A Conversation with R.C. Harvey, author of Insider Histories of Cartooning: Rediscovering Forgotten Famous Comics and Their Creators

Robert C. Harvey, cartoonist and a veteran comics critic, is the author of several histories of comics and biographies of cartoonists. His new book Insider Histories of Cartooning: Rediscovering Forgotten Famous Comics and Their Creators tells forgotten stories of a dozen now obscure but once famous cartoonists and their creations.

Below Harvey talks at length about his research and interests, his background as a cartoonist (he actually drew the image on the cover), his favorite cartoonists in the book, and his list of "top 10" cartoonists of the last century.  

How did you get involved in writing about comics and cartoonists?

Beginning while I was a teenager, I read all I could find about comics—the standard histories of the day, The Comics by Coulton Waugh; Comic Art in America by Stephen Becker. So I was pretty steeped in it. Then about forty years ago, I was reading an article about comics in a magazine, and I didn't like it much. I muttered something like: I could do better than this. And my wife, overhearing me, said: why don’t you then? And so I did.

And I’ve kept on doing it ever since. I’ve been writing regularly for The Comics Journal for 38 years, and I’ve produced over a dozen books, and for the last fifteen years, I’ve written a fortnightly online magazine, Rants & Raves, at my website, RCHarvey.com—comics news and reviews, cartooning history and lore.

Most of the cartoonists in the book are virtually unknown today, but they were famous while they were working. How did you come to pick the ones you have included?

My journey of discovery is different for each of them. For almost all of the cartoonists in the book, my research started when I ran across a provocative scrap of information. I’d start with a little dangling thread of biography or oeuvre, and just kept pulling on the thread until it led somewhere.

The longest one was for Bill Hume. I bought a book of his Babysan cartoons soon after it was published in 1954, but I didn’t know at the time who he was. Then twenty years later, I ran across another of his books. By this time, I knew that I knew nothing about Hume and wondered why. His drawings of this attractive young Japanese girl, Babysan, are so sexy and appealing that I couldn’t understand why Hume was so unknown.  Then a cartooning friend told me Hume was still alive and living in Columbia, Missouri. At the time, I lived in Champaign, Illinois, only a day’s drive away, so I arranged to interview Hume and found out why he was so unknown. Short answer, he gave up cartooning and became a commercial artist in his hometown.

Wally was a real mystery. Every once in a while, I’d run across his name, usually coupled with an assertion about how famous he was—“the doughboy cartoonist” of World War I, Wally Wallgren. He was to WWI what Bill Mauldin was to WWII. If Wally was famous during the War, why was he unknown now? He doesn’t appear in any of the standard histories of American cartooning. So I began scratching around to find out who he was. That wasn’t too hard, but finding out why we’ve never heard of this guy after WWI was harder. I call him AWOL Wally. I finally ran across an article in an early issue of the newsletter of the National Cartoonists Society. Instead of getting syndicated after the War, Wally just did cartoons for local papers in his hometown, Philadelphia, and for the American Legion Magazine.
I found Kin Hubbard’s name with Abe Martin’s on the cover of a little book of cartoons and sayings that I found in an antique mall, and I liked the drawings. It took a while for me to figure out who was the cartoonist and who was the comic character. For twenty years or so until Hubbard died in 1930, he was as well-known a humorist as Will Rogers. But not now.

I kept hearing that Frederick Burr Opper drew the first comic strip—the first regularly published cartooning that took the form of a narrative sequence of pictures with speech balloons. This was Happy Hooligan, featuring a hobo with a tin can for a hat. Turns out that the earliest Happy Hooligan strips were pantomimes, so the crucial ingredient, speech balloons, didn’t appear right away. But they were there near enough to the beginning to qualify the strip as the first fully-fledged comic strip.
Were there surprises as you found your way to a destination in each case?

Yes, of course. Hugh Hefner, for example. Most biographies of the founding publisher of Playboy mention that he edited the undergraduate campus humor magazine Shaft while attending the University of Illinois. One day, I learned that a branch of the university library had a file of these old humor magazines, so I went there and pawed through them. Turns out that Hef was, indeed, editor of Shaft —but only for one issue. However, he drew cartoons for several issues, and some of those cartoons appear in the book. Hef was a short-lived college student: he graduated in less than three years.

E. Simms Campbell, probably the first famous African American cartoonist, wasn’t known at the time as being African American. In addition to drawing the famous harem girl cartoons for Esquire magazine, he wrote gags for the magazine’s other cartoonists. And he designed Esky, the magazine’s pop-eyed old roue mascot.

The biggest surprise in the book is probably the comic strip Texas History Movies, a newspaper feature that told the history of the Lone Star State in comic strip form. I suppose Texans are familiar with this enterprise, but I wasn’t until I ran across a reference to it—and then found a booklet that reprints all the strips.

Do you have any particular favorites among the book’s roster of unknown but once famous cartoonists?

They’re all favorites. Once you spend time digging up their histories, you become intimately acquainted with them, and with intimacy comes affection. But not all of the cartoonists in the book were famous. I’m glad to have the opportunity to include a favorite comic strip of my teenage years.

Dick Sebald is one of a couple of the cartoonists in the book who were not well-known during their lifetimes, but I doted on his comic strip creation, Bailin’ Wire Bill. So I delight in telling the story of my adolescent infatuation and in presenting a few of the strips, which seem to me unique and picturesque in the history of cartooning.

And Betty Swords is a favorite, too. A magazine gag cartoonist, she was on the leading edge of the feminist movement back in the sixties. And she was a salty crusader even when I interviewed her in 1995: you can’t knock down any of her arguments, and I tried—purely in the spirit of playing the devil’s advocate. I wanted to provoke her into making the strongest, least vulnerable case in her panegyric, so I would try to pick apart some aspect of her arguments. No success. She not only defended herself but hit me over the head repeatedly. She became a crusader when she realized one day that in all the jokes involving women, women were the butts of the jokes. Women in cartoons were beautiful but dim-witted when young and single, but when they married and aged a little, they became battleaxes. And Betty rightly saw the injustice in the comedy.

You’re a cartoonist yourself as well as bring a comics historian.

I say I’m a “bush league” cartoonist to distinguish what I did from what career professional cartoonists do. My career as a cartoonist has been, I should say, “spotty.” I started drawing cartoons by copying pictures out of comic books when I was seven. And I cartooned through high school and college with the intention of becoming a professional cartoonist. I was hoping to do a newspaper comic strip, and after a stint in the Navy (where I did several comic strips, one at each duty station, including the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga), I tried to sell a couple of comic strips into syndication without success.

For a period of about four years in the late 1970s, I moonlighted as a cartoonist, freelancing magazine gag cartoons by mail. To men’s magazines mostly. About the same time, I started writing about comics and cartoonists and found that I enjoyed writing more than drawing, so I began writing more and drawing less. Nowadays, I draw an annual greeting card and that’s about it.

Does being a cartoonist influence your writing about comics and cartoonists?

I think like a cartoonist even though I don’t do much cartooning anymore. In newspapers, cartoons are funny pictures most of the time, but in comic books and graphic novels, the pictures are serious. In either situation, the comics are more than just pictures. Words play a significant part in making cartoon comedy or comics adventures. Cartoonists think in terms of words and pictures that combine for meaning, neither making quite the same sense separately as they do when combined. So when I look at comic books, gag cartoons, comic strips and the like, I appreciate the artistry of blending of words and pictures.

Graphic novels are all the rage nowadays, but they are very often not good examples of cartooning. Biographies and histories in graphic novel form are not novels: they aren’t fictional.  And too often, graphic biographies and graphic histories are written by one person and drawn by someone else. The writer is the biographer or historian and wants to cram as much into as few pages as possible. Words can relate more biography or history in less space than pictures. That’s fine with the writer, because he or she thinks in words and therefore produces a verbal narrative. The artist then illustrates the narrative—drawing pictures of the main actors in settings indicated by verbal captions. I call this an illustrated narrative, not cartooning. Illustrated narratives are fine. And to the extent that the artist is a good one, they’re enjoyable reading experiences.

The artist is illustrating the verbal narrative, but the pictures don’t add anything to the narrative. You can comprehend the narrative entirely from the captions without paying any attention to the pictures. In good cartooning, the pictures show things that aren’t in the words.

I drew the picture on the cover of the book, by the way. And the picture of me opening a door to “comics” and seeing a paper airplane coming out blends with the “inside” idea in the book’s title to make a “cartoon.” I also did a couple of self-caricatures inside the book, but the best cartooning in the book is done by those I write about.

Your book is about the forgotten famous. What about the remembered famous? Who are the top cartoonists of the last century?

The top ten? Starting at the top, I think the best cartoonist—the one who did the most by blending words and pictures, fully exploiting the capacities of the medium—was Walt Kelly, who did the famously satirical comic strip Pogo. After Kelly, I’d put Milton Caniff for his Terry and the Pirates strip, which set the pace for adventure storytelling after it got going in the mid-1930s. Next in the ranking order would be an editorial cartoonist, and the candidates are numerous. J.N. Darling (known as “Ding”), Herbert Block (who signed his work “Herblock”), and then Pat Oliphant. Ding set the standard for the first decades of the century; Herblock, for the middle decades; Oliphant for the rest. But Oliphant is greater than both of the others: he’s hard-hitting, unflinching, and also always very funny.

Al Hirschfeld, the great theatrical caricaturist, is unquestionably in the top ten—as is Willard Mullin, who set the fashion for sports cartooning. Then I’d say Roy Crane, whose Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy in the late 1920s and early 1930s showed that comic strips could tell serious adventure stories; Caniff and all the rest of the adventure story cartoonists owe their livelihoods to Crane.

Alex Raymond, who did Flash Gordon and two other adventure strips, all simultaneously—Secret Agent X-9 and Jungle Jim—raised the bar for illustrating stories realistically.

I’d put The New Yorker’s Peter Arno at the top of the single-panel gag cartoonist list, right next to John Held, Jr., whose bell-bottomed sheiks and short-skirted shebas set the fashion for the 1920s. And Virgil Partch, the great “Vip” of True magazine fame, belongs with them: you can’t get the jokes in Vip cartoons without understanding both pictures and words.

Jack Kirby, who (with his writing partner Joe Simon) invented Captain America just before we went to war with Germany, gave comic books their focus on figure drawing—superheroes for the most part. And Harvey Kurtzman, who invented Mad but also wrote and drew serious comic book stories about war, was an education in verbal-visual storytelling.

By no means the last is Charles Schulz with Peanuts, a strip that showed us our insecurities and made us laugh at them.

A few more. This will be a Top 15 list.

Three stunningly original conceptions, brilliantly done—George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes and Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby. Then the great down-home slice-of-ordinary-lifers—Frank King’s Gasoline Alley and Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse. And the most enduring at the top of the heap strips in comics history, Chic Young’s Blondie. Finally, Superman. The work wasn’t inherently excellent as is the case with all the others I’ve named, but Superman virtually created the comic book industry, and we can’t overlook that or short-change it. That’s twenty-two, and that’s enough.