A serious look at some long-running funnies

Monday Book Review

March 06, 1995|By John Goodspeed

A CENTURY OF WOMEN CARTOONISTS. By Trina Robbins. Kitchen Sink Press. Index. 184 pages. $16.95 (paperback).

BARNEY GOOGLE AND SNUFFY SMITH: 75 YEARS OF AN AMERICAN LEGEND. By Brian Walker. Comicana Books and Ohio State University Libraries. Distributed by Kitchen Sink Press. 176 pages. $16.95 (paperback).

IF YOU'RE anywhere near as nutty about Americanewspaper comic strips as this dotty old reviewer is, you cannot live without either of these two new books on the subject. Both are, of course, profusely illustrated by examples of the cartoons they chronicle. The authors and editors, of course, are nuttier than even I am about newspaper cartoons, especially classics from the Golden Age -- the 1920s and '30s.

As suggested by the title, "A Century of Women Cartoonists," women have been in on the creative end of the business from the beginning. A strip presumably aimed at children and called "Bun's Puns" was drawn by Louise Quarles and published by the New York Herald in 1901, along with "Tin Tan Tales for Children," by Grace Kasson. "The PhilaBusters," drawn by Agnes Repplier, appeared in the Philadelphia Press. Long before World War I, Grace Weiderseim drew a strip called "Toodles." Grace Drayton dreamed up the cartoon rascals who are still familiar in ads, the Campbell Soup Kids. Rose O'Neill created some chubby cartoon tykes who are still celebrated -- the Kewpies. And there were many more, syndicated to many papers.

The early women cartoonists are called "Queens of Cute" by the author of this history -- Trina Robbins, herself the creator of a hippie-cute strip called "Kid Karma," published in the 1960s by the East Village (New York) Other. They were also well-trained, talented and in many instances better draftsmen than most cartoonists, then or since.

Until the mid-1930s, newspapers published comic strips two or three times as large as they do today. Artists who drew beautifully crafted cartoons could spread their compositions all over broadsheets that were 2 or 3 inches longer and wider than newspapers are today. Some of their strips go beyond craft and are works of art, in my opinion.

The strip by a woman that has lasted longest and is still going is "Brenda Starr," a burlesque about newspaper reporters that was started in 1940 by Dale Messick, drawn since 1970 by Ramona Fradon.

Others begun by women more recently and still around -- some of them better than "Brenda," in my opinion -- are "For Better or for Worse," by Lynn Johnston; "Cathy," by Cathy Guisewite; and "Where I'm Coming From," by Barbara Brandon.

Examples of all of those and many more, are nicely reproduced in "A Century of Women Cartoonists." Long may they live!

* * *

William "Billy" Morgan DeBeck (1890-1942), creator of "Barney Google" and "Snuffy Smith," was -- in the opinion of many -- one of the greatest of all American comic-strip cartoonists. That puts him in a class with George Herriman, creator of "Krazy Kat"; George McManus, creator of "Bringing Up Father" (Maggie and Jiggs); Sidney Smith, creator of "The Gumps"; Bud Fisher, creator of "Mutt and Jeff," and one or two others from the Golden Age.

DeBeck was already a successful cartoonist in his native Chicago and elsewhere before he came up in 1919 with an Edwardian sport named Google and bestowed on him, a year or two later, what appeared to be a broken-down racehorse named Spark Plug. Apparently like DeBeck himself, Barney roamed through the Roaring '20s from one track and bimbo to the next, alternately flush from Sparky's victories and broke from his losses, beating it out of town a jump ahead of the authorities, generally ignoring his rather plain wife.

Although sometimes very funny, the story lines in "Barney Google" are not important, and neither are the jokes. The drawings are funny in themselves. DeBeck drew very fast and very surely, usually with pen and ink. His characters resemble real people and animals only slightly, but they appear to have weight and substance. DeBeck's backgrounds established mood and atmosphere, often in odd contrast to the action.

DeBeck began drawing Snuffy Smith, Lowizie and the other burlesques of mountain folks after a long tour of Appalachia in the 1930s. His long-time assistant, Fred Lasswell, has drawn the strip -- largely without Barney Google and renamed for Snuffy -- since DeBeck's death.

Mr. Lasswell's drawings are good imitations of DeBeck's but much flatter, lacking the appearance of weight and substance, not as alive.

Nor is Snuffy as funny as Barney was; even funnier was another DeBeck star, Bunker "Bunky" Hill, an infant dressed in an old-fashioned bonnet and long dress who spoke the jargon of intellectuals in a strip published in the '30s called "Parlor, Bedroom and Sink."

DeBeck was probably a genius. His art deserves preservation, and this book is an effort worth our support.

John Goodspeed writes from the Eastern Shore.

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