Obscurity of the Day: Balmy Benny

As far as I can tell Gene Ahern didn’t serve in World War I, but that didn’t stop him from doing a strip about a doughboy in the trenches.

His screwball NEA strip Squirrel Food had been running since 1915, often featured a dimwitted nut named Balmy Benny. The strip was retitled in his honor on July 25 1918 when the little fellow and his faithful companion George the dog were inducted into service in Europe. In order to be somewhat respectful of our boys in uniform Benny’s lunacy was toned way down for the newly refocused feature, a change that definitely dampened the hilarity. Ahern’s writing on this strip is tentative, searching for gags in a war zone of which he had no first-hand knowledge. Real soldiers like Percy Crosby, Wally Wallgren and Bruce Bairnsfather could serve up wartime gallows humor, but Ahern had to content himself with derivative gags, most of which dropped like lead balloons.

Luckily for Ahern the war ended mere months after Benny arrived in the trenches. Our screwball hero got to come back stateside and resume his screwball ways. The strip was renamed back to Squirrel Food on February 3 1919.

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