The pantomime comic strip is the animated world’s answer to the silent movie. Barely a word is spoken by the cast of cartoon characters, except for occasional thought balloons to set scenes or provide direction for readers. Some of the strong, silent types in the pen-and-ink crowd have included Carl Anderson’s Henry, Oscar Jacobsson’s Silent Sam, Mark Tatulli’s Lio and, arguably, the greatest of them all, Otto Soglow’s Little King.
For five decades, “The Little King” (and its predecessor, “The Ambassador”) entertained millions of newspaper readers with wit, charm and barely a word of dialogue. Soglow’s artistic talent, his stout little ruler’s mischievous demeanor and the strip’s gentle humor were a winning combination. It’s still fondly remembered by cartoon historians as an example of what a great comic strip should be.
Here’s a classic example of a “Little King” strip: A regular character, Ookie the Dictator, tells the cartoon monarch, “Today, your majesty, you are to act as a judge at the annual art exhibit and award the first prize.” At the exhibit, the king sees various ultramodern paintings with such titles as “Morning,” “Night” and “Romance,” none of which looks anything like the subject matter. Frustrated, the king gives the award to a “No Smoking” sign.
In “Cartoon Monarch,” Dean Mullaney has assembled an impressive one-volume examination of the royal nonsense. More than 400 cartoons have been reproduced, including the entire run of “The Ambassador” and various advertisements in which the king appears.
As Jared Gardner points out in his introduction, Soglow — the American-born son of German-Jewish parents — “developed a surprisingly expressive minimalism that opened up spaces for a different kind of humor” than previously seen in the funny pages. With his mastery of quick, mostly visual gag, Soglow helped revitalize cartooning.
In his early days, Soglow was a regular contributor to radical left-wing publications such as the Liberator and the New Masses. Part of this can be attributed to the school Soglow attended, the Art Students League of New York, and socialist mentors such as John Sloan. The other part can be attributed to the cartoonist’s political views, as he joined John Reed Clubs, signed “a petition in the New York Times in 1930 against anti-Communist propaganda” and sat on the board of a left-wing publishing house, New Pioneer. As Gardner points out, Soglow’s “ties to leftist organizations would diminish in the coming years” as he acquired more fame and success, but the “experiences of his early career would lend to all his work an ironic and often melancholic social commentary.”
Soglow first made a name for himself in the late 1920s with his manhole series in the New Yorker: a one-panel gag featuring the same open manhole, with unseen workers down below making profound social statements and amusing anecdotes. Time magazine appropriately called Soglow the “Harpo Marx of art,” and he was on his way. “The Little King” followed in 1934.
Gardner correctly wrote that Soglow’s Little King “played on the surprise of seeing a man with all the privilege and power in the world longing for the simple life of beer and dancehalls.” That was the key to success for this comic strip protagonist. He wasn’t a snobbish, uppity monarch who told peasants to eat cake; rather, he was a pleasant, down-to-earth ruler who preferred to break bread with them. Soglow eventually signed a contract with William Randolph Hearst, the powerful owner of King Features Syndicate. He drew ads for major companies, including Pepsi-Cola and Standard Oil, creating a “lucrative second career.”
“Cartoon Monarch” will give readers a greater appreciation of this simple yet brilliant comic strip. It will also show why the quiet, wordless king was often the talk of the town.
Taube is a Toronto-based columnist for the Ottawa Citizen and a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.