second read

Not for Laughs

A pathbreaking look at the dark comic genius behind "Skippy"
March 15, 2011

“All cartoonists are geniuses,” wrote John Updike in his introduction to a collection of cartoons by Arnold Roth, a specialist in zany quasi-doodles popular in the late fifties and early sixties. Updike, who had wanted to be a cartoonist before he thought of writing, declined to mollify non-believers by explaining the comment. He knew it to be true from a lifetime of studying newspaper comics and comic books like sacred texts. As he recalled in an autobiographical essay published in his 1999 nonfiction collection, More Matter, “I loved cartoons—almost any cartoon that met a modest standard of professional finish—and studied them as if my salvation lay somewhere in their particulars of shading and penmanship.”

Updike got his education in comics from the comics, like everyone who took the funny pages seriously before the fairly recent emergence of cartoon studies as a scholarly discipline; and I began my education in comics by reading Updike on the subject. Thanks to Updike, I started to look at familiar comics for things I had not been equipped to notice before, and I wanted to know more about all those unfamiliar names he tossed off, like Fontaine Fox, who drew a strip called “Toonerville Folks,” and Percy Crosby, who did one called “Skippy,” which I remembered only vaguely as the source of a movie I had seen in a class at New York University.

Today, of course, a newcomer to anything can look up everything instantly, and students of comics in particular can draw upon a vast and growing body of serious literature published on the topic. In a tall bookcase in my own office, there are more than 200 books on comics and cartooning, with a whole shelf dedicated to biographies and memoirs of comics artists and writers, from early innovators like George Herriman (“Krazy Kat”) and Winsor McCay (“Little Nemo in Slumberland”) to creators of comic-book superheroes such as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (Marvel), Carmine Infantino (DC), and many, many more. This is the boom time of comics biography (as opposed to the “pow” and “kaboom” time), a time that seems to take as a given that all cartoonists are geniuses.

The urtext of this phenomenon, the book that established the model for most of the biographies of comics artists published in recent years, is Skippy and Percy Crosby: The Life and Work of a Great American Cartoonist, by Jerry Robinson, a journalism student turned cartoonist turned cartoon historian. Now eighty-nine and still active as a cartoon curator, speaker, and writer, Robinson himself recently became the subject of a biography modeled on his book about Skippy and Crosby: Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics, by N. C. Christopher Couch, writing in collaboration with Robinson. Skippy and Percy Crosby, published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1978, has been out of print for decades, unfortunately. Writers on comics (and writers of comics) still prize it as a primary work, and its mix of fast-moving biography and fanboy awe, heavily peppered with samples of art, has become the formula for the form.

About ten years ago, I began researching my own book of comics history, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. In preparation, I asked some of the artists I was interviewing to recommend readings, and Will Eisner mailed me a copy of Robinson’s book on Percy Crosby. “This was done very well,” Eisner wrote in a note he slipped inside the book. “I wouldn’t mind if a good writer did something like this about me.” Eisner, proud of both his work and the esteem it earned him during his lifetime, understood the value of biography in cementing the legacy of an artist.

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Born around the same time as the American comic strip, in 1891, Crosby grew up in a day when newspaper comics were titillating the emerging mass audience for popular entertainment. Unruly, manic, crude, and hostile to propriety, the era’s cartoons captured American popular culture being born, and, nickel by nickel into the millions, they funded the news empires of both Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. When Crosby was a child in New York, the most popular comic strips in America—“The Yellow Kid,” “Happy Hooligan,” “The Katzenjammer Kids,” “Little Jimmy”—centered on the lives of kids growing up in the over-packed, chaotic, scary urban centers of the Northeast. (Few of the strips’ locations were explicitly named, although they all looked like New York City; in fact, most of the comics seemed to take place on a single block of tenements in the Lower East Side.) In the vernacular idiom of cartoon burlesque, the Sunday funnies dealt with the young problems of a new America.

Crosby, like a great many cartoonists then and now, started precociously. At sixteen, he found work in the art department of The Delineator, a women’s magazine—or a “Journal of Fashion, Culture, and Fine Arts”—edited by Theodore Dreiser. He was versatile and, in the early years of his career, malleable. By seventeen, he was working as a political cartoonist, at first for the New York Evening Call, a Socialist broadsheet for which he once did an effectively grim cartoon about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster (reprinted in Robinson’s book). He showed interest in combining ideology and humor, an inclination that grew with the years in ever-stranger ways. Crosby worked up samples of two politically skewed humor cartoons, “Biff” and “The Extreme Brothers—Laff and Sy,” and the Call published them until readers complained about their frivolousness. Crosby, describing his disappointment in one of several books he published years later, said, “Communists absolutely have no sense of humor, and they positively dread ridicule.”

He bounced around New York publications, ascending with each bounce, till he landed, at age nineteen, at Pulitzer’s New York World, where he worked as a beat artist—a reporter who filed narrative drawings of news events, something of a precursor to today’s visual journalists. Assigned to the Metropolitan section of the Sunday edition, Crosby covered New York politics and crime for a couple of years, then bounced some more among newspapers and magazines (with a stint in the Army during the First World War) until he ended up at Life magazine, producing wry cartoons of social commentary as well as more conventional domestic humor. It was at Life that Crosby developed Skippy.

A boy of five or six who sometimes looked younger and almost always acted older, Skippy was an unprecedented comic-book kid—neither a hooligan nor very happy most of the time. He is no urchin; Crosby dressed him like a little fop in a high-collared shirt, a polka-dot bow tie, and a waistcoat that dangled nearly to his scrunched-up socks. Skippy has empty ovals for eyes and, in most of Crosby’s drawings, no mouth. His face is almost expressionless, like Buster Keaton’s, and, as with Keaton, the surface blankness leads one to imagine Skippy as endlessly complex inside.

He is a solitary character, often depicted sitting on the curb or leaning on a fence by himself; and, even when he is doing something with his friends in the strip’s small group of recurring characters, he is always alone in his point of view, the only one to grasp or to challenge the situation at hand. The backgrounds in the strip are minimal—sometimes just plain white space without so much as a suggestion of setting. Skippy occupies a space not abstracted, in the manner of the desert-mirage dreamscapes of Herriman’s “Krazy Kat,” but subtracted. He lives nowhere in particular but in his head, and his lonesomeness is the deep source of Skippy’s veracity. Childhood is a lonesome time, as former children often forget. The lonesomest kid in the comics, Skippy was also the realest one until Charlie Brown.

Indeed, Skippy was the first realistic, believable child in the comic strips, as Robinson points out early in his book. “The brilliance of Skippy,” Robinson argues, “was that here was a fantasy with a realistic base, the first kid cartoon with a definable and complex personality grounded in daily life.” Skippy is invariably occupied, to the low degree that he is occupied by anything, by the everyday matters in a young person’s life—working a gumball machine, bringing home his report card, avoiding a bath.

As I mentioned, I had seen the 1931 live-action Skippy movie in a film-history class session on child actors, and I had found it sweet and gently humorous; Jackie Cooper, at age nine, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in the title role. Until I read Jerry Robinson’s book, though, I had not realized that the film, just like all the movies made from comic books in recent years, was only one element in a multi-platform franchise that predated those buzzwords by half a century. Once Crosby moved “Skippy” from Life magazine into newspaper syndication in 1925, it reached millions of readers in hundreds of newspapers around the United States. There was a Skippy radio show; novels about Skippy written by Crosby; a popular song about Skippy (“You can always see him in the daily papers/you’ll love his capers”); Skippy dolls; Skippy trading cards; Skippy jigsaw puzzles; a Skippy wagon; a Skippy sled; and Skippy eyeglass frames (complete with a sticker certifying, “This case contains a pair of genuine ‘Skippy’ glasses,” despite the fact that Skippy didn’t wear glasses).

Crosby got rich and traveled in high company, lunching with Jerome Kern and John Barrymore, palling around with Robert Benchley and Harold Ross. He took to strolling with a Malacca walking stick, in a derby. He became a celebrated fixture in Manhattan nightlife. He drank too much. As Newsweek once reported, Crosby went out one night for a round of visits to New York hotspots, and he could not explain the next day how he ended up in a railroad yard in Cleveland. Before long, Crosby swore off alcohol and settled with his second family in an eighteen-room fieldstone mansion on 200 acres in Virginia, and that is where he was living when he proceeded to undo everything he had accomplished, spiraling in a diminuendo that gives his story one of the strangest last acts in American pop culture history. That is to say, he was ideal to be the first subject of a comic-artist biography; his life (tragedy) is as compelling as his work (comedy).

In 1939, when Jerry Robinson was a student at Columbia’s journalism school, he lived in a rented room with a family in the Bronx. The family knew a would-be artist in the neighborhood, Bob Kahn, who, under the pen name Kane, was developing a new comic-book character called The Bat-Man. It was barely a year since Superman had first appeared and almost instantaneously made the new cartoon format, the comic book, wildly popular among young people, if not their parents. Robinson’s landlords, knowing their boarder was interested in cartooning and could draw as well as write, helped him get a part-time job as an assistant to Kane, and Robinson proved useful, suggesting that The Bat-Man take on a boy partner, whom Robinson recommended calling Robin. Another day, Robinson brought Kane a playing card, a joker, and persuaded him to create a villain based on it.

At the time, comic books were to newspaper strips what journalism was to literature: a kindred art commonly seen as something lesser, simpler, less sophisticated. In the world of cartooning, provenance in newsprint had an elevating effect; in the world of prose, its effect was diminishing. Robinson started his adult life on the disreputable sides of two pairs of tracks, and he came eventually to see writing historical books on newspaper cartooning as a way to jump both sets of rails at once. While others had written articles on cartoons of all sorts, few writers were doing full-scale, grown-up, hardcover books on comics; Robinson, moreover, would fix his focus on newspaper strips, the more reputable of the two spheres of cartooning.

There had been serious writing on comic strips—or writing of varying quality by serious people—since the earliest days of newspaper funnies. Much of the first journalism on the strips, by people such as Ralph Bergengren and Sidney Fairfield, was severely critical—attacks on the slangy, rough-edged, highly visual form of mass entertainment by defenders of the genteel tradition. By the Jazz Age, critics disposed to modernism, such as Gilbert Seldes, editor of The Dial (and first publisher of “The Waste Land” in the US) saw a kind of democratic radicalism in the idiosyncrasy of strips like “Krazy Kat,” and intellectuals on the whole warmed up to the funnies. By the 1960s, a sizable body of serious essays and short works of criticism on comics had been published, the best of them collected by the editors David Manning White and Robert H. Abel in the 1963 anthology The Funnies: An American Idiom. This was the environment Robinson entered in 1974, when he published his first book, The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art, a heavily illustrated overview of newspaper-strip history, written under the aegis of the Newspaper Comics Council, an organization of cartoonists protective of their legacy. (The group held the copyright to The Comics.) While researching this book, Robinson developed an interest in Percy Crosby.

Skippy and Percy Crosby is, by design, a work of popular history, not an academic study. After all, Robinson is a journalist by training, a cartoonist by vocation, and a historian by aspiration. Besides, even if Robinson (or anyone other than a well-established historian) had been fully equipped and determined to write a dense, scholarly study of Crosby’s life and work, there is no reason to think any publisher would have wanted it. Robinson’s book, an authoritative but readable and somewhat boosterish short biography, was the book appropriate to its time, the book necessary to make possible longer, more penetrating biographies of comics artists.

Affectionate but not fawning, the book positions Crosby with precision in comics history. Robinson, who researched Crosby well and understands cartoons, does particularly well at the trickiest part of biography: illuminating the work though the life. (The opposite is easier.) Drawing from Crosby’s autobiographical writings, Robinson traces his subject’s mercurial association with organized religion, and relates it to a cartoon in which Skippy is asked what church he attends. Skippy answers, “I go to God direct.” Crosby, plagued by mental illness that overtook him in the end, left early hints of his trouble in word balloons. As Skippy says in one strip, “I ain’t myself, I wonder if I’m goin’ screwy. For no reason at all, I catch myself feelin’ happy—an’ it’s all I can do to steer my mind back into things that worry me.”

Crosby began unraveling in the funny pages and then moved to the news sections of the paper, and, finally, the pages of books he published himself. Skippy, always mildly philosophical, grew more political and less mild, until the strip became little more than a forum for Crosby’s increasingly zealous ideological jumble of conservatism, anti-intellectualism, and isolationism. In one strip, Skippy and a friend, a little girl, walk and talk together. “What’s all this Pan American stuff I see in the papers?” asked the girl, who looks no older than three or four. “The Pan America stuff start off ‘n Vesey Street by your belittlin’,” says Skippy, “an now it’s takin’ aviators an’ warships to press out the wrinkles.”

The girl responds, “Congress can’t bluff me.”

As they walk away, their backs now to the reader, Skippy concludes, “The map o’ the United States is like an open hand, ready to shake with South America; But it’s guys just like you that’s tryin’ to make a fist out of it.”

In addition to writing and drawing the Skippy strip, Crosby wrote several books based on the character, and they grew increasingly ruminative, political, and odd. After the first Skippy novel for young readers, Crosby wrote Dear Sooky, a collection of letters from Skippy to a dead little friend of his in heaven. Its follow-up, Skippy Rambles, was a collection of short essays of political and social comment written in an erratic voice, part Crosby, part Skippy, part speaking in tongues. With his next book, A Cartoonist’s Philosophy, Crosby largely abandoned Skippy and rambled, for the most part incoherently, about economics, religion, politics, racketeering, and taxes. Since no publisher would take the book, Crosby had it printed himself. In a typical section, Crosby writes:

I believe that it is the Divine Will that the whole structure will eventually crash, because it has been erected on a foundation of hypocrisy and greed. Out of the chaos the real leaders will rise; leaders who are not interested in wealth nor political power, but who have been ordained by a higher power to lift humanity from discord to the realms of harmony. Then a new race will be born to the world, here in America, and their worship of God will be built on science and philosophy through the great corridors of Universal Brotherhood.

More self-published books and pamphlets followed through the late thirties, all of them dealing in part with Crosby’s conviction that Franklin Roosevelt, in conspiracy with Stalin, was transforming the United States into a totalitarian Socialist state. Crosby submitted article-length versions of his ramblings to the major newspapers (including The Washington Post, The Washington Herald, and The New York Times); when they were rejected, he paid to have them published in the same papers as full-page and double-spread ads. As Robinson reported in his book, Crosby spent more than $30,000 on these advertisements in a single year.

Crosby lost his syndication contract for “Skippy” in 1945. Four years later, after a failed suicide attempt, he was taken to Bellevue, then transferred for long-term care to the psychiatric ward at Kings Park Veterans’ Hospital on Long Island, where he remained until he died, on his seventy-third birthday, in 1964. What happened to Crosby? Robinson, struggling in the last pages of his book to come to terms with Crosby’s decline, found an easy answer: “genius is an enigma.”

David Hajdu is a professor of arts and culture journalism at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.