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At some point I heard about the existence of a W.C. Fields comic strip. I'd heard of other old film stars having their likenesses used as the basis for comic strips (most notably Charlie Chaplin) so this didn't strike me as unusual. I was going to write something about the Fields strip today, and tried to do some research on it, but... there's about nothing. There are plenty of references to the fact that the strip existed and some of the basic info, but not much beyond that. In fact, the only "comprehensive" study on the strip I've found is one blog post from Allan Holtz. Here are the highlights...
The first team to tackle Fields-lite, starting on October 31 1982, consisted of artist Frank Smith, and Jim Smart. Smart is unknown to me, but Smith had proven his chops on Disney's Donald Duck newspaper comic strip...

By July 1983 somebody had decided that something had to be done to, if not necessarily save the strip, at least rehabilitate the W.C. Fields image. On July 31, a new creative team took over. Gags were now credited to a member of W.C.'s own family, Ronald J. Fields... All of a sudden, Fields became rancorous, lethargic and half-lit -- just as he ought to be.

Throwing the baby out with the bath water, artist Frank Smith also exited, and was replaced by Fred Fredericks. Apparently Mandrake the Magician wasn't keeping Fredericks busy, so he tried his hand at this strip, probably knowing that the gig would be short-term.

And short term it certainly was. The latest I can find the W.C. Fields strip running is August 7 1983, meaning that if I have the right end date then the new team was active for a mere two weeks.
It's not surprising the strip didn't last long. The jokes are tame and fairly stale from the examples I've seen...
But what strikes me as odd are those dates. 1982-1983? Fields' last film was in 1941 and he died in 1946. Because of his raunchy humor, his films were rarely, if ever, shown on network television so he never received any latter-day attention like the Three Stooges or Laurel & Hardy. So by 1982, he had been pretty solidly out of the public consciousness for decades. Why try to bring the character back then? And even if you did, why would you think it would be successful if his humor had to be so diluted to be used in a newspaper strip environment?

One of those weird things that shouldn't exist at all, but... well, there it is.
Here are this week's links to what I've had published recently...

Kleefeld on Comics: Format & Contemporaneousness

Kleefeld on Comics: The Tragedy of Skippy

Kleefeld on Comics: Flip as a Bad Irish Stereotype

Kleefeld on Comics: The Connoisseur

Kleefeld on Comics: The A-Team/FF Crossover

The fifth episode in the very first season of The A-Team was called "A Small and Deadly War," originally airing on February 15, 1983. The series was almost an instant hit, and helped cement creator Stephen J. Cannell's place in television.

Cannell, despite often using formulaic scripts, was a solid writer. He was very careful about making sure that his audiences were clear on all the characters and the plot for every episode. As such, even with the opening narration in The A-Team, each episode's script made clear who the four protagonists were and how they related to one another very clearly, usually in the opening minutes of the story before the first commercial break.

Which leads us to "Howlin' Mad" Murdock, the pilot of the fictional team. He was very clearly defined as being certifiably insane, and many episodes included a sequence where the other team members had to break him out of a mental institution. He was also shown, throughout each episode to do stereotypically crazy things like talk to his invisible friends or suddenly decide he is a fish. ALong those lines, the producers have him, in that "A Small and Deadly War" episode, a comic book to read while the team was discussing their plan. Keep in mind that this was before Maus, Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns so comics were still very much relegated to "kids' stuff" in the minds of society at large, and this display was meant to showcase Murdock's ostensibly juvenile mind.

The cover is clearly seen and can readily be identified as Fantastic Four #253. Although cover-dated April 1983, it would have been released in January of that year, meaning that it would have only JUST come off the racks when the episode aired. The issue was in the middle of John Byrne's Negative Zone saga, which ended with the Fantastic Four switching to their all-black uniforms, the first team-wide uniform change since they first started wearing them.

The following year, Murdock could be seen reading another Fantastic Four comic, this time in The A-Team comic's second issue. This time, he's reading #264. Interestingly, and impressively, that FF issue had only come out the month before as well! Presumably, though, they at least had the original art to stat into place and the FF issue hadn't actually been published when The A-Team #2 went to the printer itself.
While trolling through ebay (an immeasurable source of research for blog post ideas) I came across the original art for a comic strip called The Connoisseur...
Knowing that the strip was so obscure, no one would bother with it without some additional information, the seller provides this description of the comic:
This auction is for one original art newspaper daily titled The Connoisseur which ran in papers from August 29 1927 until December 8 1928. The strip features Mr. Van Der View who has an obsession with clothes and fashion - especially ladies fashion. The strips would have verse below each panel. The work has been attributed to Alex Kurfiss...
Digging around a little more, I found... almost nothing. My copy of American Newspaper Comics: A Encyclopedic Reference Guide does have entry for the strip, but it reads, in its entirety...
Connoisseur, The
Daily strip. Running dates: Nov 21 1927 - Dec 8 1928. Syndicate: Bell Syndicate/Standard Publishing. Notes: No creators were credited on the strip. Sources: Philadelphia Evening Ledger microfilm.
I had better luck online, but the only references I can find are this post from Allan Hotz who came across another piece of original art from the same seller a year ago, and this follow-up post with a biography of presumed artist Alex Kurfiss.
I don't really have anything to add to either of those posts other than to reiterate Hotz's notion that this is just a bizarre, little comic and it's hardly a wonder that it scarcely lasted a year.
Flip was one of the primary recurring characters in Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland. His initial role was to surprise Nemo awake by bringing his uncle, the Dawn. He and Nemo eventually became friends, however, and Flip acted as a sort-of guide/sidekick/Greek chorus, both getting Nemo into trouble with his recklessness and mischieviousness, as well as commenting on some of Slumberland's oddities.

I don't recall when/where I first saw Little Nemo and/or Flip. I didn't really start studying the strip until the late 1990s, and I don't think I read it through its entirety until 2001 or 2002. But I'm certain I'd seen some examples of the strip before then, probably in some general history of comics pieces I'd read. I recall being surprised, though, when I came across a sequence where Flip is stripped down to his boxers showcasing his very pale skin. My surprise was in that he wasn't Black.

The strip was created in 1905, and while it's gorgeously rendered, it does contain more than a few... let's say less-than-generous depictions of Black people. Notably the Imp and the other denizens of Candy Island. I know that when I first saw those drawings, I was old enough to be aware that McCay was using some ugly stereotypes of his day. But he at least seemed to use a couple different stereotypes.

Or so I thought.

When I looked at Flip, I saw him as another caricature of a Black person. His hair was largely hidden by his hat, and the only skin normally displayed was his face. And while it was colored green, his mouth and chin were exaggeratedly pale in the same manner as someone in Blackface. Coupled with the his clown-ish/minstrel attire, I assumed Flip was simply a bad caricature of a Black person. When the Imp showed up in brown skin, my thought was that was just another bad stereotype -- the Imp as a "traditional" African and Flip as an Americanized one.

What I didn't realize was that, in the 1800s and early 1900s, the stereotype of the Irish was phenomenally bad. I knew they'd be saddled with an image of drunkards, but I had never seen/heard that they were actually considered a "lesser" race by some people. In fact, it doesn't all that much searching to find cartoons of the day belittling the Irish as decidedly inferior, only marginally better than Blacks. There were even articles discussing how the Irish might be a kind of "missing link" between Blacks and Caucasians.
This article is provides an excellent summary of how Irish people were depicted throughout the 19th century.

So the visual cues I was seeing in Flip were indeed reminiscent of cartooning tropes used for depicting Black people, but only because society at the time conflated the two "races" pretty closely with one another. This also explains why Flip is treated badly by many other characters, most notably the Princess, but still better than the Imp. There's a very clear racial hierarchy on display in the strip.

I bring this up because, here in the 21st century, I don't think we hear much about that brand of Irish stereotype. We fortunately don't see much Blackface either, but it is still around, so I think modern audiences can recognize that in the depiction of the Imp. But I suspect that, unless you're specifically studying McCay and/or cultural tropes of a century ago, the particular ugly stereotype embodied by Flip is likely lost on most people.

It certainly not a good look for McCay. He was a wonderfully talented cartoonist, and it's a shame he resorted to such visuals. But at the same time, that the Irish stereotype he tapped into is mostly forgotten can be taken as a point of hope. That maybe, just maybe, we can get past the racial problems we continue to see every day.
In 1923, Percy Crosby started a cartoon that appeared in Life magazine. It was about a young boy and his friends getting into mostly innocent mischief, not dissimilar to Buster Brown. The strip was titled after the main character, Skippy, and became popular enough that King Features began syndicating it as a newspaper strip in 1925. It continued to rise in popularity, and Crosby wrote a full length novel about the character in 1929 with two more in later years. It continued to rise in popularity, and Paramount Pictures released TWO films about the character in 1931, starring a nine-year-old Jackie Cooper in the lead role. In 1932, Franklin Adams, Jr. took up the role for a radio show that ran through 1935.

(As an aside, Cooper was nominated for an Academy Award for playing Skippy, making him the youngest actor to have been nominated for a lead role. I've only seen snippets of the film, but Cooper is exceptional in what I've seen. Director Norman Taurog actually won the Academy Award for Directing on the first film, and he remains the youngest person to receive that award.)

Jerry Robinson said of the strip...
Nothing like Skippy had ever been seen before in the comic strips. It was not just Skippy's expert draftsmanship or remarkable flair, although that artistry earned its creator a reputation as "the cartoonist's cartoonist"... The brilliance of Skippy was that here was fantasy with a realistic base, the first kid cartoon with a definable and complex personality grounded in daily life.

Charles Schulz noted...
...there were some other wonderful strips with little kids in them at the time. Of course, Skippy would be the best example.

Backtracking a bit, Joseph L. Rosefield developed a method of pumping hydrogen into peanut butter to keep the oil from separating from everything else and he began licensing this process to peanut butter manufacturers, including the makers of Peter Pan Peanut Butter, in 1922. He made enough money from that to make his own brand as well, although he sold it pretty much only in California. Seeing the success of Crosby's comic strip and how much licensing was being done around it, in 1932 Rosefield changed the name of his own brand to Skippy. And while he didn't use Crosby's character, he did copy the lettering style of the logo and utilized similar-looking background art. (Compare the two sets of packaging here.)

Crosby objected when Rosefield tried trademarking their work, and the trademark office agreed with Crosby in 1934. Rosefield ignored them both and continued using the name and branding, clearly trying to illegally play off the strip's popularity. Unfortunately, Crosby did not seek further legal action against Rosefield.

Beginning around the same time, Crosby began injecting more politics into his strips, taking particularly harsh shots at President Roosevelt. Skippy's readership began to wane. Further, in 1937, the IRS issued a tax claim against Crosby for $67,000 -- about $1.1 million in today's dollars. He spent years fighting the claim and my guess is that he didn't have the stomach to pursue additional legal actions for a still-small-time trademark infringement case. Further, the turmoil impacted his marriage and his wife divorced him in 1939, taking their four children who Crosby would never see again.

The continued political commentary from Crosby led to the cancellation of Skippy in 1945, coincidentally at about the same time his original trademark registration expired. Still fighting the IRS and now without income, he fell into alcoholism and in 1948 attempted suicide shortly after the death of his mother. Because of the attempt, he was locked up in a mental institution, where he stayed until a heart attack put him into a months-long coma that ended with his death in 1964.

Meanwhile, however, Rosefield kept making Skippy peanut butter. Tin became in short supply during World War II, and it was at this time that peanut butter manufacturers switched to glass containers. Rosefield struck upon the notion of a wide-mouth jar and patented that. Sales began to skyrocket after the war and, realizing Crosby's trademark had expired, Rosefield successfully registered Skippy for his peanut butter brand in 1947.

With Crosby locked away for nearly two decades, he obviously had little to no ability to try any further legal actions whether he had the inclination or not. After his passing, the rights to Skippy found their way to his daughter Joan. She began suing CPC International, who had bought Skippy peanut butter from Rosefield in 1958. The courts basically said that because Crosby didn't pursue any action against Rosefield for 20 years before his death (you know, when he was in a mental institution) that he essentially gave up the right to trademark. Over three decades later, Joan continues to pursue whatever actions she can but, frankly, there's not much she can do legally any more.

I wish I had a happy ending for this, but there really is nothing about this story that isn't tragic.
The last Calvin & Hobbes strip ran on December 31, 1995. We're over twenty-five years past that now. Which means that, for anyone under the age of, say, thirty, they have never read Calvin & Hobbes as a newspaper strip. For them, it has only been available in collected editions.

(Yes, I understand there were/are a handful of newspapers who continue to print re-runs of the strip, but those are becoming increasingly rare.)

Beetle Bailey
, Garfield, even Barney Google can still be found in newspapers. But Calvin & Hobbes (or, for that matter, any strip that ended before 1995) is only known through collections now. I've never read Pogo as Walt Kelly intended; I'm only familiar with the strip through books.

Why is this significant? Don't the books do a better job of reproducing the strips, generally speaking?

They do, but the difference in presentation can drastically change a reader's perception. Most notably, the strips in a book format show up one after another and can be read in a fairly short time-frame. With the newspaper, though, you usually had to wait a full 24 hours before you could read the next installment. Which means that creators frequently provided a recap of the previous day, and would sometimes reuse gags. This is unobtrusive in a daily venue, but it stands out like a sore thumb in a collection.

Furthermore, book readers are inherently missing any context. Since the books come out significantly later, anything that may be a commentary on or reaction to some contemporary aspect of culture will be more removed. In the newspaper, you were not only reading the most current iteration of the strip, but you could flip a page or two of the paper to find all sorts of contextual clues in the paper itself if you were somehow removed from any other context! It's a newspaper; it has the day's news.

I talked about this with regards to comic books a few years ago, but I think it can be even more important in comic strips. And while you might think that a "timeless" gag strip like Calvin & Hobbes can exist perfectly fine without cultural context, how about some of these examples...
Kmart hasn't regularly used "blue light specials" since 1991 (before the strip ended). They've been revived a handful of times, but never for very long. And for that matter, there are literally only about a dozen Kmart stores left in the entire world at this point!

When was the last time you used an encyclopedia, much less a Britannica? They haven't published a print edition since 2010!

VCRs? They're old enough that there's a Kids React video about them.

Not to mention the old tube televisions, corded phones, etc. As good as Calvin & Hobbes still is, it will always be a product of its time, and it's being read and experienced now in a manner very different than how you may have first read it.

Let me leave you with one final strip...