Bernard Drew: The Berkshires in the funny pages
Comic strips have been a newspaper staple for more than a century. In 1946, to pick a random year, Berkshire Eagle readers devoured the humorous antics of "Major Hoople" and the wry observations of "They’ll Do It Every Time" and "Out Our Way." They followed the hair-raising adventures of "Terry and the Pirates," "Captain Easy," "Alley Oop," "Freckles" and "Red Ryder."
When I became a regular reader of the daily funnies, the only continuing adventures featured Dick Brooks’ "The Jackson Twins" in a straight variation of Bob Montana’s free-wheeling and comical "Archie Andrews" comics. (With good reason; Brooks worked for Montana before starting his own strip.) The "Twins" stories ended in 1979 and today this newspaper carries no adventure comics. One cartoon carries on from 1946, "Blondie."
I’ve identified 10 creative line men -- by that I mean syndicated newspaper cartoonists -- with Berkshire connections. Milton Caniff was well-known for two adventure comic strips, the aforementioned "Terry" and the later "Steve Canyon." The Berkshire Museum was ahead of its time in mounting an exhibit of Caniff’s work in 1944, showcasing original drawings of "Terry" and of the artist’s "Stars & Stripes" comic "Male Call" featuring Miss Lace. As exhibit publicity noted, Caniff’s "powers of invention and characterization in his strip ‘Terry and the Pirates’ have won him the acclaim of a critical and varied audience." That audience numbered some 20 million internationally during the war.
Harry Lambert (1916-2004) wasn’t an artist, he was a script writer. In 1940, several years before he retired to Lenox, he worked with artist Gardner Fox to create the hero The Flash for DC comics. The Flash is about to have his own TV show this autumn. Lambert also wrote the newspaper strip "Digby" in 1949.
Another scripter who lived here, in Stockbridge, was Eliott Caplin (1913-2000), who came up with the plots and words for the syndicated comic "The Heart of Juliet Jones" beginning in 1953. Stan Drake was the artist for that series. Caplin, whose brother was Al Capp, creator of "Li’l Abner," also wrote "Peter Scratch," "Big Ben Bolt," "Abbie an’ Slats," "Little Orphan Annie" and other now-gone comics.
A Great Barrington cartoonist, O.W. "Walt" Trag, in 1954 sold an idea for a comic to Newspaper Enterprise Association. "Our World," as it was called, was for children. A commercial artist, Trag also taught art at Searles High School. His book "Let Your Pencil Speak" came out in 1965, followed by "How to Draw Comic Animals," "How to Draw Comic People" and others. His over-sized painting of the town seal has hung for years at Town Hall.
Roy Williams, a cartoonist with Walt Disney studios, visited the Housatonic village grammar school in 1954 to give a program on the new movie "Pinocchio."
Jack Cole (1914-1958) lived in both Great Barrington and New Marlborough before moving to Chicago. The creator of the "Plastic Man" comic book character, he also drew the newspaper daily "The Spirit" and his own "Betsy and Me," which began in 1958 with the Chicago Sun-Times Syndicate. The comic was about a department store floorwalker named Chester B. Tibbett, his wife, Betsy, and their genius son Farley.
L. Franklin Van Zelm (1895-1961) was best known for the "Farnsworth" comic strip for the Bell Syndicate, though he wrote and drew "Rusty and Bub," "The Potters," "Such Is Life," "The Villagers" and "It’s Just as True Today" (based on Bible verses). A typical episode of "Aw, What’s the Use?" (Dec. 2, 1921) showed the main character, Mr. Featherhead, trying to some office work at home. He spilled ink. He tried to erase the blot. He tried scratching it with a knife, and tore the paper. He started fresh, and did it again. "So what’s the use -- you go downtown and get one of those typewriters you saw advertised in the morning paper."
Van Zelm was a staff artist for the Christian Science Monitor and drew "The VanGnomes" for that paper. A native of New Rochelle, N.Y., Van Zelm and his wife, Marie, moved to Williamstown a year before his death.
A Lenox resident, Arnold Hayne, sold a single-panel cartoon series to King Features in 1975 and it ran for three years. Called "Soft Focus by Alf," it appeared in the Berkshire Eagle. A typical day showed a bison: "In honor of a familiar symbol of early American history, the country will celebrate the Bisontennial in 1976." Very punny.
Garry Trudeau, whose "Doonesbury" has long appeared in this newspaper, for Dec. 2, 1979, kicked off the Sunday episode with the character Mark Slackmeyer reading the news headlines: "There will be a benefit backpackathon through the unspoiled Berkshires this weekend..."
And Bill Griffith brought his Zippy the Pinhead character to Pittsfield Sept. 20, 2002, to look at Dustin Schuler’s ship’s keel art installation then displayed at the Allendale Shopping Center. "Lippy," Zippy asks his sibling, "does this art installation make you completely rethink th’ concept of a parking lot?" "Bro’, this thing makes me a little seasick ..."
Bernard Drew’s editorial page
drawing of Richard Nixon tangled in a web of deceit appeared in this newspaper Nov. 23, 1973. That was the extent of his cartooning career.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.