On Strips: Big Chief Wahoo

By | Friday, November 24, 2017 1 comment
Tom Heintjes pointed out that yesterday was the anniversary of the debut of Allen Saunders & Elmer Woggon's Big Chief Wahoo comic strip. (Not at all related to the Chief Wahoo mascot of the Cleveland Indians.) I'll borrow the description in Wikipedia's entry on Woggon:
At last syndicated, Big Chief Wahoo took off in the newspapers on November 23, 1936, opening with Wahoo receiving a letter from his girlfriend Minnie Ha-Cha in New York and rushing to her. On the way (six days into the strip), he encountered Gusto, who now played second fiddle to Wahoo. The strip quickly became a hit, adding features such as reader-submitted "Indian slango" (e.g., credit = 'trustum-bustum') and spinning off products such as Wahoo chewing gum, coloring books and paper dolls. In fact, according to Saunders (ibid), their "sawed-off Seminole" (Wahoo was actually from the Southwest, not Florida) almost got into animated cartoons.
So, pretty racist all around.

Wahoo was eventually written out of the strip entirely. I gather it's because readers started responding more positively to other characters, but whether that had more to do with the new characters themselves or readers began to tire of the racist caricature of Wahoo, I don't know. Here's another snippet from Wikipedia, this time from the Steve Roper and Mike Nomad entry...
The strip initially revolved around humorous tales, such as stories about people trying to cheat Wahoo out of his money or fish-out-of-water tales of Wahoo in New York or Hollywood. But from the beginning, it was a continuity strip, and had already moved into serious adventure by 1940, when a dashing young photojournalist named Steve Roper was introduced. (Sundays continued to do gags until rejoining the main plot line in 1944.) By World War II, Roper was the lead in war-oriented adventures, and the strip was retitled Chief Wahoo and Steve Roper in 1944, then Steve Roper and Wahoo in 1946, and in 1947 simply Steve Roper, as Wahoo and Minnie were written out (last seen on February 26 and November 19, 1947, respectively).
As the story progressed, Roper's central role began including another character that was more of a peer than a sidekick, and the strip was retitled yet again in 1969 to Steve Roper & Mike Nomad. The strip continued with this name and format until it's conclusion in 2004!

Allen Saunders was the formally credited writer from its debut until his retirement in 1979 at which point his son John took over writing duties. However, John has noted that he had begun helping as early as the 1950s and, when he died in 2003, King Features stated that he had had "fully responsibility" for the strip since 1955. So it's unclear if the changes in direction came more from Allen or John.

Or how much was influenced by the artists. Woggon (along with a number of ghost artists) only drew the strip until 1944, at which point it was largely taken over by Pete Hoffman (though the strip was still credited to Woggon). William Overgard began drawing it in 1954 and Fran Matera took over in 1985, who took on the writing chores as well when the younger Saunders died.

Regardless, I'm pleasantly surprised that such a racist cartoon was altered as early as it was. Particularly since that was the entire focus of the strip when it launched! It's shameful that such a caricature existed at all, of course, and the change seems more likely to have come from market sources rather than any moral or ethical standpoint, but the change was still made at a time well before others gave Native Americans any consideration at all. (The Chief Wahoo mascot for the Cleveland Indians didn't even debut until 1947, after the character of the strip was written out entirely!) So there's something to be said for that.
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Unknown said...

While the Cleveland Indians' logo image is not traced
to the Big Chief Wahoo comic strip, there is a newspaper
comic strip connection that is to a sports cartoon character
that predates the Saunders and Woggon's comic:

But I have no doubt that the Chief Wahoo name of the mascot
came directly from the comic strip. There doesn't seem to be
any pairing of the words "Chief" and "Wahoo" prior to the strip.