Tuesday, 28 August 2007

"Oh Skin-nay, c'mon over! Smooch is gittin' a hair cut."

Clare Briggs
has for a long been among my favourite cartoonists. I first discovered him in The Time Life book of the century (This Fabulous Century?), where he was one of two cartoonists spotlighted. Feiffer got a couple of pages in the 1950-60 volume, and Briggs in the 1910-20. Later I found a collection from Dover Books, back when Dover still had decent sewn bindings. That book's cover was a wreck however and I dismantled the whole job and kept it in my files as loose pages. At least that way I was able to more or less rearrange them into chronlogical order. That's the annoying problem with reissues of Briggs. You can never just get a run of the stuff and get a sense of his day to day routine of producing for the newpapers. It's always rearranged according to 'themes.' And the present book is no different. It's a facsimile from Drawn and Quarterly of a book that originally appeared in 1913, collecting daily cartoons that appeared under the motto heading In the Days of Real Sport. Briggs had several such headings that he would, I presume, employ at random as the mood took him. Others included When A feller needs a friend, and It happens in the best regulated families, There's at least one in every office, and How to start the Day wrong. This was a standard practice in those years, and you might find other cartoonists using less gentle titles such as Things you see when you're out without a gun, which may well be where the saying originated.
They used to call them 'Panel comics,' and I still do. It was probably Briggs' fellow midwesterner John McCutcheon who started the style. Each one is a panoramic picture with more than one thing happening, and characters and catch phrases recurring. In Real Sport for instance, there is nearly always a kid calling 'Oh Skinnay!' to some other kid outside of the picture, with the running gag that we never get to see this 'Skinnay.' there's another recurring pair in these cartoons, a boy blowing his little brother's nose. I can't even say there are a lot of varations, (Aw shucks another cold! blow now....or just...'HARD!') but I always look for the little pair.

The current volume is useful for getting a look at Briggs' state of play at the year 1913. There are sixty cartoons, arranged approximately Jan-Dec even though they're taken from three years 1911-1913. I would have preferred the facing pages to have more cartoons instead of the verses that were composed for the 1913 book, but what the hell, let's not be picky. Many of the situations are universal, including one that made me laugh out loud because we do the same thing in our house every week. The verse begins: "Don't go to any trouble, ma, pa says each Sunday night./ Don't fix the table- we'll all just pick up a little bite..." In the picture there are a handful of kids lounging around the kitchen eating according to their own inclinations, with crumbs and stuff everywhere, while Ma complains; "My goodness- I might just as well set the table and get a regular meal as go to all this bother."

One odd choice was the one to reconstitute the original extra colour of red, which fills all the flesh areas with pink and was introduced into the original book but was of course absent when the cartoons first appeared in the newspapers. Funny thing is, when I made a joke of the traditional 'extra colour' in The Fate of The Artist by having Honeybee demoted from the front/back four-color pages to the interior two-color pages, quite a number of my readers, as far as I can tell, didn't know what I was talking about.

Most useful is the essay at the end by Jeet Heer, who makes a very good point that never occurred to me before. The first generation of strip cartoonists were big city people east and west coast, New York (Outcault, Opper, Dirks, McManus) or San Francisco (Tad, Goldberg, Fisher, Swinnerton) (even if they didn't technically originate there). But in the '20's and '30s the leading figures were tending to be from the midwest such as Briggs, King, Caniff, and celebrated the locale of their upbringing, making for quite an overall change in style and outlook for the cartoon medium as a whole.

Here's a page from the Dover book (vintage 1924) that doesn't appear in the D& Q. They're all of the same stripe. I have a feeling I may have selected it because it goes all the way back to that Time/Life spread:

And here's one of his 'Movie of a man...' cartoons (vintage 1926). they're always funny:

Links: Briggs' earliest comic strip success was A. Piker Clerk
But his most enduring was the colour sunday page of marital blitz, Mr and Mrs



Blogger James Robert Smith said...

Beautiful stuff!

Years ago, my dad used to run across those comic strip compliations by the dozens. No one wanted them and they'd sit on the shelves of his bookstore and he'd bring them home and shelve them at home.

Alas! They're all long gone.

28 August 2007 at 14:34:00 GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Briggs had several such headings that he would, I presume, employ at random as the mood took him."

Briggs discusses this process in his 1926 book How To Draw Cartoons, a charming and informative textbook for aspiring cartoonists. "Many times if you will put yourself in the other fellow's place and try to think what he is thinking about," Briggs explains,"you will hit upon a winning idea... Just by such a system of thought, the Wonder What A ______ Thinks About, came into being." He goes on to describe an afternoon in which he was trying to think up a cartoon when he was distracted by a drummer outside his window. "I began to wonder about his mental status -- what were his thoughts, if any. I put myself in his place and then recorded what his inward remarks might be. So I drew such a cartoon."

31 August 2007 at 23:43:00 GMT-5  
Blogger JMR said...

I've recently discovered the entire 7 volumes of Clare Brigg's Memorial Edition Drawings. As fascinating as they are, and insightful to the age in which they were written, we need to dispose of the attic contents for lack of space. I've checked Ebay but it doesn't seem to be the right forum. Any idea where we might be able to sell these collector items?

4 July 2008 at 06:43:00 GMT-5  

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