Screwball Sunday: Professor Hamsniff Goes One Down and Two Across in Ahern’s “Squirrel Cage”

The Squirrel Cage July 4, 1937 by Gene Ahern

Poor Ches and Wal.

When they aren’t torturing each other with corny and surreal jokes in the panels of Gene Ahern’s sublimely ridiculous comic strip, The Squirrel Cage, Ches and Wal are deeply annoyed by the presence of other eccentrics in their proximity. Usually their foil is the mysterious little man with the big white beard who hitchhikes on the street in front of their house.

On occasion, another screwball rolls into the strip and provokes their ire. In today’s example, the focal point of their agitation is Professor Hamsniff, a burly academic who is more than a match for the boys.

The episode today is part of a continuity which stretches across several episodes. Ches and Wal have rented part of their home out to the Professor, whom they quickly deem to be disruptive and undesirable. Each episode presents a different attempt by the brothers (known in their earlier days living in an alternate universe of a different comic strip syndicate as The Nut Brothers) to evict Professor Hamsniff.

In today’s entry, a big-boned ruffian (a beloved character type by Ahern and also his contemporary, E.C. Segar) has been hired to bounce the Prof out on his ear, but a shared obsession with solving crossword puzzles (a national craze at the time this strip was originally published) derails the plan.

Ahern inserts the little hitchhiker into the strip, as he often did in the early “Ches and Wal” years of the strip. This time, he is wearing a bathing suit instead of his usual ankle-length black smock. He retains his tam. The little hitchhiker always has one or one items in his possession that he presumably hopes to take with him if and when he finally can find transport. Today, it is enough to fill the backseat of an automobile: a beach ball, surf board, pier post, lifesaver ring, and umbrella. Perhaps he is headed to the beach to bask in the summer sun, the only nod to the mid-summer date of the strip’s publication which is also the date of America’s annual celebration of its independence from England.

Where many newspaper strip cartoonists build gags around holidays (if the gag bombs, there is still the connection with a holiday which is appealing), Ahern refreshingly eschews firecrackers and flags on the fourth of July. Part of the magic of The Squirrel Cage is that it seems to exist in a world of its own. We can read it today with as much bemusement as that felt by readers in 1937.

On rare occasion Ahern would work a Christmas or Halloween gag into The Squirrel Cage (one suspects he could not resist drawing a hilariously bathetic Santa Claus or marvelously grotesque costumes). However, by and large Ahern never explains where his world is in relation to ours. He was as uninterested in making his fantastic comic universe plausible as George Herriman was in calling attention to the famously shifting backgrounds in Krazy Kat. Some things are best left mysteries, and—for all we know—this may be what the little hitchhiker repeatedly says in his never-translated phrase, “Nov shmoz ka pop?” There are twenty never-before-reprinted color Squirrel Cage comics in Screwball! The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny, as well a detailed, illustrated chapter on the life and work of Gene Ahern.

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