February 27, 2023

FTV: ‘Toons – Vol. 1


     Cartoons have been one of my life-long obsessions.  I don’t mean ‘obsession’ as in ‘I collect them’, I just love reading them.  Since the first days I picked up the Marquette Mining Journal, my habit has been to start with the comic page.  In the past, I have mentioned that the MMJ comics were always printed on the back page of the paper, leading me to another life-long habit;  reading newspapers and magazines from the back to the front.  Yeah, it is weird, but I have found over the years that I am not the only one who reads like this (except books;  I do read books from the front to the back).  When the Alley Oop franchise changed hands a few years ago, I began pondering what happens to old cartoons when they are put to pasture.  More about Alley and Ooola a bit later, but I would like to start this journey with Snuffy Smith.

     In order to discuss the character Snuffy Smith, we must first go back to June 17, 1919 and the publication of a cartoon titled Take Barney Google, F’rinstance.  I find myself interested in things today that were born in 1919 like the National Football League and my father.  Created by cartoonist Billy DeBeck, Barney Google and Snuffy Smith (as it would later be called) was an American cartoon with a large international readership.  It would eventually be found in 900 newspapers in 21 countries.  The scope of its appeal can be measured in how the franchise grew to include film, popular song, animation, and television.  Bits and pieces of this ‘toon eventually entered popular culture as well;  it added several terms and phrases to the English language, inspired songs in 1923 by Billy Rose (a hit titled Barney Google (with the Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes), and Come On, Spark Plug!

     Since its debut, the strip has been penned by DeBeck (1919-1942), Fred Lasswell (1942-2001), and John R. Rose (2001 – present) and at 103 years old, it shows no sign of ending.

Only two other cartoons have a longer track record;  Rudolf Durk’s Katzenjammer Kids and Frank O. King’s Gasoline Alley.   Even though the strip’s main character was Barney Google, he was eventually phased out of his own ‘tooniverse.  Like the characters Mutt and Jeff, Barney first appeared in the sports section of two Chicago papers.  His character was “An avid sportsman and ne’er-do-well involved in poker, horse racing, and prize fights.”  Comic historian Bill Blackbeard further described him as, “a Google-eyed, mustached, gloved and top-hatted, bulbous nosed, cigar chomping shrimp who was hen pecked by ‘a wife three times his size’ (as the song lyrics went)”  (though Mrs. Google sued for divorce and disappeared from the strip early on).  King Features Syndicate picked up the strip in October of 1919, a move that led to it being published in newspapers nation-wide.  Rumor has it Barney’s name was the inspiration for the word ‘googol’ that is used to describe a very large number which in turn may have inspired the company name ‘Google’.

     Barney’s ‘brown-eyed baby’ of a race horse named Spark Plug was supposed to be a one story line adventure leading up to the bow-legged nag’s one and only race.  It turned out Sparky’s race became a national media event.  Public fascination over the character earned ‘Sparky’ a permanent place in the strip and co-billing with Barney Google for a while.  Any kid who liked the strip a lot earned the nickname ‘Sparky’ like Charles M. Schultz of Peanuts fame.  Other characters would appear (and sometimes disappear) like the jockey ‘Sunshine’, a troublesome ostrich named ‘Rudy’, a wrestler dubbed ‘Sully’, and a mysterious hooded fraternity known as ‘The Order of the Brotherhood of Billy Goats’.  Barney was elected as the Order’s ‘Exalted Angora’ in 1928 and they based their secret password (O-K-M-N-X) on the standard breakfast order of the day, ‘Okay, ham and eggs’.  The most notable addition to the Barney Google ‘tooniverse would arrive in 1934 in a story line that had Barney and Spark Plug visiting the mountains of North Carolina.

     In this mountainous backwoods,  they met up with an equally short moonshiner named Snuff Smith.  With Hillbilly humor in vogue (see Al Capp’s L’il Abner), DeBeck’s strip focused more and more on the goings on in the southern Applicachian berg known as ‘Hootin’ Holler’.  Snuffy Smith took center stage in a town where the suspicious residents kept their eyes on outsiders (‘flatlanders’) and government agents (‘revenooers’).  Barney’s role diminished to the point where a 1954 storyline had him return to the big city with only occasional visits to his own ‘toon.  In fact, he wasn’t in the strip at all between January 5, 1997 and February 19, 2012.  This fifteen year plus absence ended with a set of strips about his return (Baney made a permanent return to Hootin’ Holler in May 2021).  Barney is still an occasional visitor to ‘his’ strip but since the storyline switched over to Snuffy ‘Smif’, the title no longer mentions Barney.

     What endeared Snuffy to the comic reading public?  He is best described as, “An ornery little cuss, sawed-off and shiftless.  He lives in a shack, mangles the English language, and has a propensity to shoot at those who displease him.  He makes ‘corn-likker’ moonshine in a homemade still and is in constant trouble with the sheriff.”  I dare say, if Snuffy Smith was a real person, there would be a reality series built around his Hillbilly ways (and yes, if you are thinking, “Sounds a lot like a series called ‘Moonshiners’, then you know why my tongue was planted firmly in cheek when I started this sentence).  It sounds as dated a concept for a TV show as the Beverly Hillbillies or Green Acres, but in these progressive days, such an exaggerated stereotypical approach to entertainment would not be tolerated, would it? (said again with tongue firmly in cheek).

     Though Billy DeBeck passed on at age 52 on November 11, 1942, the popularity of his work is still with us in a number of catchphrases his strip passed on into popular culture.  When you hear ‘heebie-jeebies-, ‘horsefeathers’, ‘hotsy totsy’, ‘balls of fire’, ‘time’s a-wasting’, ‘touched in the head’, or ‘bodacious’, they are a testament to the lasting nature of Barney Google’s influence.  Though some complained he perpetuated stereotypes of hillbilly culture, his characters were more rooted in the real world than Capp’s Li’l Abner denessins.  None-the-less, change would come when Fred Lasswell took over the reins after DeBeck’s passing.

     Lasswell came to DeBeck’s attention when the latter saw the former’s work on a poster he drew for the Tampa Chamber of Commerce Jamboree in 1933.  The then 17 year old was offered a job assisting DeBeck as a letterer which he took (promptly dropping out of high school to go to work for Billy).  The two toured the rural south to seek inspiration for the introduction of the Snuffy Smith character and DeBeck mentored Fred by sending him to work with and learn from other noted illustrators.  Lasswell took over the strip when DeBeck died but was informed the strips dwindling popularity would lead to cancellation if the dialect used for the dialogue wasn’t changed – many readers had a hard time understanding DeBeck’s ‘hillbilly-speak’.  Lasswell moved the series away from ‘continuity stories’ to more of a ‘gag-a-day’ format which caused a surge in the strip’s popularity.

     Lasswell ran the strip for 59 years and during this time showed himself to be quite the renaissance man.  He invented things (like a mechanical citrus harvester he patented in the early 1960s), and was an early adopter of certain technologies.  In the 1990s, Lasswell became one of the first cartoonists to use computers to produce his strips.  He began lettering the strips digitally and submitted them to King Features Syndicate via email.  Fred also ventured into the education field producing games and books that made learning fun.  According to U.S. Secretary of Education Shirley Hufstedler, “Fred Lasswell has created a unique and whimsical way to bring fun and focus into our K-6 classrooms…The simplicity, low cost, and genuine effectiveness of his teachers’ manuals and methods are a breath of fresh air for our children and their teachers.”

Snuffy Smith was taken over by Fred’s longtime assistant John R. Rose when Lasswell passed away from heart failure in 2001.

     An editorial cartoonist when entered the Snuffy Smith ‘tooniverse as Lasswell’s inking assistant, Rose took over the strip when his boss died.  Besides his ‘toon work, he continued as the editorial cartoonist for the Ogden Papers in Virginia.  He also creates the Kids’ Home Newspaper, a weekly syndicated puzzle feature for Creators Syndicate.  He has numerous books to his credit that rode the wave of compilations being released for such cartoon staples as Garfield, Dilbert, Peanuts, and Pearls Before Swine.  To celebrate a century of Barney Google, Rose penned a series of strips featuring Barney in June of 2019.  Rose had poor Barney wandering lost among the other funny page strips like Dagwood, Beetle Bailey, Popeye and more as he tried to find his way back to Hootin’ Holler.  When he finally made it to his birthday party, he hobnobbed with a lot of Barney Google and Snuffy Smith characters, some of whom had not been seen in years.  Rose also penned tribute panels to DeBeck and Lasswell.  In July of 2022, Spark Plug also got a weeklong story line to celebrate his 100th birthday.

     Another old time cartoon I began following in the Mining Journal back in the day was Alley Oop.  Created on December 5, 1932 by V.T. Hamlin and syndicated by the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA), the Alley Oop ‘tooniverse is populated by a host of colorful characters.  At first the strip centered on Alley’s life in the fictional land of Moo.  In 1939, Hamlin greatly expanded his topic areas when Alley was pulled from the ‘Bone Age’ by a scientist named Dr. Wonmug (a slight distortion of another famous Dr named Einstein – ‘One Mug’ equals ‘Einstein’) via a time machine.  The ability to escape from the ancient realm of ‘Moo’ allowed Alley and his girlfriend Ooola to explore many topics outside the cozy confines of their prehistoric home time.  Hamlin stated, “I really can’t recall just how I struck upon the name ‘Alley Oop’, although it might be from the fact that the name is a French term used by tumblers.  Alley Oop really is a roughhouse tumbler.”  This makes a lot of sense because he further states ‘Ooola’ is a play on another French phrase, ‘oh la la’.

     Hamlin hired Dave Graue as an assistant in 1950 and he took over the stip in the 1970s when Hamlin retired.  Jack Bender came aboard in 1991 as an art finisher and after September 3, 2001, the strip was drawn by Jack and written by his wife, Carole.  Sadly, Hamilin was killed in North Carolina at the age of 75 when a dump truck hit his car on December 10, 2001.  Since January 2019, writer Joey Alison Sayers and artist Jonathan Lemon have taken over the Alley Oop ‘tooniverse.  With the Daily Globe now publishing weekly, I have had a hard time keeping up with the Sayers/Lemon story line.  I checked out the story line on the GoComics website to see what they are up to.  In late December 2022 and into January of 2023, they were focusing on a space fungus turned baby named Myc.  Alley and Ooola are turned into short term parents as Myc has a very short life cycle and has aged from baby to an old woman in a matter of days.  It seems time travel isn’t the only plot device the cave couple have been exposed to.

     I originally asked, “What happens to cartoons when they are put to pasture?”  In the case of Barney Google and Alley Oops, they are still with us.  The writers and authors may change, the story lines may be updated, but it seems cartoons don’t have a life cycle like humans.  If the idea is to explore cartoons that have actually ‘passed on’, I am afraid that discussion will need to wait for another day.  We can finish up this thread by looking at a slice of what is happening in the cartoon world more recently.

     One of the great things about cartoonists, in my mind anyway, is their ability to thumb their noses at the status quo from time to time.  A great example of their independent streak happened on April Fools’ Day of 1997.  Without warning their editors, a group of cartoonists orchestrated an event known as ‘The Great April Fools’ Day Switcharoonie’.  Masterminded by Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott (creators of Baby Blues), a large group of cartoonists traded strips for the day.  Some of the switches were obvious to avid readers while other writers and artists played it pretty close to the vest.  It was a massive practical joke and I can not say whether or not it caused an uproar in the ivory towers of the cartoon syndicates.  It certainly stirred the public’s interest and put them on the watch for another such event.

     There have been other ‘Switcheroonies’ since 1997 (too numerous to mention here).  There have been some variations involving smaller groups of both print and internet based cartoons.  For example, on April 1, 2005, Stephan Pastis (Pearls Before Swine), Bill Amend (Foxtrot), and Darby Conley (Get Fuzzy) ran nearly the same dialog in their respective strips only with their characters saying the lines.  Guest characters have also appeared in many strips like the May 27, 2000 and October 30, 2005 tributes that were done for Charles M. Schultz and Peanuts. A complete list of the cartoonists involved and the switches they made can be found in Wikipedia under the heading ‘Comic Strip Switcheroo.  In the meantime, ‘Happy ‘Tooning’.


Top Piece Video:  Just in case you thought I was kidding about the Barney Google song . . .