In the early 1980s, when the L.A. Times Syndicate was busy throwing licensed properties against the comic strip wall (Dallas, Star Trek, The Legend of Bruce Lee and Star Wars), one that really got lost in the shuffle, even more obscure than the others, was W.C. Fields.
As you most likely already know, W.C. Fields was a great film comedian of Hollywood’s golden age. He was an iconic misanthrope, and one who reveled in every known bad habit. Unfortunately, by the 1980s the W.C. Fields persona was no longer sharply defined in the public consciousness. While the classic images of Fields were still cultural touchstones, relatively few people had seen any of his movies.
While it is a shame that the general public had begun to lose touch with the W.C. Fields character, it is beyond ridiculous that the LA Times was willing to do a strip about the man, yet right from the beginning diluted the character into an almost unrecognizeably plain vanilla version of himself. If the syndicate was afraid to do a strip about a man who drinks to excess, hates children and kicks dogs, why in the world do a strip about W.C. Fields? It would be like licensing the Marx Brothers and deciding that the strip should have Harpo speak, drop Chico’s accent and swap out Groucho’s moustache for a nice beard.
The first team to tackle Fields-lite, starting on October 31 1982, consisted of artist Frank Smith, and Jim Smart. Smart is unknown to me, but Smith had proven his chops on Disney’s Donald Duck newspaper comic strip. The art is fine, as you would expect, though Fields is made to look far too cuddly — but the lackluster amiable gags are enough to make the ghost of Fields move to Philadelphia.
By July 1983 somebody had decided that something had to be done to, if not necessarily save the strip, at least rehabilitate the W.C. Fields image. On July 31, a new creative team took over. Gags were now credited to a member of W.C.’s own family, Ronald J. Fields. Ronald was very much involved in licensing of his grandfather’s images, but was also a scholar, having published several books about his grandpa. While Ronald may not have necessarily inherited his grandfather’s comedic gifts, at least his heart was in the right place. All of a sudden, Fields became rancorous, lethargic and half-lit — just as he ought to be.
Throwing the baby out with the bath water, artist Frank Smith also exited, and was replaced by Fred Fredericks. Apparently Mandrake the Magician wasn’t keeping Fredericks busy, so he tried his hand at this strip, probably knowing that the gig would be short-term.
And short term it certainly was. The latest I can find the W.C. Fields strip running is August 7 1983, meaning that if I have the right end date then the new team was active for a mere two weeks. However, all my dates cited in this article are for the Sunday strip — it may be that the even rarer daily switched creators earlier and/or lasted longer. (Actually, I have yet to find a single example of the daily strip running anywhere — it was advertised as available, but did it even exist?).
I have no doubt that there is more to the story of the W.C. Fields comic strip, and I’ve undoubtedly made assumptions that will turn out to be wrong. I’d certainly be delighted to hear from anyone who was involved in the strip, to get all the details right about this strange tale.