GENERAL ARTICLES

Funny Business

HAROLD DINGMAN December 1 1945
GENERAL ARTICLES

Funny Business

HAROLD DINGMAN December 1 1945

Funny Business

Belly laughs for kings and paupers, animated fiction for babes and greybeards, comics are a $100,000,000 business

HAROLD DINGMAN

THE comic strip industry is a mad and cockeyed business, and on the dollar scale a fabulous business. Some 70,000,000 (at least) Americans read comic strips every day, as do some five to seven million Canadians (New York estimates), plus scores of uncounted millions more in 100 other countries and colonies, in 30 languages other than English.

The influence of the American comic strip on the mass mind everywhere in the world is immense and incalculable. It is rated with the movies and radio by experts; and newspaper publishers agree that next to front-page news the comics sell their papers. Life Magazine has claimed that “comic strips comprise the most significant body of literature in America today.” Dr. George Gallup says approximately the same thing. Popular and supposedly influential newspaper columns go to three, six and eight million possible readers daily; “Blondie” and “Joe Palooka” go daily to 30 million followers who read ’em and weep, or laugh, or get all churned up inside.

Throughout the war the comics enjoyed priorities from the U. S. State Department and the U. S. Army, Navy and Air Force. President Roosevelt personally summoned one artist, Ham Fisher, creator of “Joe Palooka,” to the White House, to thank him for popularizing

the draft U. S. Supreme Court judges and old Henry Ford are fans. In Canada the comics have l>een quoted on the floor of the House of Commons; are read by Cabinet Ministers Jim MacKinnon and Jimmy Gardner, and probably others; are followed by editors in at least five newspapers 1 know intimately—by editors who often cheat by reading advance proofs.

Great masses of people everywhere believe comic characters are real people and act accordingly. Some 400,000 people once offered name suggestions to Chic Young, creator of “Blondie,” when Blondie was about to have a baby; they also sent baby carriages by the dozen. Flash Gordon was offered blood transfusions when he was wounded. When a character named Raven Sherman (a beauty) died in “Terry and the Pirates,” public funerals were held in several American cities. Newspaper switchboards were jammed with calls from sympathizers. /\t Loyola University, Chicago, 450 „students met together at dawn and faced east for a moment of silent mourning.

Comic artists are the people who anticipated the atom bomb; who now fly to the moon and other places daily; who not only invented but tolerated the Dagwood sandwich; who created Dinty Moore restaurants across a continent; made spinach a food acceptable to children; gave us the hot dog and thanked us for the buggy ride; who now create women’s hair styles and fashions (the bare midriff is credited to attractive gaLs in “Flash Gordon”). The comic strip people sold millions of dollars in war bonds, collected salvage by the millions of tons. And they are the people who, by their outrageous antics (created so calculatingly), have built an industry so big they don’t know how big it Is.

A woman executive of one of the big syndicates— with a reputation in the trade as “brilliant”— guessed for me that it was a $30 millions a year industry; her male assistant guessed $20 millions. Yet from the files of Fortune I learned that comic strip books alone have become an industry with a turnover of $18 millions a year; and although the strip books are a major part of the industry they aren’t nearly as big as the syndicated material. Continued on page 34

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The American Newspaper Publishers’ Association reported its New York office had no figure on it, and experts in that great institution, the New York Public Library, on 42nd Street, could not find any estimate. The best figure I could get on the industry’s annual turnover was $100 millions, and that is an estimate only, made by a feature syndicate executive.

Creators of Comics

What’s the why of it all? The complete answer is that people like ’em. That’s all. There are strips that annoy and irritate some classes of people and delight others, and so, of course, the newspapers publish all kinds.

The industry is peopled with characters whose like every Canadian has met someplace, somehow. Otto Soglow (The Little King), a shy, moody, friendly man about Manhattan, whose peculiar abilities make him appeal to the Sunday masses and the supposedly more sophisticated literates who read the New Yorker; Bradley Kelly, vicepresident of that dollar-strong link in the Hearst Empire—KFS (King Features Syndicate); a hustling, casual, vital executive and a superb sort of guy to deal with; Russ Westover, creator of “Tillie the Toiler,” caricaturist of renown, eminently successful funnyman for the past 25 years, and as homey as your ma’s cookies.

World War II has produced several artists who have catapulted to fame via “The Stars and Stripes” and “Yank.” Among them are Sgt. George Baker with his “Sad Sack”; Lieut. Dave Breger with “Pvt. Breger at War” and Sgt. Bill Mauldin, whose characters, “Joe and Willie,” haveskyrocketed him into the big time. A new book, “Up Front,” by Bill Mauldin, has just been published.

A Canadian who has reached comic strip big time is Harold R. Foster, born a Haligonian. He got into the big name class when he started drawing Tarzan, and in 1936 signed a contract with KFS to draw his now successful “Prince Valiant.” Foster is rated one of the top three artists in the business —i.e., men rated for the perfection of their art work. The other two are Milton Caniff, who draws “Terry and the Pirates,” and Alex Raymond, creator of “Flash Gordon.”

Foster now lives in Evanston, 111. (Few strip artists live in New York. Most of them are in the Midwest or on the west coast.) Born Aug. 16, 1892, he was taken by his family from Halifax to Winnipeg in 1906, where the youngster showed a decided flair for drawing in his school years.

His first job was illustrating a mailorder catalogue, a job he lost in the pre-war slump in 1913. For the next eight years he was a prospector, guide and trapper and free-lance artist in northwestern Ontario and northern Manitoba. In 1921 he bicycled to Chicago and studied at the Art Institute, the Academy of Fine Arts and the National Academy, then went into newspapering. But his big break did not come until he was given the Tarzan assignment by United Features Syndicate. A short time later King Features put him under contract to start his own weekly page, “Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur.”

“Prince Valiant” is the story of a king’s son exiled from continental Europe to England in the time of King Arthur. He becomes an illustrious member of the Knights of the Round Table, a tried and true comrade of

Lancelot and Tristan, of Gawain and Galahad, and a loyal supporter of Excalibur. The story is a colorful, exciting blend of legend and history. Foster’s extensive research into the history of the age of chivalry and the art of heraldry (his favorite reading) has made his drawings of the period notably authentic—so that university professors of history write King Features congratulatory messages. This sort of thing pleases KFS immensely, and they pay Foster more salary than other more popular artists. Foster, like all these artists who live in a makebelieve world, takes Prince Valiant with grave seriousness and says he is the prince “I wish I were.”

Comics Girdle the Globe

The strips nave been here 50 years. Originally they were funny, or tried to be; but today’s strips range all the way from humor to carefully edited love affairs and moon voyages. The 42nd Street library classifies the business under two headings: the comic strip industry, and humor. But more and more the creatures of this business are regarded as part of American folklore. Such indeed they are.

Call it humor or folklore or what you like, it has proved itself one of the most exportable products ever developed; and now the foreign field is reopening so fast no one can keep abreast of it. Soon they’ll reintroduce the comics to Japan and China; already they are back in England and France and going into Italy and the Balkans and the Arabicspeaking lands. Quite a while before the Sino-Jap conflict first started the comics were selling in bigger Japanese papers, and will be sold again. China was a better buyer and particularly liked Maggie and Jiggs.

The Germans weren’t great buyers but France took a great number. Russia and Ireland never liked them and never bought them. Joseph Goebbels branded Joe Palooka the “most vicious counterirritant to Nazi propaganda,” and in 1940, when Superman tore up the Siegfried Line, Goebbels said he was a Jewish creation. Long before, Hitler had banned all American strips in Germany as a waste of time.

Blondie and Dagwood in Buenos Aires are Pepita y Lorenzo and have more readers there than in any other city, not excluding New York, Chicago or San Francisco. Mickey Mouse in Spanish-language papers becomes El Raton Miguelito. In Holland he is called Mikkie Muis and in France, Le Petit Souris. Corned beef and cabbage becomes spaghetti in Italy; rice cakes in China; and is translated into the national dish in all lands.

No country in South America gets along without American comic strips, a fact of which the U. S. State Department takes note. The translation into Spanish is done in New York and is tricky. No American citizen may have the job unless he was born and brought up in a South American country. The reason is that a translator must not only know the language thoroughly but must be intimate with all the colloquialisms because of the danger of shocking vulgarities in translations. Spanish is the only language the New York offices translate. To other countries proofs in English are shipped. Sometimes American humor isn’t funny at all to foreign editors; and the more enterprising ink in substitute words.

In Quebec comic strips undergo a face lifting that makes them palatable to French-Canadian readers. Dick Tracy becomes Robert L’Intrepide; Itchy is Legrateux; Tillie the Toiler is Margot Travail Trop. The Katzen-

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jammer Kids are Toto et Titi; Blondie is Blondinette; Superman is Surhomme; Buck Rogers is Roger Courage. Terry and the Pirates is Armand et les Pirates.

Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark received American comic strips throughout the war. There is a story behind that, of course, but no one in New York is willing to tell it and it is doubtful if the State Department in Washington would talk. In Norway, Finland and Denmark the Nazis controlled and censored everything, of course—but ignored American comic strips. No one seems to know exactly why. How American companies got their money out is another story not talked about. It was done through Sweden, but even that country was greatly under Nazi influence for much of the war. It is evident that everything was arranged through the State Department, which regarded American humor as a sort of secret weapon.

George VI and The Little King

In 1940, when things weren’t going so well with England, King George VI was reported to have found some relaxation in Soglow’spantomime, “The Little King.” I asked Soglow about it the other day but he can’t remember what he had his king doing that would amuse the king. When I told Soglow on the phone that I would like to talk to him there was a note of mortal anguish in his answer: “My God! Do you

mean an interview?” He Jives at 83rd Street, near Riverside Drive, in an apartment where a front man asks if you’re expected.

Comic artists don’t eat hay. His comic is sold, he said, to about 45 papers in the U. S., and soon will be back in England, France and wherever else KFS can ship it and make money.

Soglow is near 50, and is short and lean with thick greying hair. He seems to have the artist’s tortured senses and hates being treated as a celebrity. When I had enough for four paragraphs on him I left, which startled him.

Born in New York he got his start illustrating in pulp magazines, then enrolled in the Art Students’ League. They tried hard to teach him fine art and convince him that it was better to be a dishwasher and a good artist than a rich commercial hack. He got tired of that. His income now is upward of $200 a week. The Little King first appeared in the New Yorker about 1931, and KFS kept an eye on it for a while, as it does with all new ideas, ready to buy with the big money if they appear promising. All the syndicates are the same: Bell, McClure, United (2nd biggest in the U. S.) and the Chicago-Tribune Syndicate. Soglow’s pint-sized King was a royal idea and KFS bought it.

“Every once in a while Kelly sends me a sharp note saying my ideas are pretty dull,” Soglow says. “I guess he thinks he keeps us on our toes that way. Maybe he does too.”

Soglow draws his nine-panel strip in about two days, and makes money illustrating for big commercial firms. And he still sells to the New Yorker.

Big corporations, whose advertising expenses run into the million-dollar class each year, are turning more and more to the comic strip as a medium. The New York Journal—American’s Comic Weekly—currently runs to 14 pages of comics. Of these there are a solid five pages of advertising from s\ich firms as General Electric, Fitch’s (hair); Cudahy (Old Dutch); Armour and Company (meat); and General Mills Inc. (breakfast foods). In Canada there is a similar trend, especially in the

brewing and breakfast food industries. !

The origin of the comics dates back to Nov. 18, 1894, when the New York World, in its Sunday issue, published a six-box series of colored funny pictures about a snake and a dog. Richard F. Outcault, the creator, titled it, with more foresight than he knew, “The Origin of the New Species.” Soon thereafter he created the first regular comic character for Hearst, called “The Yellow Kid.” There was a howl at the time from many teachers and parents, who thereby helped in the “yellow journalism” campaign against Hearst.

Nowhere in the written history of the comic strips can I find anything that says they were aimed specifically at child readers. They were designed for the entertainment of the masses, and from the moment the first comics were launched they have never stopped growing. Two world wars failed to push down their popularity; if anything, increased it. Paper shortage, due to the war. did not curb their circulation on this hemisphere — it curbed their size only. That is, layouts were shrunk from, say, six columns to four and three, but the content has been the same. For domestic consumption the big syndicates do all the processing and ship matrices direct to the papers. For foreign circulation they ship printed proofs of the originals.

In the early beginnings, before the turn of the century, Rudolph Dirks created “The Katzenjammer Kids,” also for Hearst; and these two upstart youngsters are the oldest living comic strip characters. Today they live a double life. Under KFS the name Katzenjammer Kids still goes on with | the original kids, but now drawn by H. H. Knerr. The originator, Dirks, draws the strip known as “The Captain and the Kids” for another syndicate. But they are the same kids.

Bud Fisher’s “Mutt & Jeff” was the first daily strip—published in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1907. It first appeared as “A. Mutt,” but the addition was made two years later j when Mutt, going through an insane j asylum in one of his adventures, came across a little runt of a guy who proclaimed himself James J. Jeffries of heavyweight fame. Jeff has been with us ever since. Although reading habits ; change from year to year and the favorites shift around as on the hit ! parade, George McManus, who created “Bringing Up Father” 33 years ago, has never failed to find a responsive audience. KFS is now planning a liuge celebration for McManus in New York City—a celebration marking a third of a century for Jiggs and Maggie.

Skeezix Is Growing Older

It was the late Sidney Smith, with “The Gumps,” and Frank King, with “Gasolene Alley,” who started the business away from gags to straight storytelling; and Sidney Smith lived to see the day when he signed a con! tract for $150,000 a year for “The Gumps.” But he lived only to that day. Smith was killed in an automobile accident a few hours after the contract was signed. “The Gumps,” of course, go on, drawn by another artist. “Gas ! Alley” became the life story of its principal character, Skeezix, who has ! been permitted to grow up year by year and is therefore a freak in this business. Little Orphan Annie made her debut in the early ’20’s, and hers is a serious story too, but she never grows up.

In the fantastic realm Tarzan is considered the forerunner, but in popularity he has been far outstripped by Superman. More than any other two, Superman and Tarzan are credited with the huge mushrooming sales of

comic strip books. These books now have a monthly sale of from 20 to 25 millions and there is no predicting their future when paper is freer.

Competition in the trade is tough, even cutthroat at times; and, as in the movies, the rival shops bid high for successful artists. Professionals pump you for information you may have from another syndicate and freeze up on you with information of their own. Any information you get you dig hard for. Syndicate practice — supported in courts of law—conceives of the comic strip as a highly valuable piece of property, and the artist is only the instrument. Superman, for instance, is owned outright by a comic strip book company, and if the authors die or have a disagreement with the publisher, Superman goes on and on.

Funnies’ Fabulous Fortunes

Here’s a fabulous and true story of the trade: Milton Caniff’s contract

with the Chicago-Tribune Syndicate (“Terry and the Pirates”) expires Dec. 31, 1946. On Jan. 1, 1947, he starts work for Marshall Field and KFS, and has already signed the contract. But “Terry and the Pirates” will continue as the property of the Chicago-Tribune. The syndicate is paying Caniff $65,000 a year for the strip. Under the Field-KFS deal he will get at least $100,000 a year for five years for a comic strip on which not a single line has been drawn nor a character conceived. KFS already has signed up 100 American newspapers, with a total circulation of 20 millions, for the new strip, and the sales still go on.

Important shoptalk, too, is a story that the conservative New York Herald-Tribune is to run a full page of comics daily as soon as it can get the paper. The Herald-Tribune now publishes three comics daily and a Sunday section of comics. But there are no reports or even rumors of the New York Times following suit.

Strips go from six to 600 papers in the U. S. alone. Depending upon the territory claimed by a newspaper as its circulation area, a syndicate will charge from $4 a week for a daily strip to $200 a week for a daily and weekly strip from the same artist. One Midwestern American paper, for instance, claims five states as its territory, pre-empts other papers in those states from using the strips, and thus pays for strip rights in five states. The New York Daily News claims its territory is 75 miles in any direction, and the same condition applies. Some columns, like “Blondie” and other big ones, are rated as $1 million properties.

Shoptalk about territories and artists’ salaries scares such executives as Kelly. He regards all talk about finances and contracts as unsafe. However, he will admit that there are several artists who make $100,000 a year and several more who make $150,000 and many who make $200, $400 a week and up. These incomes are from syndicated comic strip rights alone and a man may double his income by working for the comic books and for advertisers and occasionally for the movies and the radio. A great many contracts between artist and syndicator are on a 50-50 basis after cost of processing and distributing.

There are also down-scales from the $200 class, for there are a large number of strips not strictly big time. Some others are produced on a mass basis. They require idea men, artists, continuity men, writers, etc., all of whom take a share in net profits. Generally any unsigned strip is produced by two or more persons. Most of the big money comics are the sole product of

the artists—“Blondie,” “Joe Palooka,” “Terry and the Pirates”—although artists get many ideas from readers, gratis, as in the case of Ripley, or paid for if the artist is so disposed.

Reader’s Digest lists the first 10 comics in popularity as: Joe Palooka, Blondie, L’il Abner, Little Orphan Annie, Terry and the Pirates, Dick Tracy, Moon Mullins, Gas Alley, Bringing Up Father, The Gumps. Notice that four of the oldest are still in the top 10. Bradley Kelly disputes the leadership of Palooka and says Blondie is the unquestioned leader.

Gallup Poll and Chicago Tribune surveys show that 95% of all boys and girls in the 6 to 12 age group read comic strips in newspaper or books or both; 90% of those 12 to 18 read the strips; 50% of all men and women from 18 to 30 read them; 25% of those over 30 are fans. It is claimed that 29% of college graduates read them and 41% of highschool graduates.

All syndicate editors are concerned with the effects of the comics on the mass mind. Every illustrator has to have his stuff on a fairly high moral tone, and his characters must live within the meaning of the word “wholesome,” except in detective comics, where the bad ones can be bumped off or arrested. Unforeseeable and disastrous incidents sometimes follow strip publication. One American boy fell 30 feet, on his head, trying to fly like Superman, and another boy, who tried to bite open a can of spinach, à la Popeye, had to have eight stitches in his lips. (Spinach growers erected a statue to Popeye in Crystal City, Texas.)

Editorial direction from the syndicates to the artists is sometimes necessary, but except on very rare occasions does not concern what is known as public policy. A syndicate handling 50 strips a day, for instance, could net have 10 of the characters in the same business or performing the same gags, so that some guides are set up.

The editorial boards will, however, sometimes adopt peculiar attitudes. For instance, KFS had an opportunity once to buy the fabulously rich property, Superman, turned it down, and wouldn’t buy it today at a bargain rate. Why? The hero—Superman—is considered beyond the realm of possibility. But KFS, long before the atom bomb was disclosed, had strangely futuristic cartoons with flash guns and death rays, atom smashers and planes to Mars. Kelly will argue that such things are possible—but not Superman.

Most of the characters in the strips today are caricatures of people the artists have either known or met (Not Foster: he uses models, a rare, rare practice in the trade) or else they are composites. An artist meeting a person will perhaps find some characteristic he wants to work in on someone else; so that the end may be a composite of many people.

The Geyser That Draws Like an Artist

One of the great stand-bys in the trade, a solid money-maker for the 25 years of its existence, is Russ Westover’s “Tillie the Toiler.” Anyone who wants advance information on what’s going to happen in the strip may take it as gospel that Tillie’s present city editor is going to be either fired or moved to another paper, out of Tillie’s life. Westover, who created the guy, doesn’t like him any more and already has sketches of a new city editor, a golfing friend, who isn’t a newspaperman at all but fits Westover’s ideas of what a city editor was in his early newspapering, and should be today.

When I first phoned Russ Westover ] at his beautiful home in New Rochelle, N.Y., he scared me. I had Soglow in mind, perhaps. Matter of fact, I feel pretty much about interviews as does Soglow. When Westover learned I was a newspaperman his enthusiasm poured itself into the telephone wire. It went like this: “Say, Dingman, that’s

interesting. Say! Listen to this: I got Tillie as a cub reporter now. Yeah. On a newspaper. Whadyu thinka that? Listen. I want you to come to dinner.

Let me see. My wife’s away. Not here now. She’s away, I mean. She’ll be here tomorrow though. How about tomorrow? Tomorrow night? About a quarter to six. You’ll have to take one of those commuters’ trains, and you know what they’re like . . . etc.”

He met me at the railway station, driving his own car, a big, white-haired man, restless with energy and perhaps nerves, too. I asked him right away, of course, who was Tillie? I should have known.

“You’ll meet her now. My wife. We were childhood sweethearts. Wonderful woman, too!”

She is. Thick wonderful white hair, young face and warm, lovely charm. The three of us went to dinner at the Wykagyl Country Club, one of the oldest clubs on the American continent. At dinner and in his workroom at home he talked shop, and said that if he was successful it was because of perspiration: work, work, work. He is very proud of his accomplishment, which he lists under entertainment of America. Tillie doesn’t smoke or drink and is a clean venturesome American girl, the kind of daughter Westover would like to have had. (They have two sons—one, now a Navy pilot, is also an artist, may start in opposition to his dad.)

Tillie has, in fact, been their daughter. Keeping her 19 years young for 25 years has been some strain on them both. His wife, Genesta Grace De Lancey Westover, sets the fashion styles and the hair-do’s.

Westover detests living in an orderly way, he says. He drinks modestly, eats well, likes to make new friends, talks fast and furiously, and with gestures, stamps around his studio for ideas, sometimes takes a train anywhere so he can hear the wheels under him, ends up in front of his drawing board, figuratively chained there, draws six days’ strips in two, a week-end page in another two.

Anyone who thinks he works only a four-day week, however, is wrong, since it takes seven days of developing ideas, planning ahead, finding new story material to keep the strip going. Russ gets Tillie into and out of jams, jobs and situations as his mood suits him. When he gets tired of the narrative he gets going on something else. He expects Tillie will be a reporter for quite a long while, because it’s a field that can open up into anything. Usually he tires of his narrative long before his public and switches Tillie to doing something else, which makes his public boil—and they write him so.

Ruas, I’m sorry, how did you get down to the end of this story?

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