Category : Obscurities

Obscurity of the Day: Jungle Jingles


Clarence Rigby seemed to be trying to prove himself at the New York Herald, putting out some of his best work there in a short stint 1900-02. During this time he was also producing work for others, but I get the feeling he really wanted to secure his position at the Herald. It’s too bad that his series for them, while very well drawn, didn’t have much of a spark to make them long-term series. 

Jungle Jingles, a series which consisted of a square of individual panels for each installment, featured  impressionistically drawn animals and a bit of verse for each one. The concept had already been done to death, so despite the lovely drawings (that zebra in particular blows me away) it was doomed to a short run — not to mention there aren’t all that many iconic jungle animals to cover. 

Jungle Jingles ran from July 21 to September 1 1901*.

* Source: Ken Barker’s New York Herald index.

Obscurity of the Day: Pot-Shots


Ashleigh Brilliant, who in my opinion quite handily lives up to his family name, began coming up with witty and wise epigrams in the 1960s, and sold them on illustrated postcards. The postcards sold well, and Brilliant went on to put what eventually became known as his Pot-Shots on other products, and to publish book collections of the material. He also recognized that these would make for a fine daily newspaper feature. The Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate agreed, and began syndicating them sometime in 1975. The partnership was dissolved around 1984, and by 1987 or perhaps earlier (they are really hard to track) Brilliant was self-syndicating Pot-Shots. Although Brilliant says on his website that the feature continues to be available, I haven’t seen any papers running it in a long while.

An interesting aspect of Pot-Shots is that the cartoons/illustrations are drawn in many styles, everything from classic detailed illustrations to the simplest stick figures. Despite checking several of his books and reading considerable online  material about him, I can’t find a single word that mentions whether the illustrations are all clip art or if some are drawn by Brilliant, or by collaborators. 

If many of these drawings are re-used art, as seems pretty certain given the wide variety of styles, this becomes more interesting. Brilliant is an ardent and ferocious defender of his copyrights, which courts have ruled can cover epigrams. (Which reminds me to say that all the Pot-Shot examples above are copyrighted by Ashley Brilliant, the Pot-Shots name is a registered trademark, and the examples shown above are used in the context of a review) So with Brilliant’s presumed use of a huge amount of artwork by and presumably copyrighted by others, has he never violated the intellectual property laws of artists himself?

Brilliant decided to stop publishing new Pot-Shots postcards after he hit #10,000 (each postcard is numbered). That means that if a paper had started running the feature in 1975 they could have had a new Pot-Shot every day for over 32 years, and would have had to start offering recycled wisdom around 2007. 


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Obscurity of the Day: Howie


Howie Schneider’s claim to fame is the popular NEA comic strip Eek and Meek, which ran from 1965 to 2000. But Schneider made other attempts to get into the newspaper strip hall of fame, least successfully with the self-titled strip, Howie

United Feature Syndicate, the big brother of NEA, took the strip on despite finding very few clients, evidently feeling that the popularity might build over time. It didn’t, but you have to give them points for giving it a try. Howie is a quasi-autobiographical daily only comic strip about a cartoonist interacting with family and friends, or just waxing philosophical. The strip was very well-drawn, using a more detailed, less cartoony version of Schneider’s normal style. Theoretically the strip followed his life day by day (the strip was sometimes subtitled A Comic Journal), so not too surpringly it often portrayed him sitting at his drawing board trying to come up with ideas for his comic strip.

Perhaps newspaper editors couldn’t see readers identifying with a cartoonist, or maybe they just saw it as a too-egocentric exercise. In any case, Schneider and UFS gave it a year to catch on, and it didn’t. The strip began on November 12 1984 and ended on December 2 1985*.

* Source: United Feature Syndicate internal records

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Obscurity of the Day: Epitaphs For Live Ones


Heppner Blackman seems to have only pursued newspaper cartooning in New York City for a short period, but he penned one quite interesting feature in his short foray there, plus a few that are less memorable. Epitaphs For Live Ones was a series of cartoons in which we see famous peoples’ final resting places along with a humorous take on what might be chiselled thereon.

The weekday series was done for the New York Herald, but only one episode was printed in that morning paper, on September 7 1906. After that the series was moved to their evening paper, the Telegram, where it ran from November 10 1906  to August 5 1907. 

If you’re wondering who the bewhiskered chap above is, James Bryce was appointed Britain’s ambassador to the United States in 1907 at the time of this cartoon. He was also a noted historian, and had earlier written a very influential book about the U.S. titled The American Commonwealth. The epitaph Blackman came up with seeks to wring humour out of all these aspects of this accomplished fellow, and succeeds for an audience more than a century removed in producing mostly head-scratching. 

Come on back on Wednesday when Alex Jay will enlighten us more about Mr. Blackman’s life story.

Obscurity of the Day: P.J. McFey





Charles Barsotti was a well-respected, inventive and prolific magazine gag cartoonist, best known for his regular appearances in The New Yorker and Playboy. But Barsotti obviously pined for a dependable and ongoing gig, so he tried to break into the ranks of the newspaper cartoonists a number of times.

The last attempt I know of is with the strip P.J. McFey, which was picked up for syndication by the LA Times Syndicate. This strip was a gag-a-day affair starring a put-upon corporate drone who has to deal with the strange behavior of the executives, the tech people and the marketing folk. It sort of sounds like Dilbert, but what was missing were the consistent and strong personalities, as opposed to basically generic gags that happen to use a few of the same weakly defined characters.

The daily and Sunday strip debuted on January 12 1986*, and within six months Barsotti wasn’t even sticking with his initial direction, now sometimes having McFey appear as just a generic ‘everyman’ figure, sometimes abandoned to being a background object in a gag having nothing to do with him. Barsotti even started dropping him altogether from the Sunday strip, as can be seen in the samples above.

P.J. McFey didn’t make it to the first anniversary mark, killed by mutual consent between syndicate and creator on December 13 1986. The day after that, a major profile article about Barsotti appeared in the Kansas City Star, and the strip was discussed:

“Mickey Mouse is kind of an icon,” [Barsotti] says. “It shows you these things can work.” The “things” are cartoon characters. One of Barsotti’s that won’t is PJ McFey. “I just hate to say it,” Barsotti said one evening not long ago. If he wouldn’t, then Lou Schwartz of the Los Angeles Times Syndicate would. “In the wonderful world of comic strips, ‘PJ McFey’ has had his run.” Officially, the last of the strips died yesterday but Barsotti had stopped drawing about two months before. The strip, in which McFey, a middle-aged, middle-class office worker, wrestled with life’s demons, never hit stride. At the end it ran in about 30 papers, including The Star, “Doonesbury” appears in about 750. “I’m very upset about it,” says Barsotti, kneading a blackened eraser between his fingers. “It was obvious to everyone else I had too much to do, although I don’t think I sloughed off.” Work was winging out of his house via Federal Express sometimes seven days a week. He was doing drawings for the magazines, plus cartoons for his daily and weekend spaces in USA Today and USA Weekend, plus seven McFeys in 2 to three days. In coming up with the name, Barsotti pulled the PJ from PJ Clarke’s, a watering hole in New York. The Mc was an add-on but the “fey” derived from the more positive meanings of that word, such as being clairvoyant. In the end, it fit the preferred use of the word: “Fated to die soon.”

* Source: Editor & Publisher article, November 23 1985.

One comment on “Obscurity of the Day: P.J. McFey

  1. I recall it happening in later installments of "Sally Bananas", an earlier Barsotti strip. Sally hardly appeared except for occasional appearances, instead featuring her niece or random side characters.

    It's a shame "Sally Bananaas" never took off. I thought that strip was fun.

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Obscurity of the Day: Switchboard Sally


Hard to believe that King Features would offer a third-rate strip like Switchboard Sally*, the theoretically humorous tale of a hotsy-totsy, smart-mouthed hotel telephone operator. In the 1920s the Hearst organization had the Premier Syndicate imprint in which to throw this sort of junk up against the wall to see if it might stick, and why this did not get flung there I dunno. 

Even junk like this can be interesting, though, and in this instance it is the creators who are memorable. The author of Switchboard Sally was H.C. Witwer, who must have been dashing off this tripe purely for the quick buck. Witwer was a popular and prolific writer who made a name for himself with humorous novels, magazine stories and movie screenplays. He was obviously engaged to write the strip purely for the name recognition. Apparently Witwer didn’t care much about the potential damage to his reputation. 

The artist is the notorious Wesley Morse, who would later win everlasting infamy as the king of the Tijuana Bibles, those x-rated eight-pagers sold under the counter at the corner store in the 1930s-50s. Switchboard Sally gives him ample opportunity to work on his female figure drawing, for which I must admit he had a knack. It’s everything else in the strip that he seems to not have an interest in fleshing out; the strip mainly features blank backgrounds and the most minimal props necessary. 

Switchboard Sally seems to have debuted on June 15 1925**, and was pretty much a gag-a-day affair. Since the gags weren’t very good, there were also some half-baked storylines that went nowhere, so if you disliked the gags you could also be annoyed by the ill-conceived continuity. The latest I can find the strip running is January 2 1926 in the San Francisco Examiner, where daily strips came and went as quickly as mayflies — can anyone supply a later end date?

One minor footnote is that the strip was advertised as being by Russ Westover in the 1925 E&P listings; obviously this was a typo.

* At least one paper ran it as “Sally of the Switchboard”

** Source: Philadelphia Daily News

2 comments on “Obscurity of the Day: Switchboard Sally

  1. I never made the connection that Morse was one of the "Tijuana Bibles" artists, but looking at the drawings I can see the resemblance. One of the more wholesome creations Morse was involved in were those "Bazooka Joe" comics that came with the bubble gums.

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Obscurity of the Day: Mr. Grouch


Hy Gage produced a lot of comic strips over a long career, primarily for the Philadelphia papers. He worked most closely with the Philadelphia Press from 1906-1913, where his headline strip was Mrs. Rummage the Bargain Fiend. His secondary strip was this obscurity, Mr. Grouch

Mr. Grouch is just that, a pruny old fussbudget who is certain he knows best, and flies into a tantrum at the drop of a hat. Inexplicably, he has a gorgeous young wife who puts up with his anything but loveable antics. 

As with all of Hy Gage’s work, the cartooning seems quite basic and flat yet shows a command of action and expression that really amps up the humour. Gage could take a tired old gag and make it worth seeing anew purely for the treatment he gives it. 

Mr. Grouch ran in the Philadelphia Press weekday editions from May 24 1906 to August 30 1907, then was graduated to the Sunday funnies section and ran there from September 22 1907 to February 26 1911. 

The Philadelphia Press also apparently had an agreement with the McClure Syndicate to share material with them in 1908-09. While McClure chose from the Press lineup mostly Gage’s #1 strip, Mrs. Rummage, and Hugh Doyle’s John Poor John to pad their sections, Mr. Grouch also made occasional appearances. 

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Obscurity of the Day: The Pranks of Pantomime Pete


I’ve always said that if I got to go back in time to interview just one cartoonist, it might have to be Roy W. Taylor. Taylor worked at just about every major paper in New York and Chicago, so just imagine the stories he could tell. Taylor had a lovely clean style, and if his gags were not really top-notch you tended to forgive him because his strips look so gosh-darn inviting. 

Today we feature Taylor’s The Pranks of Pantomime Pete, a strip that he did while on a stint with the Chicago Tribune (though you can bet he was submitting material elsewhere at the same time). Walter Bradford pretty much dominated the Trib‘s funnies section in the first half of the 1900s, but Taylor, in his short stints there in 1901-02 and 1905-06, gave him a run for his money. Unfortunately they both kinda got the bum’s rush in 1906 when the Tribune decided to have a bunch of German cartoonists produce the majority of the section. 

The Pranks of Pantomime Pete ran from December 3 1905 to April 29 1906; in the latter part of the run the strip only appeared sporadically (… darn Germans). If you have a hankering for the whole run of Pete, albeit in living black and white, head on over to Barnacle Press for the full monty.

Obscurity of the Day: Mommy


Here’s a panel that seems like it should have succeeded, if only because it offered a different perspective than just about all the other stuff editors could buy in the mid-50s. The panel Mommy was about a stay-at-home mom, and unlike glamourpusses like Alice Mitchell and Blondie Bumstead, she seemed pretty real — she was overworked, overtired, not at all amused by her kids’ ‘cute’ antics, and never wore high heels and pearls to do the vacuuming. In short, here was a panel that would appeal to all the newspaper readers who fit that mould, which was most of the middle-aged women of the developed world. 

So what could go wrong? It certainly wasn’t the art, which was by Arnie Mossler who offered up a more than competent 1950s modern and vibrant style. And it wasn’t the gags by his wife Ann Mossler, which hit more often than not, and came across as real, not manufactured by some cigar-smoking gag-writer. At this point I’d be giving the stink-eye to the syndicate, which being the New York Herald-Tribune, with the most infamously inept sales force of all the majors, would seem like the obvious place to point the finger. But to my surprise when I look around on, I see that the panel started with what appears to be a healthy enough client list, and those clients didn’t all get shed early on. In fact, it isn’t until a good year and a half into the run before the clients start dropping like flies. Why? I just don’t know. It’s a head-scratcher. 

Mommy began on March 21 1955* and ended just about exactly two years later, on March 30 1957**. Arnie Mossler had several syndicated features before and after this, but Mommy was the only occasion on which he teamed up (or at least credited) his wife Ann.

* Source: San Fernando Valley Times

** Source: Tampa Times

2 comments on “Obscurity of the Day: Mommy

  1. My first reaction to it, while just scrolling down and reading the panels, and before you posted your puzzlement, was that it was simply unpleasant. Nobody is smiling, there is no evidence of love or affection, there is no fun displayed. "Mommy" is haggard, unhappy, clearly overworked and we never even see her husband. It's a portrait of mid-50s middle-class misery, and I am reminded of my own mother, who ultimately attempted suicide. It's as lightweight as an anvil.

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Obscurity of the Day: Little Evy


Evy (Evelyn) Caroll had a couple of years in the spotlight, and then pretty much disappeared, maybe losing her last name through marriage thus throwing me off the trail. 

In 1945 Caroll’s gag strip about a precocious little girl, Little Evy, was accepted by King Features, debuting on May 7*. The panel had a certain charm to it. It certainly passes the Holtz test — it stars a kid with an actual personality, not just a mannequin for miscellaneous kid jokes. But newspaper editors seem to have disagreed with my evaluation and stayed away in droves. The latest I can find the panel running is April 27 1946**, a really short run from the generally indulgent King Features. Perhaps Miss Caroll was responsible for the cancellation, as she certainly wasn’t in danger of jumping into an upper tax bracket with the feature. 

Evy Caroll next published a children’s book in 1947, Dance Natasha Dance, and then disappears off my radar.

* Source: New York Mirror

** Source: York Record, which ran it late but thankfully left dates on the panels.

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