Jensen's droll absurdity. She had cute appeal, despite the never-cute vibe of the strip. Readers took to her and new papers picked up Jensen's daily.

That the strip retained all the quirk of Elmo, despite looking like all the other pre-Peanuts little-kid strips, is a pleasant discovery. Jensen's humor could be clever and nimble; it also took turns for the morbid without warning. These samples of the late '40s Sunday Debbie show it was no normal kid strip:

As the 1950s dawned, Little Debbie soldiered on, showing a bent for the grotesque, skewed, and weirdly plebeian. Cecil Jensen moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico in June 1950, and its local paper carried the strip for a few years. The Jensens lived in a charming adobe rambler at 609 17th Ave SW—the house still stands, a little worse for the wear.

The 1950s saw Debbie comfortably settled into its offbeat routines. Debbie's friends included Tugwit, an eight-year old wiseacre with a wall-eyed flounder stare, Tooker, a Depression-style kid with ragged clothes, a sheepish demeanor and permanent slack-jaw and Heckimer, whose triangular head and Little Orphan Annie eyes are the stuff of nightmares. A white beagle with humanlike traits, Snorty, first appeared in 1948 and eerily presaged Charles Schulz's globally beloved Snoopy. Snorty walked on his hind legs and spoke to the reader years before Snoopy cornered the market on such antics. More on this comparison later in this piece. 

 

Debbie had an imaginary brother, Albert, who was invisible and curated a wonderland in which the kids partook of fantasy scenarios. This sounds sickly-sweet, but Jensen skews expectations. These sunny outdoor episodes are full of haunting, shocking and inexplicable moments, as seen in these Sunday strips from 1958 and '59:

These episodes anticipate the stream-of-consciousness fantasies of Bill Waterson's Calvin and Hobbes, but with a grunge comics wouldn't see until the rise of underground comix in the 1960s.

Longtime readers may have remembered that weird blond guy and the amoral Bluster, although it appeared their creator had amnesia. Elmo was never mentioned in the handful of articles on Jensen and his career. It was as if those first 20 months of the strip never happened. More suburban strips with kids filled the comics page—Priscilla's Pop, The Berrys, The Smith Family, Morty Meekle, Hi and Lois. None of them had 1/10 the quirk-per-panel of Jensen's work, which seemed more out of sync with each new year.

By decade's end, Debbie was in a handful of papers. Papers that dropped Elmo, such as the Post-Dispatch and Enquirer, picked up Debbie for short stints. It seemed to have a freakish fascination to newspaper editors, but they let it go when it began to rattle them.

Debbie's appearance changed to a nightmarish version of “cute” in the 1950s. Her bug-eyed stare and angular body of 1958 is a far cry (or scream) from the more traditionally adorable tot of a decade earlier.

As the 1950s closed, Jensen's cartooning style took on some of the modernist look seen in newer comics. Still rendered in brush, the strip managed a peculiar straddle of old-school and cartoon modern. The same can been seen in his editorial cartoons of the period, such as this one:

It would be illuminating to see more of Jensen's editorial cartoons. With the apparent absence of the Chicago Daily News online, scattered examples of his later cartoons give us the impression that he was a capable op-ed artist, varying from serious looks at the world of his day to more whimsical commentary such as the automation piece above. (Jensen would use that robot design in a 1961 Little Debbie sequence.)

Jensen continued to pitch cosmic curve balls into the void. The Little Debbie Sunday strip for June 12, 1960 offers a metaphysical mind-blower that must have befuddled the polite Midwestern readers of the Lincoln, Nebraska Star-Journal.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune's short profile of Jensen in 1957. written by their in-house cartoonist Scott Long, reveals the respect other editorialists held for Jensen, and gives us a glimpse of his unassuming personality. (The accompanying cartoon, discussed in the text, is not shown due to its poor reproduction.)

By 1957, Jensen was part of comics' old guard. He'd had a successful cartooning career, but wasn't a household name like Bill Maudlin or Herblock. At his drawing board, perhaps he felt he hadn't achieved his full potential with his comic strip work. It was a little late for such thoughts. His 60th birthday approached. Debbie was still off-beat, quietly odd and amusing. Try as he had for over a decade, Cecil Jensen was never able to create an average comic strip. He never quite fit in with his peers, though they respected him and his life's work. He might have felt moments of despair as he prepped each week's editorial cartoons and Debbie strips. Something inspired him out of his dozy twilight in the summer of 1960. On Thursday, August 18, Debbie dropped a bombshell:

Elmo's appearance was delayed until 8/24, and his backstory had changed. He'd done a stretch in the Army, where he was demoted from private first-class to civilian. He's first seen in bed, enjoying a bowl of Popnut Skrummies. He's now Debbie's older brother.

Elmo is as enthusiastic and vacant-headed as in 1946/7. He is so excited to return to the American workforce that he dashes out in his Pjs, where he is clouted by a beat cop. He returns to Popnut Skrummies, where Commodore Bluster still works. Elmo's controlling interest seems to no longer exist, but he passes the company aptitude test, which all characters refer to as “getting them round pegs in them square holes.” He replaces Bluster as president, which results in this pathetic moment:

Bluster is demoted to the building's doorman, in an ironic shift worthy of Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Elmo is soon relegated to that position, as Bluster regains control. He accepts this change with his customary cheer.

For a few strips, before that occurs, Jensen re-creates the vibe of 1947 Elmo. Bluster hires hitman Killer McDiller to murder Elmo; Elmo counter-hires him as his personal bodyguard, nullifying that threat. This sequence wouldn't have met the Comics Code's criteria, but such things still flew on the newspaper page.

Little Debbie, October 21-29, 1960

In an earlier strip, a Popnut Skrummies stockholder is seen in the act of suicide as the punchline:

Jensen's use of suicide-as-gag eerily mirrors comic-book giant Jack Cole's gallows humor—and, as with Cole's work, the reader must wonder if some inner demons taunted the artist at his drafting board.

It's a revelation to compare these 1960 and '61 strips with the original Elmo run. Jensen subtly modernized his cartooning style, and his knowledge of the characters' contours is masterful. Gone is the brushy grandstanding of 1947. Jensen's late work is bold, assured and stripped to its essence. Both approaches are attractive, but the zen lines of the 1960/61 strips are striking and admirable.

Years of drawing the exaggerated proportions of cartoon tots had changed Jensen's eye. Elmo's head seems outsized, and his body vestigial—not as severe as a Funko figure, but in that general ballpark. Elmo seems frail, which is fitting for his presence. Once again, Jensen doesn't seem to know what to do with this enigmatic creation. The Popnut storyline fizzles out, and the strip's focus returns to Debbie and her chums. Elmo is mistaken for the ruler of Skyola and whisked to that exotic place to reclaim its throne. All this happens off-stage, and a grand opportunity is lost. In 1946/7, this would have been good for two months of daily strips. Perhaps Jensen didn't want to draw those complicated settings and create a new horde of characters for the sake of a few days' amusement. The effect is like a low-budget film—big events are described but unseen.

He focuses on Elmo's return, by rowboat, in a sequence that anticipates the dust-dry humor of college newspaper strips like Eyebeam and Jim's Journal.

Little Debbie, January 16-26, 1961

Elmo drifts away in the last days of Little Debbie. He's last seen playing a game of solitaire on April 11th:

Jensen's Elmo reboot may have come too late. There is a sunset quality to these late storylines. The strip is winding down, starting its slow fade to black. Jensen's wit is still nimble, and he still surprises us with how he makes us laugh. There are corny, obvious set-ups, but at least once a week, a sly zinger swoops past our heads. It's a delicious dance of death in a comic-strip no one really cared about. You feel the gears slacken and the motor shift to a constant, subtle ebb in the spring and summer of 1961. But the strip had one final bizarre, touching surprise.

We're accustomed to comic strips ending with some to-do. Peanuts, Bloom County, The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes and Guy Gilchrist's stint on Nancy concluded with ballyhoo. In Jensen's day, a strip breathed its last without ceremony. A reader's favorite comic just wasn't there one Monday morning. Subscribers might phone or write their local paper, wondering what happened to _________________, but it seldom made the news. Comics just weren't that important.

Jensen's last hurrah involved a twist none of his handful of readers could have anticipated. Jensen commemorates Debbie Gentry's wedding in his 6/24/61 daily.

The remainder of the strip's run seems to be a tribute to this young newlywed and her career in child care and education. Here are two photographs of the real Debbie Gentry—her senior yearbook picture from 1957, and in her middle age, via a 1993 article about her award-winning work in child care and infant education:

Without a word of warning, Jensen advances the age of Debbie and Tugwit as they watch home movies from their childhood. This switch is brilliantly set up with a sequence of Pop Chuckle annoying the neighborhood with his home-movie mania. The few who followed the strip might have been floored by these four July 1961 strips:

Tooker and Heckimer, seen in the home movies, are gone. The adult Tugwit sports a Madison Avenue crewcut and smart suit. Debbie has become a dishy brunette. She now has the career of her real-life inspiration, Debbie Gentry. She runs a nursery school.

With this change, Little Debbie became Bizarro Peanuts, or Little Debbie Minus Little Debbie. The adult Debbie teaches a quartet of preschoolers who bear an uncomfortable resemblance to Charles Schulz's mega-popular characters. Unlike Linus, Lucy or Schroeder, these kids are so out-there that it might be a willful satire. Jensen was entitled to say “what the hell?” and try anything at this point.

In place of Charlie Brown is George Green, a ball of neurotic uncertainty with huge glasses. Standing in for Lucy, Violet and Patty is the brutally frank and aggressive Matilda Jones. In the most out-there twist, twin boys collectively named Barney Smith speak and act as one.

One of Jensen's peers, Ving Fuller, had done something similar, a decade earlier, with his classically screwball strip Doc Syke. Renamed Little Doc, it was drawn by Fuller in an imitation of 1950/51 Charles Schulz. (Both strips were handled by United Feature Syndicate, which makes one wonder what Schulz thought of it all. Here are three examples of this rara avis...)

Jensen had, arguably, been doing a Peanuts-like strip before Charles Schulz. By the time of Peanuts' October 2, 1950 debut, Little Debbie had been in all-kid mode for two years. Both strips show children acting unlike children and exposing the foibles of adult life. Where Schulz's strip feels restrained and college-educated, Jensen's seems the work of an autodidact—a man who has been exposed to the same intellectual ideas, but through his own study and observation rather than university courses.

Jensen's humor is brainy and earthy. Like E. C. Segar, he seems at home in a rowdier world. Thus, this late Peanuts homage/satire is darker, harsher, and wackier than Schulz ever was in his work. This was a fitting end-game for the strip. It started as a sort-of knock-off/parody of Li'l Abner, which went places Al Capp avoided. So why not bring down the curtain as it first rose? This 11th-hour new direction is bracingly funny, once the reader readjusts their expectations.

By this time, Debbie was on life-support as a money-making syndicated newspaper comic. It could hardly have been worth the syndicate—or Jensen's—while to keep it going. Its flagship paper, the Des Moines Register, dropped the strip as of Wednesday, October 26, 1960—in the middle of the hitman sequence. The Seattle Times and the New Orleans Times-Picayune ran the daily strip to its end. The full roster of 1961 subscribers isn't yet known, but the strip was in few papers and was far past its heyday in the public eye.

The Lincoln, Nebraska Star-Journal is the source for these late examples. They look terrible, but it's all we've got for the time being. The Times-Picayune and the Times also have corrupted archival versions. To its micro-audience, Little Debbie, in the summer and fall of 1961, might have been the most surprising strip on the newspaper page.

Jensen seems inspired by this new direction. Had he been a decade younger, he might have continued in this vein into the 1970s, alongside more blatant Schulz cops like Dick Cavalli's Winthrop. He finds distinct humorous veins in each of the kids, and the strips show promise for something fresh and sustainable.

Despite this rebirth, Jensen was ready to call it quits. He would continue his editorial cartooning to his death, but the long haul of a daily strip, after 15 years of diminishing returns, was quite likely too much for him.

Little Debbie ended on the last day of September 1961. (The Sunday page expired on October 2, 1960.) The daily's concluding week is taken up with football jokes that especially smack of Schulz's influence. Its final strip is haunting, even saddening—and well-timed for a melancholy autumn Saturday afternoon. Few comic strips got the chance to close with such wistful finality.

There has never been another mainstream comic strip like Cecil Jensen's Elmo/Debbie. Many have tried to hit its same marks. Scott Adams' Dilbert is, in essence, a soulless Elmo. Doug Allen's Steven, which resembles Jensen's later work, came the closest with its quirky ensemble cast, vigorous brushwork and rowdy, dark viewpoint.

The strip might have regained success in the mid-1960s, when two comparable mass-media odd-balls achieved public success with an approach something like Jensen's (though less witty in both cases).

Herbie, a comic book written by Richard Hughes and drawn by Odgen Whitney, was published by the American Comics Group from 1963 to 1967. Herbie is a happy accident from a publishing house that trafficked in prideful mediocrity. There is always an eccentric voice to Hughes’ supernatural stories, which he pioneered with the anthology Adventures into the Unknown in 1948. His notion of “The Unknown,” a sort-of Purgatory where the supernatural flourishes, is as consistent in his ACG stories as Kryptonite was for the contemporary Superman series.

Herbie began life as a quirkier-than-average one-shot story. “Herbie’s Quiet Saturday Afternoon” wasn’t intended to spawn a comic book series. Reader response was strong, and Hughes and Whitney created a handful of sequels before giving the terse, rotund and sphinx-like antihero his own comic book. For 23 issues, Herbie see-sawed between the mediocrity of the ACG formula and brain-storms of outré humor.

One senses that Hughes and Whitney didn’t quite grok what they had done. They recognized that it had a certain cult appeal—the magazine's letter columns attest to a fervent fan response. They did their best to cater to their devoted cluster of fans, and kept Herbie going until the company’s demise in late 1967. Like Elmo, Herbie played with the inherent absurdity of genre fiction. Its humor is so tenuous that the reader is often left wondering if funny things were meant to be so.

By this time, American mass media—and its consumers—were more open to the low-key, enigmatic school of humor that Elmo pioneered on the comics page. Producer Paul Henning made hay with a trio of absurdist rural sitcoms (Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, and The Beverly Hillbillies in the mid-1960s. Until they were driven off the air to make way for socially relevant sitcoms (which have dated badly) the Henning trifecta threw a glossy spin on the Elmo sensibility into a million American living rooms.

The combined casts of Paul Hennings' rural sitcoms Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, and The Beverly Hillbillies, 1968

Perhaps Green Acres creator Jay Sommers was an Elmo fan. His low-key approach to the eccentric, out-there and inexplicable mirrors Cecil Jensen’s brief achievement. Eb Dawson, hired helper to grouchy retired lawyer Oliver Douglas and his ditzy ex-society wife, Lisa, as played by Tom Lester, is Elmo-like in his gleeful idiocy and seeming lack of empathy. Jensen-esque supporting characters abound—including Alf and Ralph Monroe, a sibling handyman team with gender identification issues, and Hank Kimball, county agent with apparent early-stage Alzheimer's. America hee-hawed at Green Acres' sunny absurdities for five seasons and 170 half-hour episodes.

When Cecil Jensen died, in a retirement home in Fayetteville, Arkansas on March 16, 1976, America was out of this absurdist orbit. In 2018, the quirk of Jensen's work seems like everyday life—violence (and its threat) and loopy logic is what we encounter all day long. (That our political leaders resemble Commodore Bluster in appearance, word and deed is obvious [and tragic] but worth noting.)

In modern times, Mike Judge (Office Space, Idiocracy, King of the Hill, Silicon Valley) has come closest to the ensemble absurdity found in Jensen's work. Though he side-steps the out-there aspects of Jensen's vision, his full-bodied sociopaths, misguided egomaniacs and inverted dweebs have the Elmo touch. The withering asides delivered by Martin Starr, as Silicon Valley's Satanist programmer Bertram Gilfoyle, are Jensenian through and through.

I think America is ready for Elmo. It's my goal to restore Cecil Jensen's work to print. Its audience has finally shown up.

My sincere thanks to Kelly Shane, Mark Newgarden, David Lasky and Buddy Lortie for their feedback and help in piecing this story together.

FILED UNDER:

4 Responses to The Enigma of Cecil Jensen, Part Two: Elmo Without Elmo

  1. Will Pfeifer says:

    Fascinating! Thanks for all the writing and research!

  2. R. C. Harvey says:

    I haven’t read all this yet, but I wanted to say—Hoorah! At last someone is writing about my favorite comic strip. Debbie may be interesting, but I loved Elmo.

  3. top cat james says:

    FWIW, Henning cast photo is from a 1968 episode of THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, “The Thanksgiving Spirit”.

  4. Bob Lamb says:

    Excellent research and writing. Look forward to the collections!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *