People are familiar with the word “screwball.” It’s a baseball pitch, particular genre of comedic film and a crude alternative for “crazy” or “eccentric,” among other things.
Screwball was also associated with various cartoonists in the early to mid-20th century. Their groundbreaking work could be described as delightfully bizarre, positively whimsical and starkly avant garde. They regularly challenged our sense of normalcy, and left an indelible imprint on comic strips that still exists to this day.
Comics historian Paul C. Tumey examines this fascinating period of artistic creativity in “Screwball!: The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny.” These cartoonists apparently never used the term screwball to describe their “particular kind of manic, ludicrous, grotesque, compressed, dreamlike cartoons and comic strips.” Rather, the author paraphrases American comedian Ed Wynn and suggests a “screwball cartoonist is not someone who draws funny comics, but instead someone who draws comics funny.”
Mr. Tumey profiles 15 cartoonists who mastered the art of screwball comics. Some will be immediately recognized by readers, along with their memorable creations, while others have been lost or forgotten with the passage of time. Fortunately, all of them have been brought back to life in this superbly constructed volume that includes more than 600 cartoons and photographs, including previously unreprinted items.
One of the more notable profiles is of George Herriman. A black cartoonist who posed as white his entire adult life, he “stands among the greatest of all screwball cartoonists” and “ranks among the greatest of all cartoonists, period.” While his legendary comic strip, “Krazy Kat,” has been analyzed for decades, his great screwball classic “Stumble Inn” has barely been discussed. It has a surprisingly close plot line to the popular British comedy series “Fawlty Towers.” Uriah Stumble, the proprietor, has a domineering wife, wants to be a social climber, and has a “cast of colorful screwballs” including house detective Owl Eye and black bellhop Soda Pop. Although “Stumble Inn” only ran from 1922-1926, the reprints of old daily and Sunday strips prove it should have had a much longer shelf life.
There’s also Rube Goldberg, who is described as “the Napoleon of the nuthouse.” His incredible illustrated inventions, including how to strain soup through a full-grown beard and how to scare away “hiccoughs,” were among the most innovative in comic strip history. His name is even part of Webster’s Dictionary as “ingeniously or unnecessarily complicated in design or construction.” Mr. Tumey includes examinations of Goldberg’s brilliant screwball strips like “Boob McNutt,” an early example of “black humor” in the funny pages which operated “with the same bleak absurdity as the novels of Kurt Vonnegut and the films of the Coen Brothers.” Overall, he believes the cartoonist’s “crystallization of screwball humor, forging moments of silliness with sardonic observations, represents an extraordinary contribution to popular culture.”
Another well-known cartoonist profile is that of E.C. Segar. His most well-known comic strip was “Thimble Theatre,” starring characters such as Popeye, Olive Oyl and Wimpy. His contributions to screwball comics include a two-year stint drawing Charlie Chaplin’s “Comic Capers” and the eye-popping “Looping the Loop,” a “tall, narrow one-column pictorial daily column with no fixed characters.” Using outlandish stories and drawing techniques, Segar was able to “successfully move from a gag-a-day strip to long continuities mixing screwball comedy with various genres” such as sports, war stories and pirate tales.
Mr. Tumey’s analysis of lesser-known and unknown cartoonists (at least to the general public) is also fascinating.
There’s Frederick Burr Opper, most famous for “Happy Hooligan,” who “blazed a trail and shaped the American newspaper comic strip’s exuberant embrace of chaos” in his work for Puck magazine and absurd comic strip “Alphonse and Gaston.” Eugene Zimmerman, or “Zim,” was a Swiss-born cartoonist who drew for Puck and Judge and had a “gift for creating bold, absurdly distorted comic images” which helped make him “a prime early innovator of the grotesque style in cartooning.” Walter R. Bradford, who created 30 innovative comic strips like Jingaling Johnson, Boggs the Optimist and The Peaceful Pickleweights but is barely remembered today, is credited for his unorthodox, eccentric cartooning style and the “core theme of mania, a quality he seemed to possess himself.”
Mr. Tumey’s encyclopedic knowledge, artistic eye and deft writing hand brings the history of screwball comics magically to life. The proponents may have been eccentric by nature, but they helped enrich the newspaper funnies in a way that few others would have truly been able to do.
• Michael Taube is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.
• • •
SCREWBALL!: THE CARTOONISTS WHO MADE THE FUNNIES FUNNY
By Paul C. Tumey
IDW Publishing / Library of American Comics, $59.99, 304 pages