Back in those dear, dead days of yesteryear, cartoonists drew comic strips; they didn’t rule them with a straight-edge. And one of the best examples of the truth of this freshly brewed axiom is Clifford McBride’s dog strip, Napoleon. McBride drew with great verve and an exuberant pen, producing such a ferociously kinetic line that even when depicted in repose, his subjects seemed vitally energetic. And the style suited the subject (in fact, given the low-key humor of the strip, the style may have been the subject).
The strip focused on a stout bachelor and his giant pet—Uncle Elby and Napoleon—achieving, as art critic Dennis Wepman once wrote in Ron Goulart’s Encyclopedia of American Comics,, a “beautifully balanced team—the fat man, all stasis and order, and the lean dog, all motion and chaos.” It is Elby’s fate (and the flywheel of the strip’s punchline, daily and Sunday) to be forever dogged (pun intended) by misfortune of a minor dimension: if his own bumbling doesn’t frustrate his plans that day, then the clumsy albeit good-hearted meddling of his affectionate, over-sized hound does.
Elby was patterned visually after McBride’s uncle, Henry Elba Eastman, a Wisconsin lumberman. McBride was likewise an upper midwesterner, born January 25 (or 26),1901 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the son of a purchasing agent for a threshing machine company (who identified himself on his son's birth certificate by writing "They just call me 'Mr. McBride'") and Lillian Eastman McBride, housewife. The family moved to Pasadena, California, when Clifford was nine. He drew throughout his school years, and he was twice expelled (then reinstated) from Pasadena High School for his cartoons in the school newspaper. When he was sixteen, he sold an editorial cartoon to the Los Angeles Times. He graduated from Occidental College in 1923 and joined the art department at the Times, producing a series of pantomime comic strips. In 1924, he left for the Chicago Tribune, where he illustrated humorous fiction for the paper and its magazine, Liberty. The next year, he accepted an offer from McNaught Syndicate to distribute nationally a full-page weekly pantomime comic strip, and McBride returned to Pasadena.
Offered in black-and-white for release on either Saturday or Sunday, the McNaught feature was a miscellany page: instead of a continuing title, it carried a descriptive headline that changed every week to suit that week’s subject. Napoleon showed up in one of these, either in the fall of 1927 or in the spring of 1929. The confusion, which I’ll clear up in a trice, exists because my sources contradict each other.
One source, the Hyperion Library of Classic American Comic Strips, which, in 1977, published the daily Napoleon from its start on June 6, 1932, reprints three of the McNaught weekend pages in the introductory pages. And these are dated, by the series editor Bill Blackbeard, November 20, 1927, April 28, 1929, and May 5, 1929. My other source came from cartoonist Roger Armstrong, who inherited the strip after McBride’s death in 1951—copies of syndicate proof pages, some of which are reproduced in this vicinity. Blackbeard’s dates are wrong, but it’s not his fault.
The page that is dated April 28, 1929 in the Hyperion book is dated Saturday, April 20 or Sunday, April 21, 1929 on the proof page; Hyperion’s May 5 strip is dated Saturday, April 13 or Sunday, April 14 on the proof page. The discrepancy in the dates is easily explained: the Hyperion dates were determined by the date of the strips’ publication in the Los Angeles Times, Blackbeard’s only source at the time. The Times clearly published the pages later than the dates McNaught suggested on its proof pages—and out of order.
The proof versions of both of these pages are reproduced nearby, and it would seem, from the context (Uncle Elby is clearly buying a dog in “Lonesome Pup”), that the April 13/14 page marks the debut of the out-sized mutt, not the page recording Elby’s attempt to “launder” the animal, even though, in the Times, the laundering page appeared first on April 28.
As for Napoleon’s supposed earlier appearance on Blackbeard’s November 1927 page (entitled “The Sentimental Picnicker and the Hungry Dog”), while the portly Picnicker is probably the character who subsequently was named Uncle Elby, the dog was probably not the dog subsequently named Napoleon. Both animals are large lumbering canines, but the 1927 dog has no dark patch on its back. (The merest of cavils, I admit; but history is made of quibbles like this.) McBride’s sense of humor betrayed a penchant for hilarities involving large animals and fat men, and that tendency began to emerge with the November 1927 page, but more than that, we cannot say with absolutely certainty.
The large and clumsy canine was eventually christened Napoleon, probably because of his owner's name, Elby, which, as Blackbeard acutely reports in the World Encyclopedia of Comics, evoked the deposed French emperor with the resonance of the site of his exile, Elba Island. McBride's drawings of the dog attracted the attention of a newspaper feature syndicate salesman, Arthur J. Lafave, who persuaded McBride to let him market a daily comic strip about the enthusiastic dog and his inept owner. The daily Napoleon and Uncle Elby debuted in June 1932, and a Sunday version appeared March 12, 1933. Lafave secured enough subscribing newspapers to establish his own syndicate, a legend in the industry because it was founded on a single feature, McBride's comic strip.
At the very introduction of the gaunt Irish wolfhound, as we’ve witnessed, McBride established the comedic pattern the strip would follow often in ensuing years. After buying the dog, Elby builds a doghouse for it, but the animal is lonely at night in this domicile, so he invades his master's bedroom. Tugging the blanket on the bed, Napoleon awakens Elby and climbs into bed with him, taking all the covers and displacing his owner. Elby can't get the dog out of bed, so he retires to the dubious comforts of the doghouse outside.
The comedy is usually highly physical as it must be in pantomime.
Elby is a champion bumbler on his own, without any help from Napoleon. Shoving his rowboat into the lake to go fishing, Elby gets his feet wet and falls headlong into the boat; when he takes up the oars, he gets one entangled in weeds, and as he tries to remove the weeds, the other oar slips into the water. Reaching for the errant oar, he loses the remaining one. Napoleon swims out to join his master and climbs into the boat, overturning it.
The next installment of this unusual two-parter done for the old humor magazine, Life, continues the action as Elby wades ashore and buys a motorboat. When he starts the motor, the craft rockets off quicker than he can assume control; the boat crashes into the shore, throwing Elby out. He lands on a stray chicken. In the last panel, instead of taking home a catch of fish, he carries the dead chicken.
On another fishing expedition, Napoleon is, again, left ashore but swims out to Elby in the boat; Elby returns the dog to the shore and ties him to the doghouse. The huge animal, nothing if not persistent, swims out to Elby again, towing the doghouse behind him. He climbs into the boat, capsizing it. The last panel shows Elby seated on the floating doghouse, Napoleon snuggled up wistfully beside him.
Most of the time, McBride's humor was achieved in pantomime, but occasionally, he resorted to short speeches. In a daily strip, Elby sits, exhausted, on a pile of logs he's just cut for the fireplace, and he says to Napoleon, "All right—I sawed it. You carry it in." The obedient dog takes in his mouth a log at the bottom of the pile, causing the entire edifice, Elby included, to collapse.
“I saw Napoleon when it started in the Los Angeles Times,” Roger Armstrong remembered, “and I thought it was one of the most wonderful things I’d ever seen.”
When he found out that McBride lived in Altadena on New York Avenue, he resolved to meet the cartoonist. With a bundle of his own drawings under his arm, he knocked on McBride’s front door.
“He was very gracious,” Armstrong told me. “And so I went to see him every so often. He moved from the New York Avenue place to the foothills. He had a little house that was separate from the main house, and that was his studio. He was an accomplished pianist, by the way, and he had a concert grand piano in there.
“Well, I haunted the poor man,” he continued. “I’d go and lurk by his side and watch him draw, and he was very, very kind to me. Sometimes I’d have dinner over there. That’s where I found out you could have spaghetti served to you by a Japanese house boy. And Clifford showed me what pen he used—a Gillott 290 [the fabled nib of most old masters of the pen]—and all this stuff, and bit by bit, he let me do a little on the strip—simple backgrounds—and he let me do his lettering.”
I asked if McBride drew rapidly. “That marvelously sketchy style,” I said, “—you couldn’t get the effect of such breezy abandon by drawing slowly, I wouldn’t think.”
“Oh, no,” Armstrong said. “Clifford was so fast. The guy was incredible. A little known fact about Clifford is that when he pencilled the strip, he did not pencil it loosely. He pencilled it in exactly the detail that you see the final pen-and-ink work. It was unbelievable. I mean, he did every single bit—all the shading and everything—with the pencil before he went in to it with a pen, and he grabbed the pen way out at the end of the pen holder—far away from the pen point—and he used to ink that way. The control he had was absolutely unreal. He knew exactly what it was going to do—where it was going—and he put it down. Not that he inked every pencil line as it had been drawn. He didn’t. He was very fast. He developed tremendous speed and freedom of line, and, of course, I did, too, watching him. And that’s the way I draw: I grab the pencil way out by the eraser. And I ink that way, too. And I paint watercolors the same way. And I tell my students, Don’t grab it way down at the end where you’ll get ink all over your fingers. Grab it as far back as you can conveniently control it.”
Armstrong sometimes helped McBride with his jigsaw puzzle.
“He was a great one for re-using old strips,” Armstrong said. “He’d cut his original strips into pieces and put them into an envelope, and then if he needed to put together some stuff in a hurry, he’d shake it all out and piece the panels together in a new arrangement. So he’d have me cut and paste sometimes, and he’d let me do the extra drawing in the backgrounds to fit the pieces together.”
The visits to McBride’s studio continued through Armstrong’s high school and college years. The cartoonist, Armstrong said, pursued athletic hobbies (boat racing and swimming) as well as performing magic. He and his first wife, Elizabeth, had two children, a boy and a girl, before their divorce in the 1940s. McBride died of a heart attack while in the hospital being treated for prostate cancer, and his second wife, Margot Cuppet Fischer, who had worked on a student newspaper with Armstrong in an earlier life, remembered that Armstrong had helped on Napoleon and asked him to continue it.
“No wonder I’m schizophrenic,” he laughed. “Seriously, I just changed hats in the middle of the week, changed my philosophical approach, my attitude about inking, for instance. Ella was done very meticulously, as if it was carved out with a wire, whereas Napoleon was fast, fast, fast. The only thing I can say is that I just changed—right in the middle of the week. I spent half the week on one; half on the other.”
The worlds occupied by Ella and by Napoleon were as different as the drawing styles.
“The world of Napoleon,” Armstrong said, “was not a real world in the sense that it had any depth. Berrydale, which is where Uncle Elby lived, was a very ephemeral concept. Ella moved in a much more real world. In Napoleon, we were aware of people in the world there, but they did not constitute in my mind a real world. Berrydale was a fantasy.”
I agreed: “Every time I read a Napoleon strip,” I said, “I feel as if I am looking through a kind of gauze screen and seeing a bright, hot, humid August afternoon where you can hear the faint buzzing of some kind of insect in the trees and all other sound seems distant and muffled, and nothing really moves around very fast. A dream world, a languorous summer afternoon sort of place—somnolent, relaxing. Not real at all.”
According to Allan Holtz’s American Newspaper Comics: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide, Lafave had trained Art Heinemann to take over after McBride. Holtz says Margot McBride “supplied ideas for several years.” She seems to have inherited Napoleon, becoming the strip’s managing director. Presumably, she hired Armstrong when she changed syndicates, leaving Lafave for Mirror Enterprises; Armstrong never mentioned Heinemann (as far as I can remember). Holtz also says that Joe Messerli and Mort Taylor assisted Armstrong on art. Armstrong mentioned Messerli but not Taylor.
If Uncle Elby was McBride’s actual uncle, Napoleon was, ostensibly (according to syndicate publicity), the cartoonist’s dog, a St. Bernard. But in rendering the animal, McBride took a few pounds off, I’d say, and the final result looked more like an Irish wolfhound than a St. Bernard.
The strip ended sometime in 1960, having, for almost 30 years, provided an endless variation on its paean to a master-victim and his nemesis. Said Wepman:
“Napoleon was an undisciplined and undisciplinable creature whose slightest impulse created chaos in the prim life of his owner ... [whose] efforts at maintaining order in his tidy bachelor life were perennially defeated. Napoleon’s motives were always innocent, and often noble; but the irrepressible force behind them inevitably resulted in Uncle Elby’s embarrassment, arrest, or financial loss, with something always broken or buried or dug up along the way.”
Napoleon appeared in the comics before cartoonists had made an accepted convention of talking animals in strips that also featured humans, but the big lumbering dog needed no words: in a triumph of visual style, McBride made the dog's face talk, giving it a range of humanoid expression that spoke comedic volumes.
Posted nearby is a classic example that McBride used more than once. Elby is speaking into the telephone: "You say you're going to drop past with a package of nice bones for Napoleon?" The dog, hearing this, beams with anticipation, and the remainder of the strip focuses on his face, which changes expression as Elby continues the conversation: "Well, that's mighty thoughtful of you," he says; "he'd, naturally, be delighted, but—" Napoleon is suddenly alarmed, ears flapping "—I couldn't think of allowing you to go so far out of your way. Better give them to some neighbor's dog. Thanks again for thinking of him." Napoleon scowls at us, his face almost human in displaying his angry disappointment.
Many of the gags feature Napoleon by himself, wandering the neighborhood of McBride's idyllic Berrydale. Napoleon climbs into a garbage barrel, upsetting it, and it rolls down the hill with the dog still inside. He chases a rabbit into a culvert; the rabbit exits at the far end, but Napoleon fiercely waits for the creature to re-emerge on the end he entered. The dog stays there until nightfall, his expression no longer fierce but puzzled and sad.
The comic strip has been reprinted several times: Clifford McBride's Immortal Napoleon and Uncle Elby, 1932; Napoleon and Uncle Elby, 1938 (and with the same title in 1945); Napoleon and Uncle Elby and Little Mary, 1939; and Napoleon: A Complete Compilation, 1932-1933, 1977. A motion picture with live action characters was reportedly produced in 1941 Although he died at a relatively early age, McBride earned a permanent place in the pantheon of newspaper cartoonists with his distinctive style. And in remembering McBride’s energetic line, we cannot help but recall also the dog’s vociferous visage.