Obscurity of the Day: Tommy

A fabulously talented newcomer burst upon the newspaper cartooning scene in 1996 when United Feature Syndicate offered newspapers a new strip titled Tommy.The creator, Jay Martin, was the son of Joe (Mr. Boffo, Willy ‘n Ethel, etc.) Martin, noted newspaper cartoonist. Between Joe’s tutelage and a fine arts education, Jay at the tender age of 22 was already a cartoonist who could knock your socks off.

Martin’s creation, Tommy, was a fantasy about the dreams of a kid, who’s personal guide to a bizarre dreamland  is a muscular black blob named Gus. The drawing was to die for, and Martin showed off a dry acerbic wit that belied his age. Because the strip featured a boy and his fantasy friend, there were the inevitable comparisons with Calvin and Hobbes. However, Martin was obviously harkening back far more to Little Nemo than treading in Watterson’s territory. Tommy is a pretty calm and cool kid, a million miles away from the sugared-up bouncing-off-the-walls Calvin, and Tommy spends most of his time in Dreamland, whereas Calvin’s world is mostly a wakeful one, with only occasional dips into fantasy (other than the talking tiger of course).

Newspaper editors seemed to recognize that Tommy could be the next big thing. Major papers took the strip, like the Baltimore Sun, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many others. They even heralded the new strip with feature stories about the wunderkind, a rare occurrence by 1996.

What happened then is a mystery to me. I don’t know if readers failed to take to the strip because it was too eclectic, or if the drawing was too ‘far out’, or if features editors were disappointed that they hadn’t found an instant mega-hit, but the buzz over Tommy died off quickly despite what I consider to be superb material. Or maybe the buzz was still there, but Jay Martin lost interest in the project. Whatever the case, the strip debuted on October 7 1996, and was cancelled on June 28 1998, not even making it to the two year mark.

Jay Martin went on to bigger things, a pretty big loss to newspaper cartooning in my opinion. He went to Hollywood and became a storyboard artist, then began directing music videos, and now he’s even directing major motion pictures. Nice to know that he didn’t forget Tommy completely, though. In the 2000s he shopped around a movie based on the character, which was picked up and a script developed. As with many projects in Hollywood, it ended up on the shelf.

I have no idea if there’s a market for it, but I for one would love to see a Tommy reprint book, especially one reprinting the especially hard to find dailies.

2 comments on “Obscurity of the Day: Tommy

  1. I remember that this one appeared briefly in the San Jose Mercury News, where I worked in Marketing. It replaced BC, which had become identified as a "Christian" strip and was otherwise a shadow of its old self.

    The usual angry letters came in, but a bit of a frenzy had been worked up by writers claiming we were anti-Christian. They also claimed that the black-clad figure was explicitly Satanic. Tommy out, BC back in.

    I recall seeing a few later strips where Gus had shed his costume and was just a youngish guy.

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