Screwball Sunday: The Subversive Fool in Frederick Opper’s “King Jake”

King Jake by Frederick Opper – January 5, 1908

King Jake is a comic strip about the nature of humor. Specifically how what can be a real knee-slapper to one person is infuriating to another. And we, as the reader, get to observe both the jokester and his victims entwined in a series of causes and effects that are inevitably doomed to end in disaster.

Launched in the fall of 1907, King Jake was a short series, lasting only four months.  In this era of the American newspaper comic strip it was common for cartoonists to experiment with short series. Comic strips created in the first two decades of the Twentieth Century teem with originality and innovation. Surely this can, in part, be attributed to the freedom cartoonists had to try out new ideas in search of a “hit.” When a new idea didn’t catch on, they simply moved on to the next idea. Exhuming these short, forgotten series, reveals some fascinating comics, and King Jake by Frederick Opper ranks among the most interesting.

Despite being the titular character of the strip, King Jake plays a secondary role to his joke-spouting, prank-pulling jester, Sam Tub. Unlike Happy Hooligan, who is as earnest as can be, Sam Tub might very well be a subversive character. Evidence how, in this episode of Screwball Sunday, Tub surreptitiously plants a tack on the seat of the visiting king, very nearly causing a war. Is the would-be devoted fool simply trying to entertain the king with a bit of ill-timed mischief, or does he have his own agenda?

The idea of the clever fool outwitting his superiors goes back to the days of early theatre. The character is brilliantly realized in a number of Shakespeare’s plays, from Feste in Twelfth Night to Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These characters add comic relief to the dramas and they also soften harsh truths with laughter.

Shakespeare’s comedy had long-lasting influence. In fact, Opper rose to fame in the 1880s as a staff cartoonist for a magazine named after Puck, and his comic strips later appeared in a syndicated Sunday newspaper comic supplement also called Puck. The motto of Puck magazine, which featured the cherubic sprite on every cover, was a Shakespearian quote: “What fools these mortals be.”

Opper was a half-century old when he created King Jake, and well into his second career as a newspaper cartoonist working for William Randolph Hearst’s syndicate. The possibility exists that Opper may have been inserting a bit of subversive humor himself with King Jake, seeing himself as the non-stop joke teller, Hearst as the king, and Editor-in-Chief Arthur Brisbane as the prime minister. Both Hearst and Brisbane sent Opper streams of instructions for his comics, such as this typical example from a hastily typed 1926 letter from Brisbane on New York Journal letterhead:

“My Dear Opper: Your Sinbad things are fine [presumably a reference to one of Opper’s daily political panels]. The one of Bolivar eating the hay was particularly good I thought. They are all good, and so are you. You know Zarathustra, Nietzche’s [sic] famous character, the super-man. He always had with him three animals, a lion, eagle and serpent. I thought you might add the eagle and the serpent to Sinbad’s equipment. But don’t do it if you think it would muddle it up. I hope you will be able to give us a good many of those before the end of the campaign in accordance with Mr. Hearst’s request. I am sure he will be delighted with them.”

In his letter, Brisbane tells Opper not to take his suggestion if he doesn’t want to, but the sentiment is clear: if you don’t follow this direction, you better have a good reason and do something else that will please “Mr. Hearst.” (The reference to the “super-man” by the czar of comics in the 1920s is interesting, considering what would happen to the industry in the near future with the introduction of the superhero.) In 1907-08, when King Jake appeared, Opper had experienced a decade of such management and could have been chafing at the reins a bit by undermining a comic strip king’s reign. By the way, I think Santa’s moving to Seattle this year as I’ve been seeing a lot of rain, dear. A full-page King Jake comic and other Opper rarities can be found in LOAC’s Screwball! The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny.

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