Fiends in the Funnies, Creatures in the Comics by Mark Orr
One of my fondest memories of my pre-literate childhood is of sitting on the couch with my dad after he got home from work, or after church on Sundays, and he would read me the comic strips from the newspaper. He did all the voices differently, with lots of drama and humor and everything you’d want in a comics reader. Li’l Abner and Kerry Drake, Miss Peach and Grandma, Jimmy Hatlo’s They’ll Do it Every Time are all long-gone and forgotten now. Blondie and Dick Tracy and Nancy are still around, but who reads newspapers anymore?
Dad is eighty-eight and thinking about moving into an assisted living facility, so those memories are very much on my mind these days. I roll them over and over on my mind’s tongue, savoring as many of the minutes as I can call up after almost sixty years.
One thing I don’t recall is that any of our regular favorite comic strips in either of the Nashville papers of that time were in the least monstrous or horrific. Since I started accumulating material for my vast amorphous history of horror project some years ago, of which this column is a manifestation, I have looked for expressions of horror in all possible media, and generally found an abundance in each one. Except in the syndicated newspaper comic strips.
Full disclosure: I have not subscribed to a printed newspaper in years. However, I do subscribe to a daily service that sends approximately seventy-five comics strips to my email box every day. Of those seventy-five, exactly one has the kind of themes or characters one most often thinks of as horror-related. Almost all of them are more-or-less the typical gag-a-day strips usually found these days. Day-to-day continuity lasting over weeks and months is virtually a thing of the past.
Once upon a time, though, a significant proportion of the comics page was taken up with extended storylines in strips in all the genres represented in the medium – humor, drama, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, westerns, war, romance, soap operas, even religion. And thanks to the internet, a huge amount of that material is available for the perusal of historians of those bygone years.
I belong to what used to be a Yahoo group before Yahoo did away with groups, that mines online newspaper archives and stacks of slowly disintegrating newspapers for comic strips and disseminates them to the membership. I receive a minimum of sixty or seventy old comics strips every day, usually closer to two hundred. Some days, long runs covering years or decades of one or more particular strips will show up, and that count goes up into thousands or even tens of thousands. Of all the titles I receive, the ones with even peripherally or occasional horrific content go into a separate file on one of my external hard drives. The list is not a long one. It begins with…
Okay, so, if Dinosaurus can be sort of classified as a monster picture, or Jurassic Park or The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms or The Giant Behemoth, then dinosaurs are monsters, right? They are monstrously big, and there are plenty you wouldn’t want to meet in person. Several strips have been set in that mythical period during which humans and dinosaurs ‘co-existed’.
The first was Our Antediluvian Ancestors, which ran from 1901 to roughly 1906. It was created by prolific cartoonist Frederick Burr Opper for the Hearst Syndicate.
There are only two currently running that I know of. One is B.C., a gag-a-day strip that only occasionally features dinosaurs, and then only in service of a specific joke. B.C. premiered seven months and eight days before I did, in 1958. Created by Johnny Hart (1931-2007), who also created The Wizard of Id (see the section on dragons, below), it is currently being produced by Hart’s grandson, Mason Mastroianni.
The longest-running dinosaur strip is Alley Oop, which debuted in 1932, three months and a day after my father. Are we seeing a trend here? Alley is a caveman who rides a brontosaurus named Dinny. In 1939, he and his girlfriend Ooola were snatched out of time and brought to the 20th Century by Professor Wonmugg’s time machine. I know of no one in my immediate or extended family born around that time. His subsequent adventures sent him all up and down the timeline, where (when?) he encountered ghosts and witches, among many other characters. In 1953 he found himself in the time of Macbeth as the events of Shakespeare’s play occurred, despite the play having little to do with the historical Macbeth.
Peter Piltdown was another anachronistic prehistoric comic strip, created by Mal Eaton. It ran from 1935 to 1946, then re-appeared in the pages of Boy’s Life Magazine in 1953 under the title of Rocky Stoneax. It lasted there until 1970. It was retitled because the Piltdown Man fossils had been found to be a hoax in the meantime, which is a whole ‘nother discussion I’ll save for later, if ever. Boy’s Life was produced by and for the Boy Scouts of America, so every Boomer boy who spent any time in Scouts likely ran across the strip. I remember it fondly, now that its original version has recently been among those I get via email from time to time.
Gary Larson’s The Far Side occasionally featured dinosaurs in his daily gags, usually observing the meteor about the wipe them out. They weren’t necessarily the focus of the strip, though, so that’s all I have to say about that.
Which of course leaves The Flintstones, although they began as a prime-time animated television series before appearing in newspaper syndication, as well as in comic books and other media. More dinosaurs used as props, generally, for the prehistoric antics of Fred and Barney and the gang.
One step up the monster ladder from dinosaurs would be, naturally, dragons. Dragons tend to pop up in strips set in Medieval times, along with witches and wizards and knights in shining armor. The aforementioned The Wizard of Id has been running since 1964. The dragon in that strip is the pet of the title character.
In 1937, Hal Foster turned the art chores on the Tarzan comic strip over to Burne Hogarth. He then began what has consistently been the most beautifully drawn comic strip ever since, Prince Valiant. Appearing only as a full-color Sunday strip, it has been drawn by John Cullen Murphy since 1971. Foster also gave legendary comic book artists Wally Wood and Gray Morrow tryouts before giving it over to Murphy. More of a Medieval adventure strip, the occasional dragons tend to be more-or-less lizards of unusual size, rather than true fire-breathers.
Two years before Prince Valiant, writer William McCleery and artist Ralph Fuller debuted Oaky Doaks, a strip about a Medieval farmboy who makes his own suit of armor out of a tin roof and goes about rescuing damsels in distress and slaying the odd dragon in the process. The strip ran until 1961.
Sir Bagby, created by brothers Rick and Bill Hackney, ran from 1957 to 1967. I’ve only got eighteen examples in my collection, but those few strips do include a polite but not altogether trustworthy dragon and a gryphon having an identity crisis.
There have been a number of science fiction comics strips with the occasional monster popping up like the saarlac in Return of the Jedi, but they weren’t really the focus of the strips. In this class we find Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Brick Bradford, Don Dixon and others, none of which warrant much more than a mention here. Worth looking at, but not particularly in this space.
Numerous comics strips have had the occasional spooky storyline, mostly ones that turn out to be less due to supernatural causes than the machinations of evil mortals. Oriental adventure strip character Ming Foo, who spouted more aphorisms in one strip than Charlie Chan managed in an entire movie, began life in 1934 as a ‘topper’ strip for the Little Annie Rooney Sunday page. Back in the days when Sunday comics were full page affairs instead of chopped up to fit five or six on one page, a secondary strip would often run at the top, over the main one, hence ‘topper’. Jungle Jim was the topper for Flash Gordon, Colonel Potterby for Blondie, and so forth. Ming Foo encountered a Mad Monster in 1940, a Sea of Mirthful Demons in 1941, and wandered about on the Graveyard Island in 1942. He vanished from the comics pages a year later.
In addition to his many years in the Saturday morning cartoon milieu, Bullwinkle enjoyed a few years as a daily comic strip. He spent a few months in 1963 in Transylvania, where everybody’s favorite moose encountered a Dr. Jekyll who looked suspiciously like Boris Karloff, Count Draculet, a ballet-dancing mummy, and a singing werewolf.
You would think that a comic strip about a character called The Phantom would have more supernatural content, but the Ghost Who Walks is no ghost. Rather, he was a generational hero whose costume and accouterments were passed down from father to son. He has faced the odd witch doctor since he was created in 1936 by Lee Falk, but that’s about it. His adventures are still appearing, and are even more popular in Australia, Scandinavia and India than in his home country.
Adaptations of popular books and stories in the daily comics were a fairly regular occurrence in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. I have three separate adaptations of the classic Charles Dickens ghost story, A Christmas Carol, from 1937, 1950 and 1957. A strip called Famous Fiction adapted a couple of Edgar Allen Poe tales, “The Gold Bug” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, in the early 1940s. I’m sure there were others I have yet to track down.
There was a whole class of single panel comics during the Golden Age of Hollywood that were basically promotional strips for the studios, featuring the odd hobbies of the stars or hints that you really, really need to get out and see this or that movie when it comes around to your town. Horror movie stars such as Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney or Bela Lugosi were occasionally mentioned, which is just enough horror content to justify this paragraph. The titles of these strips included Closeup and Comedy, Private Lives and Seein’ Stars.
And now, we’re down to the four strips that can honestly be considered horror, that are truly inhabited, from beginning to end, top to bottom, side to side by monsters. The peripherals and occasionals are dealt with, and we’re left with these favored few. Over one hundred and twenty-five years of comic strip history, and this is what it boils down to.
And three of them are humorous.
Maybe the comic strip medium simply isn’t suitable for sustaining the tension of the genre. Perhaps three panels a day and a Sunday page just won’t bear the weight of true fright. Perhaps. Regardless, here they are:
Before creating the classic children’s book, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Crockett Johnson came up with one of the great comic strips of all time. Barnaby was a five-year-old child who wished for a fairy godmother. What he got was a cigar smoking and rarely competent fairy godfather named Jackeen J. O’Malley. Their whimsical adventures meandered through plots involving standard issues of the day like scrap metal drives and victory gardens, but also ogres, gorgons, witches and wizards, and of course, Gus the Ghost. Never a success, Barnaby limped along from 1942 to 1952, never appearing in more than fifty-two newspapers. Still, Dorothy Parker loved it. There have been several reprints of the strip since 1943, when Holt issued two hardback volumes, both of which occupy honored places in my library. Fantagraphic Books has issued four volumes of a projected five-volume set of reprints covering the entire run. A play based on the characters was written and produced in 1946. It was adapted to television in 1959, starring Ron Howard as Barnaby and former Cowardly Lion Bert Lahr as Mr. O’Malley.
Russ Myers’ 1970 creation is still running. The title character is an alcoholic, cigar-smoking witch whose best friend is a troll. There’s a monster in a cave named Grelber who insults anyone foolish enough to get close to him. It’s a gag-a-day about these monsters and a few other beings. I’ve always enjoyed it, but it’s not scary. Moving on.
Gary is a vampire who has retired to suburbia with his demonic henchman, Leonard, a bedsheet-clad ghost named Owen, and a severed head in a jar named Travis. There’s also a zombie baby wandering around the neighborhood in one of those circular walker things all my grandkids had. Don’t try to tickle that baby. You’ll draw back a nub. It’s a gag-a-day, usually involving Leonard being horrible to anyone in reach, Owen whining about being dead or Travis wishing he still had limbs. Scary Gary was created by Mark Buford in 2008. It’s one of the seventy-five strips I get every morning in my email, and usually, the first one I read.
Finally, a serious comic strip with real continuity, starring daytime soap opera vampire Barnabas Collins. It was drawn by long-time comic book and comic strip artist Ken Bald under the penname Ken Bruce to avoid confusion with the other strip he was doing at the time, Dr. Kildare. Because those were so much alike. Dark Shadows had already been adapted to a Gold Key comic book that lasted thirty-five issues, and a long series of gothic romance novels by Marilyn Ross, who was actually William Edward Daniel Ross, because nobody would buy a gothic romance by a man in those days. Bald’s work on the newspaper version was beautifully done, a significant improvement over the comic books drawn by Joe Certa.
Which was probably why the strip lasted, oh, let me see…
A year. A YEAR? Seriously? One measly year?!?!?
‘Fraid so. March 14th, 1971 to March 11, 1972. That’s it. That’s all we get of the only truly horrific monster-populated comic strip ever created in the century and a quarter of the existence of the art form. Unless I’ve missed one, which is possible. If I have, please let me know in the comments.
Maybe we’ll have another one, someday, if the medium survives. We can only hope. In the meantime, as always…
Oh, one last thing: the article in the link below came to me too late for Women in Horror month, so I’ll just leave it here and let the populace peruse it at will.
What was I saying before I interrupted myself? Oh, yeah.
As always, be afraid. Be very afraid.