Sketchy Characters

August 24, 2011


Cartoons and advertising were married long before Snoopy was shilling for MetLife. Since as far back as the late 1800s, ‘toons have played a role in hawking everything from Ovaltine (Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie) to cigars (Richard F. Outcault’s very underage Yellow Kid).

In their new book, “Drawing Power: A Compendium of Cartoon Advertising 1870s-1940s” (Marschall Books, $29), Warren Bernard and Rick Marschall examine the history of cartoons and commerce — and the sometimes sordid relationship between them.

Take “Little Nemo” artist Winsor McCay’s gorgeous — and jarring to modern-day eyes — series of Lucky Strike ads from the late 1920s, for example. The book reproduces the series in beautiful full color, all the better to ponder the ads’ message: Smoking Luckies represents a victory for “American Intelligence” over the “ancient prejudice” against cigarette smoking.

Bernard — assistant executive director of the Small Press Expo, Maryland’s annual alternative comics convention — notes that McCay, who had a long career as William Randolph Hearst’s main editorial cartoonist, actually began his career as an ad man. We might remember him for “Gertie the Dinosaur,” but McCay “started out doing posters for circuses,” Bernard says. “Advertising was something he started in, rather than fell into.”

Lots of other cartoonists have lent their pens to the ad game. As for “Lil’ Abner” creator Al Capp, “there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t put his name on,” says Bernard.

Things are only a little different for comic characters today, he explains. “You still get [ads], although now the superheroes pretty much advertise their own in-brand products. Marvel belongs to Disney and DC belongs to Time Warner.”
Dollar signs aside, Bernard says that cartoon ads should still be viewed as real art. “Commercial work is thought to be cheap, that it’s not people’s art but a mere work-for-hire,” he says. “Well, Toulouse-Lautrec got hired to do covers of menus.”

Timeless Appeal: “Little Nemo” artist Winsor McCay also worked on military recruiting posters, such as the one above. “This is dated right after the [1918] armistice,” author Warren Bernard says. “Notice one of the places to go is Siberia, to distribute aid to [anti-Communist] Russians.” Options for recruits are a bit different today, but the “pick a service, pick a challenge” theme is timeless. “Nothing has changed except the medium,” he notes. “The message has not changed.”

Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Thu., 7 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness)

Written by Express contributor Paul Stelter
Photo courtesy the Library of Congress

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