News of Yore: Billy DeBeck

Enough with the obscurities for a little while, let’s get back into some news of yore. Here’s a nice article on Billy DeBeck from a 1939 issue of Editor & Publisher. DeBeck would be dead just three years after this article was published.

Billy De Beck Marks 20th Year With King
By Stephen J. Monchak, 10/7/39

On October 6, 1919, King Features Syndicate brought Billy De Beck, then a cartoonist for the newly merged Chicago Herald & Examiner, to New York, gave him a contract and told him to start a new comic strip. Thus was born “Barney Google,” one of the most famous comic strip characters in America, and the character’s pet in his various escapades, the immortal race horse, “Spark Plug,” which in cash earnings outran Cavalcade, Gallant Fox, War Admiral, Sea Biscuit, or any other real horse in racing history.

This week Billy De Beck and Barney Google observed two decades of service with KFS. Barney is still around, but Spark Plug has gone into “retirement.” His place, for a time, was taken by a small edition called “Pony Boy,” but Billy didn’t think it caught on with the public, so he discontinued it.

They Hit the Heights
Follows some of the unique distinctions which Barney and his pal Spark Plug have acquired: in addition to the record-breaking syndicate receipts a toy company sold a million dollars worth of Barney Google and Spark Plug toys and dolls, three Barney Google musical shows toured the country for two years and the Barney Google song sold over a million copies and brought royalties of some $25,000.

Billy (his name is William Morgan De Beck) is “Barney Google.” He has had a colorful career, exciting and extravagant. Uninhibited, full of the zest for life, he burst into the spotlight in his twenties and experienced just such hilarious adventures as Barney Google goes through, and lifted himself into riches and celebrity.

Now 49, he has settled down. And, of course, so has Barney. Where once the strip was pure slap-stick, it now attempts to portray character and, where Barney Google used to be a hell-raiser, he now is more the motivator and observer, leaving the rough stuff to others.

In Billy’s current hill-billy series, one of his funniest continuities to date, which was bom about five years ago, he has created a bright galaxy of new characters – “Snuffy” and “Lowizie Smith,” the hilariously funny mountaineers, “Snuffy’s” nephew “Weasel-puss,” “Sut Tattersall” and others.

Ever since the early days of his Google strip, Billy has been introducing phrases and words which have become the national rage and part of our every day speech: “The heebie-jeebies,” “Horse Feathers,” “So he took the $50,000,” “oskie-wowow,” “I hope you won’t feet hurt,” and “sweet mamma,” to mention only a few.

Another New Vocabulary

Currently Barney is in the Smoky Mountains adventuring with his hillbilly friends. Immensely popularizing the strip today are the “Feather Merchants,” hill-billy midgets, if you can call them that, the zaniest looking group of impossibles imaginable.

In the hill-billy series, Billy is popularizing a new vocabulary-“Jeepers Creepers,” “Bus’ Mah Britches!”, “Time’s a wastin,” “Discombooberate,” “I swow,” and others. Some of these words and phrases are authentic, Billy told the column. He gets them from his extensive hill-billy library of more than 300 books which he has collected all over the country. Some of the words are his own invention.

Billy, his friends say, is one of the fastest artists in the business. Almost every other comic artist first makes a hard and fast pencil outline, then goes over it carefully in ink. De Beck uses the pencil just to suggest position and action and then draws directly in ink.

He has never been able to systematize himself. For days he won’t draw a stroke and then he’ll have a siege from ten in the morning until two at night in which he’ll complete two weeks of dailies and his Sunday feature. He said he draws seven weeks ahead on his Sunday page and three weeks ahead on his daily strip.

He leaves his business affairs exclusively to his wife and has only the vaguest idea about his money or investments. He dislikes to discuss politics and is little concerned with world affairs and never reads anything that would make him think too much.

Likes Golf, Swimming, Bridge

Aside from his work, the cartoonist is interested primarily in golf, swimming and bridge. His favorite author is Sinclair Lewis, and his highest ambition, he says, is to be an acrobat. He was bom in Chicago, April 15, 1890 and attended schools there. His first job was with a Chicago theatrical weekly, Show World. From there he went to the Youngstown (0h.) Telegram and, in 1912, he moved on to the old Pittsburgh Gazette-Times as editorial cartoonist at $200 a month. For the Chicago Herald he drew “Married Life” – a daily two-column panel and full page on Sunday and a Sunday comic page called “Haphazard Helen.” [if he did any work on Haphazard Helen, he never signed it – Allan] From there he went with KFS.

Today the De Becks live in a big twelve-room house in St. Petersburg, Fla., the year around. They have no children. Now on a visit to New York, they will return to Florida at the end of this month.

3 comments on “News of Yore: Billy DeBeck

  1. I’ve read that DeBeck happily handed over the strip to his ghost early on. Any idea when he stopped having an active hand in Google?

    Glad to see this bio bit– I LOVE barney google (and Bunky, ever since reading the run in nemo magazine years back). DeBeck was one of the best in an era of outstanding talent.

  2. Hi Tim –
    My impression is that DeBeck was firmly in control of Barney until his last days. Certainly he used assistants on the art, but DeBeck’s hand is plain in the stories.

    I think Barney Google is an unfortunately neglected classic; its reputation hurt by the addition of the Snuffy Smith hillbilly character, many strip fans tend to ignore it, never having read the fabulous material of the 1920s. I can’t stand Snuffy Smith (with apologies to Uncle Fred Lasswell), but Barney and Spark Plug were great characters, vividly written and beautifully drawn.


  3. I just noticed that this comment was made back in 2006. What do you think of the strip now that John Rose has been at the helm for a while and brought back Barney Google and Spark Plug as semi-regular characters, along with visits from other old-timers like Granny Creeps and Bizzy Buzz-Buzz, and introduced Spark Plug's grandson Lil' Sparky?

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