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Funny, Like Us
In Clare Briggs’s cartoons nobody got chased by twenty cops, nobody broke a plank over the boss’s head, nobody’s eyes popped out on springs. People just acted the way people do, and as a result, the drawings still make us laugh.
May/June 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 4
In his strips—or “sequential drawings,” as academics would have it— Briggs used a minimum of detail. He said he regarded his drawings as merely a diagram for the action. Yet even in these “diagrams” the skills he honed as a sketch artist show up in the effortless way he handled gesture. Above all, Briggs’s drawings had a crisp, unlabored look, which is one reason we find them so amusing. In cartooning, as in all comic endeavors, it’s best if we are not aware of the technique that produces the effect.
By the mid-1920s Briggs had a number of imitators. Clare Victor Dwiggins’s School Days was a saccharine version of The Days of Real Sport, and H. T. Webster, creator of Caspar Milquetoast, not only used the same subject matter as Briggs but had a pen-and-ink technique that was almost identical. The best of the look-alikes was J. R. Williams’s Out Our Way, a beautifully drawn single-panel cartoon about small-town life that seemed honestly felt.
In his The Days of Real Sport drawings, Briggs presented a picture of an innocent America that was in sharp contrast with what Trib readers saw all around them: flask-carrying boozers in raccoon coats, short-skirted flappers drinking and smoking, and chauffeur-driven Wall Street speculators. Briggs’s cartoons reassured readers that there was once an America where boys got up early to do farm chores, where longhaired, long-skirted girls blushed easily, and where Mom made buckwheat cakes on a wood stove.
Briggs became rich, moved to the suburbs like millions of others in the 1920s, and developed a passion for golf, like other upwardly mobile businessmen. He brought his suburban life into his cartoons, just as he had his earlier life in the Midwest, and it proved just as funny. Briggs’s affluent middle age was, after all, just as typically American as his simple, rural childhood.
When he died in 1930, at fifty-four, his estate was worth millions, and his divorced wife and his mistress went to court to claim the money. The tabloids played the trial up big, but unfortunately their courtroom artists lacked the comic perspective that Briggs could have brought to it.