Funny, Like Us

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Fortunately for young, unemployed Clare Briggs, the new technology of halftone photography had not yet reached Missouri. In 1896 the St. Louis Globe-Democrat was still illustrating the news with pen-and-ink drawings and needed another sketch artist. Briggs, a dropout from the University of Nebraska, with only one printed sample in his portfolio, applied for the job and, much to his surprise, got it.

 

Fortunately for young, unemployed Clare Briggs, the new technology of halftone photography had not yet reached Missouri. In 1896 the St. Louis Globe-Democrat was still illustrating the news with pen-and-ink drawings and needed another sketch artist. Briggs, a dropout from the University of Nebraska, with only one printed sample in his portfolio, applied for the job and, much to his surprise, got it.

 

Compared with Briggs’s birthplace in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, St. Louis was a sophisticated metropolis shimmering with opportunity. Within two years he had moved to the St. Louis Chronicle, where he was given the exalted job of editorial cartoonist. With the Spanish-American War going on, he was never short of subject matter, but when the war ended, so did his job. To make matters worse, photograph reproductions, which for years could be seen only in the big New York City newspapers, had made their way west.

After many months of unemployment Briggs landed a job as courtroom artist with the New York Journal, a Hearst paper. But it was obvious to the art editor that Briggs was more a cartoonist than a sketch artist, and in 1904 he was transferred to Hearst’s Chicago American to create a comic strip. It was called A. Piker Clerk, and its hero was a racetrack tout. Time has not been kind to this short-lived strip, but it is of importance to historians of the comics—yes, there really are such beings—because they believe it to be the very first horizontal daily comic strip. It was also the direct progenitor of Bud Fisher’s A. Mutt strip, which later became Mutt and Jeff.

In one of his Piker strips, Briggs had the temerity to caricature the czar of Russia, an act that brought down the wrath of Hearst upon his head. The publishing tycoon regarded it as vulgar to ridicule a foreign dignitary in a comic strip and axed it on the spot. It was time for Briggs to move on. The Chicago Tribune hired him and allowed him to work in a single-panel format rather than a strip. Now liberated from having to deal with just one comic character, Briggs began turning out wonderfully evocative drawings about small-town life and the joys and tribulations of growing up. Drawn essentially from Briggs’s memories of his own childhood, these bittersweet drawings represent a unique departure from previous comics. For the first time sentiment and personal recollection replaced slapstick and punch lines on the funny pages.

Cartoons about rural life were, admittedly, not new by 1908. John T. McCutcheon, the popular cartoonist for the rival Chicago Record-Herald, was already turning out strips about country hicks when Briggs arrived at the Tribune, but McCutcheon’s humor was broad. Briggs’s view of the small town was warm, affectionate, and, above all, personal. The public responded enthusiastically. Here were characters just like people they knew—and like themselves —in situations that seemed barely exaggerated. The public especially empathized with those cartoons called The Days of Real Sport, Briggs’s nostalgic drawings about what it was like growing up in a small Wisconsin town. Most of these have references to an offstage boy named Skin-Nay, which, of course, is what Briggs himself was called. To judge by the careful attention to detail in this group of drawings, they had a special meaning for Briggs as well as for his readers.

 

By the time his contract with the Chicago Tribune expired in 1914, Briggs was one of the most popular cartoonists in America. He had his pick of any newspaper in America, and eager to return to New York—this time as a big success—he chose the New York Tribune. Given a generous amount of space (especially by today’s standards), Briggs alternated between strips and singlepanel cartoons. The Trib’s readers were, for the most part, middle- and upper-middle-class office workers. These white-collar types had no trouble relating to the characters in Briggs’s cartoons: husbands who couldn’t fix things around the house, wives who wouldn’t concentrate on their bridge games, and executives beset by incompetent staff.

 

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.