Otto Soglow and the Little King: The Silent Runs Deep

Otto Soglow earned his niche in the pantheon of cartooning by producing the first long-running syndicated strip to employ only pantomimic action. But what he really wanted was to be an actor. SoglowKingBorn December 23, 1900, in the Yorkville district of New York City, the son of a German Jewish house painter and a cook, young Otto went to P.S. 77 at 86th Street and First Avenue, then completed only a year at Stuyvesant High School. “I had a sister,” he once explained, “—and I had to go to work.”

Deferring a dream of a thespian future, he took a succession of odd jobs—packer, shipping clerk, dishwasher, and errand boy.  At one time, he had the inglorious job painting forget-me-nots on baby rattles. He also worked as a switchboard operator—but only for two hours. Plugging away at the switchboard, he made an unholy tangle of telephone lines, and, realizing how hopeless the mess was, he simply put on his cap and walked out.

Throughout all these travails, he kept his acting ambition uppermost in mind. He regularly wrote to motion picture companies, offering his services. “Naturally, they paid no attention because I was just a kid,” he said later. “But one day they held a parade through the streets to a movie convention at Grand Central Palace, and I followed it—and landed a job! They let me sell programs at the convention.”

Soon after World War I, he enrolled in the Art Students League, where he fell under the influence of such instructors as John Sloan, George Luks, and Robert Henri, founders of the “ashcan school” of American art. Says Jared Gardner in his introduction, “The American King,” to Cartoon Monarch: Otto Soglow and the Little King: the ashcan artists “rejected the gentle soft focus of American impressionism in favor of gritty, political, urban realism. The world they painted (and taught their students to paint) was a world Soglow knew well: tenements, bars, subways, and midnight streets. Soglow’s mentors pointed out a way to bring together his creative ambitions with his own personal experiences and observations. The childhood Soglow would fondly recall many years later—‘gang fights with kids from neighboring streets, stealing potatoes from vegetable stands and toasting them in cans which swung by a wire’—was the stuff of art at the hands of Sloan and his colleagues.”

Sloan contributed illustrations (unfunny cartoons, Gardner says) to the leftist The Masses, for which he served on the board, and he undoubtedly encouraged Soglow to submit drawings and cartoons in 1922 to The Liberator, successor to The Masses. Soglow’s work for this magazine, and for The New Masses in 1926-28, was clearly ashcan inspired. SoglowNewMasses His first published effort in a freelance illustration career, however, was earlier, for Lariat Magazine, a cowboy pulp.

“Soglow had never been out of New York,” reported the King Features promotional booklet Famous Artists and Writers, “but his cowboys were real authentic.”

Soglow once said he found his first job by thumbing the telephone directory and writing down the names of all the publications. Said he: “I took a handful of drawings and started to call on publishing houses. I started at the Battery and worked my way uptown from there. The following day, I started from the street I left off the previous day.”

When he got to 34th Street, he landed a job for a publisher of cheap pulp magazines (perhaps Lariat Magazine). “I received seven dollars for my first published drawing,” he recalled for Jerry Robinson in The Comics. “From then on, I decided to become a cartoonist.”

By 1925, when Soglow joined the art staff at the New York World, he had abandoned illustration in favor of cartooning. At the World for about a year, he produced a series of satiric comic strips; he also continued to freelance, contributing cartoons to Life, Judge, The New Yorker, Collier's, and other leading magazines.  On October 11, 1928, he married Anna Rosen; they had one daughter, Tona (whose name was composed of the last two letters of her parents’ names).

Soglow’s first cartoon in The New Yorker appeared in November 1925, just eight months after Harold Ross launched the magazine. As a selection of his New Yorker work of the late 1920s shows, he eschewed the dark and grimy ashcan approach entirely for Ross’s urbane periodical. He was doing both single-panel gag cartoons, which he rendered with a simple line in a surrealistic manner, amply toned with gray wash, and comic strips, usually in pantomime, drawn even more simply, the clear forerunner of his most celebrated work. But at the same time, as we saw in our previous visual aid, he was doing ashcan-style cartoons and illustrations for The New Masses. SoglowEarly1

In late 1928, Soglow started doing the cartoons that first increased his visibility in The New Yorker—the so-called “manhole” cartoons. The first of these was published in the magazine’s December 15 issue. The same drawing with a succession of different captions would appear regularly for some months thereafter.  SoglowManhole

Then in 1930 with the June 7th issue of the magazine, Soglow’s life changed forever. The revolution was brought about by a full-page comic strip he drew that featured a diminutive albeit rotund mute monarch.

In the opening panel of the Little King’s debut, a footman tells the King: “Your bath is ready, your majesty.” Followed by one footman, the King follows another one to the palace swimming pool. At the edge, one footman helps the King off with his robe while the other footman jumps (fully uniformed) into the pool, creating a splash that sprays the naked King. That’s his bath. Shower, rather. The footmen towel the King dry; then they hold his robe for him, he slips it on, and all three leave in the reverse of the procession that brought them to the pool.

The Little King did not appear again until the next year. On March 14, his minions tell him that the cornerstone laying is imminent, so he goes there—in his carriage with an accompanying parade of footmen, bands, and marching soldiers. At the site, King takes off his robe to reveal workman’s garb underneath, and he approaches the cornerstone with a trowel in hand. He will lay the cornerstone.

The King then appears just about every other week for the rest of the year. Here are the third and the eighth Little King.LittleKing1

Ross clearly liked Soglow’s silent sovereign: after the first, he’d asked for more, but he was notoriously picky about his selections, so it evidently took ten months for Soglow to produce another Little King that Ross liked—namely, the cornerstone cartoon. Since the King began at that point appearing biweekly, we may assume that Ross let a little inventory build up before re-launching the feature on March 14. In the meantime, Soglow cartoons without recurring characters appeared in virtually every issue of the magazine during the interim.

Pantomimic cartoon comedy was scarcely a novelty at The New Yorker: others of its regular cartoonists—Al Freuh, Gardner Rea, Rea Irvin, Gluyas Williams, even Peter Arno (to name a few)—had been doing pantomime comic strips for years. PantomimicComics1But Soglow’s silent king was different: he had an endearing personality. He seemed not to enjoy the pomp and circumstance of his station in life: this king was always playing hooky, indulging the small boy within him. And we smiled at his juvenile enjoyments. LittleKing2

In subsequent 1931 appearances: the Little King is importuned by two heavily uniformed and extravagantly gesturing factotums after which, he buys life insurance; finds mice in his carriage; sets up a scarecrow, dressing it with his own royal robe; is visited at the end of a lengthy tour of the palace by a gaggle of sight-seers; returns the champagne toast of some noblemen by raising a stein of beer; visits a zoo where a pelican eats his crown; takes the crown prince for an airing in an elaborate four-poster bed on wheels rather than a stroller or baby carriage; reviews the troops whereupon his arm gets stuck in a saluting position; slides down a bannister; goes dancing and gives his partner all the medals off his chest; dresses as an admiral for a cruise on one of his battleships and goes water skiing; visits a toy fair and plays with the toys; and meets another monarch with whom, upon arguing, he dons boxing gloves.

By the end of the year’s run—the bannister episode, water skiing, playing with toys—the fundamental childlike personality of the Little King has emerged. But before sliding down the bannister, The Little King shows his diminutive majesty in adventures with simply incongruous conclusions that do not, in most instances, reveal his personality.

The cartoon in which a busload of tourists visit the palace, successive panels show them ogling various rooms, including the royal kitchen and the royal bathroom with its royal tub, accompanied throughout by an elaborately gesturing tour guide. At the end, he brings them into the throne room and, with another elaborate gesture, shows them the King on his throne. Then they all depart, leaving the King alone on his throne.

Such episodes do not necessarily puncture the grandeur of royalty. The operative spirit of the cartoon is not satire but playfulness.

But Soglow’s labors were not confined exclusively to a cartoon throne room. He continued to freelance his work in other publications, and in 1931, a number of his previously unpublished cartoons of a mildly risque sort appeared in a compilation of kindred comedy entitled The Stag at Eve, which included cartoons by numerous other worthies—chiefly, William Steig, Gardner Rea, Leonard Dove, Barbara Shermund, Raeburn Van Buren.  SoglowStagEve1

Meanwhile, the popularity of the Little King had attracted attention at the Hearst Works, leading to the offer of a syndication contract with King Features. Soglow accepted the deal, but the arrangement did not proceed immediately. According to report, Soglow was under contract to The New Yorker to produce The Little King, and before he could take up with King Features, that contract had to expire. While waiting for this eventuality devoutly to be wished, Soglow produced The Ambassador as a place holder in pantomime at the syndicate, starting May 28, 1933.

The Ambassador seems, at first blush, a character very similar to the Little King: rotund in physique and August in demeanor, the Ambassador starts each weekly adventure with appropriate pomp but inevitably finishes in a wholly incongruous situation. Hence, the comedy. But the Ambassador was not very likeable. No mischievous little boy lurked within the Ambassador. Nor did the incongruity of the strips’ endings seem to reveal the fraud in the ambassadorial milieu. The Ambassador seems, in comparison to the oft childish King, haughty rather than humble.

The fascinating aspect of The Ambassador resides in the inventiveness of Soglow’s layouts in the earliest of the strips. It is as if the cartoonist, faced with a full-page format in color for the first time, felt the need to experiment with the form itself.   SoglowAmbassador4

Soglow had been doing full-page strips for the Little King at The New Yorker, so it wasn’t the format itself that inspired such wild invention: it may have been the presence of color that prompted him to play with the form. Or perhaps, more likely, it was the greater expanse of a newspaper page, offering more space for playing around with shapes and their array than the smaller New Yorker page size.

But the experimental phase didn’t last long: by the fall of its inaugural year, the strip had assumed the traditional grid format of all Sunday comic strips. Presumably, a standard format is easier for newspaper editors to work with; an unconventional format, even if it fills over-all the customary rectangular shape on the page, taxes the editorial patience, which, we assume, is always in short supply when it comes to comics. (At about the same time—and for about the same reason—George Herriman’s lyric Krazy Kat, which Sundays were often a krazy kwilt of panels, many adrift without borders, was forced into a grid of bordered panels.) The Ambassador lasted only fifteen months, ending September 2, 1934.

By then, the King’s reign at The New Yorker was over: it concluded September 1. A week later, he was crowned into national newspaper syndication on September 9, 1934, as a Sunday-only comic strip.

The Little King is renowned for the utter simplicity of Soglow's drawing style and for the title character's humility and ingenuity—and silence.  Soglow's drawings are minimalist art, diagrams in plane geometry.  The body of the Little King, a short fat fellow, is the simplest of circles.  The humor of the feature is built upon contrast:  instead of behaving like a crowned head of state, the Little King acts like an ordinary citizen (or an adventurous boy).

When he leaves his castle because it is about to be besieged, he pauses on his way out to leave a note for the milkman.  He confers knighthood upon a courtier but afterwards holds out his palm so the new knight can pay him a fee.  He is often more mischievous youth than reigning monarch:  he is not above indulging in a juvenile prank. He throws out the first ball to begin the baseball season; when the ball goes over the fence and breaks a window in a nearby house, the Little King runs away like any neighborhood kid.  When the royal dishwasher quits, leaving behind an enormous stack of dirty dishes, the Little King tackles the problem by putting on his swim suit and taking the entire stack of dishes with him into the swimming pool.

The over-all effect of such adventures is to ridicule pomposity while championing the joys of ordinary life. But the Little King was not so much a satirical strip as it was a playful one.

The simple plots of these gags work because they unfold in pantomime.  The Little King never speaks; others in the strip might say a few words occasionally in order to clarify a situation leading to the punchline, but the King is forever mute.  With little or no verbiage to prepare us for what is coming, we must rely entirely upon the pictures.  And the visuals "narrate" the "story" one plot increment at a time, keeping us in suspense about what the King is up to until we reach the final panel where the "mystery" is revealed, the surprise and/or the King's inventiveness provoking our laughter.

For a short time during the unpleasantness in Europe in the early 1940s, Soglow introduced a new character in the strip—Ookle the Dictator, a foil for the Little King and a send-up of the various dictators who populated the world stage during World War II. Ookle started as a junk dealer, but when he won a game of poker with the King, he assumed command of the kingdom. Unlike the King, Ookle spoke; I’m not sure that the King always listened. In fact, the comedy of this series lay in the King’s ignoring or frustrating the Dictator’s commands in favor of a more personal momentary pursuit. SoglowOokle

In addition to producing The Little King, Soglow did Sentinel Louie, another Sunday pantomime strip. Louie began as the third-page “topper” running at the top of The Ambassador page. When The Little King started, it inherited Louie, which continued until some time in 1943, by which time, newspapers had started to reduce the size of Sunday strips, contributing the saved newsprint to the war effort for use elsewhere as gun fodder. SoglowLouie In 1946, Soglow produced Travelin’ Gus, yet another pantomime enterprise—this one about a streetcar driver.
TravelinGus1 (1)


Wholly unnoticed by histories of the medium and therefore rare enough to justify our attention here, this strip lasted only a few months, from February (perhaps the 10th) until October 6, and we can see why: Gus lacked the endearing personality traits of the Little King. But the humor employs the same basic maneuver—building a mystery for several panels and then revealing an explanation in the last panel. The explanation, the ingenuity of the contrivance, makes us chuckle. This approach to humor can work only with a “silent” strip: the mystery could not easily (or persuasively) be maintained if any of the characters spoke.

Throughout a long career, Soglow continued to draw gag cartoons for magazines and regularly illustrated columns and features in such periodicals as The Saturday Evening Post; he drew decorative comic spot illustrations for The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” column until 1972.  He also illustrated some 30 books, among which numbered some of his own cartoon collections: Pretty Pictures (1931), Everything’s Rosy (1932), Another Ho Hum: More Newsbreakers from The New Yorker (1932), The Little King (1933), Soglow’s Confidential History of Modern England (1939), and, with D. Plotkin, Wasn’t the Depression Terrible? (1934).

The Little King was discontinued with the release for July 20, 1975, Soglow having worked that far ahead before he died in his New York City apartment, April 3, 1975.

A founder of the National Cartoonists Society in 1946, Soglow was active in the club all the rest of his life. He was a remarkably short man, and whenever he got up to speak at NCS meetings, his remarks were inevitably heralded by several choruses of: “Otto, stand up! Stand up, Otto!”

He served as its president 1953-54 and collected two of the Society’s other distinctions: he was named “cartoonist of the year,” collecting a Reuben statuette, in 1966, and in 1972, he was the second recipient of the Society’s Elzie Segar Award “for unique and outstanding contributions to the profession of cartooning”—a recognition, doubtless, of his long service to the club as much as for The Little KingNCShistory0004

And in NCS, he at last achieved his life-long ambition: he acted often in vaudevillian skits performed at the Society’s dinners. He did similar turns at events for the Society of Illustrators, of which he was also a member. He even dressed up as the Little King for various after-dinner entertainments hither and yon through the city. According to those who knew him, Gardner says, he is remembered better as a performer than as a cartoonist. But for us hoipolloi, he will be fondly remembered for the pantomime routines of a diminutive round monarch in a red robe.

Sources. Apart from the NCS (member) Albums and a few syndicate press releases, there is no readily available biographical information about Otto Soglow except that retailed (happily in carefully researched detail) by Jared Gardner in Cartoon Monarch: Otto Soglow and the Little King (2012).  The Little King is discussed briefly in the standard histories of the medium— Comic Art in America by Stephen Becker (1959) and The Comics by Coulton Waugh (1947);  Ron Goulart’s Encyclopedia of American Comics (1990) and The Funnies (1995); Jerry Robinson’s The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art 1895-2010 (2011), which, alas, assumes that the Little King grew out of The Ambassador. Dates of Soglow’s various strip creations are found in Allan Holtz’s American Newspaper Comics: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide (2012).