A Pretty Girl Is Not a Malady

The Evolution of Formula and the Celebrated Graphic Style of Cliff Sterrett


MANY EARLY COMIC STRIPS EVOLVED from their initial formulaic treatments into something quite different than originally intended.  In Cliff Sterrett's Polly and Her Pals, for example, we find a vivid instance of a strip that ran away with its creator, leaving its conceptual notion far behind.  Polly also demonstrates better than most comic strips how amenable the art form is to accommodating highly individual, even eccentric, graphic styles.

            No one who has ever seen Sterrett's mature artwork ever forgets it.  It is not only distinctive:  it is unique.  But Sterrett has another achievement in his quiver:  he is credited with creating the first pretty girl comic strip that lasted.  And Polly and Her Pals certainly lasted.  It lasted from December 4, 1912, until June 15, 1958—over 45 years.  But I don't know that I'd call it a "pretty girl strip."

            In the first place, Polly—for most of the strip's first two decades—was hardly what I'd call pretty.  She was more like, well—ugly.  Fact is, Sterrett couldn't draw a pretty girl.  But he could draw a caricature of a pretty girl.  And, oddly enough, Sterrett's caricature was so deft that it established one of the most potent visual stereotypes of the medium.  In the second place, Polly wasn't really about a pretty girl at all, so how can it be called a "pretty girl strip"?  But let's do first things first.

            About Polly's face— Coulton Waugh, the medium's venerable historian with The Comics (1947), is absolutely right when he says she was the "first of a type—the famous comic type based on the French doll:  bulging brow, tiny nose and mouth, deep-set eyes."  Sterrett's rendering of Polly's face (which he did most often in profile) so acutely encoded the imagined essence of "pretty girl" that it set the style for drawing the face of a pretty girl in profile. click to enlargeCountless comic strip females followed the fashion, beginning with Fritzi Ritz and Tillie the Toiler and Winnie Winkle.  Dumb Dora and Blondie and Casper's wife Toots were all cast in the same mold—as were most of the nameless pretty women walk-ons in the funnies.  Even Russell Patterson and Don Flowers employed the same durable doodle for the profiles of their lithesome beauties.  And traces of it can be found in even the more realistic treatment of girls' faces in the work of cartoonists like Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond, John Prentice, and Frank Robbins.  Of those renowned for pretty girls, perhaps only Alex Kotsky has been successful in breaking the porcelain doll visage without shattering at the same time his heroines' appealingly pretty appearance.

            Sterrett scarcely thought he was setting a fashion, of course.  He was just trying to draw a pretty girl without offending the prudish public of the day.  Her face, therefore, was about all he had to work with.  But he didn't care much about his heroine anyway:  by the time Polly's profile evolved, Sterrett was honing his strip to take a bigger satirical slice at life than the frivolous preoccupations of a pretty girl would allow for.

            Sterrett was working for the New York Evening Telegram on the eve of Polly's creation in 1912.  Like George McManus (see Harv’s Hindsight for October 2009), he was doing an alternating anthology of comic strips dealing with love and courtship and marriage and the tribulations of parenting in the modern world—Before and After, When a Man's Married, and For This We Have Daughters, a perspective in triptych on relations between the sexes.  Daughters contained the seed of Polly.  It retailed the trials to which a modern young woman subjected her somewhat old-fashioned parents.  The cast consisted of Pa and Ma and Molly.  And a cat.  (Don't forget the cat.)  This strip attracted the attention of the ever voracious press lord William Randolph Hearst, always on the look-out for a new crowd-pleasing attraction for his New York Evening Journal.

            In 1912, an era was dawning, the age of the New Woman.  The female population was beginning to escape from the kitchen and the home and to take a place in the surrounding social and vocational world.  Sterrett capitalized on the situation.  In Daughters, he put the age-old struggle between the older generation and its offspring in this new context, giving his strip a unique twist:  the daughter in Sterrett's strip had an ally in her mother because they were both, in varying degrees, rebelling against the stereotypical role for women that society had so long held sacred.  And so poor Pa found himself alone, his traditional sensibilities being constantly bombarded from every quarter by new fashions in both clothes and manners, his once secure and sane Victorian world in a state of continual comic turmoil.

            Hearst could see that this strip was in perfect tune with the times, and he quickly bid for Sterrett's services.  As was his custom, he offered the cartoonist better financial rewards than the Evening Telegram, and by the end of the year, Sterrett was in the Hearst stable, cranking out another version of For This We Have Daughters, this one called Positive Polly.

            Positive Polly eventually became Polly and Her Pals, but not before it evolved a bit.  The theme of Daughters had not required a particularly good-looking daughter.  It was enough that she be relentlessly modern in her conduct; she didn't need to be physically attractive.  Since Hearst seemed to want just another version of Daughters, Sterrett paid no particular attention to Polly's physical charms.  In fact, when he drew her, he made her plain as a post.  Within a month, however, her looks began to improve. 

            In his Introduction to the Hyperion Press Polly and Her Pals (1977), comics historian Bill Blackbeard speculates that Hearst had expected Sterrett to produce an attractive version of the New Woman and that when he saw what the cartoonist was doing, he ordered a change.  And that makes sense, but we have no indication that it was actually the press lord himself that inspired Polly's improved appearance. Whatever the cause, by the early February 1913, Polly was prettier—and more stylishly coiffured and attired.  The pretty girl strip was a-borning.  But the improvement was attended by other troubles.

            "You have no idea of the strict censorship we were forced to work under in those days," Sterrett complained to Martin Sheridan in his pioneering Comics and Their Creators (1944).  "In the first place, we couldn't show a girl's leg above the top of her shoe.  Furthermore, a comic strip kiss was unheard of, and all the action had to take place and be completed before nine o'clock."

            He felt the same restraint even after World War I.  "Many letters of condemnation arrived from clergymen who criticized my then-daring fashions.  And all I did was show a girl's ankle."

            All the while the pretty girl was gestating and occasionally showing her ankle, the strip was changing.  (Or perhaps not changing so much as "settling in" on its true thematic foundation.)  Given the strip's basic situation, the comedy had to arise with Polly's father, the much put-upon Samuel Perkins.  Paw was the one whose outrage at the manners and mores of modern Youth inspired laughter.  And consequently—this being a comical strip rather than a serious continuity—Paw soon became the star of the show, with Polly little more than his foil (or, rather, the thorn in his side).  Ditto Susie Perkins, the embattled Paw's long-suffering spouse.

            Paw's stardom resulted in other subtle shiftings of emphasis in the strip.  Once Paw emerged as the source of the strip's comedy, Sterrett sought to wring everything he could out of the circumstance.  To this purpose, he surrounded the old man with a cast of idiosyncratic secondary characters, each of whom could introduce Paw to some aggravating aspect of modern life.  In effect, their assorted eccentricities were designed expressly to assail Paw with modernity in all its variations and varieties.

            Because Sterrett's secondary characters all tended to be relatives of the Perkins family who moved in to stay, before long their household was immense.  First came Delicia Hicks, a niece.  Polly's age, she is not very bright and not very attractive, and she thus offers another way of viewing the New Woman.  Then there was Ashur Url Perkins, a stupid and vain nephew who represents the male half of the Younger Generation equation.  Carrie Meek is Susie Perkins' sister, a sharp-tongued widow whose chief function is to spoil rotten her daughter, Gertrude—a brat of the first water.  Aunt Maggie Hicks, however, proves a match for the Meeks:  a mountain of a woman, she is as powerful a personality as her bulk would suggest.  And there were others who showed up from time to time--Uncle Ethelbert Armitage and his son (the same age—and temperament—as Gertrude, with whom a rivalry quickly developed; ah, there was a battle of giants).  So large a household required servants, and they, too, added to Paw's burden.  A butler who was part of the original cast soon disappeared, and an Oriental valet named Neewah became a permanent member of the ensemble.  Ditto three black servants (cook, maid, handyman)— Manda, Liza, and Cocoa.

            Taken altogether (as Paw had to take them)—personality quirks and tics with their modern aspirations and interpretations—they constituted a formidable assault force, all directed at poor Paw's tradition-bound proclivities.  And so the strip was about Paw's bouts with the Modern Age.  With a sensibility rooted in the Victorian times just past (as was the sensibility of most of the readership of the day), Paw is forever taken aback by the antics of his more up-to-date fellow cast members.  (And so is his cat.) The strip would be more aptly titled The Trials of Paw Perkins, concentrating as it does on his attempts to cope with his daughter, her beaux, his scapegrace nephew and his painfully plain niece, his cousins and his uncles and his aunts and their spoiled offspring.

            As penetrating a device for gaining comic insight into contemporary events as Sterrett had concocted with these modifications to his strip's initial formula, he is more revered today for his drawing style than his social commentary.  And rightly so.  His satire, while adroit enough and humorous and wholly accomplished, is not spectacular.  His graphic style is.

            Nor is Sterrett much remembered today for his braving the censors or for his having introduced to the funny papers what became the conventional way of drawing a pretty girl's face.  In both these departments (and in the arena of social satire), he could be (and was) imitated.  He is remembered—nay, acclaimed—for that which is inimitable:  his bizarre but decorative and supremely attractive drawing style.

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            As it reached its maturity in the twenties, Sterrett's style was a symphony of patterned black and white designs and shapes.  The syncopated rhythm of his forms and lines did more than distinguish Sterrett's work with his own highly individual stamp:  it lifted Polly off the newspaper page.  All other strips in Polly's vicinity paled graphically into dull lines and drab blobs.  To say even this much—hyperbolic as it is—is not to say enough about Sterrett's style.  Unique, inimitable—spectacular.  Still inadequate.  These words are words of appreciation not description.  And until we can describe his style, we will remain forever at once intrigued and baffled by it, tantalized by the question:  Just what, exactly, is it?  How can it be described?

            Waugh made a noble attempt.  He viewed Sterrett's unparalleled stylistic achievement with a cartoonist's eye, a cartoonist's words:  "Sterrett was an Old Master at heart, one of the best and freest of them.  In his portrayal of tiny Maw and Paw, as well as the various relatives, he lets himself go and creates an ultimate in wild stylization.  These characters have a head ‘doodle' that reminds one of a slightly flattened Edam cheese.  Their noses are small rolls stuck in front of two circles that touch.  These are eyes, the irises of which turn in together in a perpetual cross-eyed stare.  The heads are squashed down on tiny, neckless bodies whose leg extensions (what else can we call them?) are sliced off to make enormous feet.  Sterrett's anatomical phantasies reach their limit with his animals; one, a very fine gray cat that accompanies Paw [everywhere] and registers that tormented one's every mood, is perhaps his noblest achievement.  This cat marches with wild leg construction displaying ludicrous, upturned feet."

            But there is more to Sterrett's style than this.

            Waugh senses an element of fine art in Sterrett's work, but the precision of his description falters when he attempts to discuss it.  "There is a sense of pattern in Sterrett's work," he begins, "a very strong feel for spotting and beauty of arrangement."  And his verbal facility finally trails off completely with the observation that Sterrett's drawing "has a definite abstract art value."

            Stephen Becker, who chronicled the history of the medium the decade after Waugh did, was not a cartoonist and therefore looked to art schools for guidance when he came to Sterrett, and he does better at describing what he sees:

            "In the art professor's terms, Sterrett composed beautifully; each of his daily panels is a delicate balance of black and white, and often one panel leads into another through the simply rhythm of the lines.  Sterrett usually dresses his characters in striped or checked garments, and the play of line against shape is masterly.  If heads, hands, and feet were removed, what remained would be pen-and-ink abstraction of a high order."  This, at least, gives us something to look for—something besides Edam cheeses and breakfast rolls, imagery which, despite its antic accuracy, fails somehow to convey properly the essence of Sterrett's style, its pervading sense of design.

            Sterrett himself supplied a clue to one of the guiding principles that apparently lies behind his art.  Sheridan unveils the clue:  "The creator of Polly explained his unique style as an attempt to illustrate the futuristic in his drawings.  He portrays a cat with angles, furniture the same way.  Sterrett's is a symbolic world in figures."

            "Futuristic."  The term is ambiguous as used by Sheridan.  It can refer, simply, to things of the future.  But it also has a place in the lexicon of modern painting, and it is to this that I think Sterrett was referring.

            Aesthetic theories of Futurism took root in the first decades of the 20th century at about the same time as Cubism flourished. These and other contemporary theories of art—all lumped together under the rubric of “modern art”— bloomed as artists reconceived the idea of art in the wake of photography’s having superceded the traditional representational function of art. Cubism made an effort to view (as it were) an object from all sides at once: Cubists effectively flattened out the object, destroying the representational character of their portrait of it by reducing it to its component geometric shapes.  The result was an arrangement of shapes and textures that was wholly abstract.  At the same time, there appeared to be a dynamic tension in the relationship of the geometric forms—a suggestion of movement, of power in motion.

            Futurism has its political and literary as well as its aesthetic aspects. Advocates of this theory exalted speed, violent action, technology and machinery as evidence of the power of the will in the dawning modern age, issuing great thumping “manifestos” about “a racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath ... a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire ... great-breasted locomotives, puffing on the rails like enormous steel horses....”

            Like most modern art theorists, Futurists exuded obtuse argot because they were groping for something that would rescue Art, and they didn’t know what, exactly, that something was. So they beat drums of obscure and tortured verbal formulations as if hoping that a useful “something” might be frightened out of the surrounding undergrowth. As a result, it is almost impossible to find artwork that embodies the lingo Futurists were bandying about. But we can look at the pictures that these extravagances of language seemed to produce and see various “somethings.”

            For my purpose here, it is enough to note that Futuristic painters concerned themselves with a sense of motion that could be revealed in the juxtapositioning of texture and shape.  Obviously, there is in Sterrett's work much concern with the same things—the patterning of stripes and checks, of blacks and whites, of lines and shapes.  But there is an even closer connection to Futurism.

            In their championing of modernity and its machinery, some Futuristic painters incorporated machine-age ideas into their paintings by representing organic and animate objects as if they were composed of mechanistic parts—metal tubes, cubes, cylinders, spheres, and the like.  One of the more famous of the painters often dubbed Futuristic was Fernand Leger, who “wanted his works to rival industrial products in their robust logic. Transforming the figure into a machine and conflating machines with humanity, Leger developed a striking language of abstraction” (Cole and Gealt in Art of the Western World). In Leger’s well-known painting "Luncheon, Three Women" with its tubular forms, mechanical rigidity, and angular geometry, there is much to remind us of Sterrett's work.  Moreover, in the designs behind the women are many of the patterns Sterrett often used. click to enlarge

            Leger's painting was done in 1921.  By the mid-twenties, artists everywhere (including cartoonists whose work appeared in the humor magazines of the day) were experimenting with Futurism's streamlined forms and startling patterns.  And Sterrett's mature style began to emerge in the last half of the twenties.  Clearly, some of the "abstract art value" that Waugh saw in Sterrett's style is a Futuristic value, an indirect manifestation of Cubism.

            But there is another manifestation of modern abstract art in Sterrett's strip.  If the anatomy of his characters and the patterns and textures of their wardrobes and surroundings are Futuristic, the shape of the "sets" in Polly is Surreal.  Surrealism is another of the avant garde movements in modern art that cropped up in Europe in the third and fourth decades of this century.  It, too, had a socio-political stance—opposition to the prevailing bourgeois view of life.  That, however, scarcely attracted Sterrett, whose strip, in making Paw its protagonist, was at least sympathetic to the traditions of the middle class if it did not actually uphold them.  But the images that Surrealist painters produced did attract Sterrett.

            In their images, Surrealist painters attempted to evoke a new realism by escaping from the everyday mundane realities into the realm of a dreamlike or nightmarish world where memory and the subconscious combined recognizable forms with fantastic ones.  This fusion of the real and the unreal would create a higher form of realism—super-realism, or surrealism.  So much for the theory.

            The most famous of the Surrealists is probably Salvador Dali (even though he was, in effect, disowned by the most fervent of the fraternity because of his rampant commercialization of their principles). click to enlarge In his "The Persistence of Memory" painting with its barren vista and limp melting watches, we have the very emblem of Surrealism:  a borderland between logic and magic where reality meets fantasy, a dreamscape where an extreme perspective distorts space and where seemingly incongruous objects and ideas are grotesquely juxtaposed in order to appeal to an audience's subconscious feelings and impulses.  And in Sterrett's customary treatment of the settings through which his Futuristic characters cavort, we see a clear invocation of Surrealistic imagery. 

            Sterrett began systematically toying with the realism of his pictures in the early 1920s—at the same time as he began spending summers (April through December) in Maine in the artists’ colony of Ogunquit, where Sterrett must have encountered other artists and probably engaged in (or was at least aware of) discussions about the directions of modern art, including Futurism (in its mechanical aspects) and Surrealism, both of which were then attaining some notoriety among the avant garde.

            By the mid-1920s, Sterrett was relentlessly distorting perspective in the Perkins home and reshaping common household furnishings into fantastical forms.  The Surreal settings are wildly inventive.  Polly and her pals walked through doorways that loomed into towering archways and sat in chairs that sprouted awnings and other attachments.  Throughout the environs, Sterrett scattered a wild assortment of potted plants with whimsical mushroom-like blooms and fronds and questing tentacles.  And Sterrett used black more extensively than many of his contemporaries, spotting solids for startling decorative effect throughout daily installments and creating a cascade of patterns, often at screaming odds with each other.  While the occasional reprinting of a Sunday Polly here and there over the years has acquainted us with the transcendent eccentricity of Sterrett's style at its most impressive—that is, when in color—we have seldom been exposed to the black-and-white version of that style, which is equally impressive.

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            But not every installment of the strip was Surreal.  Sterrett abandoned the more extreme of his Surrealistic renditions when his story required that the reader comprehend immediately what the setting of the strip is.  In a 1927 sequence, for instance, Paw and company (including Polly) wind up marooned on a desert isle.  And there, the pictures, while still stylized, are far less Surreal than they were when the action was set in the Perkins home among otherwise mundane and familiar surroundings.

            It was as if Sterrett hit upon Surrealism as a way of relieving his ennui at having to draw the same things all the time—the same chairs, the same lamps, the same doorways, always the same household equipage.  And in relieving his own boredom, he gave his readers a visual treat.  But when he had to use his pictures to tell the story—when he knew the reader could get essential narrative information only from the visual element in his strip—Sterrett was careful to make his images more representational, less fantastical and dreamlike.  My guess is that Sterrett's interest in both Futurism and Surrealism was exclusively an artistic interest not a political or social interest.  He was attracted to graphic productions of these two movements by the pleasing designs and decorative imagery he found in them.  And he successfully adopted some of the conventions of a few of the Futurist and Surreal painters by way of giving his comic strip visual variety.

            To label Sterrett's style Futuristic and Surrealistic is to run a risk.  Pigeon-holes have a tendency to become potholes, pitfall prisons, tiny cages of categories out of which it is nearly impossible to extricate someone once he's become so incarcerated.  I don't mean to do that to Sterrett.  We must remember that Futurism and Surrealism constitute, after all, only aspects of "an abstract art value" in Sterrett's art.  There is more to Sterrett than Futurism and Surrealism.

            If we return to Becker's aside about the abstract art that would result "if head, hands, and feet were removed," we discover the rest of Becker's statement:  "But heads, hands, and feet are not removed, and Sterrett's style is not abstract."  Not entirely anyhow.  There is more in Polly than abstract art.  There are also Edam cheeses, breakfast rolls, and a cat with wildly ludicrous leg construction.  In short, there is high comedy in the visuals as well as an element of abstract art.  And it's the visual comedy that brings us back to Sterrett again and again.  It's the visual comedy that has earned him a revered place in the history of the medium.

            Sterrett's Surrealism achieved its most flamboyant expression in the Sunday pages of the late twenties.  The pages are a riot of primary colors—rampant reds, succulent yellows, and pristine blues.  And Sterrett heightened the visual impact of his palette with copious use of solid blacks, which made the colors seem more brilliant by providing a stark contrast to their hues.  Everywhere the Surrealism of the backgrounds is enhanced by an outrageous patterning of checks and stripes and other, more manic, geometries and designs.  The pages are agog in exotic potted plants, fanciful embroidered pillows, abstracted cityscapes, outlandish tubular trees with electric foliage zig-zagging across the sky.  And checkered floors—and walls, and coats and trousers and, so help me, hats.  On one occasion, Paw wears an ensemble the pants of which are checked with a different color than the coat.  Another time he wears a checkered derby.click to enlarge

            Some of the gags, as in George Herriman's Sunday Krazy Kat, seem dictated by the cartoonist's desire to draw certain subjects in certain ways, often experimental.  One March 1927 page is devoted entirely to midnight scenes around the Perkins house.  We watch Kitty wander through pitch-dark rooms, parts of which are eerily illuminated by the moonlight streaming in through windows, creating fantastic patterns and shapes, while we overhear Paw and Maw, provoked by Polly's sneezing, discussing the state of her health.  click to enlarge

            When the family goes to the beach that year (as it does nearly every summer), we are treated to an entire page in which we see only those portions of the characters that are underwater while they are wading.  Another time, we go with Paw on a hunting jaunt through the woods—chiefly, I suspect, because Sterrett wanted to render trees with polka-dot trunks (or striped or flowered).

            Some of the gags are positively vacuous.  One Sunday, Maw forces Paw to stay home in the evening with her instead of going to his poker game.  For the whole page, Paw watches Maw fall asleep in her chair while he and Neewah communicate silently in gestures and glances a plan for him to escape.  In the penultimate panel, Kitty sneezes and wakes Maw, which effectively cancels the escape plan.  A yawn of a yuk.  But the treat of the page (and the comedy) is in the drawing—in Paw's expressions and his wildly abstracted body language.

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            This kind of hilarity is Sterrett's forte.  We watch Paw's mounting frustration as he struggles with one bandaged hand to wash the other.  Or his antics trying to swallow a pill by drinking water from a water fountain.  Or his inventiveness in finding a way to avoid the pain of lying down with a sunburn all over his body.

            On Sunday pages, Sterrett often demonstrated his sure touch with pantomime.  On one page, Paw marches in Futuristic ranks with dozens of tuxedo-clad opera-goers, up and down hill-and-dale stairs, to get Polly a glass of water—which, at the last moment, he spills.  On another page, we see what Paw sees when he inadvertently puts on Maw's spectacles instead of his own—distortion of everything, a Surrealist's dream.  And another time, Paw goes on a fox hunt and wordlessly restores the pursued fox to its family, and we witness the joyous reunion.

            Sterrett's graphic style has always overshadowed every other aspect of the strip.  And that is entirely appropriate:  the satire of his social and domestic humor, however insightfully constructed through the prism of Paw's discontent, is whimsical and felicitous but not as impressive as his pictures.  Still, his approach to humor, while not notable, is not negligible either.  Mostly, Sterrett confined himself to the domestic scene, but occasionally, he left the Perkins house to click to enlargeexplore other venues of contemporary living.  Virtually every summer, the family made a trip to the seaside.  One summer in the thirties, they went to a farm.In 1927, as I mentioned, we find Paw and Maw and Polly and Kitty and the whole entourage stranded on that desert isle, far from the usual domestic context of Sterrett's comedy.

            The desert island sequence is scarcely typical Sterrett fare:  it is a continuing story, suspensefully told.  While the antics of his cast are comic and the daily installments often end with punchlines, there is also a good measure of the kind of suspense we usually find in an adventure continuity, and Sterrett proves adept at manipulating our engagement by providing a generous helping of cliff-hanger endings that are both humorous and tantalizing (somewhat in the manner of Al Capp in Li'l Abner). 

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            Suspense of this sort is nearly impossible to achieve without establishing an aura of danger, and Sterrett does that, too.  And more.   He puts his cast through some unaccustomed paces.  In meeting the risks of day-to-day living on the island, most of his characters—Ashur, Neewah, Maw, and most particularly Paw—have their moments of personal heroism.  All except Polly.  Polly remains throughout a caricature of the pretty girl—a sort of icon, a wall flower, a mere decoration, as much a prop in the surreal landscape here as the potted plants are in the Perkins home, her face forever frozen in its "pretty girl" grimace.

            As Sterrett's style matured into the 1930s, it became somewhat less inventive.  Surrealistic elements disappeared, leaving the geometric forms of Futurism, and these became the conventions of the strip and wholly predictable.  Understandably predictable.  Having initiated a novel and unique way of rendering a comic strip, Sterrett had little choice but to imitate himself, which he did, repeating again and again the graphic maneuvers he had introduced until they became the familiar devices of his treatment. 

            Polly during the 1930s was less surprising graphically, but I like this period as well as the more brilliantly innovative 1920s.  In the thirties, Sterrett's line seems bolder; his sense of design in the use of solid blacks and textures, surer.  He seems more confident of his art.  (And, of course, he was:  he was repeating designs he had used before, and with repetition comes confidence.)

            Here we find the daily strip in the last of its glorious heydays.  Polly is more richly textured with cross-hatching and shading in the thirties than in the twenties:  the strip is a crazy-quilt cacophony of patterns and textures.  And of visual comedy.  Like other supreme masters of the medium, Sterrett drew funny.  His Futuristic abstractions, his Surreal furniture—these were comic images not philosophical ones.  His characters, pop-eyed and cross-eyed simultaneously, move through the strip by making ambulatory gestures rather than by actually walking, one foot after the other; they lean over backwards, trucking along by advancing one foot ahead of them, the other trailing behind as if being dragged behind by the lead foot. And when they sit down, their knees come up to their chins, and they are perfect comic abstractions of homo sapiens seated; and sometimes, when they sit in overstuffed chairs whose arms are curved, their knees and the chair's arms form a series of perfectly parallel humps.

            And then there's the omnipresent Kitty. Kitty is Sterrett's Greek chorus:  she stalks Paw in virtually every panel, her posture mimicking his, thereby echoing his every mood.  And when she breaks cadence, the dissonance is a comic comment on whatever Paw is doing (or is being done to him). click to enlarge

            Polly, meanwhile, appears no more frequently than before (which was not very often, in case I've failed to mention it).  And her every appearance is a static pose:  seated, she displays her porcelain profile with pouting lips, a rounded shoulder and daintily arched wrist, and lots of leg.  Polly had legs that went on forever—from the knee to the ankle, that is.  She is almost always depicted sitting down because all the other characters are so squat that she'd tower over them if standing; and when seated, her legs are bent demurely to one side, knees together, in the classic chaste girl pose..click to enlarge

            As before, the daily strips usually pursue a single theme for a week or so at a time.  And the themes are usually quite mundane, scarcely earth-shaking.  One year at Thanksgiving, for instance, we find Paw preoccupied by the goose he has purchased for the feast.  A live bird, the goose soon wins Paw's affection over the few days it is around before the holiday, and thus it avoids the dinner platter. 

            Next, the Perkins family faces Christmas.  Sterrett always did a special Christmas sequence, and the inventiveness of his treatments are a joy to witness.  Santa Claus usually makes an appearance, and marvelous things result.  In 1933, Santa turned the entire cast into Christmas toys for the season:  everyone had doweling for arms and legs, wooden balls for heads.  (The sequence is virtually prototypical of the graphic treatment of the strip itself in the 1940s.) 

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            In 1931, the Yuletide predicament is how to find a present for Paw, who is one of those souls who have everything.  Polly and Maw solve the problem by throwing out all his slippers, pipes, bathrobes, etc., so there will be something they can get for him.  Then a New Year's resolution leads to Paw crusading against the brat Gertrude, followed by a search for a suitable governess for the child.  Later everyone gets spring fever for a couple weeks, then Ashur gets a kangaroo to train as a boxer, after which, new neighbors move in next door and baffle the Perkins with their behavior.  And so on and on.

            By the 1930s, Sterrett was assaulting Paw less and less with the idiocies of the Modern Age; indeed, the notion of "the Modern Age" was fading by then.  But Paw is still the thematic center of the strip:  Polly is now entirely a family situation comedy with Paw the archetypal pater familias, forever put upon by his numerous relatives, forever astonished by their foibles and foolishnesses.  The humor now arises from Sterrett's systematic deflation of pomposity and arrogance.  He ridiculed personages with these character flaws by placing them in circumstances in which they come face-to-face with their own shortcomings—a maneuver that reveals with comic effect just how far short they fall of their good opinions of themselves. 

            Sterrett was a master of pantomime, particularly, as I said, in the Sunday strips, but he mined the verbal as well as the visual for humorous nuggets.  He delighted in the comedy that occurs when stupid people misinterpret common expressions by taking them to mean literally what they say, but his sense of word-play included all kinds of verbal gymnastics. 

            Ashur hesitates to marry because he's afraid of failure.  There ought to be a law, he says, to make marriages "fool-proof."  Paw, overhearing this, disagrees:  "What we needs is a law t'make fools marriage-proof." 

            Later, Paw gets into a game of one-upsmanship with his neighbor over the scarecrows they have in their gardens.  Maw tells Paw that their scarecrow looks shabbier than the neighbor's, so Paw hangs a tuxedo and a top hat on the scarecrow frame, saying, "Let's see 'im 'top' that." 

            On a summer voyage, Neewah gets seasick, and Paw tries to comfort him by saying he'll soon get his sea-legs.  "Too late, honorable Pa," says Neewah, "—of what use are limbs to a man without a stummick?"

            By the 1940s, Polly is thoroughly stylized graphically into an endless reprise of itself.  It is still a pleasure to behold, though– with its daringly abstract interpretations of human anatomy and its bold design quality.  By then, however, much of the work in Polly was no longer Sterrett's.  Plagued by rheumatism, he was forced to give up the daily strip.  Paul Fung took it over on March 9, 1935, after which the dailies appeared without signature:  Sterrett refused to sign work he didn't actually do.  But his signature continued appearing on the decorative Sunday strip until it ended June 15, 1958.

            Whether in the Surreal twenties or the Depression thirties, Polly always had about it a wholesome homespun quality just a little musty with resonances of a by-gone age.  But if the ambiance of the strip was somewhat dated in this fashion, it is not a fault that interfered with its sense of humor.  Given the time-warped setting, Sterrett was as comfortable in the thirties as he had been in the two preceding decades, and the tics and tropes of his idiosyncratic cast are as amusing today as they must have been then.  But the real entertainment in Sterrett's strip is found in the cartoonist's unique and highly comedic stylistic graphic interpretation of the human form and its environment.


Sources. Polly and Her Pals (the first year) by Cliff Sterrett (Hyperion Press, 1977); The Complete Color Polly and Her Pals, Vols. 1 and 2 (1926-1929; Remco Worldservice Books, 1990 and 1991); Polly and Her Pals (1931 dailies; Arcadia Publications, 1990); 5 issues of Polly and Her Pals comic book (1927 dailies; Eternity Comics, October 1990 - January 1991); Polly and Her Pals (1933 dailies, IDW, 2013); Comics and Their Creators by Martin Sheridan (1944; rpt. Luna Press, 1971); Coulton Waugh’s The Comics (Macmillan, 1947); Comic Art in America by Stephen Becker (Simon and Schuster, 1959); plus Modern Art in the Making by Bernard S. Meyers (McGraw-Hill, 1950); Art of the Western World by Bruce Cole and Adelheid Gealt (Simon and Schuster, 1989); and Art: The Twentieth Century by Flaminio Gukaldoni (Skira, 2008).

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