The oldest American comic strip still being published and not in re-runs is The Katzenjammer Kids, which started December 12, 1897. Others of the elderly include, in descending order of vintage, Gasoline Alley, which began November 24, 1918, Snuffy Smith (which debuted in 1919 as Take Barney Google, F’instance, a title shortened almost immediately to the protagonist’s name), Popeye (which started as Thimble Theatre in 1919), Nancy (which commenced as Fritzi Ritz in 1922), Annie (first titled Little Orphan Annie in 1924, its run includes some re-run time after its creator, Harold Gray, died), Tarzan (1929, but its 74 years include a number of re-run sequences), Blondie (1930), and Dick Tracy (1931). Incidentally, two of the oldest strips are, today, continued by the same cartoonist: Hy Eisman produces both Popeye and The Katzenjammer Kids, both Sunday features.
Alley Oop, born in a bush league syndicate in 1932, is the next in line, but Alley’s publishing history was interrupted briefly: the initial Bonnet-Brown distribution ceased July 21, 1933, and while the NEA picked it up immediately, distribution didn’t begin until August 7, 1933. Moreover, the NEA incarnation revisited and streamlined the Bonnet-Brown inaugural sequence, in effect repeating it. And after that, celebrating their 70th birthdays next year and shortly thereafter, we have Mandrake the Magician, Flash Gordon, Mary Worth (who was Apple Mary in those days)–all starting in 1934–then Steve Roper/Mike Nomad (starting as Big Chief Wahoo in 1936), The Phantom (1936), and Prince Valiant (1937).
Even at three-score-and-ten, however, these strips have a way to go before surpassing the all-time records set by strips no longer being published. The first daily comic strip, Mutt and Jeff, reached a mellow 75 years before it was discontinued in 1982; and Bringing Up Father (“Jiggs and Maggie”) just passed 87 before it ceased in 2000. Although The Katzenjammer Kids is the longest-running American comic strip still being published, it and Tarzan appear only once a week, on Sundays. The others in this litany are (or were) published seven days a week. Of these, Gasoline Alley is ostensibly the oldest at 85, but it didn’t begin daily publication until August 1919, so, in this highly technical arena of longevity records, it is merely 84 this fall. Still appearing seven days a week thanks to the loving ministrations of Jim Scancarelli, the Alley may yet surpass the record set by Jiggs and Maggie. But the oldest continuously published daily cartoon character isn’t found on the funnies page.
The oldest continuously published daily cartoon character in American newspapering is the Weatherbird that perches in a half-column box on the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The Weatherbird celebrated its 100th anniversary on February 11, 2001, so as of this writing, it’s 102 years and 8 months old.
The newspaper “weather icon” is an intricate part of comics history. James Swinnerton is often credited as one of the three “founding fathers” of American comic strips, and his contribution to the vital ingredients of the medium—a character whose repeated appearances built reader loyalty—was a “little bear.” Working at the San Francisco Examiner in 1894, Swinnerton started drawing a bear cub (dubbed “Baby Monarch” after the state’s grizzly mascot) in various corners of the paper to publicize the forthcoming Midwinter Exposition at the end of January. The bear was an overnight success with readers, and after the Exposition closed, Swinnerton kept right on drawing the beast—in the weather forecast box on the paper’s front page.
Swinnerton’s bear established the importance of repeat appearances at least a year before Richard Outcault launched the Yellow Kid in the New York World. But neither bears nor Yellow Kid are around anymore. The Post-Dispatch Weatherbird is.
The anthropomorphic fowl of indeterminate species was invented by Harry B. Martin on a train ride from Montana to St. Louis in December 1900. He’d been studying a magazine photograph of some baby birds (possibly blackbirds) in a nest with their beaks wide open, waiting to be fed. Believing (as he put it) “there was an idea there some place,” he started sketching birds and beaks, and when he got back to work at the Post-Dispatch, he drew up six little chirpers attired in different weather-related apparel—for snow, clouds, hot, cold, sunny, rain. The idea was to repeat the drawings in keeping with whatever the weather was.
Martin soon learned two things: first, the weather came in more than six varieties; second, readers, particularly children, were loud in their disappointment if they saw a bird drawing repeated. Lo, a tradition was established—a different bird, differently clothed, for every daily appearance.
At first, the bird didn’t say much. And then when he began talking, he spoke only of the weather. But later the Weatherbird began commenting on the day’s news, deploying a maximum vocabulary of six words. The Weatherbird’s comments often take the form of gawdawful puns. When the world was gaga over the King of England’s relationship with an American divorcee in 1936, and everyone wondered whether Edward VIII would flout tradition and marry Wallis Simpson, the bird’s comment punned on the British national anthem: “Will Britannia waive the rules?” And when Edward abdicated in order to marry “the woman I love,” the bird said: “Heavy reign fall in London.”
These “bird lines” (as they are termed) are not invented by the cartoonist who draws the picture. Very early in the bird’s history, his remarks were being concocted by editors and reporters and the like. Today, the task falls to the copy editors. The process begins about 5 o’clock in the afternoon when the news editor gives the copy desk a list of the stories that will run on the front page. The news editor and the copy editor decide which story the bird will remark about, and then the copy editors are invited to conjure up something pithy for the bird to say. The copy desk is quiet most of the day, but at “bird line time,” the vicinity is full of chatter as the ingenious wordsmiths compete for the “honor” of contributing the day’s comment. The winner gets paid a buck.
The Weatherbird has become a symbol of the paper in much the same way as Eustace Tilley is The New Yorker’s symbol or Esky, the google-eyed rue, is Esquire magazine’s. The bird even appeared for a time on the tail of the newspaper’s corporate jet. He’s been merchandised nearly as much as Snoopy. And Louis Armstrong wrote a song, “The Weatherbird Rag,” recorded by King Oliver in 1923.
Only five cartoonists have limned the feathered fellow since Martin left the paper in 1903. One did it for fifty years. Currently, another Martin, Dan (no relation), is doing the drawing.
The history of the Weatherbird has been published in a little $8.95 booklet, The Story of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Weatherbird, published by Virginia Publishing (4814 Washington Blvd., Suite 120, St. Louis, MO 63108; 314-367-6612). Mike Peters, who grew up in St. Louis, wrote the Foreword and emphasized the instructive importance of the Weatherbird in his career:
“I learned a lot from that Bird. It taught me the power of a cartoon to convey a message. It taught me how important a cartoon character can be to your daily routine. A great comic strip character can be like a member of your family. [And] it taught me that a cartoon no bigger than a postage stamp could convey a totally different idea and emotion every day.”
These days every newspaper strip cartoonist must, of regrettable necessity, struggle with the same truth about the relationship between visual comedy and size.
For more about the history of the funnies, consult a book of mine, The Art of the Funnies, which is previewed here.