Former Commando Cartoonist now Fights Daily Deadlines
by Don Maley (Editor & Publisher, June 14 1969)
John Henry Rouson draws big laughs with four mini-cartoons he grinds out for General Features Syndicate. Rouson, a transplanted Englishman, says he learned to draw small during World War II when newsprint was scarce on Fleet Street and consequently newspaper art shrunk.
The four cartoons Rouson draws 24-times-a-week are: Boy and Girl, Ladies’ Day, Little Sport and Little Eve. Collectively they appear in 300 papers,according to the syndicate. As an example of the Liliputian size of Rouson’s work both the Little Sport and Little Eve panels are drawn on 1” by 7” inch panels. “All European artists have to draw small,” says Rouson, “in Europe space is valuable.”
His Boy and Girl feature was originally four panel but has been cut down to one column “but could be run in two.” Ladies’ Day is a six-a-week spot designed for distaff sports buffs. Although all four features rate high marks in the humor department. Their creator has a background that reads like something written by Ian Fleming — one of Rouson’s wartime buddies—and is chock-full of adventure, rather than fun.
The 60-year-old artist began drawing comic strips in the very early 30’s “Once I got started,” he says, “things happened quickly.” Quickly indeed. In his heyday in England young Rouson scratched his by-line on to six features: Shop Acts (“Life in a general store . . . six – a – week.”). Our Gracie (“Done with Gracie Fields six times a week.”) Little Sport (“Only once a week then.”), Boy and Girl (“Originally called Boy Meets Girl done once-a-week for the London Sunday Dispatch.”), Theatrical Caricatures for the London Bystander and gag cartoons for Punch.
“I wasn’t making too much money back in those days,” says Rouson, “only about $300 a week.” To supplement his income he appeared on British television drawing cartoons. “We had telly in England back in 1938 and ’39—it was very primitive,” he says. He also drew cartoons and wrote reviews for Modem Motoring, the Roots Motors monthly magazine.
“Another fellow and I started a paper called the Sporting Record,” he says of another venture, “and we ran it for about two years. We bought it very cheaply and eventually built up a circulation of 14,000. We were all set to go into the football season when the war came along and killed it for us. We sold out to a publisher who was looking for a publication that would be a good source of newsprint for his other publications. He built it up however and sold it for a fat quarter-of-a-million. I got back the $20,000 I put into it.”
During the nine years that Rouson expended creative energy all over the British Isles he thrived. “It all sounds like an awful lot of work but it wasn’t really. Everything dovetailed together. I loved both sports and the theatre and I’ve always liked cartooning. I did the strips during the day and the rest of the work at night. It was wonderful in a way, I was in my 20’s then and was young and enthusiastic and found the work relaxing. But by the time the war came around I started to sag.”
Rouson joined the Royal Navy in September, 1939, three days before England went to war against the Axis powers. “I joined the Patrol Service,” he says, “and was assigned to a 46-foot yacht I had sailed before. We were at Dunkirk and were assigned to traffic duty, directing small boats in and out of the beach. The original crew of four grew to six and they promoted me to second in command. We ended up patrolling the Thames doing routine naval drudgery.”
Rouson hates drudgery and as fate would have it the sophisticated cartoonist who joined the Navy as an ordinary seaman (the lowest of the low in the Naval chain of command) was discharged seven years later as a Lieutenant Commander, O. B. E., G. M. The last two letters stand for George Medal, one of Great Britain’s highest military decorations. He succeeded in the Navy by joining an elite group of sailors who seemed hell-bent on committing suicide.
Because of his poor eyesight, the bespectacled Rouson knew he’d never see action more exciting than chasing skinny-dippers out of the Thames, so he volunteered for special assignments as a weapons defuser. “I thought I might have a go at it,” says Rouson Britishly. “It was a little rugged at first. Some of the devices we used in the early months of the war were, now that I think of it, rather laughable. (Sledge hammers and such.) We worked in teams—one officer, one sailor as a rule—and we lost a lot of men at the beginning, but the losses tailed off as we picked up greater experience.
“Of my original 12 man crew I guess only about three came through. Many of the volunteers were fellows who, like myself, had poor eyesight, or other slight physical impairments.” (A close look above Rouson’s horn-rims divulges a scar on the right side of his forehead—a permanent reminder that war is far from hilarious.)
During the early years of thewar, when the Germans were ‘blitzing’ England, Rouson and his crew were kept busy defusing large, magnetic naval mines the Germans parachuted from airplanes.
“At first the Germans dropped them into the sea,” he says, “but they made such a loud noise, scaring the pants off of everybody within earshot, that they switched tactics and started dropping them on land targets. These naval mines were dropped in large numbers during the ‘blitz’ attacks on Coventry and Glasgow. At Glasgow, when we were sent up after a raid, we found about 90 such mines that had been dropped all over the place, and, as was often the case, about one out of every three — in this instance about 30—failed to explode.”
In an attempt to booby-trap the mines, the Germans attached a 14-second timing device designed to blow up anyone attempting to take them apart. Once, Rouson recalls, there was an eight-second count on a mine which he was dismantling.
Rouson’s initial instructions for his dangerous assignment took one entire afternoon. “learned on the job,” he says. “A guy was killed the first day. We didn’t know anything about theory and were quite a group. There were playboys, teachers, businessmen and we even had a hunting secretary with us.” Later Rouson learned how to dive—for undersea work. On an island “south of Singapore,” he found one of the first Japanese mines ever recovered by the Allies. He was on the last English ship to leave Singapore before it fell to the Japanese.
Later he took the first acoustic torpedo out of a German sub—“in the Mediterranean off the French port of Toulon.”
Meets Ian Fleming
It was during this period that Rouson met Ian Fleming when his “Rendering Safe Party” became a “Commando Assault Unit,” and they worked closely with British Intelligence, to which Fleming was assigned.
One expedition Rouson vividly remembers was when six little Japanese two-man subs penetrated the submarine nets at Sydney, Australia, and sneaked into the harbor. “These little subs,” says Rouson, “probably came from a larger sub, got through the Sydney nets at night and created all kinds of confusion.” Rouson and his crew dived for, and reclaimed wreckage from five-and-a-half of them.
Rouson came back from the war with his Boy and Girl strip, which he drew all over the world and mailed to the London Dispatch from wherever his Navy assignments took him. He also returned with tattoed arms. “I got these,” he says of the tattooes, “in Singapore. Over there the Malay sailors respect tattooed officers and all of the British officers stationed there had tattooes, from the Admiral on down.” One of Rouson’s tattooes is a map of England inscribed in Chinese.
Rouson’s experience in the explosives field prompted the U. S. Navy to request his transfer here in 1944 to lecture on his activities to naval personnel. While here he decided that the U. S. was the best place, at war’s end, for him to further his career as a professional cartoonist. “I realized,” he says, “that if I was going to stay with cartooning my future would be in the States.” He had originally visited the U. S. briefly in 1939 and found then that American cartooning markets far surpassed those in England.
Before migrating to the States Rouson found himself at loose ends. “I had just gotten out of the Navy and had found the war to be very exciting. I just couldn’t visualize sitting at a drawing board for the rest of my life.”
So he went to India with another recently-sprung member of his crew. “We bought a warehouse-full of Indian carpets there,” he says, “and had visions of making a fortune exporting them. But we couldn’t get an export license and had to get rid of them.”
Next the war hero — who wanted to be a jockey as a youth—placed an ad in a London paper which read: “Will go anywhere, do anything.” But no one wanted him to go anywhere, or do anything.
Then he went to Paris where he studied and painted steadily for two years before coming to the States.
“When I came here, in 1948, my first interview for a job was with the New York Herald-Tribune,” he says. “I applied for a spot as a theatre caricaturist and they sent me out on an assignment the same day of the interview — to Philadelphia. ‘Oh boy!,’ I thought, ‘This is how they do business in the States’.” Rouson can’t remember the name of the play he was sent to see in Philadelphia, but he does remember the stars: Melvin Douglas and Jan Sterling. “Miss Sterling had a broken nose,” he remembers, “and I noticed that it’s since been changed.”
Rouson stayed with the Herald-Trib until later that year when he Americanized Little Sport, the gag-a-day adventures of a harried, hapless little silent practitioner of many sports who usually seems to be on the losing end (when he rode to hounds, a fox chased thedogs).
“I only brought $1,000 with me,” he says, “and my budget was extremely limited. I needed an income badly so I showed the strip to a few syndicates but they turned it down. The shape of the strip and everything else about it was so new that nobody thought it had a chance. One night at a cocktail party I met someone who told me I might try the Philadelphia Bulletin. I went there the following day but they too turned down the strip. They could see no hope for it and said it was the wrong shape and full of English humor. I showed it to a reporter who liked it and he told me to try the Philadelphia Inquirer. Eventually they bought it and ran it in the Inquirer and in the Morning Telegraph, another Annenberg paper. Later we syndicated it with George Little of General Features and within a few months we were in 70 papers.”
That was in February, 1949. In October, 1955 Rouson Americanized Boy and Girl, aided and abetted by George Little. Little Eve first saw the light of day in January of 1954 and was drawn by his ex-wife Jolita. Although divorced, Rouson continues to draw the strip under Jolita’s by-line. Ladies Day came into being December, 1958.
Little Sport started out as a racing feature, but in order to gain a more universal appeal Rouson switched his attention to all sports. “It’s simply an attempt to satisfy everybody from the major sports on down to horseshoe pitching and weightlifting. Racing, however, continues as my favorite sport. Baseball? The sport seems to have some wonderful personalities, but it still seems like ‘rounders’ to me.”
“I get some funny mail on that Little Sport,” says Rouson, for 17 years a resident of New York’s Staten Island, “a lot of people think there’s a code someplace in the strip that gives the numbers of winning racehorses. I don’t know how people see these things in the strip, the only code I use is a numerical one for the date.”
The self-taught artist is much sought-after by racehorse owners. “I do a lot of horse portraits by commission only,” he says, “and many of them have appeared in Turf magazine. I’ve travelled all over the U.S. and Canada doing horse portraits and love doing it. I’d like to do it full-time, but I have my strips and although it sometimes gets tedious doing four strips a week I like doing them too.’’
He finds painting to be a form of therapy. “Besides thoroughbreds,” he says, “I have a great appreciation for color . . . it’s such a welcome change to be able to use color after the daily routine of black and white in newspaper work.”
The son of a butcher (“It’s a paradox, he loved animals.”) Rouson is a life-long horse buff. “An uncle of mine,” he says, “was a carriage builder to the Royal Family and he owned some trotters. One of my biggest thrills as a kid was when he let me hold the horse’s reins. And I was always reading Sporting Sketches magazine, it was full of beautiful sketches of jockeys and horses.”
“I sometimes wish,” he says, gazing out at the view of New York Harbor he can see from his patio, “that I could devote all of my energy into just one strip. With income tax the way it is I could comfortably drop a strip or two and get along just great, but my contract won’t allow me to do so.”
The former theatre critic says he has “no enthusiasm for writing anymore.” He even hates to answer his mail. “Cartooning,” he concludes, “has become a way of life with me. It used to be an adventure, but no more. I’m at an age now where I feel that my next big adventure will be retirement.