October 23, 2018
s newspaper comic strips exploded in the late nineteenth century, they began to take on today’s instantly recognizable formats and visages. Some strips focused on the lives of individuals, families, and neighborhoods and others moved into realms like anthropomorphic animals, single panel gags, and dream sequences. Still others created imaginary worlds that were primarily dominated by young, mischievous, and impressionable children.
There were a number of successful child-focused comics. Some of America’s first strips, including R.F. Outcault’s The Yellow Kid and Buster Brown, Rudolph Dirks’s The Katzenjammer Kids, and Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland all sit prominently. Other notable examples include Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby, Carl Anderson’s Henry, Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts, Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace, and Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes.
Yet, there’s one strip that truly deserves to be called the gold standard: Percy Crosby’s Skippy (1925-1945).
When I reviewed the first two volumes of the IDW Publishing/Library of American Comics anthology for the Washington Times, I called Skippy “the greatest children’s comic strip ever.” Why? The artwork is stunning, the storylines and one-off gags are engaging, and the portrayal of early twentieth-century Middle America through the lens of Skippy Skinner and his pals is unparalleled.
Skippy isn’t just a timeless classic; it has aged like a fine wine. It’s no wonder that cartoonists like Schulz, Watterson, Walt Kelly (Pogo), and Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury) often said they were inspired by Crosby’s brilliant creation.
Alas, this praise wasn’t as widespread as it really should have been. The strip that started on the pages of Life magazine and became a cultural phenomenon with an Oscar-winning film, radio serial, and merchandise, has gradually disappeared. Daily and Sunday strips are occasionally collected in books by comics historians, but the general public has simply forgotten about Skippy. Or, they think “Skippy” has something to do with the popular peanut butter brand—which it most certainly doesn’t, considering the vicious trademark battle involving both sides.
Fortunately, the Library of American Comics project has returned Skippy to its rightful place in the realm of popular imagination.
Each of the books in the Skippy: Daily Comics volume is beautifully designed and constructed. Three years of daily strips and a historical chapter written by Ohio State University’s Jared Gardner are included. Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 were released in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Vol. 3 came out in 2014 and Vol. 4 arrived this year.
Crosby was born on Dec. 8, 1891 in Brooklyn, N.Y. His mother introduced him to literature and music, and his father’s store provided him with art supplies. He was viewed as “popular and social, a born leader of men.” When the family finances dwindled after his father developed arthritis, Crosby headed into cartooning much earlier than he probably expected. “Unlike other would-be cartoonists,” Gardner wrote, he “experienced support for his ambitions from his parents, who not only shared his creative temperament but also saw in cartooning a viable career path for an ambitious young man.”
Although Crosby’s politics were conservative for most of his adult life, his first job in 1910 was with the New York Call, a socialist newspaper. While he admittedly “knew little about socialism” and was “no socialist himself” (he was already an anti-communist), it was an opportunity and the “only paper in town that was hiring.” While Gardner wrote this role “sharpened Crosby’s politics and his sense of his mission as an artist,” it was “particularly easy” for him to leave because while he “sympathized with the passionate commitments of the defenders of the poor and the dispossessed, he found little encouragement from the paper’s editors or readers for any but the most didactic work.”
He would go on to join the New York World in 1911 and launch his first comic strip, Babyettes. This was followed by a series of intriguing, short-lived strips, including Back O’ The Flats, Toddles, The Clancy Kids and Beany and the Gang. He also contributed to established publications like Fun, Browning’s Magazine, and Puck.
Crosby also did some well-received work for the Fresh Air Fund, which led to his career-defining moment at Life magazine. He suggested including a child’s comic in the publication, and was aided in this idea by the endorsement of graphic artist and prominent Life contributor Charles Dana Gibson, “who had long recognized Crosby as one of the most talented cartoonists in his magazine’s pages.” Skippy Skinner made his first public appearance on March 15, 1923—and the rest, as they say, is history.
Like many old comic strips, the quaint language found in Skippy was often a combination of discernible broken English and nonsensical gibberish. There’s plenty of mischief, humor, and a fistfight or two. There were frequent excursions to movie theaters, fishing holes, sports matches, and outings with girls, too.
Crosby also began to play around with the strip’s format. The first volume, which deals with the period between 1925-1927, is mostly quick gags and the introduction of secondary characters like Sooky, Mortimer, and Willie. The second volume follows the same pattern until 1930, when Crosby included topics that dealt with politics (“Revokalution Party”), mob rule (“Jacketeers”) and big business. Skippy even went missing for several weeks, a rare occurrence in comic strips in any era.
The third volume shows Crosby slightly more politicized. He drew strips “in which Skippy debated with atheists, pacifists, and communists,” while at the same having his main protagonist define “the importance of patriotism or religion and against society’s and the media’s glamorization of the mob.” This trend continued into the fourth volume, as his supportive feelings about FDR “quickly soured on [his] economic policies, which he initially believed came perilously close to socialism and ultimately came to believe were in fact nothing short of communism.” He was also displeased with FDR’s “political tactics, which Crosby saw as increasingly authoritarian and unconstitutional.”
Nevertheless, Skippy wasn’t a political comic strip. It was a lavish Middle American playground for Skippy and his pals to discover the world around them with humor, inquisitiveness, and a straight-talkin’ style that gets right to the heart of the matter.
Here are some examples from the fourth volume:
A pal comes up to Skippy in the library and says, “Hey, Skip! Butch is outside waitin’ for you to come out.” Skippy asks, “What does he want?” and is told, “He says he’s gonna blacken your two eyes.” Skippy nervously turns around and responds, “Well, in that case there’s no use in me takin’ out any books.” [Nov. 26, 1934]
Skippy is on his own, saying “I ain’t myself, I wonder if I’m goin’ screwy.” He continues in the second panel, “For no reason at all, I catch myself feelin’ happy -,” and finishes off the gag with a flourish, “- an’ it’s all I can do to steer my mind back into things that worry me.” [July 15, 1935]
Skippy asks a friend, “Did ya read about the government goin’ to tax the wealthy?,” to which he replies “I was afraid of that.” When Skippy asks, “Why?,” his pal responds, “I got a dollar an’ thirteen cents in my bank at home.” [Sept. 19, 1935]
Sadly, Crosby’s artistic talent and immense success didn’t directly translate into his mental or physical health. He suffered from alcoholism, become increasingly delusional, and met a terrible end in Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric ward in 1964.
But we’re not at that stage yet. Several volumes of daily and Sunday strips are left to go, we hope, and in the meantime we can still smile, laugh, and amuse ourselves as Skippy Skinner and his gang continue their quest to conquer the world of comics.