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Unsung Al Smith, Record-Holding Unknown Cartoonist

Smith, like Jones, is a name so plentiful in English-speaking countries that it achieves virtual invisibility and thereby anonymity. And the only Al Smith who ever broke free of the amorphous mob of Smiths is the one that was a picturesque governor of New York: he attracted enough notice that he was able to run for President of the U.S. against Herbert Hoover in 1928 and lost because he was Catholic, voters of the day being provincial enough to believe that if a Catholic was in the White House, the Pope would be running the country.

Our Al Smith, the nearly unknown cartooning one, wasn’t even a Smith at first: he was born March 2, 1902 as Albert Schmidt in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Henry Schmidt and Josephine Dice. Eventually, he “Americanized” his name to Smith. We don’t know when he did this, but it was done by the time he was signing one of the most famous comic strips in the history of the medium, 52 years after he was born. He continued signing Mutt and Jeff  for 27 more years before retiring. By then, Al Smith had been producing the same daily comic strip for almost 50 years, at the time, a world record.

Supplying autobiographical information for the membership “album” of the National Cartoonists Society (NCS) in 1960, Smith wrote: “Born in Brooklyn, I became an orphan at age four. My boyhood was like an Horatio Alger story. Shoeshine boy after school, made 60 cents a week. Quit that to become butcherboy at $1 a week. Loved to draw and make people laugh. Could not afford lessons. Loved vaudeville. Might have tried acting career if I hadn’t married. … I was too young for the First World War and too old for the Second.”

After attending public schools, young Albert started in newspapering as a copy boy for the New York Sun, leaving within a year for the New York World. “Loved newspaper work,” he wrote, “—hung around the art department. Thrilled no end when I saw a cartoonist in person.”

He followed the traditional apprenticeship route from copy boy to cartoonist: first, he was permitted to assist other cartoonists, then he drew an occasional fill-in cartoon, and eventually he graduated to his own regular cartoon. From 9 to 5, a panel cartoon about office life, was syndicated by the World until the newspaper folded in 1931. In 1930, Smith says he also did Miracles of Sport, a daily sports cartoon credited to Bob Edgren.

Upon the collapse of the World, From 9 to 5 was picked up by United Feature which continued distributing it into 1933; when it ceased, Smith freelanced, doing artwork for various clients, including the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and John Wheeler’s Bell Syndicate, where, presumably, he assisted Ed Mack from time to time on Bud Fisher’s popular Mutt and Jeff.

Mack had a slightly longer history with Mutt and Jeff than the 14 years he did it for Fisher before dying. During the lengthy legal dispute with Hearst’s King Features over the strip’s ownership that started in 1915, Fisher quit doing the strip. And Hearst hired Ed Mack (some sources say Billy Liverpool) to carry on the feature. When Hearst lost the law suit several years later and Fisher emerged as the owner of Mutt and Jeff, Fisher left the Hearst Works and joined John Wheeler’s syndicate. And he hired Mack to draw the strip. (Which means that Billy Liverpool was probably not the cartoonist who’d continued Mutt and Jeff while Fisher was awaiting a court decision.) Technically, Mack may have been Fisher’s assistant, but Mack produced the strip; by all accounts, Fisher did little or no work on it. And the same situation prevailed with Smith.

Mack towers over Smith as an unsung cartoonist on Mutt and Jeff, and to compensate posthumously for the erstwhile neglect, we’ve posted a generous sampling of Mack’s work near here, all from 1928-30, by which time, Mack’d been doing the strip for about a decade.

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When Mack died in 1932, Wheeler and Fisher approached Smith about ghosting the strip. Smith told the story in the newsletter of the National Cartoonists Society, The Cartoonist, on the occasion of Fisher’s death in 1954:

“It was during the Depression years, when my wife and I had three small girls, and I was digging ditches for the WPA in New Jersey, that I received a phone call from John Wheeler, president of Bell Syndicate, to come over and see him. Bud Fisher needed an assistant artist to help him with Mutt and Jeff. My wife brought the good news in our Model T Ford while I was in mud up to my ankles digging on the job. I threw my shovel to one side and bid my associate ditch diggers a fond but quick good-bye, and away I went to Mutt and Jeff, and I’ve been with them ever since.”

(Feetnoot: the alert reader will have detected a seeming contradiction in Smith’s history: he was probably not, at the same time, digging ditches and assisting Ed Mack on Mutt and Jeff. But this discrepancy is easily explained: “digging ditches” was Smith’s comical euphemism for working at the WPA, which he may have been doing at the same time as he was occasionally helping Mack. The same playful attitude about facts is displayed in Smith’s claim that he owned a Model T Ford in 1932: if so, it was an antique, Ford’s production of the Model T having been discontinued in the spring of 1927. By referring to his ownership of a Model T—in a somewhat awkward sentence construction—Smith was indicating in a humorous way his penury: he couldn’t afford a newer car. Because of his penchant for preferring comedy to fact, I’m not sure about his being an orphan at the age of four.

(And this parenthetical apostrophe brings me to an admission: Smith’s history hereabouts has been cobbled together from several sources, some of them casual comments—like his assisting Ed Mack on Mutt and Jeff. Some, doubtless, more myth than fact. In an effort to create one cohesive story out of the lot, I’ve incorporated these stray fragments into a single chronological narrative wherever I can, but, given the mess I started with, I won’t be held accountable for contradictions inherent in this smattering of sources. So there.

By the time Smith took over Mutt and Jeff, Mutt was no longer addicted solely to betting the ponies, and he, the tall, skinny guy, was permanently affixed to the diminutive Jeff, their cojoined names forever after denoting someone tall paired with someone short. With the emergence of the dim-witted Jeff as Mutt’s perennial partner in about the summer of 1909, the strip acquired the humane dimension that made it a classic: it ceased to be solely a daily chorus about the crass pursuit of ill-gotten gains and became a cautionary tale about the human condition.

Mutt remained the scheming conniver that he’d always been as a horse-player: when the strip began November 15, 1907, his role in the strip was to come up with ways to make a buck. Jeff’s seeming mental deficiency made him the perfect innocent, the ideal foil for Mutt the Materialist. And the strip’s comedy soon took its vintage form with Mutt’s avaricious aspirations perpetually frustrated by Jeff’s benign and well-intentioned ignorance. Foiled by the little man’s uncomprehending bumbling, Mutt often responds with classic vaudevillian exasperation: the strips’ punchlines are frequently precisely that, punches. In the best slapstick tradition of the stage, Mutt lets his pesky partner have it in the face with a pie, a dead chicken, a brick, or whatever object he happens to have in his hand when he realizes the little runt had scuttled yet another scheme with his literal-minded stupidity. Being beaned with a brick was a classic Mutt and Jeff finish long before George Herriman took the same device and turned it into krazy kitty poetry.

Often deploying gentle Jeff as his shill in a succession of careers and enterprises together, Mutt sometimes conceives plans that have the incidental effect of victimizing the little fellow. But we always root for Jeff: visually, the short guy is the underdog, and most American readers cheer for the underdog out of cultural habit. As usual, Fisher was perfectly aware of what he was doing:

“Mutt is a big, simple-minded boob who is always trying and always blundering,” Fisher said in a 1928 autobiographical series in the Saturday Evening Post. “The great majority of people like Jeff much more than they do Mutt; but Mutt always has been my pal and friend. Mutt is trying, and making mistakes, just like the rest of us, and he is a rough worker at times. People like Jeff because he is smaller, and almost every person in the world is for the little guy against the big one.”

And Little Jeff (as he was called for years) in his innocence and kindliness justifies our faith. Regardless of Mutt’s machinations, Jeff invariably winds up on top, unwittingly victorious over whatever traps or pitfalls may have lain in his path. So does the benevolent nature of humankind seem somehow to triumph eventually over its baser instincts in the long, long run. We laughed at them both, but we merely tolerated Mutt and his schemes; we loved Little Jeff.

Fisher was not particularly easy to work for, Smith discovered: “Very few people really know—or should I say ‘understood’—Harry Conway (Bud) Fisher. He somehow struck me as being an individual with a dual personality. It seems he was right on the line of being an ordinary person and a genius if there is such a line between the two. I never knew how I would find him.

“ One day, he would be kind, gentle, understanding and appreciative, and the next, hell in all its fury would break loose. A whole week’s work of comic strips would be destroyed by a few strokes of his brush, dripping with black ink. Good was not good enough, and right there, I think, likes the secret of his success. He always wanted the best in everything, and he usually got it.

“At the time, it was very difficult for me to understand this man. He was so different from everyone else. Early in my career with him, he had me on the point of a nervous breakdown. I left him and went away for a week to rest, coming back with the determination to conquer this most unusual job. The years started to roll by and after quitting four times and being fired once—and in each instance the following day being called on the phone as though nothing had happened—I began to understand Mutt and Jeff’s creator.

“Much of the time in later years, he was ill and confined to bed in his apartment. He was always afraid of being trapped in a fire. He never used an ashtray but would always drop his cigarette butts into a basin of water which stood by the side of his bed.

“We became very close friends as the years passed by. I had many pleasant visits with him when he would reminisce until three or four in the morning and tell me all about the big and little events in his life. I’m a good listener, and he liked a good listener. He could talk for hours, going from one subject to another. I hope I brought him some joy and happiness for in his passing years, he was a lonely man.”

Despite the sporadic interference from the flamboyant heavy-drinking playboy Fisher, Smith ably conducted the classic strip, eventually revamping it to suit his own comedic sensibilities. Mutt became less a plotting get-rich-quick schemer and more a paterfamilias and bread winner. The habitual would-be con man was thoroughly domesticated, and the strip focused on his frustrations as husband and father, albeit with occasional forays into various entrepreneurial schemes.

While it is obvious that Mutt is married (his wife and son are often depicted in the strip), in various humorously concocted situations, he and Jeff appear to be roommates sharing an apartment. The only explanation ever offered (and then only implied) for this strangeness is that occasionally Mutt is separated from his wife, who is momentarily seeking a divorce, and during those times, Mutt bunks with Jeff. Or so it seems. As I said, the explanation is never made that explicit. And Mutt and his spouse are evidently reconciled as often as they are separated.

Smith’s graphic style was more polished than that of his several ghostly predecessors on the strip, but he nonetheless preserved the turn-of-the-century feel of the visuals. By the end of the 1930s, the faces and anatomy of his cast had crystallized into static doodles, stylized approximations of human appearance, embellished, for a time, by the cross-hatching and shading techniques of the earlier era, mannerisms later replaced by Ben Day dots that converted white areas of the strip to gray.smithmuttjeff2 smithmuttjeff1 smithmuttjeff4

 

Smith’s penchant for humorous animal antics yielded a secondary strip, Cicero’s Cat
(about the cat that belonged to Mutt’s son), in a “topper” that ran at the top of the Mutt and Jeff Sunday page from the mid-thirties until 1972. After Fisher died in 1954, Smith was permitted to sign his own name to the strip, which he continued to do until he left it at the end of 1981, having produced the feature for almost 50 years, over four times longer than its creator did. Smith died five years later, November 24, 1986, in Rutland, Vermont. Mutt and Jeff had preceded him by three-and-a-half years (ceasing June 25, 1983.

Smith married Erna Anna Strasser on May 25, 1921, as he launched into his cartooning career. Eventually, they and their three daughters lived on four acres in Demarest, New Jersey. In 1950, he inaugurated his own feature syndicate, the Smith Service, to provide comic strips and cartoons to weekly newspapers. For this purpose, Smith produced two features, Rural Delivery (1951-1997) and Remember When (1955), and perhaps, as noted in the New York Times obit, The Bumbles. Other similarly folksy offerings of his syndicate included Off Main Street (1951-1961) by Joe Dennett, replaced by George Wolfe’s Pops (1962-1978).

Active in the National Cartoonists Society, Smith held several offices (general membership representative, secretary, and treasurer for nine years) before being elected president (1967-69). In 1968, his NCS colleagues awarded him the organization’s trophy for the year’s Best Humor Strip.

Otherwise, summarizing his career, as he put it, “Did six strips and Sunday page, ideas and art in small room for years where I acquired round shoulders and a creased stomach at the board all hours of the day and night.” Whereby he established a longevity record unequaled in his time.

Bibliography.

Sources are cited in the text. Altlhough Al Smith is associated with one of the medium’s most historic creations, his association began long after Mutt and Jeff had made its signal contribution to the medium by establishing the daily “strip” format, and Smith’s connection was anonymous for the earliest portion of his tenure on the feature when the strip was still famous. Perhaps for these reasons, his name is barely mentioned in most histories of the medium. His life and career receive their due only in Maurice Horn’s often error-ridden World Encyclopedia of Comics (1999); the Smith entry is by Rick Marschall, and since Horn was probably not much interested in the old fashioned Mutt and Jeff, he probably did not alter what Marschall wrote, so this entry is doubtless fairly accurate.


One Response to Unsung Al Smith, Record-Holding Unknown Cartoonist

  1. Bob Levin says:

    Nice to see attention paid to these important but forgotten figures — and I include the strip characters — Harvey continually turns his attentions to. His effort to make sense of Smith’s life, as “cobbled” together (“So there.”) was fun too. A satisfying mix of research, surmise, and just-having-a-good-time-with-the-process.

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