In my house, when I was a boy growing up, we always had a “junk drawer,” that catchall where everything went that didn’t quite fit anywhere else. When my siblings or I would complain that we couldn’t find a particular item, the inevitable question would come back, “Did you look in the junk drawer?”
Today I still have the equivalent of a junk drawer for a portion of my LOAC filing. I don’t think of it as a junk drawer, of course — there are too many terrific items stored inside it that could never qualify as “junk!” But certain outsized articles, or thick bundles of clipped strips, or, yes, things that otherwise don’t quite fit anywhere else all end up in this one particular file cabinet drawer.
I recently had cause to open that drawer, searching for one specific article, and as typically happens I found myself looking through a batch of other artifacts before I found what I was seeking. One of those stray pieces that caught my attention was the tribute booklet King Features Syndicate assembled in honor of George McManus and Bringing Up Father on the advent of the strip’s twentieth anniversary. Thumbing through that jumbo-sized pamphlet, I took particular note of the spread that featured a look at how Jiggs’s physical appearance had changed throughout the history of the series:
Giving equal attention to both main characters, King provided a similar look at how Maggie morphed from stocky dowager to trim fashionista. Maggie’s display went Jiggs’s one better, since it included the years from which the images were taken:
It occurred to me that it might be fun to see how the looks of other major comics characters had evolved over time. I started by going back to 1926 with Little Orphan Annie, snagging an image from mid-June of that year, culled from one of my favorite Harold Gray stories, guest-starring Pee Wee the Elephant. Almost twenty years later, on April 15, 1946, I selected a panel showing how Annie had grown and matured. Fifteen years after that, in July of 1961, it’s arguable whether or not America’s Spunkiest Kid looks younger than she did in 1946, but her hair has definitely got wilder and more unruly!
Dick Tracy looks lean and lanky in this first panel, from June 27, 1932. In 1947, fifteen years later, he’s favoring a snap-brim fedora and his profile has become even more chiseled. Moving down the timeline another nineteen years, to 1966, Tracy arguable looks more weathered, with deeper lines around his eyes. His chapeau is more compact and close-fitting — but his necktie has remained incredibly resilient! (Note that Moon Maid is present in the background of the 1966 panel — you’ll be meeting her soon in our ongoing Dick Tracy series.)
Having taken snapshots in time of both Annie and Tracy, it was only natural to look at Terry Lee, the third star in the Chicago Tribune New York News Syndicate’s three “crown jewels.” As you can see below, in 1935 the star of Terry and the Pirates was a boyish adventurer very much in the Tom Swift/Tintin tradition. A decade later, with America and her Allies poised to emerge victorious from the conflicts of the Second World War, the Terry we see listening with surprise as he gets an earful from Johnny Jingo is a mature young man who has fulfilled creator Milton Caniff’s goal of growing up to displace Pat Ryan as the adult focus of the strip that bears his name. Fifteen years further down the timeline, in this panel from May 1, 1961, George Wunder’s Terry has aged gracefully — he’s filled out, with broader shoulders and a more rounded face. No matter his age, though, Terry Lee’s fate regularly seems to be entwined with that of exotic, mysterious women!
Since King Features characters set me on this path, it seemed proper that I pick another KFS star to conclude my look at character evolution. I think you’ll enjoy examining the radical changes that occur in the look of Secret Agent X-9, Phil Corrigan, as we move from his natty Hammettesque 1935 rendering (the product of Alex Raymond’s talented pen) to his more rumpled, almost slope-shouldered, January 31, 1957 Mel Graff appearance to his suave 1971 look, courtesy of Al Williamson.
Given the disposable nature of daily newspapers and the inevitable audience turnover, one is left to wonder how many readers noted these visual changes over time. Certainly the stylistic differences of the artists who drew X-9/Corrigan would be hard to miss, but was it a relatively seamless transition for most readers from Caniff to George Wunder on Terry? And for strips produced by the same hand for decades — Little Orphan Annie, Bringing Up Father, Dick Tracy — how often did the changes in physical appearance get noticed and, when noticed, how often did they get accepted with a simple mental shrug? None of us were there, none of us can really know — but it’s certainly fun to ponder!