The comic strip “Polly and Her Pals” ran in many of America’s high-circulation newspapers between 1912 and 1958. It always maintained a respectable following but never reached the heights of popularity achieved by such contemporaries as “The Katzenjammer Kids”
More than 50 years later, it’s difficult to explain why Cliff Sterrett’s magnificent creation never quite took flight. To be sure, “Polly” was way ahead of
its time. Sterrett’s surrealistic, quasi-cubist artistic style was a unique fixture on the funny pages. It led Al Capp
(of “Li’l Abner”
fame) to dub him the Picasso of the cartooning world. Recent
comic historians have noted Sterrett’s genius and recognized the strip as a shining example of originality.
“Polly” has now been commemorated in a welcome new series, the Library of American Comics Essentials. Each book reproduces an entire year of a classic comic strip, with one daily black-and-white strip per page. Following
and “The Gumps,”
this third volume examines Polly’s hilarious misadventures during 1933.
Readers will enjoy meeting the strip’s endearing cast. This includes Polly Perkins (a 1920s flapper and notorious flirt), her Paw
and Maw (the true stars and comic relief), oddball cousin Ash, Japanese servant Neewah and puckish pet Kitty. Sterrett’s artwork, complete with boldly drawn geometric shapes and lines, is still captivating. The folksy twang of Polly’s family, a byproduct of this era, remains as charming now as it was 80 years ago.
Sterrett also knew how to tell a yarn with great panache and gusto. One extended story line dealt with the Perkinses moving to the country. In the book’s introduction, Bruce Canwell believes this decision was “likely inspired by Sterrett’s experiences and observations of life in rural Maine.” If so, what the cartoonist witnessed inspired many memorable tales. Standouts include the failed attempts to raise a hog for pork chops and bacon; the hen- house robberies mystery; and a story that climaxes with Paw entering the barn to milk a cow — complete with a gun, whip and chair — and hollering, “Gangway, everybuddy! I ain’t responsible fer spectators!!”
Canwell describes Sterrett as “perhaps the most neglected of major newspaper cartoonists.” With greater exposure to a wider audience, this perception should dissipate. An entire year with “Polly and Her Pals” is a step in the right direction.
Taube is a columnist and former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.