Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Early Work by Noted Cartoonists

I Knew Them When...
Many well-known names appeared in the pages of Judge magazine during the teens. Several got their start there. I've collected some then-and-now scans of notables from a Caricature collection that seems, by internal clues, to date from circa 1913.

John Held, Jr. would have been in his early twenties when he drew Judge cartoons in a German-block print style under the signature "Johann Hult." I speculated that, Held being the son of a Swiss immigrant, his original name may have been Hult, but I've found no evidence of this. Besides, "Hult" puts umlauts over both the "u" in Hult, where it might have a place, and the "o" in Johann, where an umlaut definitely does not belong. I presume this was a gag signature.

Held is of course famous for his quintessential 1920s flapper. Apparently he'd been cartooning since 1910. That year, according to lambiek.net, he was hired by the "Collier's Agency." At any rate thanks to his flappers he enjoyed several years of world renown.

Despite his "flapper style," Held remained interested in block prints, an art which he'd learned from his father. Coincident with the flappers he did numerous linoleum cuts in a "Gay 90's" style poking fun at both Victorian and modern mores. As the flapper craze faded Held produced many cuts for the new New Yorker magazine, which had been started by a friend ofhis.

Held later transferred his flappers to a newspaper strip. Merely Margie debuted in 1930 and ran for five years. Held continued illustrating for various publications until his death in 1958.

Percy Crosby would have turned 21 in 1913. He had already been cartooning for the New York World for two years. These two Judge drawings are rendered in a much more elaborate fashion than Crosby used in his legendary Skippy strips. The first is an illustrated pun, an old Judge standby. It's hard to recognize Crosby's later style, especially in the generic Gibsonesque woman, who appeared in everything from Little Nemo to Bringing up Father.

The second cartoon is an amusing comment on the era's fad for a piano in every home. I've seen a number of Judge and Life cartoons on this subject. Apparently there were plenty of neighbors who didn't appreciate the craze. "Try this on your piano" was a familiar sales slogan. Publishers printed the first few bars of their new songs on the back covers of sheet music folios. They hoped that once having played the introduction, the pianist would want to buy the entire song. Sort of like those MP3 download sites do today.

Percy Crosby's Skippy became a smash hit, spinning off into movies and making Crosby a household name. His career took a tragic turn, though, when a big food company appropriated Skippy for its peanut butter. In a nutshell Crosby was screwed big time. The entire sordid story is recounted in the Skippy website maintained by Crosby's descendants. Crosby spent his last sixteen years in an mental institution.

Many Skippy strips are around; instead here's Crosby's less-known topper strip. This example is from 6 October 1935.

Our next entry is from a surprising guest star: the (fortunately) inimitable Harry G. Peter, of uncertain age when he did this color half page. Hints of the H.G. to come are visible in this allegorical drawing, including the familiar Wonder Woman theme of powerful women enslaving men (okay, I know that was mostly Moulton's idea).Just to remind you where he ended up, here's Peter's cover for Wonder Woman number 10. By this time Peter had simplified his drawing style considerably (and apparently forgotten much of what he'd learned about drawing).

Johnny Gruelle is permanently linked to Raggedy Ann, his most famous creation. This fame has clouded the fact that he was a versatile illustrator who could work in many styles. I suggest image-Googling him to see for yourself. In 1913 Gruelle would have been 34. The next year he'd be replacing Little Nemo in Slumberland with his remarkable Mr. Twee Deedle. In our first example we find him doing an unusually-straight wash drawing for a typically-unamusing Judge cartoon (someday someone will have to write a monograph on descriptive character names in cartoons and comics).

Fortunately, Gruelle's more typical Judge work involved immense panels offering an aerial view of some big event. They were crammed with amusing detail and plain hard work. The one I've chosen is animal-themed, but most of the ones I have concern human happenings like escaped dogs or exploding fireworks. I want to post more of these; they're technically brilliant and very funny.
Art Young was no newcomer when he drew these panels for Judge. He was almost out of his forties, having been born the year after the Civil War ended! He had studied in Chicago, New York, and Paris. His cartooning career started in the 1880s. Around the turn of the century he became interested in socialism and left-wing causes, an interest which culminated in his stint with The Masses (1911-1918), an influential (and notorious) leftist magazine. He would have been working at that magazine at the same time he drew this atypically slick panel.

My second example is drawn more in the Masses style, which seems to be Young's "mature" style. It shows that despite the cartoonist's championing of the downtrodden he wasn't above having a laugh at the expense of a comical immigrant.

Young's savage cartoons attacked class warfare, racial and sexual discrimination, capitalism, and militarism. They also got him into a heap of trouble, for he and other Masses contributors were indicted for "conspiracy to obstruct the draft" under the Espionage Act, that era's version of the PATRIOT Act. However two trials resulted in hung juries and the charges were dropped.

Following is an illustration from The Masses in which Young pictures the magazine's cartoon staff. Note future "Ash Can" Schoolers John Sloan and George Bellows.

On a personal level, though I've always respected the content of Young's cartoons, I never thought much of his artwork. The cartoons with which I was familiar seemed crude and amateurish. Gathering material for this post I realize that assumption was based on insufficient evidence. His illustration work demonstrates that all his education wasn't for naught. While he wasn't the greatest artist of his day, he was quite competent. He may have developed the sledge-hammer style purposefully, perhaps because he felt it suited his subjects. Or perhaps he was fighting deadlines. Or maybe he just got tired! Who knows? Whatever the reason, Art Young remains an important figure in American cartooning.

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