A Stretch in the Bone Age: The Life and Cartooning Genius of V.T. Hamlin

"Can you imagine what would happen to the science of paleontology when a crew working on the excavation of a large upper cretaceous dinosaur comes upon the fossil remains of a humanoid in intimate juxtaposition with the saurian's skull—especially when a grooved stone nearby is identified as an axehead?"

The question was mischievously posed by V.T. Hamlin, who knew perfectly well that science long ago established that humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time. But for Hamlin, they did—albeit only on paper in the inked figments of his imagination, the characters of his celebrated comic strip, Alley Oop. Unlikely as his strip's milieu was, Hamlin surpassed it all in his own life. His birth was inauspicious for a master of one of the visual arts: for the first six months of his life, he was blind—a condition that returned, with bitter poetic irony, the last six years of his life. For the first decade of his adulthood, he was very nearly everything but a cartoonist. He helped build highway bridges, worked with paving gangs, engaged in semi-pro boxing, cranked a movie projector, and drove trucks. He was a map-maker, oil field artist, feature and sports writer, photo war correspondent, art director, general all-around hobo, and newspaper photographer. Outlandish as this combination of experiences may be, it was, apparently, good training for his life's work. 

"Maybe being a press photographer wasn't my dish," Hamlin said later, "but my editorial superiors seemed to think my work was top notch, so I was stuck with it. Looking back, it's now pretty clear it was from behind a press camera that I got most of my experience and usable knowledge about people that eventually put me onto the comic pages and kept me there for forty years."

Vincent Trout Hamlin arrived on May 10, 1900 in Perry, Iowa, the son of Frederick Clarence Hamlin, a dentist, and Erma Garland Trout, housewife. Born prematurely, Hamlin was always small (never more than five-foot-six, 150 pounds) but enjoyed playing sports, particularly football. Drawing from an early age, he received little formal instruction until entering college. As a youth, he delivered newspapers and ran the projector at a local movie theater. While in high school, he contributed cartoons to the local paper, learned photography, and, playing football, broke his drawing hand, the first in a series of fractures and injuries that plagued him all his life, resulting, finally, in his claiming to have broken every bone in his body by the time he was thirty.

In April 1917, shortly after the United States entered World War I and before his seventeenth birthday, Hamlin quit school, lied about his age, and enlisted in the Army with seven of his high school chums. Overseas, he served as a truck driver with the Sixth Army's 307th Motor Transport Group. He was hospitalized twice, once with the flu and once after falling into a canal, but was under fire in only the last weeks of the war. Hamlin's outfit was poised to assault the fortified city of Metz. "My God!" Hamlin exclaimed, remembering the situation. "If we had been ordered to take that under fire, I don't think any of us would have survived." But the War suddenly ended.

"On November 11," Hamlin said, "the firing stopped. It was tremendous! All of a sudden—silence! You have no idea what that silence was like. We had been listening to that goddamn war for days. Then all of a sudden, it was quiet."

Discharged in the summer of 1919, Hamlin resumed his high school career that fall, lettering in football. He did not finish his senior year or get a diploma, but while drawing cartoons for the yearbook, he met his future wife, the editor, Grace Dorothy Stapleton, who was two years younger than he. He drove a cement truck for a local construction company until September 1920, when, with a veteran's dispensation in lieu of a highschool diploma, he enrolled at the University of Missouri. Hamlin took courses in journalism, history, and art but was dismissed from the latter after quarreling with the instructor.

The art teacher looked at Hamlin's conventional rendering of a tiger and said it was "the work of a truly fine artist, but he wants to perjure this God-given gift to become a cartoonist." Hamlin said: "When she gave me my tiger back, I proceeded to paint on a top hat, put spats on his feet, a cigar in his mouth and a cane in the crook of his tail. After that, I was out." He left a dissatisfied customer of academia: "I didn't like the fact that I was spending money to get what I wanted, but [wasn't getting it]. That didn't make any difference to them: I got what they wanted to give me."

He completed the semester and then left for Des Moines, Iowa, where he was accepted at Drake University. Working nights as a reporter at the Des Moines Register, he enjoyed the work so much that he quit school altogether. "It seemed," he said, "I was well on the way—until one evening a smart-mouthed editorial hotshot provoked me to smack him flat onto the night city editor's lap and got me fired." Hamlin returned to Perry. One day he went target shooting with his father, an expert marksman, whose gun inexplicably exploded and buried a bullet in his son's left leg. While recuperating, Hamlin spent a good deal of time getting to know Dorothy Stapleton better. After recovering, he began a peripatetic life, traveling widely for the next eight years in search of jobs and a career.

He hopped a late-night passenger train to Sioux City, but he found no openings in newspapers there or in Omaha. So he continued westward, as he recounted in his unpublished autobiography, The Man Who Walked with Dinosaurs: "On a Union Pacific freight train with half a hundred other job-seeking ex-servicemen, I rode the hump west out of Cheyenne, on past Ogden, Utah, Reno and Sparks, Nevada, through miles and miles of snow sheds and tunnels. Times were tough, but they taught me to make a dime do a dollar's work for a healthy, hungry stomach. Roseville, California, just north of Sacramento, took my last dime for doughnuts and coffee in a little place where one could get the most for his money. It wasn't too discouraging. I'd met up with some pretty nice guys, learned to wash up in a hobo jungle, along with a gaggle of other bits of important information—like making a serving of soup for free in a stand-up all-night restaurant by crumbling a handful of crackers into a glass of one-half catsup and water. North through Oregon, I dropped off to see my Aunt Mary's old place in Salem, which I had visited with my mother back in 1908. Although Mary had been gone for many years, the weather-beaten old house by the brook was still there, as was the old Y streetcar line that ended two blocks away at the little grocery where we used to get those yummy cocoanut macaroons."

From Salem, Hamlin went through Portland to Settle where his uncle, Frank Day, got him a job on the Seattle Star as a substitute for a vacationing reporter. "It was an exciting ten days," Hamlin wrote, "devoted mostly to coverage of a famous bank robber's escape from McNeil Island federal prison." Then the reporter returned, and Hamlin "sadly boarded a string of eastbound flats" through Idaho, Montana, and South Dakota back to Perry, where his mother persuaded his father to finance a correspondence course for him in newspaper art. The "dean" of the correspondence school subsequently recommended Hamlin for a short-lived job with a Des Moines advertising agency and then in the art department of the Texas Grubstaker in Fort Worth, where, on May 29, 1922, he became the cartoonist and head of the department. And a Texan.

Hamlin's varied journalistic career as reporter, artist and/or photographer continued in Houston and, briefly, in Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio, as well as in Forth Worth. He also worked in advertising agencies in assorted locales and drew maps of oil fields in Texas. It was in Texas that he took his first airplane ride and subsequently did aerial photography of oil fields. Then he turned to semi-professional boxing for awhile and broke his drawing hand again; "I had glass hands," he said later. In the spring of 1927, he went to California and took and passed a film test in Hollywood but didn't find work in the motion picture industry. Back in Texas, he photographed the 1928 Democratic Convention in Houston and, in 1929, took his camera to Mexico to cover a short-lived revolution, and survived a plane crash on the return trip. He wasn't injured, but by then his body had been abused plenty.

Recalling his Texas newspapering career, Hamlin said, "While I was covering newsworthy events in the oil and cattle country with a camera, I fractured my spine, broke my right wrist once and my nose three times. I also stopped hot lead twice." In later life, Hamlin looked the part he'd played: he was a short man with a lopsided face, and his crooked grin sported a scar on the upper lip.

But his life wasn't all work and abuse. "Girls?" he asked rhetorically in his autobiography. "You bet. In that business, you meet lots of people, and as any press cameraman could tell you, there's far more women in the world than men, and a goodly number are young, warm, and good-looking. I dated my share of those fair young Texas lovelies—clerks, students, secretaries, a waitress or two, all nice kids and good company."

But the memory of "a girl back in Iowa" brought him back to Perry in the summer of 1926. "Perhaps dazzled by her suitor's opulence, as evidenced by his flashy, six-cylinder buggy, she looked with favor on the suggestion that she become a Texan—legally, of course." Dorothy became Hamlin's wife on December 24, 1926, and within a year, they had a daughter; a son was born nine years later. Dorothy was with him on his California jaunt in the spring of 1927, and, as she would countless times in the future, she bailed him out, pawning her engagement ring to get traveling money for their return to Fort Worth. It was a picaresque trip.

"We spent the first night asleep in the car in a driving rainstorm on Donner Pass," Hamlin wrote. "I don't remember the exact route or many of the places we passed through. ... We had one canvas army cot and a couple of blankets, but we managed to sleep well, warm and snug, through the vast high country. At Geen River, Wyoming, we just had to take on a substantial meal even though it left our treasury with barely enough to make it to Fort Collins, Colorado. A newspaperman's gift of five dollars helped us along to a telegraph office in Denver, and Dorothy's mother wired us a bundled to see us from Blossom Bend in South Denver over Raton Pass and Texline, where we once again put our feet under a restaurant table loaded with pancakes and sausage. Fort Worth was not far away, and our faithful roadster was performing like a hungry colt headed downhill for the barn."

In Fort Worth, Hamlin made a deal with the editor of an oil industry newspaper to supply whatever editorial art he needed in exchange for free office space and telephone privileges. He then "corralled a remuda" of former clients "who seemed pleased to have their map man back." In the ensuing months while researching illustration material for the Texas Oil World, Hamlin assembled a quantity of paleo-geological knowledge that awakened an interest in prehistoric periods that would finally find expression in Alley Oop, moving from fossil fuel to fossils themselves and the ancient life forms they represent.

Throughout the epic of this decade, Hamlin's interest in cartooning persisted. In 1923 while at the Forth Worth Star-Telegram, the paper's circulation manager, Harold Hough, persuaded him to do a comic strip based upon Hough's daily performance as a comical hired hand on a local radio program. Resurrecting a visage he had concocted as a youth, inspired by the Irish caricature in such comic strips as Happy Hooligan, Hamlin adapted it to Hough's appearance, and The Hired Hand at WBAP ran as a four-panel comic strip for several weeks, garnering enough popularity to be reprinted in a booklet in March 1924. A minor character in the strip was a secretary named "Dot."

As Hamlin hoped, the feature attracted the attention of "crusty old Wallace Simpson, the Telegram's cowboy artist," and Hamlin was transferred into the art department. There, he did a daily two-column cartoon about the Forth Worth baseball team, The Panther Kitten, whose face, minus a few feline modifications, looked not unlike the simian-visaged Alley Oop would look a decade later. Pictures of the animal conveyed in an instant the fate of the team.

"One look at the Kitten on the sports page," Hamlin said, "and you knew how the home team fared that day. A happy cat denoted a victory while an unhappy or angry one indicated that some club like Shreveport or Wichita Falls had clobbered them. These cartoons were drawn some time in advance and covered every possible contingency, even rain-outs," so the editor could slip one into print without delay. When the Panthers' hopes for a pennant were dashed that summer for the first time in years by the Dallas Steers, Hamlin said, his "damned black cat" got the blame. Subsequently, at the Houston Press late in 1928, he experimented with a strip about a flapper, Flip and Flap, but lost interest and gave it up. In 1929, Hamlin found a position at the Des Moines Register-Tribune as foreman of the seven-person art department, and he got serious about working up comic strip ideas.

"I was turning thirty," he wrote, "and if I was ever going to get into comics, I had better get started. To get my foot in the door, I knew it was necessary to come up with a subject not only of which I had a working knowledge, but one differing from what was currently running in the comic sections."

The domestic theme was already being exploited by Toots and Casper, Bringing Up Father, Gasoline Alley, Polly and Her Pals, and others; "kid stuff" was over-crowded with Skippy, Freckles, Reg'lar Fellers, Smitty, Orphan Annie, and so on. Joe Palooka and Barney Google "took care of sports." The adventure field was on the cusp of its greatest years, but even before Dick Tracy and Terry and the Pirates, Hamlin saw Wash Tubbs and Hairbreadth Harry and Tailspin Tommy as filling the niche adequately.

Then Dorothy bailed him out.  "My wife," he explained, "kept insisting I experiment with a comic based on my knowledge of the past." And suddenly, that seemed to fit. As Hamlin put it: "My admiration for Dick Calkins' work [on Buck Rogers], a beautifully executed story strip concerned with the distant future, had definitely inspired me [to become a comic strip cartoonist]. The challenge, as I saw it, was to come up with a storyline in such great contrast to Buck's futuristic tale [that] they would just have to go together. I would go 'way back into the dinosaur age that only an imagination fueled by geological lore could dream up; an area as yet untouched by the boys at the drawing boards. I called it the bone age. I still do.

“We settled on what we felt would have an outstanding eye appeal. We'd do a strip that featured dinosaurs. That subject would be just the ticket for a couple of ambitious young folks from Texas where Sinclair Oil Company had made the big prehistoric reptiles a startling advertising showpiece. Not only did we choose dinosaurs for their spectacular appeal, but we thought they'd be funny—like the big Plymouth Rock chickens that amused me as a child on my grandparent's farm. They were funny in their dignified dumbness, and, somehow, [they were] dinosaur-like. They reminded me of the big two-legged variety I loved to draw with mouths full of big sharp teeth.

"So the first character I dreamed up and perfected," Hamlin continued, "was Dinny the Dinosaur, a big fellow some forty feet long with a row of upright pointed plates along his spine from head to tail, a head more avian than reptile with a big mouth full of tyrannosaurus-type teeth. I can assure you no paleontological dig will ever unearth the skeletal remains of a creature such as my beloved cartoonosaurus.

“In creating Dinny for my story's purpose, considerable care was taken to construct a creature to look like a dinosaur, but to be distinguishable from all others of that or any other geological period. The body was a cross between a camarasaurus and a diplodocus, the spinal plates slightly similar to those of a stegosaurus and the head, mouth and all, came right off a Bluebook magazine cover illustration by Herbert Morton Stoops, one of the most inspiring illustrators of that grand period of pulp magazine adventure fiction. The critter wasn't put together all in one day either, but once assembled, I had a feeling he was going to take me and my characters a lot of places—and he did." Later, Hamlin speculated that Sinclair Oil, in adopting a giant green lizard dinosaur as its symbol, boosted the popularity of dinosaurs in the popular imagination.

Hamlin's first use of his cartoonosaurus was in a strip about a modern family living in prehistoric times among the dinosaurs, but he soon abandoned that idea in favor of a strip about the adventures of a cave man. Entitled Oop the Mighty, it paired its eponymous protagonist with Dinny. After spending the year 1930 developing it, Hamlin decided the work was unsatisfactory. "And so, before the eyes of my astonished family, my wife Dorothy and little daughter Teddy, I pitched the whole batch into the fireplace and sadly watched them disappear in flames."

But the caveman idea haunted him during a summer trip [1931] to northern Minnesota, and while taking up fly fishing, Hamlin re-imagined his concept and gave Oop a first name, and when he returned to Des Moines, he produced his first Alley Oop strips. "Dinny was the subject of the feature's first story," Hamlin remembered, "which began when our hero, deep in the jungle in search of some choice morsel for dinner, happened upon the huge monster hopelessly entrapped in a tangle of tough—and I do mean tough—undergrowth. Alley's first thought was that this was a bonanza of good red meat, enough to feed everyone in the kingdom for days to come." But Oop decides, instead, to free the creature, and when he does, Dinny, in gratitude, becomes the cave man's devoted pet forever after.

"Sound familiar?" Hamlin wrote. "Yes, it was a definite literary theft, stolen, no doubt, from some Aesop's fable I'd read about a chap who'd removed a nasty thorn from the paw of a lion." Hamlin couldn't remember exactly how he came up with his cave man's name. Considering his service in France during World War I, though, he once supposed that Oop's name was probably inspired by a French term used by tumblers (allez oop) because "Oop is really a roughhouse tumbler." Later, Hamlin discovered a translation of the expression that means "all of us."

The first story, says Lee Castro, an Alley Oop devotee, was "exuberantly unique—a heady concoction of fast-paced slapstick, elegant farce, occasional satire, and nightmarish monsters served up with an air of wild abandon ... a perfectly balanced farcical chase sequence in miniature, complete with pratfalls, reversals, and plenty of thrills, chills and spills. All this and scores of ferociously funny dinosaurs—who could ask for anything more?"

Hamlin took Alley Oop first to the outfit that distributed his much-admired Buck Rogers, but John Dille Syndicate rejected it: saying it "neither fish nor fowl," they apparently couldn't decide how to market it. Hamlin then responded to an ad in the Chicago Tribune asking for comic strip submissions, and a small syndicate, Bonnett-Brown, bought Alley Oop. "This little Chicago outfit," Hamlin wrote later, "was what was known in those days as a patent medicine syndicate. They did a business with small, mostly rural publications, trading various kinds of novelty features for valuable advertising space."

Dinny and Alley Oop debuted on December 5, 1932, and, Hamlin reported, it quickly "proved to be Bonnett-Brown's headliner, and in no time at all was being published in some 35-40 papers." But Bonnett-Brown, struggling through the Depression, did not survive the winter; it went out of business, and Alley Oop ceased with the strip dated March 2, 1933.

But the newspapers who'd subscribed to the strip wanted more of it, and some of them appealed to the Newspaper Enterprise Association, a Cleveland-based syndicate, whose editors (one of whom Hamlin had met while covering the 1928 Democratic Convention in Houston) agreed that Alley Oop was a good candidate—a brand new "reader tested" strip ready for the taking. But by then, no one knew who to talk to about a contract—or where to find Hamlin. Then one of the NEA salesmen found the answer pinned to the wall over a reporter's desk in Fairbault, Minnesota—a hand-colored Alley Oop Christmas card, complete with Hamlin's address. The reporter (whose name Hamlin neglected to mention when telling this story) had been in the bed next to Hamlin's when he was recovering in an army hospital from the flu in 1918. The two struck up an acquaintance based, at first, upon the other man's coming from Fairbault, a town not too far north of Perry.

"He wrote letters home," Hamlin recalled during an interview with Castro (The Comics Journal, No. 212; May 1999), "and I illustrated them for him. He was a newsman, and he suggested that I go into the newspaper business. After Alley Oop got started with Bonnett-Brown, I sent him a Christmas card to prove that I'd followed his advice—even though I'd decided to do that before he'd suggested it."

Hamlin re-drew and refined the opening sequence of the strip for an August 7, 1933 re-launch with NEA and moved to Cleveland. In those days—until Roy Crane broke the tradition—NEA liked its cartoonists and columnists to live close at hand. Once Dinny is established as Oop's pet and comrade-in-arms, we meet the rest of the Moovians: King Guz of Moo (who begins a long rivalry with Oop when he tries to steal Dinny), his wife Umpateedle (a formidable battle-axe), and the delectable cave girl, Ooola, Oop's inamorata. (The name has its origins in the same language that produced allez oop with another expression that American soldiers might have employed when on leave and witnessing on the streets of Paris any particularly attractive members of the opposing sex, "Ooh la-la!") Oop's best friend Foozy (who speaks in rhyme, an inspiration of Dorothy's) completes the initial ensemble; later, Hamlin added a conniving shaman, the Grand Wizer. Alley Oop went on having adventures in the monster-infested jungles and swamps of prehistoric Moo for the next six years. Survival in this milieu required the toughest sort of protagonist, and Hamlin made Oop just that.

Alley Oop of the early strips is an obstreperous, belligerent, club-wielding cave man. And if he isn't actually looking for a fight everywhere he goes, he nonetheless finds one nearly everywhere. Not only does he have the prickly disposition of a brawler, he has the appearance of a strong man. Hamlin gave his cave man a great barrel chest and a bewhiskered bullet-head with no neck (and no ears), and then he chanced upon the same device that E.C. Segar had used in showing Popeye's strength (but not consciously imitating Segar). Instead of making Oop's biceps bulge with power, Hamlin bunched his hero's muscles right behind his fists in ballooning forearms, a ploy that gave ham-fisted a visual metaphor. Oop emerges at once as a fighter to reckon with.

And his foes must reckon on more than just the cave man's strength. Dinny's friendship makes Oop a formidable figure in a scrap: no opponent can stand long against a man who has a dinosaur to do his bidding. His own great physical prowess backed up by Dinny, Oop develops a colossal self-confidence as a fighting man. Supremely secure in the knowledge of his own physical superiority over just about any circumstance, Oop proves to be virtually indestructable. (In one adventure, he stays under water for days without showing the slightest discomfort or alarm.) He's brave without reservation, and he likes nothing better than a good fight. Although he is occasionally bested momentarily, he almost always triumphs at feats requiring physical strength or military cunning. Pugnacious and cranky—even somewhat peevish—Oop is quite unflappable in a crisis. Unflappable and invincible—and therefore nearly uncontrollable. Only Ooola can control him.

Ooola is a genuine hard case. Although she is beautiful (and Hamlin's treatment of her costumes always reveals her figure to advantage), she is not at all feminine in the traditional cringing manner of an adventure tales's damsel in distress. Ooola can think rings around Oop, and if she can't control him by out-smarting him, she is not above resorting to a swift right hook, which she can deploy as effectively as Oop uses his stone axe.

Hamlin was a little cagey about the relationship between Oop and Ooola. They were pretty clearly emotionally attached to each other: one would display jealousy if the other showed any interest in a member of the opposing gender. Ooola occasionally referred to Oop as her "boyfriend," so we know they were, in her mind anyhow, more than mere acquaintances. But in the 1930s through the 1950s, one had to be careful about how such romances were conducted and described. Hamlin remembered getting many questions about it. "Ooola was a pretty nice looking dish as females go, about as delectable as I could draw her [Dorothy was Hamlin's model], and it goes without saying that her male companion was a pretty healthy looking animal—and they spent lots of time together. Therefore such questions were not only routine, they were quite flattering as to my ability to breathe life into my pen-and-ink creations."

But Hamlin never revealed whether the two were, er, intimate. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, he never showed them even kissing—or holding hands.

"Alley was just a big blundering chauvinist," Hamlin told Lee Castro. "Oh, he was a nice guy. He wasn't a womanizer. He was very careful to keep his hands off of Ooola. I don't know what he did behind the scenes," he gave a high-pitched giggle. "I did a script on that one time—I guess it was about 1965—but I showed it to my wife, and she just raised hell about it. She said, 'Don't you dare do that!'" To the basic question, he said, "I plead nolo contendre."