I know we normally talk about comic books here. Usually modern comics too. There is usually a kind of limit on the relevance of reviews. Be prepared to have all of your expectations defied though, because, this time, I am going to be talking about the progenitor of the comic book: comic strips like you see in the newsy papers.
Have you ever noticed that sometimes old things can be kind of scary? Usually, when you look at entertainment from the past, there is a sense of nostalgia or kitsch that one finds endearing. They do not necessarily hold up to the standards of modern entertainment, but there is a certain undefinable quality about them so many of us cannot help but appreciate. Then there’s the stuff that’s just weird. You know what I’m talking about. Either that or you will probably play along for the sake of this going somewhere. Sometimes you find something old and the sensibilities of yesteryear are simply baffling by modern standards. It’s a little like casual racism. When we see it today, it just seems completely odd such behavior was ever okay. Well, it’s true of old comic strips too. These things were printed in the paper. Anyone could get their hands on these. I shudder to think and you should too. Here are some old comic strips that I find to be completely ghastly.
Family Circus was created in 1960 by Bil Keane and it is the only comic strip this article discusses that is still being produced. I won’t dwell too much on this one. We are all aware of it. We are all aware of how creepy circuses are in general. The fact that this one puts a family on display just adds to the grotesquery of it all.
No, it is not a surprise to anyone that this family is more freak show than circus, with its bizarre children and a less than subtle presence of Catholicism, but there may be some as yet unaware that there is actual supernatural evil present in this comic. I speak, of course, of the gremlins.
Not Me. Ida Know. Nobody. These ghostly apparitions, along with several others like them, are actual manifestations of ignorance and irresponsibility. They are actual negative traits given form. Family Circus has created the Seven Deadly Sins of a new age. Why do these creatures need to exist? Because Family Circus wants you to be afraid. Way to make the world just a little more sinister, Jeffy.
LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND
Created by Winsor McKay and running in papers from 1905-1914, Little Nemo in Slumberland is simultaneously one of the coolest and one of the most terrifying comic strips of all time. Like many others, I was first introduced to Little Nemo through the okay animated film and better than okay NES game; both of which released stateside in 1992. These two creations told roughly the same story: A young boy named Nemo travels to a magical land in his dreams where only he has the power to stop the evil Nightmare King from just sort of generally being menacing. The imagination on display in these was really impressive and the some of the nightmare stuff was legitimately creepy. Only years later did I find out the original source for Nemo’s adventures. Now those were truly the stuff of nightmares.
Winsor McKay’s original comic strips have fantastic art with absolutely incredible imagination. Many of the settings and characters he created are very much a product of their time, but still seem to hold a certain timeless whimsy to them. They are mysterious and moody and capture the strangeness of dreams bizarrely well. Then there are the strips that go a bit too far.
In one comic, Nemo is given a pair of stilts by a clown. Being an idiot and not knowing that you should never trust a clown (they come from the circus) Nemo takes them and starts precariously forward. Then a bunch of extraordinarily long-legged birds show up and start pecking at him, causing Nemo to trip and fall into a chasm of spikes. Then he wakes up.
Another comic sees Nemo venturing into a kingdom in which everything and everyone is made of glass. On his way through, he is introduced to the queen. Unfortunately, pre-pubescent Nemo is such a horny little creep that he immediately starts groping the poor fragile woman, despite the warnings of his escort, and she shatters into pieces. Several of her subjects are so shocked they faint, causing a massive chain reaction that shatters literally every person in the kingdom. Distressed by his unintended genocide, Nemo runs back out of the strange land, Die Hard style, screaming for help. Then he wakes up.
These comics did not mess around. There are some straight up Freddy Krueger caliber shenanigans with how intense some of these get. It does not help that, despite being incredibly imaginative and a great artist, McKay was not the best writer. Ignoring that the dialogue is not exactly compelling, the comics have an odd format of narrative in which there is a brief numbered synopsis crammed in between the panels. If you don’t notice these, then you have only the visual storytelling to go on. This can make things a lot more confusing. Like a dream. Or a nightmare. Little Nemo: Come for the whimsy, run away crying because, oh my goodness, what is even happening? Just wake up, you idiot! Wake up!
What does the face of evil look like? If you ask me, it is the face of Buster Brown. Look at this kid. Those soulless eyes. That creepy grin. The feigned innocence. Oh no, it couldn’t be him. Not that five year old cross dresser. He couldn’t possibly be responsible for everything wrong with the world. Or could he?
Buster Brown was created by Richard Felton Outcault in 1902. The strip ran in papers until about 1921 and followed the exploits of the titular boy, his talking hellhound, Tige, and their attempts to ruin all goodness on this Earth. Buster existed as a sort of mascot for the Buster Brown shoe company, but in the comics he was mischievous and a generally clueless delinquent. In one strip, he gave all his families valuables away to a burglar in an example of respecting his elders. He always had some sort of justification for whatever horrible deed he managed to accomplish. It reminds me of a line in a cartoon I saw once that went, “I can do no wrong, for I do not know what it is.” This comes from the 1986 film, The Adventures of Mark Twain; an adaptation of Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger, about Satan living in a European village. I am not trying to mince words here. Buster Brown is the anti-Christ.
Of course, it gets better. The popularity of Buster Brown was such that the name was attached to a radio and television series for children. Smilin’ Ed McConnell hosted the show with its own cast of characters. Eventually, the popularity of these characters was such that the "Buster Brown Comic Books" came into existence. This is how I am making this relevant. Surely though, in this cast of characters for children, there is none that could meet, let alone surpass, the sheer terror induced by Beelzebub Brown and his pet Cerberus? Well, prepare to meet Froggy the Gremlin.
Froggy the Gremlin was, apparently, the reason to watch/listen to the "Buster Brown Show." In each installment, our good friend Ed would speak the forsaken words, “Plunk your magic twanger, Froggy!” and in a puff of smoke, the creature would be there. He would proceed to tempt and torment anyone attempting to give a positive message to children, much to the delight of those very same kids. Froggy the Gremlin existed as the literal devil on the shoulder of whoever summoned him. In the comic books, he fared little better. Here is a picture of him and his cohorts drawing and quartering Santa Claus. I don’t know why. Froggy the Gremlin has made me realize there are a lot of things I don’t know. All I can do is hope he spends the rest of his days plunking his magic twanger in Hell.
Buster Brown and his “friends” are purely and simply frightening. I can only assume that they literally came from the underworld and forced Outcault and McConnell to enact their will on this world, “Smile Time” style. A warning: Do not gaze too long into the vacant eyes of the Brown one. It is said that if you do, you will see your own death. You will see your death and every death, in every incalculable instance, in every false reality you have ever imagined. There is nothing else. Only the despair and the void of Buster Brown.