A comic strip’s popularity and long-term appeal is determined by various factors, including generational references, character and story development and merchandising. That’s why some great strips have been able to maintain a strong following (Peanuts, Beetle Bailey, Little Nemo in Slumberland, Pogo) while others gradually slipped into obscurity (Sam’s Strip, Tooner-ville Folks, the Gumps, the Kin-der-Kids).
There even are comic strips that have disappeared from memory save for rare references by fans and historians. One noteworthy example is Johnny Gruelle’s Mr. Twee Deedle, which ran from 1911 to 1918. While the cartoonist’s name likely won’t set off many bells, his two famous creations, Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy, surely will. The astonishing success of the Raggedy Ann doll - patented by Gruelle in September 1915 - led to his original comic strip taking a back-seat equivalent to that of a flight into the Bermuda Triangle. Mr. Twee Deedle didn’t just become a footnote in comic-strip history; it has spent nearly a century trying to work up to that point.
Comics historian Rick Marschall has set out to change this perception. In his new book, “Mr. Twee Deedle: Raggedy Ann’s Sprightly Cousin,” the greatest comic strip you’ve never heard of comes to life. This lavish volume of work contains a magnificent cover, superb artwork and all the trimmings one has come to expect from Fantagraphics Books. In particular, the forgotten strip has been reproduced in a broadsheet newspaper format along with other drawings and cartoons. We therefore are able to view Mr. Twee Deedle exactly as our predecessors did and visit this beautifully drawn fantasyland that few living souls even vaguely remember.
Gruelle, born in 1880 into an artistic family with a “natural” talent for cartooning, worked as a newspaper staff artist for the Indianapolis Star and Cleveland Press. As Marschall wrote, Gruelle’s “sense of composition was sound; his comic anatomy was correct; he showed an aptitude for caricature; and his ideas were funny.” In 1911, he won a $2,000 first prize in a national competition of 1,500 entrants sponsored by the New York Herald. His winning entry, Mr. Twee Deedle, would therefore appear in the prominent Sunday funny pages.
At least, that’s how the story goes. Mr. Marschall believes this contest was “more likely vintage press agentry than historical fact.” Why? For one thing, a claim that Gruelle “had come from nowhere” was nonsense, as his work had been nationally syndicated for years. Mr. Marschall owns files dating back 15 years before the Herald’s contest, and there is “scant mention of any such contest in its pages.” As well, none of the runners-up were “ever mentioned participating in such a contest … There was no flurry of new strips in other newspapers after the contest; surely cartoonists would have taken their creations or samples elsewhere.”
If so, why the elaborate ruse? Here is Marschall’s theory: “the star of the Herald’s comic section, Winsor McCay, was planning to leave the paper when his contract expired in 1911, and take his superb Little Nemo in Slumberland to Hearst’s New York American across town.” This makes sense, considering how popular Little Nemo was - and how financially damaging his loss would be to the Herald’s Sunday edition. Even so, Gruelle’s artistic skills should have been showcased as McCay’s talented new replacement, instead of being marketed as a diamond in the rough in a (seemingly) made-up contest.
On the surface, there are similarities between Mr. Twee Deedle and Little Nemo. The two strips were lifelike, visually appealing and extremely imaginative. But according to Mr. Marschall, “on subsequent glances, they were worlds apart.” Gruelle’s strip was created “in an entirely different mold that not even remotely resembled Nemo in theme, premise, or graphic vision.” In his view, “Nemo transcribed McCay’s imagination, while Twee Deedle translated Gruelle’s imagination.” And in the starkest difference, McCay “depicted a mechanical and futuristic world” in Slumberland, whereas Gruelle “depicted a pastoral oasis.”
An in-depth examination of Mr. Twee Deedle reveals a creative, well-written and beautifully drawn comic strip. The main protagonist, Twee Deedle, is a helpful and affectionate wood sprite who goes on fantastic adventures with two young children, Dickie and Dolly. The supporting cast of characters have their quirks and quarks, to be sure, but are all endearing and memorable. The strips contain no mean-spiritedness, political messaging or recurring villains and plotlines. Mr. Twee Deedle’s world is, quite simply, a series of innocent tales in a fantasyland that any child - and many adults - would have loved to experience, if but for a short while.
Though it’s unfortunate Mr. Twee Deedle wasn’t able to stir the imagination in its day, it’s incredibly unfair that it’s been ignored for so long. With the release of Mr. Marschall’s impressive book, maybe Gruelle’s fantasy masterpiece finally will gain the recognition it so richly deserves. And maybe, just maybe, a seat at the table among the true giants of comic strips.
• Michael Taube is a columnist and former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.