Thursday, September 06, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #249: Happy Hooligan by Frederik Burr Opper

One good joke can you pretty far. Ask anyone who's ever headlined a sitcom or had a popular stand-up act. [1]

Or a big comic strip, more to the point.

The early days of newspaper strips are a treasure trove of great examples: the same artists would have dedicated space in their paper, but not always be producing the same strip. So if a guy had a funny-kid joke that day, it might be one strip, and if he had a two-Irish-guys joke, it might be a different strip.

(I can't see modern audiences standing for that, but modern audiences have been spoiled horribly.)

Frederick Burr Opper's most famous strip was Happy Hooligan, but that was mostly just his hook to hang "jokes where someone tries to help, and it turns out badly." He had plenty of other strips to be hooks for other jokes, too -- but this is the one his audience loved best, so he tried to tell it as much as he could.

I should admit that I didn't actually know most of that: Allan Holtz's informative introduction to this recent selection of Happy strips (edited by Jeffrey Lindenblatt, containing about ninety strips from the high years of 1902-1913) gave me the background, along with a quick sketch of Opper's life and career.

Happy is the kind of old-timey that's still funny quite a lot of the time, but the cartooning expectations are different enough -- a frozen "camera," lots of wordy explanatory dialogue, drawing that looks a bit stiff to modern eyes -- that the reader needs to settle into it and get used to it before it starts to be funny.

Well, there's one other thing: you have to find that joke funny. That is the problem with a one-joke strip, whether it's Happy Hooligan or Cathy or Garfield.

In Happy's case, the joke generally involved Happy getting pummeled by someone -- usually a policeman -- after trying to do something nice and inadvertently causing havoc by his clumsiness. Many fewer people in 2018 think violence is funny than did in 1902, so Happy has not aged as well as it might have. (On the other hand, a lot of strips of the same vintage are horribly racist, and Happy sidesteps that by mostly makes fun of British people, at least in the strips reprinted here.)

Happy Hooligan is an important milestone in the development of the American comic strip -- Holtz's introduction is good at making those connections, tracing the developing single-panel in Punch (where Opper worked before starting Happy). Now, "important" is not always the same thing as "still entertaining to read," but Happy still largely works, if you're willing to meet it half way and get used to its older rhythms and expectations. And that's pretty impressive for something that appeared in a disposable newspaper more than a hundred years ago.

[1] You might be a redneck if. What's the deal with. Watermelon. Seven words. Yo mamma.

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