While NEA offered some very fine comic strips among their blanket service offerings, one real stinker was the Sunday version of J.R. Williams’ fine daily panel, Out Our Way. The Sunday version took one occasional aspect of the daily, a typical suburban family named the Willets, and made them the star of the Sunday show. Despite the Sunday debuting a mere eight months after the daily in 1922, Williams evidently fely secure enough in his position that he probably never touched the Sunday strip. Instead it was handed off to Neg Cochran, who worked on it anonymously until after the death of Williams in 1957 — surely some sort of record for longevity in ghosting a strip?
But why did the Out Our Way Sunday last so long, you ask, if it was such a stinker? Well, I’ll tell you that Neg Cochran was the son of NEA editor Hal Cochran, and you can draw your own conclusion. But nepotism can’t be the whole reason, because the Sunday Out Our Way, as hard as it for me to believe it, was a popular inclusion to Sunday sections for NEA subscribers even though there were other and better Sunday strip options distributed by the syndicate. Perhaps it was simply that newspaper editors didn’t really catch on that their very popular daily series was, in its Sunday version, a deathly pale imitation. I dunno.
Anyhow, this post is supposed to be about the topper, not Out Our Way, so excuse my digression. As with most NEA full page Sundays in the 1920s and 30s, Out Our Way‘s toppers were produced mostly by different creators than the main strip. This interesting innovation allowed other bullpen cartoonists to share the Sunday color section limelight, and meant that the presumably hard-working cartoonist of the main feature was given a bit of slack.
Out Our Way went through several toppers that were Sunday versions of NEA daily strips; the first was Mom ‘n’ Pop, and that was followed by Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs. After that there was a strange long foray into activity and puzzle features, often wasting the talent of Crane. On August 19 1934* the puzzles were finally dropped and a new topper debuted. This was Otto Honk, featuring a goofball title character who walks into the same sorts of gags that readers older then six have already seen a million times. Penning this was Bela Zaboly, a young NEA bullpenner at this time. It was an inauspicious debut for Zaboly, but you might say that the quality of Otto Honk meshed perfectly with the Sunday Out Our Way.
Zaboly got lucky in 1936 when Gene Ahern, creator of the popular NEA feature Our Boarding House, decided to jump ship. Zaboly got yanked off the Otto Honk assignment to help continue Ahern’s orphaned feature; his last Otto Honk ran on March 15 1936**. Left with no creator to handle the topper, NEA opted to assign it to Neg Cochran himself, which finally gave Neg the opportunity to see his name on the Sunday page, albeit only on the topper. Evidently this didn’t strike him as that much of an honor, because he dropped Otto Honk as soon as a replacement could be found. The last Otto Honk appeared on June 21 1936**, and on the next Sunday there debuted the best thing there ever was about the Out Our Way Sunday — George Scarbo‘s fabulously drawn Comic Zoo topper.
* Source: Brooklyn Eagle
** Source: NEA archives at Ohio State University