While in hot pursuit of one goal, sometimes I stumble upon things that trigger a new goal, one that sets me to looking and reading and researching and, in the process, learning a heckuva lot.
That’s what happened recently. While digging for information about Al Capp circa 1949 in support of next year’s Li’l Abner Volume 8, a small handful of comic strips drew my attention. Each could be characterized, at best, as “mid-circulation” features—solid, pleasant, thoroughly professional pieces of work that enjoyed a level of popularity in their day, but in the Digital Age are now known to only the dedicated few.
The first strip that drew me in was Penny, a Herald Tribune Syndicate offering that flowed from the brush of onetime Bray Studios and Fleischer Studios animator Harry Haenigsen (working, for a time, with writer Howard Boughner and later assisted by Bill Hoest in his pre-Lockhorns days).
Haenigsen was born in 1900 and joined the Herald Tribune in 1919. He covered the Lindbergh kidnapping for the paper in 1932, and produced gag cartoons like this one, circa 1930:
The artist was forty-three years old when he launched Penny at the behest of the wife of New York Herald Tribune publisher Ogden Reid. In the midst of World War II Helen Reid—who had her own impressive career, taking over the paper following Ogden’s death in 1947—campaigned for a comic strip that revolved around a young girl. Since Harry Haenigsen was already producing Our Bill, starring a teenaged boy, he seemed a natural for the assignment. Though reluctant at first, Haenigsen soon discovered that Penny was a bona-fide hit. It turned into his most popular creation, eclipsing both Our Bill and his earlier strip (Simeon Batts), plus the many illustrations he produced for Photoplay, Motion Picture, and other magazines.
In researching Penny and her creator, I was pleasantly surprised to learn both have a fan in comic book writer Kurt Busiek. In a 2010 blog entry on his website, Kurt wrote:
Penny was a gag strip about the life of a confident, self-assured teenage girl, her oft-mystified parents, and her friends, dates and such. It was amiable, breezy, funny—comfortable rather than edgy in any way—but the thing that made it stand out was the art. Harry Haenigsen…gave Penny Pringle the cheekbones of Katharine Hepburn, a chin that could cut glass, and a stylized coltish charm that just arrested the eye. Penny was fluff, but the graphics of it were bold and engaging, whether Penny’s sprawling upside down in an armchair as she gabs on the phone, in a raccoon coat cheering on her school football team, wearing blue jeans in the bath to make sure they shrink right, or whatever else she did. The strip is a charming portrait of mid-century suburbia and teen-agia, light as a meringue and crisp as autumn leaves.
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Penny caught my eye much as it did Busiek’s, and by extolling its virtues here, I get a bonus—this opportunity to offer an enthusiastic recommendation for Kurt and Brent Anderson’s wonderful Astro City, the superhero comic I have admired since its debut and eagerly follow, month-in and month-out.
A Sunday-only with lovely artwork also made me sit up and take notice. Mitzi McCoy was distributed by NEA, a syndicate that had only spotty major-market penetration, but dominated small-town and suburban papers from coast to coast; Mitzi reflects the small town sensibility of NEA’s core clientele. The premise features the beautiful and wealthy blonde of the title, living in the hamlet of “Freedom.” In her orbit, we find curmudgeonly local newspaper editor Stub Goodman and his news-hawk reporter, Tim Graham. Debuting on November 7, 1948, the wholesome Sunday feature got a nice promotional push from several of its subscriber newspapers, as this ad from the Salt Lake City Tribune shows:
With artwork supplied by Kreigh Collins (and, some speculate, scripting by Russell Robert Winterbotham, who was an NEA regular as well as the author of several Big Little Books), Mitzi McCoy ran a scant two years before it transformed into the historical adventure Kevin the Bold. An alternative for newspapers that could not buy – or chose not to buy – Prince Valiant, Kevin the Bold swashed and buckled into 1968, when (like Mitzi McCoy before it) the feature morphed into a modern-day look at sailing called Up Anchor, which lasted into the early 1970s, when Kreigh Collins retired from cartooning.
While I learned several interesting tidbits about Kreigh Collins, the artist who was born in 1908 in Iowa, I’ve yet to learn if there’s a blood connection between him and turn-of-the-century tennis player Kreigh Collins (born 1875 in Illinois). I’ll keep poking around in my “free time” to see if I can find an answer, but for now what I know is that there were two Kreigh Collinses, separated by thirty-three years, each becoming accomplished in his chosen pursuit.
The artistic Collins studied in Cincinnati and Cleveland in the mid-1920s. After a year in Paris he married Theresa VanderLaan and produced advertising illustrations in Chicago and in Michigan (where the couple would spend most of the remaining decades of their lives). He spent much of the 1930s as a painter of landscapes and murals, first returning to Paris and then taking commissions all over the United States. When he experienced physical arm troubles that curtailed his painting career, he turned to less taxing linework and found a variety of clients before signing on with NEA to produce Mitzi McCoy. With his arm pain somewhat abated as the 1940s unfolded, Collins began painting book covers and interior illustrations, as well as producing religious-themed comics for publishers like The Graded Press and Pilgrim Press, all in addition to his newspaper work. He also developed a love of sailing shared by his wife and their three sons: this formed the impetus behind Up Anchor, and during the Kevin the Bold years newspaper biographies of Collins often speak of his family’s travels aboard their fifty-foot schooner, theHeather.
Here’s a little taste of the short-lived Mitzi McCoy:
This takes us to the halfway point of what I began studying while pursuing additional knowledge of the Al-Cappian variety. Next time in this space, more about a few more additional “off the beaten path” comics you might enjoy!