We’ve been looking at some now-largely-forgotten newspaper comics features I stumbled upon while doing research in support our coming-in-2016 Li’l Abner Volume 8. We looked at Harry Haenigsen’s enchanting Penny and the Sunday-only Mitzi McCoy, by Kreigh Collins (who morphed Mitzi first into the long-running historical, Kevin the Bold, and then into Up Anchor, a contemporary feature extolling the virtues of sailing); in addition, I found these pleasant diversions…
Single-panel comics fascinate me. Viewed one way, they offer no story, as those of us weaned on “to be continued” comic books and continuity newspaper strips think of “story.” Tilt your head a bit to the right and squint, however, and you see that each installment of a single-panel tells a self-contained story that’s meant to be absorbed at a glance. As such, the form is the equivalent of prose fiction’s short-short: it has to immediately hook the reader, allow him to quickly absorb the situation, and deliver the wrap-up punchline in the space of a few eye blinks.
What’s more difficult, coming up with sprawling tales told three or four panels a day over a span of weeks, or coming up with a new, nugget-sized story each and every day, day-in, day-out? It takes a special kind of talent to do either job, but personally, I’ve written enough comic book continuity so I believe I understand and could write a continuity comic strip. A single-panel? I’d find that a much tougher assignment.
As a result, my eye is always drawn to single-panel series, and Dick Turner’s Carnival is no exception.
Entering the world in 1909 as George Richard Turner, the future artist first went to Depauw University, graduating in 1932 and beginning his professional life as an insurance salesman in Connecticut. The artistic bug that had bit him as a boy refused to let go, however, and by the mid-30s Dick Turner had moved back to his birth state of Indiana and began selling advertising art and freelance illustrations.
In 1940 Turner signed on with NEA and began producing Carnival, which mixed its one-shot vignettes with pantomime gags featuring harried recurring character Mr. Merryweather, who bears a resemblance to the little man whop serves as the face of the board game Monopoly.
The mixture was a success, with Carnival appearing in over five hundred papers at the height of its popularity. Reports indicate some of Turner’s ideas were contributed by residents living in the small Indiana town where the artist also resided.
Mr. Merryweather faded from the scene in the early 1970s, and Carnival itself folded the tents in 1980. Dick Turner enjoyed a long retirement as a transplanted Floridian, passing away in 1999. Even today, in our “sophisticated” 21st Century, the obvious charm and appeal of Carnival shines through.
NEA had its share of continuity strips, of course, and private eye Vic Flint served up a brand of hard-edged adventure, emulating the first-person narration Dashiell Hammett used to such good effect in his “Continental Op” stories, and Raymond Chandler later made a centerpiece of his brilliant detective novels featuring Philip Marlowe (highly recommended for those who haven’t read them: Chandler is on my personal Auctorial Mount Rushmore).
Vic came to America’s newspaper pages courtesy of artist Ralph Lane, who cut his teeth as an assistant to the great Roy Crane. The feature’s writer was “Michael O’Malley,” which was (as my quotes indicate) a pseudonym used by NEA editor Ernie “East” Lynn. The series began as a Sunday in the mid-1940s, then moved to seven-days-a-week status.
While Vic solved cases until the spring of 1967, Ralph Lane’s involvement lasted fewer than five years. Professional differences caused the artist to depart in something of a huff in 1950, leaving Flint to continue under the artistic guidance of Dean Miller, then Art Sansom, and finally being drawn by Ralph Lane’s son, John, who brought the series to its conclusion.
Vic Flint never achieved the widespread recognition achieved by so many fictional detectives from Holmes to Hammer, from Marlowe to Mannix, but his strip is proof of the enduring popularity of the private detective genre throughout the middle of the 20th Century, a popularity that today has perhaps waned, but is far from extinct.
Domestic comedy also still thrives (an assertion the popularity of TV sitcoms like Modern Family bears out), and comic strips have done more than their share to keep the home fires burning. Everyone knows the big hits—Bringing Up Father and Sterett’s Polly and Her Pals offer adult-oriented views of family life, Peanuts and Tiger a more pint-sized perspective.
For one of its prime entries into this arena, NEA turned to cartoonist Al Vermeer, a Bay Area resident who began his journalistic career as a sports writer in Oakland before moving to do illustrations for the San Francisco News. Vermeer had joined NEA in 1945, and in July of the next year he debuted Priscilla’s Pop for the syndicate.
Priscilla Nutchell had an older sibling, Carlyle, a pet dog named Oliver, mother Hazel and father Waldo. The focus of the strip was Waldo’s frustrations dealing with his children, proving the generation gap is timeless.
Not only did Vermeer keep Priscilla’s Pop going until his retirement in 1976, at age sixty-five (with Bill Woggon assisting him during the final six years of his run), he kept it sufficiently popular so NEA decided to continue it without him, turning to artist Ed Sullivan Jr. to continue the strip until 1983.
From the childhood humor of Priscilla to the adolescent joys and tribulations reflected in Penny—from Mitzi McCoy’s small-town sagas to the gumshoe mysteries of Vic Flint—and with the inventiveness of Dick Turner’s Carnival tossed in for good measure, my little diversion away from the study of Al Capp served as a reminder of the range and depth of the newspaper comic strip artform.