Cecil Jensen, Elmo, and Colonel M’Cosmic: An Editoonist Who Also Drew a Comic Strip

NOW THAT FRANK YOUNG has told us all about Cecil Jensen’s comic strip masterwork, Elmo, I’m going to rush right out with a footnote or two. You can read Young’s insightful and persuasive analysis of Elmo here and here. Jensen, unbeknownst to him, was one of my early cartooning idols. Because of Elmo. But Jensen, as I subsequently found out, did more than that fondly recollected comic strip.

Jensen, Dan Nadel tells us in his Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969, was born in 1902 in Ogden, Utah, but he spent most of his professional life in Chicago after a brief stint in Los Angeles where he worked at a variety of newspapers. He was attached to the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News when, through a fluke, he became its editorial cartoonist. One day, Jensen told John Chase in Today’s Cartoon (a 1962 biographical survey of the editorial cartooning profession), the regular cartoonist came in too drunk to draw. “I got the job,” said Jensen.

By 1928, Jensen was in Chicago, studying at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. And then he joined the staff at the Chicago Daily News. He was the second string editoonist at the News; the first stringer was the famed Vaughn Shoemaker.

Eventually, Jensen was drawing an editorial cartoon six days a week (thereabouts): his cartoon appeared on the same page as Shoemaker’s. Shoes did a three-column cartoon at the top of the page; Jensen filled two columns at the bottom. Except on Saturday, which was Shoes’ day off, and then Cees did a 3-column ’toon for the top of the page. So—two editoons per issue: one by Shoes, one by Cees.

Jensen occupies a fond niche in my memory for his creation of the world’s stupidest comic strip hero in the eponymous Elmo. Nadel supplies the tidbit that Jensen created the strip in response to a challenge from his executive editor, Basil (Stuffy) Walters, to whom Jensen had confided that “the comics in the News smell.” To which Walters responded: “All right—you draw a strip.” And so Jensen did.

The late Ed McGeean, a cartoonist friend of mine who worked at the News for years, once told me that Shoes had no faith in Cees’ creation: he told Jensen that Elmo wouldn’t succeed because the protagonist was too stupid. Maybe Shoes never heard of Li’l Abner. Then again, Elmo was stupider than Abner. When asked how Elmo would be different than other comic strips, Jensen retorted: “The strip is supposed to be funny.” And I thought it was, hilariously so.

Elmo started October 28, 1946, and then in 1949, as Young details, Elmo was supplanted as the star and lost title billing to a moppet named Little Debbie.  The strip continued under that title until September 30, 1961 (last Sunday, October 2 saith Young). In his short bio of Jensen, Chase doesn’t even mention Elmo; for Chase, Jensen was the creator of Little Debbie.

Elmo was a sort of urban Li’l Abner—except that Elmo was dumber than Abner. I admired this kind of stupidity in a comic character. And Elmo made it all seem so easy.

Elmo spent most of his career working in the office of a breakfast cereal manufacturer.  Elmo actually owned the company.  The previous owner, oppressed by the responsibilities of being a millionaire and owner of a major company, was about to jump off a bridge to his death when he was interrupted by Elmo. Elmo, as we can see in our first visual aid (selected from the second week of the strip’s run), suggests that the millionaire’s problems would evaporate once he’d been swindled out of his fortune. The plutocrat, impressed by Elmo’s irrefutable logic, gives all his fortune (stock in the cereal company) to Elmo, saying that now Elmo will have to commit suicide.

That, like most of what Elmo attempts, doesn’t quite work out as Elmo intends (even though he jumps off the bridge into the river). But the incident exemplifies the kind of so-called reasoning that prevails in the strip whenever it is in Elmo’s hands.

Eventually, Elmo returns to his job at the cereal company, now as its owner. He is, of course, too stupid to know that the owner of the company should be giving the orders.  Instead, he takes orders from the Commodore, an unscrupulous robber baron who is running the company at the time. The Commodore, seeking to get Elmo occupied with something to keep him out of his, the Commodore’s, hair, hires a movie star to work as Elmo’s secretary.  This is Sultry.  And she is.

Meanwhile, perky Emmaline, Elmo’s girlfriend from back home, gets wind of all this and comes to the big city to keep an eye on things. About this time, cute Little Debbie shows up and becomes the face on the cereal box, selling billions of bushels of cereal.

You can’t keep a good sales girl down. Little Debbie took over, as Frank Young showed us, elbowing Elmo off the marquee of his own strip. But by then, Elmo had dropped out of the Denver Post, my hometown paper, and so I lost track of the whole thing.

But not before I’d fallen in love with Elmo, smiling his bland, ear-to-ear grin the whole time, seemingly unaffected by whatever was transpiring around him. I loved it. I copied Elmo’s jaw and grin in one of the lead characters of a comic strip I concocted in my bygone youth.

The strip, Dupin and Dooley, starred a fat guy, Dooley, and his stalwart buddy Dupin. You can detect, I hope, Elmo’s grin on Dupin’s countenance. Dooley’s appearance was inspired by Leo Gorcey’s in the Dead End Kids movies. In the accompanying picture, Dupin and Dooley appear to be eyeballing something to the right. I drew the picture to post on the wall next to my original drawing of Long Sam by Bob Lubbers. Dupin and Dooley were, as you can see, enthralled by the leggy Long Sam.

Dooley was the smarter of the pair; Dupin, by comparison, the dumber. I concocted the strip the summer before my freshman year in college, and the strip was about the college life of Dupin and Dooley. Unfortunately, the campus newspaper didn’t have the resources to publish a daily comic strip, so Dupin and Dooley languished forever.

Jensen was not the first editorial cartoonist to produce at the same time a syndicated comic strip, and for much of Elmo/Little Debbie’s run, he produced only one editorial cartoon a week. But he was noted in Chicago circles for another creation— Colonel M’Cosmic.

Colonel M’Cosmic was a vague echo of British editoonist David Low’s fatuous Colonel Blimp.

But Colonel M’Cosmic was celebrated in Chicago for his resemblance to another fatuous military man, Colonel Robert (“Bertie”) McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, the powerful rival of the Daily News.

McCormick was commissioned a major in the Illinois National Guard on the eve of World War I; by the end of the War, he had been promoted to colonel, and McCormick so loved the title that he retained it for the rest of his life.

Once overseas in France, McCormick was always as much newspaperman as soldier, and he had permission to leave the trenches and go to Paris whenever Tribune business required. But he had an aptitude for artillery and had a fierce desire to be at the front and in the heat of battle. On one occasion, he almost missed out.

Unfortunately, just as his unit was about to engage the Germans to capture the war-scarred village of Cantigny, he came down with the Spanish flu (which developed into a pandemic that killed an estimated 50 million people around the world). McCormick managed to command his batteries of guns with a field telephone while lying sick on a cot. But by the time the battle sputtered out, reported Thomas Fleming in American Heritage (April 2000), McCormick was in a hospital in Paris.

By the time he recovered sufficiently to go back to duty, he was a full colonel, and recently promoted colonels were being sent home to help train the vast new army “expected to tip the scales in favor of the Allies in the summer of 1919" said Richard Norton Smith in The Colonel: The Life and Legend of Robert R. McCormick (1997). He was assigned to Fort Sheridan near Chicago and then to Camp Jackson in South Carolina. And that’s where he was when the armistice took effect on November 11.

Subsequently, McCormick was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the citation of which read (in part): “He displayed rare leadership; and organizing ability, unusual executive ability, and sound technical judgement. By his ceaseless energy and his close supervision of training, discipline and command in action against the enemy he contributed materially to the successful operations of the artillery of the American Expeditionary Forces.”

During the battle of Cantigny, American soldiers proved they could fight, which, until then, the French and British were skeptical about. McCormick was so proud of his role that he renamed his Illinois estate Cantigny and eventually turned it into a military history museum.

Ever after WWI, the Colonel was fearless in offering his opinion on military matters on the editorial page of the Tribune whenever the subject came up on the paper’s news columns. His experiences in the War had made him competent to render an opinion on some topics, but not on all of the topics he had opinions to render about.

He regularly harangued a radio audience from the pulpit of station WGN, the station owned by the World’s Greatest Newspaper (as the Colonel modestly denominated his newspaper). The Colonel offered his opinion dauntlessly on all manner of subjects. So varied were these subjects that the Colonel could well be imagined the world’s foremost authority on every subject.

But military matters—and war—were his specialty. That and geopolitics generally. All during the 1930s, McCormick lectured the world on the dangers of Nazism. In these editorial lectures, he displayed, as his enemies were fond of saying, “one of the finest minds of the fourteenth century.”

When war broke out in Europe upon the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, McCormick quickly proclaimed that “this is not our war.” The British and the French were thoroughly competent to fight it without American assistance. In their editorial cartoons in the Daily News, Shoes and Cees ridiculed McCormick and other non-interventionists for the nativity of their views. But  McCormick remained resolutely isolationist. Until Pearl Harbor. Then the Trib was resolutely bellicose:  “We have only one task,” the paper blared, “and that is to strike with all our might.”

Despite this stance, McCormick continued to be critical of the government’s conduct of the war effort and other related matters. His criticism was viewed in some quarters as treasonous.

One Chicago citizen, Jacob Sawyer, even wrote the Colonel a letter, expressing the fear that the Tribune’s editorial pronouncements were undermining the morale of the country. To this, McCormick responded with a letter that eventually found its way into print in the Daily News.

McCormick began by pointing out that Sawyer was making a mistake in believing the powerful propaganda circulated by McCormick’s enemies (and the Colonel had a few). What they saw as a campaign of hatred was actually, the Colonel said, “a constructive campaign without which the country would be lost.”

And then he went on to cite his credentials as savior of his country by regaling Sawyer with a list of his accomplishments in the military. “You do not know it,” McCormick trumpeted, “but the fact is that I introduced the ROTC into the schools; I introduced machine guns into the army; I introduced mechanization; I introduced automatic rifles. ...”

And so on in this vein. A remarkable display of ego, bombast, and pomposity bordering on megalomania the likes of which we didn’t see again until the Trumpet gained the White House in 2016. When the Daily News got its hands on McCormick’s epistle, it published it with unmitigated glee.

And on March 25, 1942—the U.S. now plunging into hostilities in Europe and in the Pacific—Jensen produced a cartoon to celebrate the occasion, showing Colonel M’Cosmic surrounded by other Colonel M’Cosmics, all claiming firsts in one military milestone after another.

M’Cosmic appeared periodically in the pages of the News thereafter, each time commemorating another of McCormick’s pontifical pronouncements. Several of Jensen’s achievements appear hereabouts.

Genius is in the details. Notice the hilarious accouterments: M’Cosmic wears a WWI helmet and spurs (the mark of his stature as a cavalryman, the only kind of officer to be, forsooth) and around his neck, a pair of binoculars (another mark of elite officer status). Always, M’Cosmic is accompanied by a round-headed kid, a juvenile doorman (judging from his uniform)—the M’Cosmic Grenadier, no doubt.

So that’s the story of Jensen’s other triumph. When John S. Knight bought the Daily News in 1944, he told Cees to cease and desist: Knight wanted to make friends in Chicago, not enemies. And so Colonel M’Cosmic faded away, like the old soldier he was, to be exhumed occasionally, as he is here—fondly, wistfully. Thankfully.