Opus 51:

A Bodacious Cartoonist: Fred Lasswell Dies and Is Remembered (March 7, 2001). Uncle Fred died at about 6:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, March 4, of a heart attack while at home in Tampa, Florida. He was 84. And for all but 17 years of his life, he was intimately involved in the production of a daily comic strip, Barney Google and Snuffy Smith.

Fred Lasswell’s achievement with the strip must be measured in more than simply the number of years he did it. In that, he approached the record-holders in the profession. But he also worked another minor miracle: inheriting the strip from its creator Billy DeBeck in 1942, Lasswell managed to improve upon its original conception while maintaining its essential ambience—a rare almost unprecedented accomplishment.

And he did it all in the best traditions of the artform—by blending words and pictures to create the kind of humor neither words nor pictures could attain alone without the other. Fred Lasswell was, in other words, one of the grand masters of the medium. And he was a memorable and laudable man.

He was "Uncle Fred" to his colleagues in the National Cartoonist Society. He was an actively contributing member to the convivialities of the group for almost its entire existence, and no Reuben Weekend was complete without some shenanigan from Uncle Fred. Even last year when he didn’t attend, an unprecedented occurrence, he supplied punchlines for others standing at the microphone: all you had to do was refer to Uncle Fred—to one or another of his well-known proclivities—and you could get a laugh.

Even though absent in person, he was present. His picture was on the cover of the program booklet. And one of the souvenirs of the event was a flip book featuring Uncle Fred in action.

He was honored by NCS in other, more formal, ways. In 1964, he established a record when he was awarded both the Reuben statuette as "cartoonist of the year" and the category plaque for "best humor strip." And he is the only cartoonist to have twice (1984 and 1994) received the Elzie Segar Award "for unique and outstanding contributions to the profession of cartooning."

As the news of his death spread through the Internet, e-mail lists recorded the responses of other cartoonists.

"Uncle Fred was a dear friend to NCS," said Daryle Cagle, NCS President. "He was a treasure, and we are all richer for having known him."

"Now there was a cartoonist!" Paul Fell said. "Boy, talk about a career. Uncle Fred was the prototype for cartoonists if ever there was one."

And his strip was always an exemplar of the cartoonist’s art. In virtually every Snuffy Smith strip I ever saw, the pictures contributed as much to the punchline as the words. In a time when so much comic strip humor is entirely too verbal, the pictures serving only to identify the speakers and time the gag, Lasswell’s strip blended the verbal and the visual into a seamless whole. Typically, the words set up the situation in the opening panels; and the picture in the concluding panel supplied the joke. Neither words nor pictures alone without the other were funny; together, they created a new hilarity every time.

Uncle Fred had a way of making anyone he met feel at ease—as if they were friends of long standing. "Anyone who met him, loved him instantly," said Mark Szorady.

In the NCS membership Album, Uncle Fred is the only one to list not only his mailing address but his fax number and his phone number, signifying, without qualm or quibble, that anyone should feel free to call him anytime.

"He took me in like I was a long lost nephew," Ron Evry said. "But he was more than a fun guy and an active member of NCS. He was a link to a world of cartooning that no longer exists."

He was, in short, the last of the old time comic strip cartoonists, and his passing cuts the umbilical cord of direct experience that connects us to our past. Without Uncle Fred around, we shall have to imagine more because we no longer have the testimony of an eye witness.

On November 17, 1934, when cartoonist Billy DeBeck introduced the readers of Barney Google to a hillbilly character named Snuffy Smith, Fred Lasswell had been his assistant for about seven months. After Snuffy’s debut, most of DeBeck’s stories were set in an imaginary Appalachian community called Hootin’ Holler. It could have been Lasswell Land: Fred was country. And he undoubtedly helped DeBeck to conjure up the aura of the new hillbilly locale.

Fred was born in a little town in southeast Missouri in 1916 and grew up on a ten-acre farm near Gainesville, Florida. The farm supported a horse, a wagon, a plow, a cow, a dog, a cat, and 2,000 white leghorn chickens. But no electricity, telephone, radio, hot or cold running water. "We had an outhouse with a croker sack hanging where the door ought to be," Lasswell remembered. "In some parts of the country, a croker sack is called a gunny sack."

He would remember his rural roots all his life. "I remember sitting on our front porch at twilight time in a squeaky old rocking chair," Lasswell wrote once. "Way off in the distance, you could hear hound dawgs howlin’ and yappin’ like they had just reed a big ol’ fat ‘coon. And I’ll never forget the mournful cry of the whippoorwills. And you could smell a pine stump smouldering ‘way off somewhere. Once in a while, if you listened very carefully, you could hear the chatter of crickets and the frogs croaking in the creek. The world shore was a purty place in them days."

But in 1926, the Lasswell family became city dwellers. They moved to Tampa, and Fred went to school and produced his first comic strip at the age of twelve for the school newspaper. He continued drawing cartoons in high school, and after school, he sold newspapers in Ybor City, Tampa’s "recreational area," as he called it in later years: "In a thirty-square-block area, there were a whole lot of small houses side by side, where young ladies lived. And, since it was hard times, four or five of them would share the same house."

Fred quit school just before graduating and went to work in the art department of the Tampa Daily Timesfor awhile, freelancing simultaneously, then found a job in an ad agency.

"Space was at a premium at the agency, so I wound up working in the men’s room," he said. "I sat there on the toilet seat, with the lid down and a drawing board on my lap."

He was perched right there when he got a phone call from Billy DeBeck. In those days, DeBeck wintered at St. Petersburg, and he was golfing near Tampa with fellow cartoonist Frank Willard (Moon Mullins), Paul and Dizzy Dean (baseball greats), and Grantland Rice (famed sports writer) when he saw a poster that Fred had lettered. He wanted a letterer for Barney Google, and he soon hired Fred. When DeBeck went back to New York, Fred went with him. When DeBeck and his wife rented a home in Great Neck, Long Island, Fred moved in with them. "Wherever they moved, I lived with them," he said. And they lived in a lot of places over the next few years.

DeBeck undertook Fred’s education. He recommended books for him to read. And he directed the youth to copy accomplished pen-and-ink artists—Charles Dana Gibson, Phil May, and others—including his own work in the comic strip, which he made Fred copy, line for line.

Fred started contributing gags and other ideas to the strip almost at once, but it wasn’t until 1941 that DeBeck gave him a chance to solo. Fred wrote and drew a six-week sequence (February-March) in which 30,000 soldiers go to Hootin’ Holler for practice maneuvers and encounter hostile hillbillies, who have mistaken the uniformed legions for "revenooers" bent on destroying the local distilling business.

Born in 1890, William Morgan DeBeck had launched Barney Google on June 17, 1919, on the sports page of William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago Herald and Examiner, but it just limped along until 1922. On July 17 that year, DeBeck arranged for Barney to acquire a race horse named Spark Plug, and with the suspense the cartoonist subsequently created about the outcomes of Spark Plug’s races, the strip increased in readership and circulation. In 1923, songwriter Billy Rose contributed to the notoriety of the strip with the song, "Barney Google," which became a smash hit due, doubtless, to an irresistible refrain that referred to a conspicuous feature of Barney’s appearance—"Barney Google with the goo goo googly eyes."

The inventive DeBeck was perfectly capable of contributing to popular culture single-handedly. In the strip, he coined numerous expressions that captured the public’s fancy—heebie jeebies, horsefeathers, hotsy totsy, osky wow wow, sweet mama, and bughouse fables, to cite a few. And once he moved the locale of the strip to the backwoods, he indulged his fascination with language to imbue his creation with colorful expressions that reflected the argot of the hills.

DeBeck’s comic strip joined numerous other popular entertainments of the 1930s in acquainting a mainstream American audience with hill country culture, and although the strip was entirely fictional, DeBeck took pains to give his work an authentic foundation.

According to M. Thomas Inge, "in preparing for the new episodes, DeBeck traveled through the mountains of Virginia and Kentucky, talked to the natives, made numerous sketches, and read everything he could lay hands on that treated mountaineer life." DeBeck collected books on the subject, building an impressive library of the literature and lore of Appalachia.

Lasswell reported that one of his first tasks involved assisting his boss in the research. DeBeck went through books about the hill folk and blue-pencilled words and phrases; then Lasswell entered all of these into a "log book," which DeBeck later consulted for ideas and vocabulary. The two most heavily annotated authors, Inge notes, were Mary Noailes Murphree and George Washington Harris. And in the latter’s Sut Lovingood’s Yarns, Inge says, "there isn’t a page not heavily annotated." DeBeck borrowed heavily from Harris for the dialect spellings of such words as "hit" (for "it"), "hyar" ("here"), "mought" ("might"), "orter" ("ought to"), "propitty" ("property"), and so on.

Aided, doubtless, by his country-boy assistant, DeBeck also concocted entirely new expressions that had the ring of Appalachian lingo—daider’n a door-knob, time’s a-wastin’, a leetle tetched in the’ haid, shif’less skonk, bodacious idjit, ef that don’t take th’ rag off’n th’ bush, and others. And many of these (like "balls o’fire" and "jughaid") joined "heebie jeebies" in the popular lingo of the day.

Despite the authenticity of the strip’s language, the stories and situations partook of the stereotypical portrayals of mountain men and women in the literature about the region. Mountain men carried rifles wherever they went, and Snuffy was always willing and able to "bounce a passel of rifle balls off’n punkin haids" of miscreants in his path. Laziness, chicken thievery, stills of corn whiskey, ignorance, illiteracy, belief in ghosts and wood goblins and other supernatural creatures, feuding families, weddings of the offspring of feuding families, and stubborn individuality are frequent motifs in DeBeck’s Snuffy Smith tales. Snuffy himself is the epitome of self-centered, opinionated indolence.

But Snuffy became so popular with readers that by the end of the 1930s, he was given equal billing with the eponymous star when the strip was re-titled Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. The hillbilly years of the strip inspired two motion pictures and numerous animated cartoons.

During World War II, both Barney and Snuffy "joined up," as the saying goes. Snuffy first. After days of rejection (he was too short and had no teeth), he finally got himself into uniform in the Army on November 13, 1940—well before the U.S. had even entered the hostilities. But the draft had been introduced in September that year, so Snuffy’s enthusiasm was in step with the times. (He was motivated, we suspect, more by the promise of "thutty dulers a month" than by rampant patriotism, but we’ll leave that aside for now.) Barney went into the Navy but not until a year later, September 1941. Again, before we were actually at war.

The strip was popular with service personnel because its protagonists were both in the military, but Snuffy was on stage more than Barney and popularized the expression "yardbird" for a kind of military camp loafer.

In 1942, DeBeck was diagnosed with cancer, and by late spring, he could no longer work. His signature last appeared on a daily strip dated July 4; his last signed Sunday strip, August 2. When DeBeck died in November, Lasswell was making his contribution to the war effort in Africa, working as a radio operator for Pan American Airways. He’d been away from the strip since August, but because he’d been DeBeck’s assistant for almost nine years, it was natural that the syndicate asked him to return to the U.S. to continue the feature. Lasswell promptly quit Pan Am, returned stateside, joined the Marines to work on Leatherneck magazine in Washington, D.C. (for which he created a special strip, Hashmark), and began cranking out Barney Google and Snuffy Smith during evenings in his apartment.

The first strip to carry his signature appeared on March 8, 1943. At his death on March 4, he had been meeting the syndicate deadline for 58 years almost to the day. In longevity, Lasswell joins a very tiny band of his peers—Edwina Dumm, Paul Robinson, Chester Gould, Charles Schulz, Mort Walker, Milton Caniff, to name a few of the few. In reaching this milestone, Lasswell is second only to Australia’s Jim Russell, who has been doing The Potts for 62 years,

While Lasswell labored in the nation’s capital, in the syndicate bullpen in New York, staff artist Joe Musial (who had been doing the daily strip after DeBeck became too ill to continue it) produced the Sunday strips and, sometimes, dailies until the end of the War. Then Lasswell took over entirely. Acting upon the advice of syndicate officials, Lasswell gradually eased Barney out of the strip to concentrate on the more picturesque Snuffy.

It was a successful ploy. The strip was faltering when Lasswell took it over. It had about 200 subscribers and was losing clients steadily. But the subscription list had climbed to more than 500 by 1964, the year Lasswell won the Reuben; and at its 70th anniversary in 1989, Barney Google and Snuffy Smith was in nearly 900 newspapers worldwide.

Drawing upon his own background to maintain the rural folksiness of the strip, Lasswell felt at home with the hillbilly folk of Snuffy Smith’s Hootin’ Holler mountain country and was therefore able to make his own distinctive contribution to the saga of the strip, thereby making it entirely his own creation. As Brian Walker says (in the 75th anniversary reprint tome, Barney Google & Snuffy Smith, still available at $16.95 in limited quantity from Bud Plant, tollfree 800-242-6642): "He took a comic strip that had earned a place in history and developed it into an enduring classic."

"I have great empathy for these folks and critters," Lasswell wrote. "My folks had come out of a country atmosphere, so I was very comfortable with country people. I just fell into the spirit of the type of people Snuffy and Loweezy [Snuffy’s long-suffering spouse] were. I really don’t know beans about the racetrack world of Barney Google and Spark Plug, and that is why I changed it to a Snuffy strip exclusively."

Fred brings Barney and Sparky back from time to time—"for the old folks," he says. But his signal effect upon the strip grew out of his own personal history in rural settings and his sympathy for rural America. As Walker says:

"This sensibility is what makes Fred Lasswell’s contribution to the legacy of Barney Google and Snuffy Smith uniquely his own. The beautifully rendered backgrounds of Fred’s Hootin’ Holler evoke a rural ambience ambiance that is distinct from Billy and Barney’s urban milieu. Fred has also established a loving relationship between Snuffy and Loweezy that gives the strip a feeling of warmth and tenderness."

At first, Lasswell drew in DeBeck’s style but slowly adopted a bolder line, better suited to the minuscule reproduction comic strips faced increasingly in the years after the War. He introduced a host of intriguing characters for his post-war stories (most memorably for me, the creations of the 1950s—Tiger Li’l, a sexy nightclub dancer; Tieless Ty Tyler, the necktie tycoon; and Riddles Barlow, who married the winsome Cricket Smif). In the mid-fifties, he cannily gave up long continuities that had characterized the strip for decades and converted the strip to gag-a-day to keep step with the trend in the industry.

Lasswell’s success establishes him as one of the few cartoonists to take over an existing feature and sustain and even improve upon the original conception. Much of the difference between the two incarnations lies in the difference between continuity and gag-a-day. DeBeck was expert at milking comedy out of suspense with a seemingly unending string of cliffhangers and tantalizers. But Lasswell gave the strip personality and heart as well as humor.

Lasswell, despite his hayseed demeanor, was quite at home in the high tech era, maintaining a state-of-the-electronic-art studio. He developed his own lettering font on a Mac long before most other cartoonists did and established a web page very early in the cyberspace age. And he produced a videodisc series on "how to draw" cartoons (one in Spanish) and a bilingual laserdisc with a barcoded workbook and a hypercard stack for computers.

He was always innovating. In the 1940s, he produced a comic book for the blind using a Braille-inspired system. And in 1962, he obtained a patent for a citrus harvesting machine he’d designed in 1958 and licensed the idea to International Harvester.

Still, the challenge was a daily comic strip. One a day, every day.

"The gut of a comic is in the characters themselves," he said several years ago. "If you don’t have a bang-clang gag or something that’s all polished and beautiful, then just emphasize the character because that way people get to know them."

And that’s how we got to know Fred—through Snuffy and Loweezy and all the folks down at Hootin’ Holler. Like them, Fred was funny, picturesque, and loving.

"If you loved comics," comics scholar Richard Olson said, "Fred loved you."

It was as simple as that. Still is.

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