By Frank H. Willard (Dover)
An immensely popular newspaper strip in its day, Moon Mullins grew out of gentle – if bucolically rambunctious – Irish ethnic humour to become the comedy soap opera (one of the very first of its kind) that absolutely everybody followed.
Create by Frank Willard – a two-fisted, no-nonsense type with a cracking ear for dialogue, an unerring eye for winning social faux pas and an incorrigible sense of fun – the strip debuted on June 19th 1923. Willard wrote and drew both monochrome dailies and flashy Sunday colour segments until his death in 1958, whereupon his assistant Ferdinand “Ferd” Johnson (who began working with Willard scant months after the strip launched, and continued even whilst working on his own strips Texas Slim and Lovey-Dovey) assumed full authorship until his own retirement in 1991 – a gloriously uninterrupted tenure of 68 years.
The feature was marketed around the globe by the mighty Chicago Tribune/New York News Syndicate, and recounted the rowdily raucous, ribald, hand-to-mouth, lowbrow life and tribulations of Moonshine Mullins, lovable rogue and unsuccessful prize-fighter who was just getting by in tough circumstances.
The doughty rapscallion spent his time in bars, on the streets (sometimes the gutters) and most tellingly at the pokey boarding house of Emmy Schmaltz, located at 1323 Wump Street. Mullins was amiable and good-natured, liked to fight, loved to gamble, was slick with the ladies and had the worst friends imaginable…
He also had an iconic little brother, named Kayo, who was the visual prototype for every one of those tough-kid heroes in Derby hats (“bowlers” to us Brits) populating Simon & Kirby’s early work.
Brooklyn and Scrapper and all those other two-fisted, langwitch-manglin’ cynical, sassy tykes took their cues from the kid who often had the last word. The other mainstay of the strip was lanky landlady Emmy Schmaltz; a nosy interfering busybody with inflated airs and graces and a grand line in infectious catchphrases.
Other regulars included Uncle Willie – Moon’s utterly dissolute bad relation; saucy, flighty flapper (Little) Egypt – our hero’s occasional girlfriend and a dead ringer for silent film sensation Louise Brooks (and, incomprehensibly, Emmy’s niece), plus Mushmouth – a black character who will make modern audiences wince with social guilt and societal horror – although to be fair, in this strip which celebrated and venerated working class culture, he was far more a friend than foil, stooge or patsy.
One final regular was affluent Lord Plushbottom, whose eye for the ladies – particularly Egypt – constantly brought him sniffing around the boarding house. At the period of the tales in this volume he is a jolly English bachelor, completely unaware that the spidery spinster has set her cap for him. In 1933, after a decade of hilarious pursuit, she finally got her man…
Surprisingly still readily available as a paperback book (surely, if ever anything was crying out to be suitably and permanently digitally archived it’s vintage strips such as this), Moon Mullins: Two Adventures collects and reprints two marvellous extended romps originally reformatted from the newspapers and released in 1929 and 1931 by Cupples & Leon – a publishing company which specialized in reprinting popular strips in lush, black and white albums; very much a precursor of both comicbooks and today’s graphic novels.
In the first story Mullins is given a car in payment for $30 he foolishly lent Emmy’s ne’er-do-well brother Ziggy, unaware the vehicle is stolen. This is a delightful shambolic, knockabout episode with striking slapstick and clever intrigues resulting in the entire cast behind bars at one time or another.
It should be remembered that the cops in these circumstances are always everybody’s enemy and fools unto themselves…
The second tale describes how Plushbottom treats Emmy and Egypt to a Florida holiday, unaware that he’s also paying for Moon and Mushmouth to join them after a brilliantly inventive and madcap road-trip.
Each adventure is delivered via the incredibly difficult method of one complete gag-strip per day combining to form an over-arching narrative… and they’re all wonderfully drawn and still funny. If you’re a fan of classic W.C. Fields, Marx Brothers and other giants of vintage comedy you must see this stuff…
Moon Mullins was one of the key strips in the development of both cartooning and graphic narrative; hugely influential, seditiously engaging, constantly entertaining and perfectly drawn. With such a wealth of brilliant material surely, it’s only a matter of time until some fine publisher releases a definitive series of collected editions…
© 1929, 1931 The Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved.