XIII: Media and Entertainment

Cartoons and Cartoonists

Photo of Winsor Mckay's famous comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland.
Photo courtesy of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at The Ohio State University.


            Although midwestern cities are far from the media centers in New York and Los Angeles, the history of cartooning reveals that cartoonists from the Midwest have shaped their medium more than their colleagues from any other part of the country. The comic strip that established the daily “strip” format for newspaper comics was Mutt and Jeff by Bud Fisher, who was born and raised in Chicago. Other pace-setting comic strip cartoonists of the region include Minnesota’s Charles Schulz, whose Peanuts gave comics a genuine human dimension and set the fashion in comic strips for at least the last quarter of the 20th century; Missouri’s Chic Young, whose Blondie is the most enduring of the family situation comedy strips;Ohio’s Milton Caniff, whose Terry and the Pirates raised the standard for adventure strips in 1930s and 1940s, and who, with Noel Sickles, also from Ohio, deployed a drawing style that created a “school” of comic strip illustration; and several cartoonists in the Chicago area, most of whom worked for the Chicago Tribune‑‑Sidney Smith (The Gumps, arguably the first strip to tell a continuing story from day-to-day, the popularity of which spawned the Chicago Tribune newspaper syndicate), Frank King (whose characters in Gasoline Alley were the first to age), Harold Gray (the first major syndicated cartoonist to take a political stance, conservative, in Little Orphan Annie), and Chester Gould (whose Dick Tracy virtually created the detective strip genre).

            The Chicago Art Institute provided training for a host of artists who turned to cartooning—Roy Crane (who, with Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy, established the adventure genre), Harold Foster (who introduced realistic illustration with Tarzan and perpetuated it in Prince Valiant), and Ken Ernst (who drew the first soap opera strip, Mary Worth, for Cleveland writer Allen Saunders). Two of World War II’s soldier cartoonists grew up in Chicago: George Baker, whose Sad Sack personified the downtrodden enlisted man, and Dave Breger, whose creation, G.I. Joe (also published as Private Breger), provided the generic term for that war’s soldiers.

            Two of the medium’s early geniuses grew up in the Midwest—in Ohio, Richard F. Outcault, whose “Yellow Kid,” starting in the mid-1890s, was the earliest newspaper comics sensation and whose Buster Brown (and his dog Tige) became one of the pioneering merchandising successes; and in Michigan, Winsor McCay, who demonstrated in Little Nemo a mastery of the comic strip form that raised it to fine art. Among the first widely circulated, syndicated editorial cartoonists was J.N. “Ding” Darling at the Des Moines Register from 1917 on. Other major editorial cartoonists working in the Midwest were John T. McCutcheon (who introduced the “human interest” editorial cartoon) at the Chicago Tribune, Vaughn Shoemaker at the Chicago Daily News, Billy Ireland at the Columbus Dispatch, Daniel Fitzpatrick and Bill Mauldin, both at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Herb Block (“Herblock”), coiner of the term “McCarthyism,” who was born in Chicago and employed at NEA in Cleveland where he won the first of three Pulitzer Prizes before spending the rest of his career and life at the Washington Post. The first woman editorial cartoonist at a general circulation newspaper was Edwina Dumm at the Monitor in Columbus; she later produced the comic strip Cap Stubbs and Tippie for nearly 50 years, a record in itself. And Cathy Guisewite, whose Cathy comic strip forged a place in the comics for women’s interest strips, grew up in Michigan.
            The comic book industry was invigorated (if not actually created) by the superhero genre, which was inaugurated by Superman, a creation of two Cleveland youths, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; and Superman’s greatest newsstand rival, Captain Marvel, was designed by a Minnesotan, C. C. Beck. Magazine cartoonists from the Midwest include The New Yorker’s James Thurber (Ohio) and Helen Hokinson (Illinois); Art Young (Wisconsin), a gentle Socialist; Frederick Burr Opper (Ohio), who also did book illustration, editorial cartoons, and, finally, a classic comic strip, Happy Hooligan. The cartoonist whose genius set the fashion for theatrical caricatures, Al Hirschfeld, grew to adolescence in St. Louis; another distinctive stylist in the same line of work was Alfred Frueh, who was born in Ohio. This roster is by no means complete; but the foregoing roll call of significant figures in the history of the medium demonstrates beyond question that the sensibilities of the Midwest were well represented by its cartoonists in newspaper comic strips, editorial cartoons, comic books, and magazine cartooning.
Robert C. Harvey
Champaign, Illinois
Stephen Becker , Comic Art in America (1959); Bill Blackbeard and Dale Crain, Comic Strip Century (1995); Ron Goulart, The Funnies: 100 Years of American Comic Strips (1995); Jerry Robinson, The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art (1974); Brian Walker, The Comics Since 1945 (2002); Coulton Waugh, The Comics (1947).