- The Washington Times - Friday, May 6, 2011

Vol. 1 (1924-1927), Vol. 2 (1927-1929), Vol. 3 (1929-1931), Vol. 4 (1932-1933), Vol. 5 (1933-1935) and Vol. 6 (1935-1936)
By Harold Gray
Edited by Dean Mullaney
IDW Publishing, $39.99 (Vols. 1-3), $49.99 (Vols. 4-6)

For many decades, Little Orphan Annie was regarded as one of the great American comic strips. Created by Harold Gray, its mop-top girl’s spunky nature, perpetual curiosity and incredible adventures on the funny pages captivated adults and children alike. The strip’s immense popularity helped spawn a radio program, movies, music and a long-running Broadway musical.

But somewhere over the rainbow, skies turned gray. The strip, renamed “Annie” in 1979, had become a pale imitation of its former self. Readership declined steadily for years because of a lack of defined character development and dull, uninspiring stories. When the final strip came out last June, fewer than 20 newspapers carried it - and barely anyone noticed that Annie was gone. It was a sad ending for a once-important comic icon.

Yet a long-term book project has ensured that the life and times of the little orphan girl won’t fade away completely. Since 2008, Dean Mullaney’s Library of American Comics, with the help of IDW Publishing, has published a series of hardcover volumes containing every daily and Sunday strip. Each book can be described as a work of art, with considerable time, care and detail given to the subject matter. Thought-provoking essays written by comics historian Jeet Heer - who wrote his doctoral thesis on this very strip - are the perfect intellectual complements to these volumes.

In my view, “The Complete Little Orphan Annie” series is one of the most impressive comic-strip collections ever produced, and a worthy (and friendly) rival to Fantagraphics Books’ widely discussed series “The Complete Peanuts.” Yet this particular series is more intriguing because the vast majority of readers didn’t grow up with this particular version of Annie, as they did with Peanuts.

In Vol. 1, Annie resided in a dreary orphanage run by the cruel Miss Asthma. Her ultimate goal was to leave this environment post haste and find a real family. She was adopted on a trial basis by the then-snooty Mrs. Warbucks and quickly formed a bond - with genuine love and affection - for her tycoon husband, Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks.

Mr. Heer makes this unique assessment of the strip in Vol. 2, “As a poor orphan struggling against injustice, Annie is a deeply Dickensian character, as are the many friends and enemies she meets on her pilgrim’s progress through America.” He’s right: The strip isn’t based in London, and there is not quite as much soot in the chimneys, yet Gray’s admiration of Dickens’ storytelling is crystal clear during the 1924-36 period.

Make no mistake about it: Little Orphan Annie may have its fair share of tragic overtones, but this is far from a weepy liberal tale. Gray was a progressive Republican early in his career - but as comics historian Coulton Waugh noted, he became “Republican and conservative to his toenails.” With each passing volume of this series, the master cartoonist’s personal political views are transferred to his loyal subjects, the cast of comic strip characters.

In particular, Vol. 6 of “The Complete Orphan Annie” is a superb example of the free-market, justice-lovin’ and conservative-to-the-core comic strip. Annie, her dog, Sandy, and Daddy Warbucks are involved in titanic struggles against various evildoers. Punjab the Wizard, an 8-foot-tall giant and “ferocious defender of justice,” is introduced for the first time and becomes an important ally for many decades.

Meanwhile, Eli Eon, a homeless and somewhat off-kilter scientist with an exciting invention, Eonite, arrives on the scene in Vol. 6. Warbucks is impressed with this cheap, indestructible material. He believes it can be used to end the Great Depression, since millions of people would have to be employed to manufacture it. Alas, an anti-capitalist mob of workers who want Warbucks to give Eonite to the “common pee-pul” burn down the tycoon’s factory for purely selfish purposes. They even kill Eon in the process - meaning his magnificent invention, and the possible end to human suffering, permanently disappears into a fiery grave.

For conservative, libertarian and classical liberal thinkers, “Little Orphan Annie” was, in many ways, our kind of comic strip. Gray was opposed to the New Deal, unions, left-wing politicians, communism and even corrupt business practices. Daddy Warbucks was a shining supporter of “benevolent capitalism” (to borrow Mr. Heer’s phrase) and a true champion of the free market. Even the mop-top Annie, who was less political, supported free enterprise and believed in fighting crime.

Annie may be gone, but the memory of Little Orphan Annie’s crusade for free markets, individual liberty and swift justice will live on in this important book series. Leapin’ lizards, thank goodness for that.

Michael Taube is a columnist and former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. An occasional contributor to The Washington Times, he wrote an opinion piece titled “Little Orphan Annie’s giant legacy” on June 11, 2010.

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