Saturday, August 29, 2015

Seventy Years of Comic Strip Memories

Note:  Because my “down memory lane” posts on, first, soft drinks, and then candy, have received an extraordinary number of visits, it occurred to me to reminisce about comic strips that have had particular importance to me over the years, some of them, indeed, imitating life.

I have been a fan of the comics even before my ability to read, badgering relatives to read them for me.  The first “Superman” comic book, the cover shown right, appeared in June 1939, just about the time I was able to read on my own.   Like kids all over America during those years of World War Two, I was enthralled by the “Man of Steel,” who regularly was thrashing the Fascists.  That could be me in the picture left, able to “leap tall buildings in a single bound.”  My cape was nowhere as nifty, however, just an old dish towel my mother furnished, bound at the neck by a large safety pin.  Nevertheless, as I recall, I ran around with it on for one whole summer,
“Blondie” may be the longest running comic strip in America, published in the newspapers since 1930, eighty-five years ago. I have been reading it for seventy.  Created by Cartoonist Chic Young and carried on by his son, the characters in Blondie have grown older by millimeters through the decades.   The scenes are the same:  Feckless and sandwich-loving Dagwood clashing with his irritable boss, Mr. Dithers; or conniving with or against his neighbor, Herb Woodley; or taking gentle rebukes from the ever-patient Blondie.  Timeless, the strip continues to delight.
My personal memory is of being in Hollywood in 1948 and sitting in the audience for the popular "Blondie" radio program that ran from 1939 until 1950.  The stars were Arthur Lake and Pennie Singleton as Dagwood and Blondie, shown above.  They played the same roles in movies.   The script writer for the radio show was a family friend from my Dad’s home town.  After the show we got a chance to meet him and Penny Singleton.  A thrill for a 14 year old.

Fast forward to college days when Walt Kelly’s “Pogo” was required reading.  Set in Okefenokee Swamp of the Southeastern U.S. and featuring the fuzzy-headed possum and his friends, the cartoon conveyed social and political satire.  Pogo is remembered today for having coined such aphorisms as:  “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  Also remembered is a character named “Simple J. Malarky,”  an obvious parody and caricature of the Republican senator from Wisconsin, Joseph “Tailgunner Joe” McCarthy.  A wild-eyed, menacing bobcat who carries a shotgun, Malarky cum McCarthy easily intimidates the other denizens of the swamp.
While attending college in Milwaukee, I had an opportunity once to come up close and almost personal with McCarthy.   About 1954 the then Vice President Richard Nixon came to the Student Union at Marquette University to make a speech.  Senator McCarthy, by then in the doghouse with the Eisenhower Administration, plunked himself in the front row.  As a reporter for the student newspaper, I followed both men closely out of the building and saw Nixon give McCarthy a swift brushoff and jump in his limousine to avoid a conversation.  A telling moment.  The photo of Joe bears a striking resemblance to Walt Kelly’s likeness.

Shown left, her name was Anna Chennault, Chinese-born and the widow of an American war hero.  Living in a luxury Watergate apartment overlooking the Potomac River, she often visited the Congress to press her views and was widely known as the Dragon Lady.  In 1968, allegedly at the behest of Presidential Candidate Nixon, Ms. Chennault was reputed to have dynamited proposed talks between the United States and North Vietnam that might have shortened the Vietnam War war as much as seven years.
Another early comic strip favorite was Harold Gray’s “Little Orphan Annie.”  Later I would find its highly conservative messages from Annie’s “Daddy Warbucks” as distasteful, but initially was fascinated particularly by one character, called “Punjab the Wizard.”  Dark-skinned and wearing a turban, Punjab not only was a fierce fighter but had a magic cape he spread over enemies, a magic tunic that either took them away for good or brought them back limp and scared.  That cape would have come in handy to use on some kids I knew.

Little then did I know that I would encounter a living image of my childhood hero.  In 1978 I was a minor part of a U.S. delegation visiting the Prime Minister of India.   After driving to No. 7 Race Course Road and the dwelling shown below, we were ushered in and we were told we had 15 minutes to talk.  A figure dressed like Punjab, seemingly as big, and wearing a sword, escorted us into the meeting room and stood guard over the proceedings after the Prime Minister arrived. It was hard to take my eyes off him. I did not see the magic cape but imagined that if we overstayed our welcome, it quickly would have materialized.  We finished in 14 minutes and exited without mishap.
The final comic strip is my now and always favorite, “Peanuts.”  Having just finished an excellent lengthy biography of Charles Schulz,  I better understanding how the cartoonist’s frequently unhappy childhood and married life gave the bittersweet tang to the panels.  Shulz caught something about the angst and uncertainties of childhood and made them poignant and funny at the same time.  Although Schulz
died in 2000 and no one else is drawing the strip, the re-runs can last a long, long time and continue to be a daily treat.

Having read the comics every day for more than 70 years, I am struck by how often the images and messages they convey are replicated in real life.  As the anecdotes above indicate, I am not infrequently cast back into the “funny papers” by events that have occurred over the years and suspect similar incidents have happened to other fans of the comics as well.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Mr. Pickwick — The “Old Gentleman” Advertising Alcohol

When British Author Charles Dickens created the character of Samuel Pickwick in 1837 he gave the world a kind and wealthy “Old Gentleman,” as he termed him, whose fondness for strong drink has followed his figure down through the centuries.  Captured in ceramics, glass, and newspaper ads, Mr. Pickwick, like W.C. Fields in our own day,* has become a classic icon for advertising alcoholic beverages.
Dickens' novel, written under the pseudonym “Boz” and known as “The Pickwick Papers,” follows his protagonist, perpetual president of the Pickwick Club, with three friends as they journey to places outside London in order to research the “quaint and curious phenomena of life.”  These excursions are lubricated by a great many drinks of punch, wine, and ale as the group traipses around England.  The original cover of Dickens' book indicates the alcoholic nature of the club’s “perambulations, perils, travels, adventures.”  The illustration at bottom shows Pickwick snoozing while fishing, presumably having imbibed deeply from a bottle sitting on the bow of his boat.
Royal Doulton Pottery, renowned for its “character” jugs, created the first ceramic pitcher shown here.  It was part of a series the company produced in limited numbers for the Pick-Kwik Wines and Spirits, Ltd. of Derby, England, advertising its Scotch whiskey.   Doulton produced a bespectacled and pudgy Mr. Pickwick, looking slightly woozy.  His hat described the lip of a pitcher and the handle was a bottle marked simply “whiskey.”  This was an edition of 2,000.

Plck-Kwik Wines and Spirits also produced a line of mini-jugs, each containing several swallows of its liquor, probably to be given away to favored customers.   The handle side of each featured a standing figure of Pickwick, raising his hat in greeting and a bottle of the whiskey with the same image as the label.   The series features scenes from a number of Dickens novels in well-executed under-glaze transfer printed images.   Several, like the two below, feature well-known scenes from The Pickwick Papers.

The mini-jug at left below captures a scene in which Mr. Pickwick, standing at far right, is addressing the club all of whom have been drinking the wine glasses on the table.  Typically, as Dickens told it, the Old Gentleman’s discourse would have shown the effects of the amount of drink consumed before he began.  The jug at right is the first meeting of Mr. Pickwick, again far right, with another famous Dickens character, Sam Weller, at left.  Weller, a young man with an array of talents, will become Pickwick’s “man,” helping him out of several scrapes. 
The next Pickwick jug carried a full fifth of what the labels calls “Finest Old Blended Pickwick Rare Scotch Whisky.”  Although, as on the mini-jugs, Pickwick’s figure appears on the rear, he has been pre-empted on the front by Santa Claus.  This ceramic jug, the product of Buchan Pottery of Portobello, Scotland, was made for the 1982 holiday market in the U.S.  All Scotch whiskey is a blend but in this country blends must be identified as such.  In Scotland what Americans call “straight” whiskey are known as “single malts.”

U.S. distillers also saw a benefit from using the Pickwick image.  The Kentucky bourbon,  Jim Beam, commissioned Doulton Pottery to undertake its own version of the Dickens character.  This was a “two-headed” version with the back side being the visage of a winking Sam Weller.  The handle was a Jim Beam bottle rendered in yellow.  Compared with the earlier Doulton jug, this Pickwick has a definite sly look in his eyes and a jaunty red bow tie.  The backside also carries the motto:  “The world’s best bourbon.”  Beam also commissioned a second version of Pickwick, this one largely in white porcelain.  Here the Old Gentleman seems contemplative, perhaps thinking about the inscription at the bottom:  “Jim Beam Sells Whiskey.”
Another American distiller and whiskey wholesaler that picked up on the Pickwick story was George Benz, a German immigrant to Minneapolis whose liquor “empire” extended south to Kentucky and east to Baltimore.  His flagship brand was “Pickwick Rye,”   

Benz advertised the product as a quality whiskey — “Its well worth going after.”  To illustrate the point, his ad shows a portly Mr. Pickwick himself, aided by two friends, being boosted to a point where he can grab a bottle — one with his picture on it.  Always generous with his giveaways, Benz provided saloons and restaurants carrying his whiskey with attractive “back-of-the-bar” bottles bearing the Pickwick name.

Although Dickens’ character would not have been familiar with American bourbon, he would have recognized “the tang of good old ale.”  That is why Rudolf F. Haffenreffer, described as a Rhode Island industrialist and Massachusetts brewer, called two of his beer brands “Pickwick Pale” and “Pickwick Stout.”  A late 1930s ad shows a fashionable couple arriving in a roadster at “ye tavern” serving those brews.  Haffenreffer, who later became president of Narragansett Brewery, did not include a picture  of the Old Gentleman on his bottles.
The final ad appears to be a rival American-made Pickwick Ale, as advertised on a theater program.  It claimed to be “…always served on draught, never in bottles.”  In this case, the advertiser presented us with a picture of Pickwick enjoying a stein of ale while sitting jauntily on a large wooden settee.  This Pickwickian image marks a fitting conclusion to a brief look at a fictional character whose drinking habits have made him an iconic figure for alcoholic libations ever since.

Note:   *My post on W.C. Fields can be found on this blog for March 2015.