Thursday, July 12, 2012

Art Collection: "And His Name Was Bunk" Comic Strip Drawing By "Tad" Dorgan, Ca. 1907

(Click for bigger.)

The rest of the drawings in my Tad collection all date from 1918-1929. This one is quite a bit earlier, and a little larger, about 10.5" x 17" (and with a vicious mat burn). Note that the drawing features no brushwork, unlike his later cartoons.

Tad had already made a name for himself at the San Francisco Bulletin when William Randolph Hearst lured him to New York in about 1904, and there he continued to draw his popular sports cartoons for the NY Journal alongside comics legends Jimmy Swinnerton, Frederick Opper, and another relative newbie from California named George Herriman.

Jimmy Swinnerton was the pioneer of "talking animal" comic strips, and it seems likely that the older cartoonist's success inspired Tad to take a crack at the genre. The result was And His Name Was Bunk, a Sunday feature which ran from April-September, 1907. The titular character was a kind of indeterminate terrier named Bunk, and apparently the feature failed to set the newspaper world on fire, and it fizzled out quickly. A little later, Tad revived Bunk and gave him a strong supporting cast of misbehaving, carousing alcoholic canines which quickly eclipsed him, especially Judge Rummy and Silk Hat Harry, in a daily feature which had various titles until it became the tremendously popular Silk Hat Harry's Divorce Suit, and later Judge Rummy's Court. In the later strips the characters are drawn like humans with dog heads, but in the earlier ones, such as the very early example shown here, Tad depicts them more or less accurately as real dogs walking awkwardly around on their hind legs.

Placing this drawing on the calendar is difficult. It's the same format as the Sunday "Bunk" feature, but the Christmas theme makes it unlikely that it was used between April and September. Perhaps Tad produced more of the feature than was used, or maybe this drawing was published later as a one-off feature during the holiday season in 1907 or 1908. The lack of a syndicate label on the front, and no evidence that engraving orders were ever pasted on the back (a hallmark of Tad originals) make it possible that this strip was simply never published at all (until now!). [UPDATE: See comments. The strip ran in December of 1908, so I was pretty close!)

This drawing also shows how remarkably similar Tad's style was to George Herriman's during this period when they were working so closely together. In particular, the third panel looks virtually identical to a Herriman drawing:

The professional alliance between Tad and Herriman has been touched upon by many comics historians, but the characterizations of their professional relationship vary widely. Some refer to Herriman as Tad's assistant, unlikely since both were at roughly the same stage of their careers. Most others describe their dynamic as following a mentor/student model, but there is no evidence that this was the case. Tad was a little older and had the more domineering personality of the two, and I believe that is the source of these ideas. My impression is that they were peers and fed off and influenced each other in a much more fruitful, mutually beneficial way. I believe Herriman was a more natural draftsman, but Tad was perhaps a more sophisticated technician. Whatever the case, towards the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the two artists' styles were so similar that I've seen a few which, were there no signatures, would be difficult to assign to either artist. To further complicate matters, they occasionally borrowed characters from each other; you can see Tad's Bunk character appearing in a Herriman drawing from 1907 here, and Dorgan sneaked Krazy Kat and Ignatz into at least one Indoor Sports panel. I'm pleased to report that Pony Pal Michael is currently writing a biography of Herriman for Harper Collins and seems keen to get to the bottom of the Dorgan-Herriman dynamic.

Clearly Tad had a way to go before he fully matured as a cartoonist. The layout and design here is fairly artless, some of the drawing surprisingly clumsy (like the stockings on the mantlepiece and the puppies), and his reluctance to use heavy blacks creates a lack of focus in the individual panels. That third panel is just killer, though, and... well, dogs dressing up as Santa and spanking puppies... what's not to love?

Big thanks to comic strip historian Allan Holtz for providing me with dating info on the "Bunk" series. Allan's incredible new reference book, a 600+ page (!!!) authoritative history of American newspaper comics, is now available and highly recommended.


Eddie Campbell said...

I thought you would like to know that I saw your Tad cartoon in print last week.

December 25, 1908.
New York Journal Sports
Bunk a Shine as Santa Claus- by Tad

Best to ya
Eddie Campbell

Peteykins said...

Mr. Campbell, that is HIGHLY appreciated. Thank you so much for the information. I never would have found that!