Sunday, September 18, 2011

Art Collection: Three Prohibition Era Comic Strips By "TAD" Dorgan With Bonus Slang Origin Story

 (Click for bigger, legible)

These original pen, brush, and ink drawings for King Features Syndicate by Thomas A. "TAD" Dorgan are all on Tad's typically irregular 9"-ish by 12"-ish illustration boards. Dorgan was no fan of prohibition ("Silk Hat Harry's Divorce Suit" is easily one of the drinking-est comic strips of all time), but it sure provided him with a lot of material!

Up top is an "Indoor Sports" panel from 1926, and it's one of the most dynamic and complex drawings by Tad I've ever seen. It's a speakeasy scene, and it shows the owner of the establishment furious because his patrons are egging on a drunk to yodel Slim Whitman's "Roll On Silvery Moon" for their amusement. Loud drunken singing is just the sort of thing which would attract the police to an illegal bar (that's why they were called "speak easy"s), so the host is understandably upset. Note that the other patrons aren't particularly concerned, a typical prohibition attitude in which the illegality of alcohol was more of an inconvenience than anything.

"Indoor Sports" was Tad's daily urban slice-of-life panel which ran in the sports section of Hearst's newspapers coast to coast from 1914 until Tad's death in 1929. These gag cartoons had no continuing characters, unlike the Silk Hat Harry/Judge Rummy strips, but were generally more carefully composed and elaborately drawn than his sequential strips. It was immensely popular and influential.

One detail requires some unpacking: the little stick figure in the lower left corner exclaiming, "What! No Spinach?" This was the title and refrain of a popular mid-20s novelty song by Irving Aaronson and His Commanders. Something about it must have really tickled Tad, because he used variations on the phrase over and over in his comics during this period, resulting in its wide dissemination as a slang phrase which lasted at least through 1936, when it was used as the title of a Popeye cartoon.

Tad is often credited with the invention of dozens of slang terms and phrases which we still use to this day, and that is certainly true. In the case above with "What! No Spinach?", we see that he didn't so much invent the phrase; he picked up on it in his relentless pursuit of American vernacular language and then, through his wide readership and popularity, spread the new phrase and meme far and wide. Because of that, it can be hard to determine which phrases Tad invented himself, and which he simply picked up on and spread. Our next selection for today, an "Old Judge Rumhauser/Judge Rummy's Court" strip from September, 1919, provides a great example of this phenomenon:

(Click for bigger)

Here Judge Rummy calls his buddy a "dumb-bell", a term Tad is generally crediting with creating (as applied to a person, not a piece of sporting equipment). I can't find any such use of the phrase in print before this cartoon, so this comic strip may very well be ground zero for a slang term we still know and use today. Or not! Who knows?** The rest of the strip is packed with slang and a great prohibition gag worth showing in detail:

It's no wonder the poor guy is mortified: in 1919 the fight over alcohol prohibition was at a fever pitch, but it was too late, and people were angry at, yet resigned to, their fate. The 18th Amendment was ratified in January, The Wartime Prohibition Act passed in June, and in October the Volstead Act was passed by Congress, sealing the deal for a dry country beginning in January of 1920.

And last for today, another "Indoor Sports" drawing, this one from 1925:

(Click for bigger)

Note that even though the above panel isn't about prohibition, Tad has managed to cram in no fewer than three alcohol-related jokes: amongst the chores the guest doctor is hoped to perform is the writing of a prescription for "medicinal" booze; the cat regales the dog with a tale of a mouse soaked in "good natured" alcohol; the stick figure in the lower right exclaims that he's "fulla frog beer," which I assume is slang for some kind of bathtub concoction.

Finally, take a moment to admire Tad's draftsmanship in these, especially the "Indoor Sports" panels. His influence on contemporary cartoonists (he mentored George Herriman and Milt Gross, among others) and even much later artists (like Robert Crumb) should be obvious. Fun fact: Tad was born right-handed, but lost all but his right thumb and half of his index finger in an accident early in his life. He taught himself to draw with his left hand, but is reported to still have used his mangled right hand as well. Quite an accomplishment! His pen lines are spare, clean and assured, and only the vaguest, sketchiest hints of pencil underdrawing are detectable. Tad's handling of perspective (look at the chair in the foreground of the drawing above) is impressive for a self-taught artist. He also had an interesting way of composing his panels, often having a shallow space in part of the cartoon and a recession in depth elsewhere; this can be seen in varying degrees in both of the "Indoor Sports" examples above. He used this scheme to create something of a hierarchy of gags in the panel. This is sophisticated cartooning.

It's too bad Tad Dorgan's star, so bright during his lifetime, faded so quickly after his tragically early death. Most people today have never heard of him, even though they utter phrases like "for crying out loud," "drug-store cowboy" and "cat's pajamas," all of which he introduced to the world. I think he may also have invented the "falling over backwards in the last panel" gag response (what Lileks calls the "flip take" and early cartoonists called "plop gags."), still a comics mainstay (a friend of mine suggested Bud "Mutt and Jeff" Fisher may be responsible for this, but I can't find him using it before Tad did in the 'teens).

See the other "Judge Rummy" drawing in my collection here. I also own the original drawing for the 1921 boxing-themed "City Life" strip shown on the Tad Dorgan Wikipedia page.

**UPDATE: it really looks like this may be the earliest use of "dumbbell" in print. Oxford English Dictionary claims it can be traced to the 20s, but this strip is definitely from 1919. Whether or not Tad coined the usage is arguable; my guess is that he heard it around the boxing/gym scene. Swish of the sparkly tail to the anonymous commenter who tipped me off to OED's citation.


news said...

Good Morning!
I started reading your blog because of the Condi stuff, which was charming, but then you started posting Captain Beefheart and Meatpuppets stuff, and now the early cartoons! Really great! I never know if I should check your page first thing or leave it for more leisurely enjoyment later.

Many Thanks,
Comrade Carl

Anonymous said...

You should send this use of dumbbell in to the oxford English Dictionary, as it predates their earliest print use.

Peteykins said...

How about that? OED says the use of "dumbbell" meaning "stupid" dates "from the 1920s", and this comic strip is from 1919, so it may very well be the first use of the term in print.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I think he may also have invented the "falling over backwards in the last panel" gag response (what Lileks calls the "flip take" and early cartoonists called "plop gags."), still a comics mainstay (a friend of mine suggested Bud "Mutt and Jeff" Fisher may be responsible for this, but I can't find him using it before Tad did in the 'teens).

Kaz's Underworld uses these gags to great effect. Here are two recent examples: