Sunday, January 18, 2009

Jan. 20: “The sun will come out tomorrow"

Do you know who this is?
He was a famous cartoonist without formal art training.
He was a bayonet instructor in WW I
His cartoon strip lasted for years, and morphed into a Broadway play and a movie.
His cartoon character never sang "The sun will come out tomorrow."

Harold Gray was born on January 20, 1894, in Kankakee, Illinois. He would grow up on a farm near Chebanse, Illinois, and would attend Purdue University in 1917, where he received a degree in engineering.

While he held a degree in engineering, Harold is best known for his self-taught occupation of cartoonist. He would serve in World War I as a bayonet instructor, and after his discharge from the Army would be hired by the Chicago Tribune, where between 1921 and 1924 he did the lettering for Sidney Smith's The Gumps comic strip.

In 1924, Harold came up with a comic strip of his own titled Little Orphan Otto. However, since there were many comic strips about boys, and none about girls, the title was soon changed to Little Orphan Annie. The change was suggested by the Chicago Tribune's Joseph Patterson, who liked the idea of an orphan able to roam freely from place to place and to go through various adventures. Patterson suggested the change because (referring to Otto) "He looks like a pansy. Put skirts on the kid."

She was named after James Whitcomb Riley’s 1885 poem Little Orphant Annie which was being reprinted in the newspaper at that time. Riley’s poem goes:

Little Orphant Annie's come to our house to stay,
An' wash the cups an'
saucers up, an' brush the crumbs away,
An' shoo the chickens off the porch,
an' dust the hearth, an' sweep,
An' make the fire, an' bake the bread, an'
earn her board-an'-keep;
An' all us other childern, when the supper-things
is done,
We set around the kitchen fire an' has the mostest fun
A-list'nin' to the witch-tales 'at Annie tells about,
An' the Gobble-uns
'at gits you
Ef you

The strip became a soap opera about the good and evil found in the world. It became very popular in the 1920’s, and would continue it’s comic strip run for the rest of Harold’s life – the next 44 years – and would be continued by Tex Blaisdell and others after Harold’s death in 1968, but without the characteristics that Harold had given to it.

The comic strip – and the plots – became more complicated as Little Orphan Annie entered the 1930s. Always reflecting Harold’s conservative nature, the plot lines began to extend over time, creating more involved characters, dialogue, plot, and action. She met do-gooders, crooked politicians, and gangsters.

As World War II approached, Little Orphan Annie became involved in blowing up Nazi submarines, ducking bullets, and helping to fight saboteurs. She even formed the Junior Commandos, which later became a real organization with 20,000 members, to help collect metal, money for war bonds, and assist in raising victory gardens.

Always patriotic, smart, and pro-American – mixing the rich (Daddy Warbucks) with faithful servants (Punjab), and with a love of animals (Sandy), Little Orphan Annie reflected Harold’s personae. Her dedication to hope, hard work, and optimism reflected Harold’s belief in the Puritan work ethic, and the belief that anyone who worked hard enough could succeed. His conservative views on society, government, and human nature constantly rose to the surface in Little Orphan Annie, striking a cord with many Americans – yet often getting him in trouble. He told a young Al Capp:

I know your stuff, Capp. You're going to be around a long time. Take my advice and buy a house in the country. Build a wall around it. And get ready to protect yourself. The way things are going, people who earn their living someday are going to have to fight off the bums.
Harold was a master story teller, able to bring a reader into the comic strip on one day, and make him want to come back again the next through the strength of the story line. Whether you liked his political stance or not, he created an engaging, lasting character.

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