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December 23, 2008


CR Holiday Interview #2: Jeet Heer On Little Orphan Annie

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imageOne of the best pieces of writing about comics I read this year was Jeet Heer's introduction to the first of IDW's Little Orphan Annie collections. That shouldn't be a surprise to anyone familiar with Heer's writing about comics, in particular his well-received pieces opening the Walt & Skeezix volumes from Drawn & Quarterly. I enjoyed Heer's lively dissection of factors leading into the first few years of Harold Gray's great, long-running strip so much that I thought it would be fun to ask him some questions about it. Happily, he agreed. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: Jeet, as I recall you did your dissertation on Harold Gray and Little Orphan Annie. Am I to take it that this focused on Gray as a conservative figure? Did any of that material make it into your introduction?

JEET HEER: The biographical information on Gray and his relationship to Midwestern cartooning draws on my thesis research. But Gray wasn't really a conservative in the 1920s: he was more of an general populist, hostile to loan sharks and speculators while celebrating hard working ordinary people whether their successful ("Daddy" Warbucks) or not (the poor struggling farmers, the Silos). In the 1920s, Gray even defended labour unions, having Annie launch a successful one-girl strike against a boss who mistreats her. Gray's political opinions would take on a more partisan salience in the 1930s when the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt polarized American politics into those who saw the New Deal as the salvation for the working class and those who saw it as the end of American liberty. Gray fell into the anti-FDR camp and Annie became much more explicitly right-wing. That's a big part of the thesis and won't be in the Annie books till we hit the New Deal period.

SPURGEON: One thing I don't know is how you started reading Annie. That's a tough one for a lot of people to get into because of the musical, and its general identity as a girl's strip from the Great Depression. What led to your initial reading and what piqued your interest to the point you made it an object of study?

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HEER: The first time I read Annie was the Leonard Starr version, which ran in the Toronto Star in the late 1970s and early 1980s, although I didn't particularly care for that incarnation. I saw Gray's Annie in bits in pieces in books like The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics and elsewhere but didn't read it in bulk till issue #8 of Nemo, Richard Marschall's magazine about comics. That issue had several in-depth articles on Annie and reprints a long 1920s adventure, which impressed me for its grittiness and heart. Then the Fantagraphics collections came along, which were even more impressive in that they feature year-long stories that read like novels. So I knew Annie was worth writing about, but what convinced me that it would be worth a whole thesis was looking through the Gray archives at Boston University. Unlike most cartoonists of his generation, Gray kept most of his original art and a ton of other material (letters, diaries, etc.). So here was a chance to write about an early 20th century cartoonist in a way that really looks at his life and work, without relying on the usual recycled press clippings.

SPURGEON: How did you get the gig writing the introduction to this volume? I know you have a relationship with Canadian comics creators, but this is from IDW.

HEER: I got the gig thanks to Dean Mullaney, who admired the Walt & Skeezix books I'm doing with Chris Ware and Chris Oliveros. Dean was in the early stages of planning out the ambitious Library of American Comics series, which will include Annie, Terry and the Pirates, and many other strips. I was happy to work with Dean because, like Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics, he takes book design and production seriously and works hard to create the most attractive platform for presenting old comic strips. (Back in the old Eclipse days, Dean had published the first incarnation of Krazy and Ignatz, which was a formative influence on me).

SPURGEON: I know almost nothing about Dean's set up with IDW. What was it like working with them?

HEER: Well, like "Daddy" Warbucks Dean has a lot of drive and entrepreneurial energy and he's built quite a "wrecking crew" around him including Bruce Canwell (who has done great research for the Terry books and the Noel Sickles book), and Randy Scott (who does the indexing for several series). Dean does the design work himself (he's been running a design firm during his long absence from comics) and hands over each volume to IDW and the printers. The books have been selling well, so IDW has been giving Dean lots of leeway. One thing I admire about Dean is that he's put in lots of time and money on production: in the Annie books, for example, the vast majority of the strips are shot from original art, which is a rare luxury and allows us to see Gray's work as never before. I think Dean's masterpiece so far has been the Noel Sickles book, which really gives us for the first time a sense of this important artist's career.

SPURGEON: You do a wonderful job in the essay tracking how the values of Little Orphan Annie are frequently seen in values and experiences Gray had in the 30 years before he started the strip. I have two questions. Is there any personal experience that you feel Gray might have kept from informing the strip for some reason? And since he was so conscious of crafting Annie, did that include utilizing these values or did those just kind of naturally seep into the work the way they do with most cartoonists who work on something every day like that.

HEER: There might be aspects of Gray's life that didn't make it into his strip. There are rumours that he was a skirt-chaser and that's something that doesn't show up much in Annie, although you can catch hints of it here and there.

Charles Schulz once said that everything you could want to know about him could be found in Peanuts, and the characters were all reflections of his personality. I think that's true of all the great cartoonists, not just Schulz but also Frank King, George Herriman and Harold Gray (or Crumb or Ware or Seth...). Newspaper cartooning is like keeping a daily diary: even if you're writing only about the weather and shopping, bits of your personality will seep into the work.

In Gray's case, the strip reflected his flinty world view, his love of hard work, his populist spirit, and also his fear of those he thought were undermining society by their laziness and meanness. You get a very strong sense of the man in his work, which is one reason it's one of the major comic strips.

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SPURGEON: I was fascinated by your contention that John T. McCutcheon may have been the first ruminative cartoonist. Can you talk a little bit about him and that and how that might have had an impact on Annie and other strips?

HEER: McCutcheon was the leading political cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune in the first half of the 20th century, a hugely influential figure now largely forgotten. When not commenting on politics, McCutcheon did nostalgic, Mark Twain-inspired strips about being a small town boy, hanging out at the old swimming hole, etc. Many of his best strips don't really have punch-lines or gags but rather work as tone-poems, filled with yearning and sadness -- in a famous page that Gray referred to, McCutcheon paid tribute to the particular colors of an Indian summer night in the Midwest. McCutcheon pioneered a genre of cartooning that was later taken up by Clare Briggs, Frank King, Milton Caniff, Harold Gray and many others.

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SPURGEON: You also spend time tracking how The Gumps influenced Gray and Little Orphan Annie. First, I was wondering if you could talk about that a little bit, too, just how dominant an influence that way. Second, since it was strong an influence, and very popular, why does Annie stand out as a something that was influenced by it? Was Gray just cagier than some of his contemporaries? Did something about the strip strike a chord with Gray that he was maybe more apt to draw from it?

HEER: Well, like McCutcheon, Sidney Smith (creator of The Gumps) was a giant of his day whose place in history has largely been forgotten. Throughout the 1920s and later, The Gumps was one of the top strips in America , loved by millions. What set The Gumps apart from earlier strips was that, although it had a comic element, Smith also often embraced wholehearted melodrama. It was the first real soap opera strip, with the fate of characters unfolding in month long narratives. That's the primary lesson Gray took from Annie.

It's an interesting question why Gray's work continues to be remembered and indeed loved while Smith has been forgotten. I suspect the answer to the question has something to do with Gray's skill at characterization. Like Charles Dickens, Gray had a natural gift for creating characters that are vivid and lifelike. Annie and Warbucks are the best example of this: both of them are so strong and forceful and memorable. Once you read their adventures, it's hard to forget them as people. Smith had all sorts of talents, particularly in spinning out long yarns in small installments, but his characters lack some special spark. It's much harder to relate to Andy Gump than to Annie.

imageSPURGEON: I noticed you mostly avoided Dean's line of thought in his own, much shorter essay about Annie being a creature of its times -- the fact that many in the country were suffering and had lost faith. Do you not feel that's as strong as the personal stamp Gray placed on the strip? How do you see the way people responded to the work, and since it's an obvious comparison, do you think the time are similar right now and that Annie might hit the people that read it the same way?

HEER: Well, there are lots of books in this series so I don't want touch on every topic right away. In future volumes I will talk about Annie as a product of its time. Having said that, I do think there are ways that Annie transcends its period, as the best strips do. The type of values that Gray brought into the strip -- a sort of two-fisted conservatism -- still has an enormous resonance in American life. By volume three, Annie and Warbucks will be dealing with the Great Depression, trying to survive amid a collapsing economy. I hope that won't be too close to the bone of today's reality!

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SPURGEON: I was surprised by how much like prime-time 1930s Little Orphan Annie the strip was at its beginning. What do you think was the most important element that Gray worked in as the strip developed, or maybe the last thing he brought into it?

HEER: I think Gray hit on the main component of the strip -- the relationship between Annie and Warbucks -- in the very first episode. What will develop in time is his story telling skills. In the early strips, Gray was pretty lackadaisical, with one adventure seeping into another. Often Annie would just wander about for weeks without direction until Gray hit on another idea. By the early 1930s, Gray's plotting was much tighter, with each story reading like a self-contained novel with a proper beginning and end. The last major component that entered the strip was fantasy, which came in 1935 with the introduction of Punjab. Prior to that Annie as a pretty realistic strip. With Punjab, an extra dimension of magic was added to the recipe.

SPURGEON: Have you been successful in writing "half about comics, half about life" as you stated in our previous interview? What's next comics-wise?

HEER: As readers of my blog Sans Everything will know, I continue to write about politics, culture at large, and comics. Right now, I'm working on long essays about Gustave Verbeek, Roy Crane, and Herriman's Stumble Inn. With Kent Worcester, I've just edited a collection of essays titled A Comics Studies Reader, which tries to show how the study of comics has coalesced into a coherent field of studies. And of course Walt & Skeezix continues as does Krazy & Ignatz. So lots of books on comics in the future.

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* the first volume of the Little Orphan Annie series, where Jeet Heer's essay awaits you
* from one of the early Sundays: the irrepressible Annie
* Harold Gary and Annie issue of Nemo
* John McCutcheon's contemplative "Injun Summer"
* a quotidian moment in an early Little Orphan Annie
* Gray never shied away from the harsh realities facing many of the people he portrayed
* the Annie/Daddy Warbucks relationship is the cornerstone of the strip; Gray discovered this fairly early on
* [bottom] won't you buy this young girl's book?

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