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Fathers and Sons

By: Michael Taube
June 4, 2018

ne of parenting’s greatest joys is watching your children grow and develop. My young son’s warm smile and loving embrace brings me more pleasure than words could justly describe. A father playing catch with his son, helping him ride a bike for the first time, and reading a favorite childhood story at bedtime, forms an unbreakable bond based on respect, emulation, and, above all, love.

This wonderful father-son dynamic is illustrated in a new collection of E.O. Plauen’s “Father and Son.” The long-forgotten comic strip examines some of the joys, thrills, and humorous mishaps that fathers and sons often experience together, and the memories they will share for a lifetime.

Born in 1903, German cartoonist Erich Ohser used “E.O. Plauen” as a pseudonym. (It was a not-so-subtle reference to the industrial town where he spent his childhood.) In Elke Schulze’s afterword, she notes that Ohser initially followed his father’s wish that he become a locksmith, but “for the rest of his life he would recall this period as drudgery.” Fortunately, he cultivated his artistic talent in a town that was internationally known for Plauen Lace, “a brand name covering a wide range of openwork textiles,” and found work as a book illustrator and cartoonist.

Ohser formed important friendships with writer/satirist Erich Kästner and newspaper editor Erich Knauf. The “three Erichs,” as Schulze describes them, “were united in their world view and in their aesthetic convictions. All three preferred economy of form and brevity of wit. Their eye was radically modern and unsentimental, with a severely analytical perspective on the contemporary—expressed graphically in Osher’s case.”

Their politics were also similar: identifiably left-wing, and fiercely anti-Nazi.

The budding cartoonist was “aggressive in using his skills as an artist against the emerging National Socialists.” His early work for the leftist newspaper Vorwärts focused on Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels’s “megalomania,” and “depicted their cohorts as gangs of dull-witted thugs, employing all the weapons of caricature: exaggeration and distortion, one-sided emphasis and international grotesquerie.”      

Ohser’s caricatures became fairly well-known in Germany, so much so that his “ridicule of the Nazis made it almost impossible for him to find work” when Hitler took power in 1933. The Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung still wanted to use his talents as a cartoonist, so his would-be editor approached the Propaganda Ministry. An arrangement was ultimately reached: Ohser could work for the weekly magazine, but he must use a pseudonym and only concentrate on “nonpolitical newspaper comics.”    

This led to the creation of “Father and Son” (known as “Vater und Sohn” in Germany), which ran from 1934-1937.    

The two main protagonists were the unnamed bald, mustachioed father and his young, pugnacious son. Ohser built them a silent world in which to live, dream, and frolic. With the exception of a few words from Father, Son, and supporting characters, the only lettering that appeared was on signs, notes, and the cartoonist’s weekly description of what had happened.

“Father and Son” wasn’t the world’s first pantomime comic strip. Francis X. Reardon’s “Bozo” holds this distinction, having first appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in the 1920s before being nationally syndicated in 1945. Otto Soglow’s “The Little King” (1930) and “The Ambassador” (1933), along with Carl Anderson’s “Henry” (one-off appearances in 1932, daily in 1934), were all older, too.   

Nevertheless, this was one of the few strips where silence was truly golden. There’s an element of whimsy and innocence in “Father and Son” that would be immediately lost if there had been regular dialogue. “Father and Son were not superheroes,” Schultze writes, “but rather, as a contemporary critic remarked, ‘circus acrobats of life,’ inhabiting a humane utopia.” In the big top of their pantomime fantasy, this quiet environment spoke many volumes.

Ohser’s original cartoons were destroyed in a studio fire, so most of the strips were scanned from contemporaneous published compilations drawn from the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung. The drawings were either completed or, in some cases, tidied up. The cartoonist Jeremy Sorese also “drew new lettering that recreates the look and feel of Plauen’s original lettering,” changing the text from German to English. While this may bother some purists, the strip’s look and feel is preserved. 

The humor will surely make you smile. Few strips could be described as the laugh-out-loud variety, but the vast majority are endearing, creative, and memorable. They often contain things you could either see a father and son doing, or, at the very least, should be doing.

Here are some examples:

  • In a 1935 strip entitled “Pleasure deferred,” Father and Son aren’t able to watch the soccer match because it’s sold out. Son takes his camera, stands on Father’s back next to a long wooden fence, and takes some photos. They head back to the dark room, develop their photos and yell “GOAL!” in a delayed moment of excitement. 

  • In a 1936 strip entitled “Good opportunity,” Father and Son are trying to save some items from a burning building (most likely their house). As Father runs back in to get some more items, Son opens a satchel and find his mathematics and dictation books. Taking advantage of the situation, he throws them through an open window and back into the fiery inferno just as his surprised Father comes out with more belongings.

  • In a 1937 strip entitled “No respect for ghosts,” Father and Son have recently acquired a huge inheritance and now live in a mansion. One night, a ghost appears and tries to scare them. Father is frightened, but Son finds it rather amusing. The ghost takes off his head, but Son kicks it away. The head lands under a night table, and the apparition struggles to get it. The not-so-scary ghost walks off in anger, leaving Father and Son to have a good laugh at its expense.

  • In a 1937 strip entitled “Mix-up in the wax museum,” Father and Son walk by some wax sculptures—including two that look exactly like them. One of the museum staff members starts dusting Father’s bald head by mistake. He takes umbrage with this intrusion and knees the man in the backside when he’s looking the other way. The staff member turns around, looks at the statues, and punches the Father-like wax figure’s head off. Father and Son, who were standing silently on the other end of the wax exhibit, run away with smiles on their faces. 

The final strip was poignant. Entitled “Farewell,” a note appears on a tree which says, “Dear friends, Goodbye! Yours, Father and Son.” The two main protagonists are seen walking along a lonely path and are suddenly lifted into the air without missing a beat. They disappear into the night sky, leaving behind a smiling moon (with a moustache) and a large shining star in the final panel.

You couldn’t ask for a more perfect conclusion. Alas, the cartoonist’s fate wasn’t even close to this storybook ending.

Ohser acquired wealth and status, and worked under different pseudonyms, long after “Father and Son” ended. But his decision to start drawing political cartoons again proved to be fatal. When the war’s tide turned against Germany, his home was destroyed. His friends Kästner and Knauf also lost their residences, and they found shelter in a ruined building in Berlin. Their neighbors denounced their anti-war and anti-Nazi sentiments, which lead to their 1944 arrest. Ohser “eluded his executioners and committed suicide the night before the hearing,” followed by Knauf a month later. Only Kästner survived the Second World War.

History hasn’t been particularly kind to Ohser’s legacy. A nice statue of “Father and Son” was constructed in Plauen, and the characters are occasionally seen on German storefronts and in book reprints. But many Europeans have forgotten about this important pen-and-ink creation, and it’s virtually unknown in North America.

That’s what makes this “Father and Son” collection so intriguing. It’s likely our first real introduction to a unique cartoonist and his fun-loving pantomime strip. I plan to sit down with my son and share Ohser’s wit, wisdom, and humor. I hope other fathers and sons will do the same.