Buster and Bart: A Century Apart

In 1899, comic artist RF Outcault created The Yellow Kid, a working class ethnic child who pulled cons, for the Hearst papers. Not long after that series ended, Outcault followed up with a similarly ill-behaved rich WASP named Buster Brown.

There was no concrete evidence of Outcault’s intentions with the strip. The fact that he was forced to create the series due to reader backlash to his Yellow Kid series suggests otherwise. I’m certain under the humor directed to an upper class audience, there also lies a hidden mockery of said audiences’ values and behavior.

One strip comes to mind when, as the title says, Buster decides to throw himself a surprise party and Mrs. Brown is greeted at the door by gift-bearing tykes.

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It’s natural to assume Mrs. Brown would just tell the children to go home, right? Wrong. Instead, she invites them in and quietly rushes her servants to order party refreshments as soon as possible without the guests noticing.

Let’s not be mistaken. Buster Brown has pulled some pretty bad pranks for a boy of his era: Cutting a girl’s hair. Tricking a strange man into walking in on his mother in a changing room on the beach. Faking his own death.

 

Yes, you heard the last one right.
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However, the “surprise party” prank pisses his mother off so much that by the second to last panel she threatens to send him to a reform school, her most serious threat in the whole series.

Do you know what they would do to pretty faces like yours?

Now, from the modern perspective, only two trains of thought generate from this story: “Buster’s mother is an idiot” or maybe “priorities of the rich were different back then.” A nearly century old comic strip is bound to create values dissonance for 21st century readers, and does so often. This strip in particular, however, does not seem so foreign in time. Here’s why:

 

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MARGE: “Bart, are ALL these children friends of yours?

BART: “Friends and well-wishers. Yes”

 

It would take the passage of that very century for another similar situation on a 1994 episode of The Simpsons  where the eponymous family gets a pool. Every kid in town gets wind of the news and it’s not long before the Simpson’s house is flooded with swim-suited children. One scene that has always caught my attention (and funny bone) involves Marge questioning Bart about his unusually large circle of friends, including a trio of boys who look too old to be in high school walking by as they address Marge by another name and greeting another kid in the kitchen as Bart.

Back in real life, if your mother was anything like mine, she’d never let any kid I invited over into the house unless she knew that kid’s parents personally. To see Buster’s mother frantically accommodating a spontaneous children’s party may seem silly to our modern eyes, but to be honest not much has changed. The mediums are different, the socioeconomic statuses of the families are different. There’s no argument that Buster Brown’s family would have a much different set of values than the Simpsons (the latter family has a much more equal relationship with the ethnic whites and blacks than the former, after all). It seems however, that the mothers of both mediums remind us that regardless of class and time, there will always be that one dimwitted mother who goes against common sense when it comes to her children’s affairs. Timeless.

“I look like Buster Brown……whomever that is.”
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Cartooning in Columbus (Ohio)

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courtesy of Watch Tom Draw

Last week my friend Tom of Watch Tom Draw had a chance to visit the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum during his trip to Columbus. Named for the city’s most famous newspaper cartoonist, it houses one of many cartoon archives in the US and housed right on the campus of Ohio State University. Among the original works archived includes panels by R.F. Outcault (Buster Brown) Windsor McKay (Little Nemo in Slumberland) and Will Eisner (The Spirit) among many other gems.

If you ever find yourself near the Ohio State area and looking for something to see, I wouldn’t overlook it.

Link:
http://cartoons.osu.edu/

Life Before Superman: Ask your Grandparents

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Reading comics on the front porch: a tradition for 80 years.

My Grandmother is 93 years old (b. 1920), meaning that she was 18 when Action Comics #1 debuted on newsstands : She represents a hidden transition: the last of a generation that remember a time before superheroes or comics in book form, like those who remember life before television, computers, or sliced bread. Once her generation is gone, so do the perspectives that inadvertently remind us of how deeply comics have become integrated in our culture since their time.

If I’m not mistaken, Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee is only two years younger than my Grandma (born 1922). He was about my grandmother’s age when he received his first job in the comic book industry. We have Mr. Lee’s memory on the world before Superman for historical purposes, but what about the average person? The ones who bought Mr. Lee’s work, or those who dismissed it as “kid’s stuff”? Sadly, by the time I realized this my grandmother was already in the depths of dementia. Not all is lost, since I do recall how she used to respond to my own comics and I can always ask my mother how she used to react to my uncle’s collection.

People have Interviewed World War II veterans and (in the 1930s) former slaves for archives, but what about the first generation of comic book readers and the people they interacted with? They are grandparents, friends, neighbors, co-workers, someone we know in one way or another. Whom in their “funny magazines” did they consider their “superman” before there was one?
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Kreator’s Blokked Nite

                                         

It never occurred to me how easy it was to draw George Herriman’s Krazy Kat until a very late -almost morning-night of creator’s block. I need to have more moments like these.