Smokestack Foo-mania: The Life and Notary Sojac of Bill Holman

Bill Holman took madcap comedy, pumped it into a comic strip, Smokey Stover, and punned his way to everlasting infoomy. A man of foo words (as he once said), he managed to parlay them into a living that foo’d a lifetime. Nonsense could have been his middle name, but whatever it was, it was always funny in the very best groaning tradition of really good bad puns. And it all began, as you might imagine, with corn.

Through no fault of his own, Holman was born March 22, 1903, at Offield Crick, near Sugar Crick, which was near Crawfordsville, Indiana, from which the family soon moved north to Nappanee, where Bill’s mother ran a millinery store. At an early age, Bill displayed an interest in drawing and enrolled in the Charles N. Landon correspondence course in cartooning. He also had a job tending a popcorn machine in the local five-and-dime store, which, according to Holman, accounts for the prevalence of corny jokes in his cartoons.

Explaining his early inclination to cartooning, Holman once said he’d indulged a sense of humor and acted silly as a youth, adding that his father was a “funny guy” but saying no more about him. It’s possible that the father died or left his family: when Bill was fourteen or fifteen, they moved to Goshen, Indiana, where, at sixteen, Bill quit school in order to get a job and earn money for the family.

“I worked in a drugstore, jerking sodas,” Holman said later, “and that was big stuff to me since I made $2.50 a week and all I could eat.”

The Holmans moved to Chicago, where the mother worked in millinery again and Bill found a job in the Marshall Field wholesale house and attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts in the evenings. When he heard that the Chicago Tribune was looking for an office boy to work in the art department, he applied and was hired.

Holman was jubilant: “I could have kissed everyone in Chicago,” he said later. “I rubbed shoulders with a lot of famous cartoonists from then on. Carl Ed (Harold Teen) was there, as was Harold Gray (who later created Little Orphan Annie). Gray worked in a turtleneck sweater, wore a derby and among other things was working as a legman for an illustrator. Gray went out and dug up illustration work for this guy and then got a percentage of the job. At night, Gray was doing layouts. I was the office boy, but I did layouts and little comics to amuse myself, and did all the paste-downs of all the stuff in the paper—so photos could be squared up and retouched. This was big stuff to me, and I loved it. E.C. Segar was my idol at the time with his Looping the Loop. Frank King would come in and Sidney Smith was tops with The Gumps.”

In 1921, after a couple years doing layouts and minor art chores at the Chicago Tribune, Holman went to Cleveland, where he went to work for the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) syndicate, producing a daily comic strip, Billville Birds, about Wally Waddle and his feathered friends. He also did a funny animal strip, J. Rabbit, Esquire, for NEA. Neither was particularly successful.

Once again, Holman was in the company he most aspired to: “There were a lot of cartoonists there. Wally Allman was drawing Doings of the Duffs, Gene Ahern, Our Boarding House, and all of us cartoonists were in one cubicle together. We didn’t work at the main NEA production plant but had an office in the same building that housed the famous Landon Course. Chic Young had been working as a stenographer in a railroad office in Chicago; he came to NEA about the time I did, and we roomed together for a while, Merrill Blosser (Freckles and His Friends) and Edgar Martin (who started Boots and Her Buddies in 1924) were there also. And I can’t forget Jim Williams (Out Our Way).”

When Holman was fired in 1924, he went to New York and joined the newly formed Herald Tribune Syndicate for which he produced another daily comic strip, G. Whiz Junior. Again, he was ecstatic about the company he was keeping:

“Winsor McCay, Charlie Voight, Clare Briggs, and other famous names were there,” Holman recalled, “and as a punk, I hung out with damn nice people.” Among them, “assorted actors, publicists, writers and odd characters who dropped in at all hours,” Jerry Robinson wrote in The Comics. Will Rogers came by often, and so did W.C. Fields, who taught Holman how to juggle.

After seven years and not much success, Holman abandoned comic strips and took up freelance magazine cartooning, at which he was much more successful, adding a loose nut to his signature and selling to Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Judge, Life (the humor magazine), Liberty, Redbook, American Magazine, Film Fun, Ballyhoo, Boy’s Life, and Everybody’s Weekly in London.

“I soon had about thirty markets and was making a hell of a lot of money,” said Holman. Accounting for this unexpected success, he said, “I was just being myself in my cartoons—that was the whole thing. I’d had quite a bit of experience at various papers and syndicates, and when you find that your stuff’s appearing before the public in a big national publication, you get confidence. You unconsciously open up, forget your inhibitions, and do the things that are the easiest and most normal. You’re not uptight any more.”

In late 1934, Holman heard that Joseph Patterson, publisher of the New York Daily News, was looking for a Sunday comic strip that would display the paper’s civic-minded support of such public servants as policemen and teachers and, in this case, firemen.

“I had sold a lot of firemen cartoons to magazines,” Holman said, “and the idea of firemen running around all over in red trucks seemed like a good gimmick to hang things on.”

Over Christmas while visiting his grandmother in Crawfordsville, Holman drew up a sample Sunday strip and when he returned to New York, he offered it to Patterson, who bought it.

“He wondered if I could keep it up,” Holman said, “and I told him confidently that I could.”

The madcap Smokey Stover debuted March 10, 1935 and continued with the Tribune-News Syndicate until Holman retired in 1973.

The title character is a fireman, and while the strip also features his boss, the fire chief Cash U. Nutt, the activities just as often involve Smokey’s wife Cookie or his son Earl or their cat with a perpetually bandaged tail, Spooky, who, for a time, starred in a companion strip of his own before joining the firehouse gang.

Holman, said comics historian Stephen Becker, “threw himself into his work with unmitigated glee,” creating such “memorable departures from rationality, verbal juxtapositions and misunderstandings, and irrepressible manglings of the English language” that he is forever revealed as “a man to whom reality is subordinate to art” (209).

The art was the art of the pun, both visual and verbal. The jokes around which Holman arrayed his maniac word play were tame left-overs from “decrepit vaudeville” (Phelps, 6).

One day, the Chief introduces Smokey to an old friend, saying, “Come on in, Smokey—I want you to meet my old slap-happy pal, Major Bedd—he’s in the camouflage division at Camp Stool.”

Smokey, entering the Chief’s office, says, “Major, huh? What are you doing in a private office?”

The Major, putting his arm around the Chief, says, “I was just tellin’ Nozzle Nose here how we paint tanks and cannons so they can’t be seen.”

That gives Smokey an idea, and he enlists the Major to paint all over his clothing, saying, “My wife’s doing her spring cleaning this week—just think—now I can loaf around the house without her seein’ me.”

The pictures prop up the lame gag: Smokey’s costume is now loudly redolent with the outlandish pattern of jungle folliage camouflage, scarcely inconspicuous.

Holman enhanced the core comedy of this strip with sight gags. Picture frames on the wall change from panel to panel: one shows a slipper labeled “army mule”; another, an insect carrying a rifle labeled “bug private”; next, a dentist leans into an neighboring frame to minister to his patient over the label “drill sergeant.” The Chief sits at a table adorned with numbers and a tag reading, “multiplication table.” The Major smokes a cigar to which is affixed an ash tray to catch the steadily lengthening ash.

The strip abounded with inventions of this looney sort, the most persuasive perhaps being the double-bowl pipe the Chief often smokes. Smokey’s fire helmet is hinged, and the axe he is carrying has a limp handle. The Chief reacts to Smokey’s explanation by leaping up and banging his head against the fire gong on the wall. But this reaction is mild.

In the punchline panels, Holman’s characters typically do the most outlandish “takes” in comedy: not only do their hats fly off their heads, their false teeth bound out of their mouths, and, in a rising crescendo of hysterical visual alarm, their ears depart from their heads, and the characters leap out of their trousers while other bits of clothing take off in all directions.

Holman’s Sunday strips, culture critic Don Phelps wrote, “came to resemble anatomies of a garage sale in the Market Place of Oz: chirping, clucking, and kazoo-ing with the puns that were Holman’s favorite side-arm ... —a pretty girl’s face with gently flaming locks (Fire Belle); a bowlful of tiny heads (Noodle Soup); a “Postage Stamp,” in “frenzied jig” (4).

One Sunday, we see the Chief taking a bath, singing, “I wash I was in Dixie—Hooray, Fooray.” A small plug in the side of the tub is labeled “choo choo drain,” and on the wall is a picture of two sailors coming out of a barber shop, radiating cologne and labeled “smelling salts.”

Smokey Stover, as Phelps observes, is the last lunatic refuge of the “buoyant absurdity” of such vaudeville and burlesque comedians as Ed Wynn, “with his ebullient bonnets, pipes, and bicycles,” and Smokey himself, “with his lima-bean-shaped head, absentee chin, and tongue which lopped out foolishly like a happy dog’s, was the proper heir of Wynn’s giggling fire chief” (4).

Apart from its manic imagery and the kinetic frenzy of its verbal hijinks, the strip achieved lasting fame with a trio of seemingly meaningless expressions and a provocatively odd piece of automotive engineering—foo, notary sojac, 1506 nix nix, and a two-wheeled car.

Holman once explained that he had first encountered “foo” in San Franciso’s Chinatown where it was written on a little jade doll; it meant “good luck,” he learned, and because it sounded funny, he promptly lettered it on the radiator grill of a comic car he’d drawn—and, subsequently, on walls, furniture, and just about anything else that seemed in need of some sort of signage.

“A man’s foo is his castle,” reads a sign. A seafood dish is labeled “lobster a la fooburg.” Familiar phrases are giddily revamped: “Rings on my fingers, foos on my toes”; “an icicle built for foo”; on the front of a car, “T-foo-2” and on the back, “2-foo-T.”

This innocent monosyllable, says Becker, “is perhaps the best explanation of Holman’s genius”: that he has made that solitary word “stand up for thirty years, has used it, so to speak, as every imaginable part of speech, and has come instantly to be identified by it. If he had achieved the same results with ‘holy mackerel’ or ‘by gum,’ his would have been a pale success indeed.”

“Notary sojac” is Holman’s phonetic spelling of the Gaelic nodlaig sodhach— which the cartoonist had first encountered in a newspaper article. Said he: “A guy who conducted a column in the New York Daily News got a letter from a reader, asking how you would say ‘Merry Christmas’ in eleven different languages. The editor spelled the various greetings phonetically, and the one in Gaelic came out sounding like Notary Sojac.”

Amused by the expression, Holman sprinkled it throughout his strip as often as whimsy prompted, “wishing my readers Merry Christmas throughout the year,” he said, and sometimes presenting “Yraton Cajos” in its stead.

As for “1506 nix nix,” it was the room number of a bachelor cartoonist friend, Al Posen, who lived in a hotel. “I began using the phrase,” Holman explained, “—a private joke between the two of us—as a way of warning girls to stay away from Al’s room.”

The two-wheeled auto, spewing nuts and bolts as it jounced along, was so frequently a fixture in the strip that it was virtually another character with a name of its own: Foomobile. Wheels mounted left and right instead of fore and aft like a bicycle’s, the car’s hood and engine protruded precariously in front of the wheel base. This gravity-defying novelty inspired countless amateur mechanics to heroic feats of manufacture in attempts to get such a vehicle to function. One solved the gravity problem by using radial steel-belted tires that could be run half-inflated, thereby providing a flat foundation to balance the extended front end.

Holman often bylined his strip “Doctor of Foolosphy” and ended these installments with a wholly extraneous last panel offering a bit of wisdom: “No one has ever complained of a parachute not opening.” Or “If all the hot dogs consumed on Sunday were laid end to end, it would be a lot of baloney.” Under another heading, “Foomous People,” is a man with a coffee cup balanced on his nose, accompanied by text: “How about chewing the fat with C. Nesbit Nibble, the chow champ who distributes all the gusto that people eat their meals with.” Under the same heading, “We just got wind of the Clops Twins, Cy and Clippity, the breezy buddies who fly the kite that people get as high as.”

Smokey Stover picked up client papers almost at birth, chiefly because a well-known Tribune-News cartoonist, Gaar Williams, died a month after Holman’s strip started, and when Williams’ Strain on the Family Tie feature ceased shortly thereafter, Smokey Stover inherited many of its subscribers. It was a Sunday feature for most of its run, but for a brief time, starting November 14, 1938, it also appeared daily. In the mid-'40s, Holman added a daily panel cartoon, Nuts and Jolts, to his repertoire; it continued for twenty-eight years, its comedy heavily reliant on wacky gadgets and inventive uses of ordinary items—in a movie theater, chairs with arm rests shaped like hands “for bachelors who like to hold hands in the movies”; a man whose wife has put a filled bathtub next to her bed for her husband to sleep in because it reduced the danger of his smoking in bed.

Holman claimed he got interested in firemen as a boy when he aspired to be one because he was good at playing checkers. He lost interest, he said, when he learned that fire horses didn’t harness themselves.

His conversation was laced with wise-cracks and his behavior with a compulsive zaniness—offer him a cigarette, and he’ll take two; ask for one of his two-fer-a-nickel cigars, and he’ll charge you a dime for it.

His sense of humor extended to practical jokes: he once humiliated a waiter in a restaurant by loudly complaining about how stale the bread was, referring to a slice he’d brought with him for the purpose and banging it loudly on the table to demonstrate how inedible it was.

Reportedly, Holman was a methodical worker, starting every day at 10 a.m. and working until 6 p.m. without stopping for lunch. When not socializing with friends and popping popcorn in their kitchens during their parties (an occupational foible carried over from his youth), he liked to swim, play gin rummy, and indulge a fondness for red-haired women.

Holman remained a bachelor until rather late in life, marrying a redhead named Dolores in the late 1940s. Thereafter, he enjoyed being at home.

“My wife sometimes gets irritated at me because I was always thinking about my work,” Holman told Jud Hurd during an interview for Cartoonist PROfiles. “I would sit all evening at home, working on material, rather than going to a movie, which, to me, is wasting time. I’d rather do this than go out on some guy’s boat and fish for two hours because fishing, to me, is repetitious—if you’ve caught one fish, you’ve caught ‘em all.”

They had no children.

During World War II, Holman joined other New York cartoonists in making regular visits to area military hospitals to entertain the convalescing troops. Becker reports that Holman would typically stride onto the platform, cigar clamped in his teeth, fireman’s helmet on his head, stare at his silent audience for a few minutes and then yell: “Shut up, your crazy screwballs!”

According to report (perhaps legend), he once performed before GIs who were all psychiatric patients. Warned not to allude to their mental states, he referred to them as nuts and screwballs throughout his presentation. Apparently, they loved it.

When these hospital trips resulted in the founding of the National Cartoonists Society in 1946, Holman was an active member of the group, becoming president, 1961-1963. He died February 27, 1987 in New York City, where he lived since first arriving there in the early 1920s.

With Smokey Stover, Holman successfully prolonged the life of robust, good-natured slapstick nonsense humor. “He wedded idiocy to real wit,” Becker wrote, “and the result is a constantly surprising, never disappointing comic strip.” It followed “no logic but that of the artist’s own mad sense of humor,” said Dennis Wepman (Goulart, 340), producing “a lively and inventive strip that survived long after the end of a simpler, cheerier era that gave it birth.”

Bibliography. Most of the biographical information in the standard reference works on cartooning (The World Encyclopedia of Comics, ed. Maurice Horn, 1999, and The Encyclopedia of American Comics from 1897 to the Present, ed. Ron Goulart, 1990), much of which seems based upon Jud Hurd’s interview with Holman in Cartoonist PROfiles, No. 37, March 1978. Stephen Becker in his Comic Art in America (1959) and Jerry Robinson in his The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art (1974) add a little, particularly in terms of assessment and appreciation. Don Phelps’ article, “Disorderly Conduct,” in Nemo: The Classic Comics Library No. 1 (Screwball Comics, 1985), supplies an enthusiastic albeit baroque analysis. An article in Froth, December 1939, “Of Firemen and Foo” by John M. Price, is chiefly manufactured out of Holman’s own zany autobiographical fictions. The New York Times obituary on March 21, 1987 is too short to be worth much.