By Robert Anderson
The outlandish effumations of our president (or at least the least destructive ones) put me in mind of Major Hoople.
That, in turn, reminded me that four or five years ago I wrote a monograph carrying on at unwieldy length about one of my many non-consequential enthusiasms: Daily cartoon strips and their creators. The original rambled on for 29 pages – I don’t know what I planned to do with it, and like a lot of my stuff it sits there unread.
Until now, when I propose to unload the first couple of pages on you … the Virgin Reader of:
Where Goest Thou, Major Hoople?
Vanishing Icons of the Funny Papers
(And A Few Classic Survivors)
Now, about Li’l Abner …
The average teenager has not a clue. Is our national heritage at stake when the future leaders of our nation are tragically unaware that Dogpatch was an enclave of comic strip hillbillies notable for their ignorance? Will New Age culture obliterate such vital touchstones of Americana as the fact that the sweet-natured and innocent Abner shared a cabin with his Mammy and Pappy Yokum and pet pig Salomey in a “holler’ where the principal comestible was Kickapoo Joy Juice stirred up by a Cro-Magnon named Hairless Joe and his naïve American buddy, Lonesome Polecat?
Vanishing popular knowledge of that internationally heralded creation of a once-famed cartoonist named Al Capp is far from unique in the pantheon of America’s comic strip icons of the classic mid-20th century period. Though youngsters are well aware of the super-heroes – Superman, Batman, The Incredible Hulk, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, and the rest – those costumed defenders of liberty and justice are merely the muscle-bound showoffs of the genre. Yet they are enshrined in the temples of contemporary film, video games, and even Broadway. All but forgotten are the funnymen (and funny-women) of what was once known as The Funny Papers.
It is those raggedy, non-super clowns whose outrageous gaffs and preposterous predicaments were chronicled daily in black-and-white -- and in glorious color on Sunday – whose antics have faded from view. A scattered few of the survivors may be found on the shrinking pages of the nation’s dailies but – tragically – youth is not oriented toward newsprint. We, however, remember …
So let us now celebrate the likes of Major Amos B. Hoople, that magnificent blowhard who has been compared to W. C. Fields and Shakespeare’s Falstaff. Observe him, this monument to turgid declamation in human form, grand of gut and bulbous of nose, as he shuffles about Our Boarding House in his slippers and fez, conjuring up brash tales of personal heroics. No land is too distant, no quest too harrowing, no battle too hopeless, no bogus escapade too outlandish for the dauntless Major to be the central and deciding figure.
Of course we knew that by the end of each episode the Major’s latest grandiose saga would be deflated (“Awp!” “Fap!”) by no-nonsense Martha who ruled Our Boarding House with a rolling pin in an iron hand.
Major Hoople’s principal audience – Buster, Clyde and Mack, resident boarders of his wife Martha’s establishment – dismissed the Major’s flamboyant yarns out-of-hand. Only his juvenile nephew, Alvin, made a pretense of occasional attention, and that merely as a matter of familial duty. Yet, undaunted, the Major persisted in reciting yet another long-winded narrative of astounding achievements, occasionally with punctuation from his verbal file of archaic expressions
(“Egad!” “Drat!”) or purely invented utterances (“kaff-kaff!” “hurrumphh!”).
Of course we knew that by the end of each episode the Major’s latest grandiose saga would be deflated (“Awp!” “Fap!”) by no-nonsense Martha who ruled Our Boarding House with a rolling pin in an iron hand. Yet, there was more than a hint of the heroic – yes, even pathos – in that unrelenting reach for recognition. And a touch of tragedy, too, with the inevitable puncture of each extravagant fabrication.
Major Hoople made a wealthy man of his creator, Gene Ahern. In 1936 the comic strip was a huge hit, had been running for fifteen years, and Ahern’s syndicate was paying him $35,000 annually, big-tie money in the depths of the Depression. That year a competitor offered to double the cartoonist’s salary and he jumped ship. However, he couldn’t take the title or the characters with him – Ahern had long before signed over all rights to Our Boarding House. His original bosses hired the first of a long line of other artists and the Major continued uninterrupted, issuing his wonderous dissertations for another forty-eight years.
Meanwhile, Gene Ahern created a new strip as close in style and plot as the copyright laws would allow: Room and Board, with a lead windbag character he named Judge Piffle (virtually Major Hoople in a beret instead of a fez). Though it was a moderate success and lasted a respectable seventeen years while seeing Ahern into a very comfortable retirement, it never achieved the fame of Major Hoople and company. In fact Room and Board was eventually overshadowed by the strip that ran just above it on the same page (a “topper” in cartoonist talk), written and drawn by the same inventive Gene Ahern. He titled it The Squirrel Cage.
Meanwhile, Gene Ahern created a new strip as close in style and plot as the copyright laws would allow: Room and Board, with a lead windbag character he named Judge Piffle (virtually Major Hoople in a beret instead of a fez).
I don’t know what gets into me when I get started on one of these things. This one rambles on and on and on…
Smoky Stover, Out Our Way, Moon Mullins, Mickey Finn, Joe Palooka, Mutt & Jeff, The Gumps, Regular Fella’s, Harold Teen, Freckles & His Friends, Emmy Lou, Bobby Sox, Polly & Her Pals, Boots & Her Buddies, Tillie the Toiler, Willie WInkle, Ella Cinders, Toots & Casper, Fritzi Ritz, Nancy, Thimble Theatre (that’s Popeye, of course), Blondie, Alley Oop, Barney Google, Mutt & Jeff, Bringing Up Father, Krazy Kat, Toonerville Trolly, Mauldin’s Willie & Joe, Sad Sack, Beetle Bailey… etc. etc. …. through a couple of immortals, Pogo and Peanuts… and ending up as it started, with Lil Abner and his favorite comic strip, Fearless Fosdick.
Well, there is this final paragraph:
Oh, as to Major Hoople: after sixty years under the hand of many different writers and artists, the magnificent windbag came into a surprise fortune when the patent on a minor invention he had acquired years earlier (“kaff-kaff”) was purchased by a big pockets corporation. On March 29, 1981, Amos and Martha said goodbye to Clyde, Mack, Buster, and the other occupants of Our Boarding House and sailed off to an undocumented future of luxury and leisure. As this is a happy ending, we may assume that the Major is still managing to steal away from Martha for an occasional hour with his compatriots at the Owls Club, but we will never know for certain.