Robert Zuppke, Cartoonist?

By | Wednesday, March 24, 2021 Leave a Comment
1940s girl reading comics
Tom Heintjes posted this image on Twitter the other: a girl reading comics in the 1940. It's pretty unremarkable, but I was still curious if we could pin down the precise date based on the comics that are visible. One of his friends quickly determined the date was November 5, 1940 based on the Dick Tracy strip.

They got to it before I did, but I was trying to use one of the more obscure strips, thinking a shorter syndication run might be easier to pinpoint. But what I did find in the process was almost more interesting.

One of the strips there appears to be a football-related story by Bob Zuppke -- the title of the strip is blocked from view. It turns out that Bob Zuppke in fact only did one strip, called Ned Brant that ran from 1930 to 1948. It was occassionally subtitled "A Story of College Athletics" so the football theme makes sense. And indeed, when you look up Zuppke himself, he was in fact the head football coach the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign from 1913 until 1941. He took the team to national titles four times, beginning his second year at the school! He is sometimes creditted with the invention of the huddle, although forms of it were in use before his version of it.

Zuppke was also an avid painter and had one-man shows at least as early as 1937. He mostly did landscapes of the American West and presumably spent even more time painting once he retired from football. So where did he find time to do a daily comic strip as well?

Well, even though this strip is creditted only to him, it was actually drawn by Walt Depew. At least some of the strips do give Depew co-credit. Lambiek notes that Depew also worked on Flying to Fame, Off Campus, and Dick Ember but he seemed to be primarily a staff photographer and artist for the Des Moines Tribune. So Ned Brant wasn't Zuppke toiling away at the drawing board after the big game!

But wait, there's more!

Heintjes dug up a clipping from a Q&A from a circa-1980s Tribune where someone asked about whether it was true that Ned Brant was drawn by a local. The response was mostly about a gent by the name of Ted Ashby, who used to be a reporter and columnist for that paper from 1928 until 1945. It's then noted that it was actually Ashby who wrote the strip, and that they just attached Zuppke's name to it. Zuppke had just come off three incredible seasons (including winning the National Championship in 1927 and the Conference title in 1928) when Ned Brant started, so attaching his name to the strip was almost certainly a marketing ploy to bring in more readers.

The clipping also notes that Ashby took inspiration from his own life, at one point writing a story about a physically handicapped boy who strove to become a college athlete... which closely resembled his polio-stricken son. That Ashby lived/worked at the Des Moines paper that also employed Depew would've made collaboration a HECK of a lot easier than trying to work with Illinois-based Zuppke in the 1930s and '40s!

Zuppke clearly had talent as a football coach, but it's interesting to see how much else he's given credit for that really he had little to do with.
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