Thursday, November 15, 2007

Mutt and Jeff Turn 100

Today many are accustomed to thinking of mass media as a fairly recent phenomenon. We do not stop to think just how long books and newspapers have been in existence, let alone think about the age of such characters as Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan. As a mark of just how long mass media has had an impact on the United States, consider that today a comic strip which produced two of the most famous characters in Anglo-American pop culture made its debut. You see, it was on this day in 1907 that a comic strip called A. Mutt, written by Harry "Bud" Fisher, debuted on the sports page of the San Francisco Chronicle. The comic strip would gain even more fame under its later title, Mutt and Jeff.

Originally, the comic strip focused on tall, wiry Augustus Mutt. There is still debate over the origin of Mutt's name--whether the name demonstrated his place in his own home (roughly the same as the family dog) or if it was short for "muttonhead (a slang term for "fool")." Regardless, Mutt was a luckless fellow who loved gambling at the racetrack and was dominated at home by his harridan of a wife. In this respect, A. Mutt was not particularly original. Just a few years earlier there had been a comic strip called A. Piker Clerk, written by Clare Briggs (who would later create Mr.and Mrs.) and published in the Chicago American. Clerk was a devoted gambler who would spend every day at the track. A. Piker Clerk appears to have been the first comic strip published on a regular, five day basis (a claim often erroneously made for Mutt and Jeff). That having been said, it did not last long. William Randolph Hearst cancelled A. Piker Clerk in 1904.

Had A. Mutt remained an imitation of A. Piker clerk, Augustus Mutt might not be remembered 100 years after his first appearance. Fortunately, only four months into its run an event took place which would change the comic strip forever and turn it into a phenomenon. It was on March 8, 1908 that Augustus Mutt met a fellow named Jeff in a mental institution (named for boxing champ James Jeffries, Jeff was under the delusion that he was the champ). Jeff was physically Mutt's opposite; he was short and rotund while Mutt was tall and rangy. That having been said, the two were apparently born to be the best of friends. Indeed, they complimented each other perfectly. Mutt was simple minded and forgetful, while Jeff was a good deal brighter and, as it so happened, certifiably insane (as mentioned earlier, the two had met in a mental institution....). The team of Mutt and Jeff proved so popular that it immediately changed the direction of the comic strip. By August 4, 1908, less than a month after Jeff's first appearance, the strip was renamed Mutt and Jeff. By June 1908 Mutt and Jeff moved from the sports pages of the San Francisco Chronicle to William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner. It would only be a few years before it entered national syndication and become a national phenomenon. In the end, it became the first successful daily comic strip and Bud Fisher the first celebrity cartoonist.

Fisher apparently saw the potential in his creation. He took the precaution of copyrighting Mutt and Jeff in his own name, even displaying the copyright on the strip itself. As a result, Bud Fisher would become a very rich man. He would also have some control in which venues the comic strip appeared. In fact, by 1914 Fisher would jump ship, moving from Mutt and Jeff from Hearst's King Features Syndicate to the Wheeler Syndicate in a deal that gave him 60% of the comic strip's revenue. Fisher's ownership of the comic strip was upheld in 1921 when the New York Court of Appeals ruled that newspaper publisher Star Co. could not use Mutt and Jeff without Fisher's permission.

If Bud Fisher knew that Mutt and Jeff would be successful, he was absolutely right in his assumption. Mutt and Jeff would become the first comic strip characters to make the leap to animated cartoons. In 1913 Fisher founded the Bud Fisher Film Corporation to produce and distribute animated Mutt and Jeff cartoons. The first cartoon was released on February 10, 1913. In the end there would be over 300 Mutt and Jeff cartoons, making the longest series of theatrical cartoons ever made.

The animated cartoons were not the end of the Mutt and Jeff bonanza. Naturally, there were the inevitable anthology collections of the comic strips (still published today). And there was a wide variety of other Mutt and Jeff merchandise as well, ranging from banks to dolls to tobacco cards to pinback buttons. In 1922 there was even a two act, vaudeville musical comedy based on the comic strip, with a book by Bud Fisher and Richard F. Carroll. Comedians LeRoy "Stringbeans" Brown and T. H. Hammond played Mutt and Jeff respectively. In 1928 Augustus Mutt would make history as the first comic strip character to run for president. By the Thirties Mutt and Jeff were appearing on boxes of Kellogg's All-Bran cereal, as well as in ads for the product. Mutt and Jeff were also featured on the cover of the first modern day comic book, Famous Funnies #1. They would be a regular feature in All-American Comics (published by All-American Comics Inc.) from its first issue to its 102nd issue, after which it became All-American Western. They received their own comic book in 1939. It lasted until 1965, being published in turn by All-American, National Periodical Publications (the company created after National Comics acquired All-American Comics), Dell, and Harvey.

While Bud Fisher made a good deal of money from Mutt and Jeff, he actually had very little to do with his creation after 1913, relying more and more upon ghosts such as Ken Kling and Ed Mack in the following years. In fact, the man who wrote Mutt and Jeff for the majority of its run was one of Fisher's ghosts, Al Smith. A former art director for the New York World, Smith took over the strip entirely in 1932. Smith softened Mrs. Mutt, making her less of a harpy and thus making the comic strip more family friendly. He also created the comic strip's Sunday topper (a topper being a small comic strip accompanying another strip), Cicero's Cat, about Mutt's son's pet cat. Smith would stay with Mutt and Jeff until 1980. Despite his long tenure on the comic strip, he never signed his name to it until after Bud Fisher's death in 1954.

Ultimately, Mutt and Jeff would become one of the longest running comic strips in the history of the medium. It lasted until 1982, a staggering 75 years. While no new Mutt and Jeff comic strips have appeared since then, it has continued in newspaper syndication to this day through Universal Press Syndicate, As of today, then, Mutt and Jeff has appeared continuously in newspapers for 100 years. That is a feat unmatched by any other comic strip. Many of the early Mutt and Jeff animated cartoons have recently been released on DVD. And collections of the comic strips are still being published.

If one needs further proof of the impact of Mutt and Jeff on Anglo-American pop culture, he or she need look no further than the fact that the pair long ago entered the English language. To this day a pair of men, one tall and skinny and the other short and portly, are referred to as a "Mutt and Jeff couple." The term "Mutt and Jeff" is also used of the "good cop"/"bad cop" routine (I assume Jeff would be the bad cop...). The pair also entered into Cockney rhyming slang--"Mutt 'n' Jeff" meaning "deaf." A town in Texas was even named "Mutt and Jeff (apparently its two chief merchants resembled the pair), as was a lion and his pet dog (Mutt was the lion and Jeff was the dog--the two had grown up together) at the Sibley Zoo in Minnesota in the Thirties and Forties.

My parents, uncles, and aunts were all part of the generation that grew up when Mutt and Jeff was at the height of its success (here I must stress that I am not that old--my mom and dad were in their forties when I was born). In fact, it was my maternal uncle's favourite comic strip besides Barney Google. Mutt and Jeff was then one of the earliest comic strips of which I had ever heard. And while I don't ever remember reading it in newspapers, I read plenty of the old Mutt and Jeff anthologies as a child. It is then easy for me to see how Mutt and Jeff has lasted 100 years. It was a genuinely funny comic strip, whose humour originated from the contrast between shiftless, slow witted Mutt and the more intelligent, but mentally unbalanced Jeff. In some respects it was the forerunner of every comedic odd couple ever since.

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