Cartoon Cavalcade

by John Holbo on October 16, 2009

I got my hands on a pretty good old book, Cartoon Cavalcade (1943) – and if you got your hands on it too, you wouldn’t pay more’n a few dollars for the privilege, my friend. It’s an anthology of American cartoons from the 1880’s to the 1940’s: 450 pages worth, plus editorial matter from the early 40’s, providing a historically interesting perspective on all this history. Following up this much-commented post of mine, I’ll post a Reginald Marsh item from 1934:


Reginald Marsh, it turns out, was “best known for his paintings and illustrations depicting scenes of vaudeville, night clubs, burlesque, and New York City. Marsh was a lifelong free-lance illustrator for the New Yorker, Esquire and many other national magazines.” I know that because you can see a lot of his material here.

I heard about the book via John Kricfalusi’s epic screed against the UPA style (which I linked before in this post (Plato, Plato, Plato! – there, that oughta be enough SEO for this week.) He alleged that it provided some evidence of ‘the UPA style before UPA’, and of a greater diversity of cartoon styles early in the century. Which seemed interesting to investigate. I have to say I come away with a different impression: namely, that the received wisdom about UPA turns out to be right. That stuff feels different to me, in terms of graphic sensibilty, than a lot of the stuff in Calvalcade, which cuts off exactly when the UPA era begins. (It’s a bit more complicated. Maybe I’ll post more about that later.)

But mostly I was hoping to press Cavalcade into service as a kind of visual companion to Gilbert Seldes’ discussion of comics in The 7 Lively Arts [amazon]. Seldes perpetrated some of the earliest positive comics criticism way back in 1924. (He was a big Krazy Kat fan. Who isn’t? He also loved UPA stuff, later on.) Reading his early comics writing, I have always regretted not really knowing what the hell he is talking about some of the time. Now I have a better sense of some specific titles he mentions.

One thing I was surprised to learn is that Buster Brown is actually sort of funny. But only sometimes. All I knew about the strip before was that Buster’s creator, Outcault, was a true comics pioneer; that Buster was sort of like the Katzenjammer Kids, in that he basically made trouble, then got whacked for it. But he was a rich, Anglo-Saxon kid and invariably delivered some sort of mea culpa after getting whacked. And that somehow he was supposed to provide the Ur-Calvin and Hobbes template: boy with slightly smarter talking animal tagging along, in Sancho Panza mode. Indeed, this would appear to be true.

To my surprise, it turns out that that the pious little homilies are actually the funny part:


And my favorite (I’ll skip the panels in which Buster goes out with a gun and gets whacked from one end of the farm to the other, which really isn’t very funny):


On the strength of this pair, from Cavalcade, I snagged another old item – Buster Brown’s Maxims For Men (1906); which isn’t funny. In fact, it’s a pious, conventional bore. Outcault seems to have been only intermittently aware that this whole formula only works when the final panel declines into incoherent self-parody. A seriously wounded kid maundering on about Teddy Roosevelt’s faults, by way of planning to do better, is funny. A kid just plain planning to do better is the death of comedy, and now I own the book. Fortunately, it was cheap.



kid bitzer 10.16.09 at 3:59 pm

so you made a bad purchase–do not repine.
at least you expressed a pious resolve to do better.


Gene O'Grady 10.16.09 at 10:08 pm

I give up — what is the UPA style?


Dave Weeden 10.16.09 at 10:14 pm

There are a couple of interesting things in the last panel. One is the ferocity of the attack on the President (Teddy Roosevelt?) , which seems rather timely. And I didn’t realise anti-hunting sentiment was so strong that early. And indeed, shooting harmless animals is wrong.

There used to be a Sunday afternoon children’s show on STV (S for Scottish) called ‘Cartoon Cavalcade’ for what’s that’s worth.


Substance McGravitas 10.16.09 at 10:17 pm

I give up—what is the UPA style?



gmoke 10.17.09 at 12:23 am

Gilbert Seldes’ brother George Seldes was one of the great reporters of the 20th century, the first American to warn us about Fascism in the form of Mussolino and Il Duce tried to have him killed for it. Seldes’ book on the Italian was called _Sawdust Caesar_. He became an independent journalist with his newsletter “In Fact” which was publishing about the link between tobacco and cancer in the 1940s. It became the model for IF Stone’s Weekly and Stone bought his initial mailing list from Seldes. His autobiography is very well worth reading and he was an active writer into his 90s.

The Seldes brothers grew up on a Jewish cooperative farm in NJ, part of a movement that is all but forgotten in our history.


Mitchell Freedman 10.18.09 at 6:17 am

Gmoke, nice summary of Brother George. I was privileged to have met George Seldes, twice, once when he was “just” 99 years old–and where he read parts of one of his books without reading glasses and was fairly sharp–and once a year or two later when he was starting to fade. He died at age 104 or 105.

As for the main topic, I am okay with UPA style, and less okay with the Sixties Hanna-Barbara style. The key age of cartoons are the 1930s and 1940s, with the Fleischer Brothers, Warner Bros and Disney studios. Even the H-B work under Tex Avery is outstanding, which is quite amazing considering how H-B found a way to do things more cheaply, the writing, the drawing and the design.

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