Screwball Sunday: Vot It Iss—Jimmy Swinnerton’s “Professor Knix”

Professor Knix by Jimmy Swinnerton (July 3, 1904)

People stop me the street. They knock on my front door and politely inquire. A few poke their heads through my bedroom window late at night when I am sleeping. I think I once heard the question emanating from deep within my bathroom plumbing. “What other cartoonists did you consider including in your book, Screwball! The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny?”

I must admit, I’ve been coy about this, in the hopes that I might get the chance to create a second collection of screwball cartoonists (there are more than enough). I haven’t divulged potential candidates because I want that book, if and when if materializes, to be a surprise to readers. As with the current volume, there are a handful of lesser-known cartoonists ripe for re-discovery. However, some better-known cartoonists are obvious choices to anyone who follows classic comics and so it will not spoil anyone’s surprise to reveal this one: the immortal James “Jimmy” Swinnerton (1875-1974).

Today’s screwball gem, a color episode of Professor Knix scanned from my archives, comes from 1904, right around the middle of that wonderful first 20 years or so in American newspaper comics when we find a plethora of short-lived comic strips built on amusingly oddball concepts featuring even odder characters. Professor Knix ran for only 16 Sundays from April to July in 1904 before Swinnerton moved on to other ideas.

In today’s episode, the only holiday edition of the strip, Independence Day is celebrated with a large “scientific exploder.” The strip features a second professor, a fluffy bearded (facial hair was a comic staple of both early comic strip and silent film comedies) short fellow who never seems to realize the danger of hanging out with his accident-prone colleague. Early screwball cartoonists rarely missed the chance to pen a July 4th comic because it gave them the opportunity to draw fireworks exploding, usually on people instead of in the sky. If you have a copy of Screwball!, turn to page 21 and compare this comic with Frederick Opper’s Alphonse and Gaston July 4th fireworks comic published the same day.

Newspaper comic strips featuring nutty professors were surprisingly common during the first couple of decades of the form. Alan Holtz’s American Newspaper Comics: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide lists well over twenty comics published between 1900 and 1915 with “Professor” in their titles. In addition to Swinnerton’s Professor Knix (1904), there was Clare Victor “Dwig” Dwiggin’s Professor Gesla (1901-1902—a reference to the genius inventor Nikola Tesla),  Professor Otto and His Auto (1902) by George Herriman, Professor Bughouse (1905) by Frank Crane, Professor Umpah and His Horn (1906-08) by George Frink (creator of Slim Jim and the Force), Professor Fakem (1907) by Everett E, Lowry, and Professor Specknoodle (1912-13) by Jay “Ding” Darling. From Rube Goldberg’s Professor Butts to E.C. Segar’s Professor O.G. Wotasnozzle (appearing the Sappo topper to Thimble Theatre) to Boody Rogers’s Doc Static in Sparky Watts,  a cracked egghead and his crazy inventions is a staple of screwball comics. Sometimes the professors are merely colorful characters—goofs who fluff their academic feathers but can’t boil water without causing destruction. Other comic strip professors still possess a zany quality but they are capable of inventing incredible devices which provide their strips with a steady stream of material. Swinnerton’s Professor Knix falls into the first category. His role as an agent of chaos can be discerned from his name. “Knix” sounds like “nix,” a popular slang word of the era that meant “not.” Thus, his name translates as “Professor Not,” or not a professor. Knix is also a German word, meaning “curtsy,” which doesn’t seem to relate to the strip.

The very first Professor Knix by Jimmy Swinnerton (April 3, 1904)

I must note here that Professor Knix does not act alone in manufacturing risible-inducing mayhem; his big, galumphing dog Louie is more often than not a most helpful assistant. Swinnerton appears to have loved cartooning dogs as his comics contain more canines than the Westminster Kennel Club.

One of the most interesting aspects of this strip is the vernacular, ethnic dialogue given to the Professor. His speech is a cockeyed, musical German-English patois: “Unt vot I says vot it iss den it sure iss it!”

In using this device, Swinnerton was undoubtedly influenced by The Katzenjammer Kids (launched in 1897), penned by his colleague and friend at the Hearst-owned New York Journal, Rudolph Dirks. The Katzies (as the strip is affectionately known in comic strip collecting circles) features Germanic characters and hilarious dialogue in which it is clear English is der peeple’s second langwhich. In one Katzies strip, a character says, “Society is nix,” which was used as the title of a superb Sunday Press collection from 2013 (which, incidentally, features my first published essay on comics, “Mule Kicks, Boy Bounces, Eccentrics Perpetrate Chaos: American Screwball Comics Commenced in the Earliest Sunday Funnies” – and I also wrote nearly fifty cartoonist mini-bios in the book!).

Swinnerton’s use of humorous dialect is lighter than we see in Dirk’s strip, which has five or more characters speaking it. In the gracefully drawn Professor Knix, there is just the Professor speaking oddly, and the effect is funnier for it. The use of humorous ethnic dialogue is also a quality of some of the best screwball comics, including Nize Baby by Milt Gross, which features hilarious Yiddish-flavored English and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, which elevates this style of wordplay to poetry.

The verbal antics of Professor Knix made an impression on at least one reader of the time, a newspaper sportswriter named E. B. Lenhart. In detailing a mid-July minor league baseball game between the San Francisco Seals and the Seattle Senators for the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner (where Swinnerton worked 1892-96), Lenhart played with the scientific name for seals, pinnipeds, and then brought Professor Knix in to explain the term:

“One didn’t have to be equipped with binoculars to discover that the Pinnipeds—

‘Pinnipeds? Vat they are? You inkvire? Pinnipeds—dot iss vot it iss ven it iss a scientific for der Seals.’As we were saying before Professor Knix butted in … “

Professor Knix by Jimmy Swinnerton (May 8, 1904)

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